If London had been the birthplace of punk, northern England had become the incubator of whatever it was that was about to happen next
Music suddenly got darker, more dissonant, more dub-wise, more dystopian.
You couldn’t actually tell whether the band had begun their set or were still tuning up. The bassist was playing one note, slowly, monotonously; the rest of the group were looking at each other as if waiting for a signal to begin. It was only when I bought the album Unknown Pleasures a few weeks later that I realized that they had been trying to play the opening bars of I Remember Nothing, the uncomfortably sparse and disorientating track at the end of side two. As a way of opening Joy Division’ biggest concert to date, it was a pretty bold move.
It was September 1979 and I was at a two-day rock festival called Futurama. It was held in Queen’s Hall, a dark and unwelcoming former tram depot in the northern English city of Leeds. The lineup was a veritable who’s who of British post-punk: Public Image Limited, Cabaret Voltaire, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, The Fall, Scritti Politti, The Monochrome Set, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes... It’s unlikely that so many canonical names were ever assembled on the same stage again.
The only performance I can remember with any real clarity however is that of Joy Division, who took to the stage just after teatime on Saturday September 8. And after the risky experiment in musical tension with which they started the set, they did get better. Live, they were a much more muscular, visceral proposition than the band whose icy, studio-crafted songs I had first heard on John Peel’s late-night radio show. They also seemed nervous and under-rehearsed, with guitarist Bernard Sumner in particular missing his queues, or launching into riffs for which the rest of the band seemed unprepared. It was of course the stage presence of singer Ian Curtis that made the band totally unforgettable. The jerky dance, the punching and flailing, the random pauses to check that he hadn’t knocked over his microphone stand. It was like watching some kind of giant, troubled man-moth from a science fiction film that David Cronenberg never got round to making. The fact that Curtis didn’t move in time to the music only made his dancing more appropriate; a spontaneous release of psychic energy rather than the choreographed product of the rehearsal room. People just stood and stared. Dazed into a realization that they’d witnessed something significant but unsure as to quite what it was, they didn’t have much to say after the gig.
Despite the dream line-up, Futurama was reviewed negatively by a music press preoccupied with its organizational shortcomings: the mounds of crumpled beer cans, the malfunctioning toilets, and the fact that the promoter’s promise of “sleeping facilities” boiled down to a dirty concrete floor.
Balance of power
However there was also a vague awareness that Futurama embodied a geographical shift in the balance of power. Joy Division and The Fall came from Manchester; Echo and the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes were from Liverpool; Cabaret Voltaire hailed from Sheffield. If London had been the birthplace of punk, northern England had become the incubator of whatever it was that was about to happen next. The only members of the northern contingent who didn’t turn up were the Leeds-based trio of Gang of Four, The Mekons and Delta 5.
And it was eminently clear that 1979 was a year of significant musical signposts, even if it remained unclear where exactly they were leading. The Fall released their debut album Live at the Witch Trials in March; the Pop Group’s Y came out in April; Joy Division released Unknown Pleasures in July; Gang of Four’s Entertainment followed in September. Wire’s 154, their third album but arguably their most accomplished, hit the racks in September too. Cabaret Voltaire’s Mix-Up landed in October; PiL’s Metal Box followed one month later. If we take the liberty of adding Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, which crossed the pond in August, it’s clear that 1979 was not only a vintage year but also a vintage year with a theme: music was getting darker, more dissonant, more dub-wise, more dystopian.
The aesthetics of the album cover were changing too: most of the LPs mentioned above came in sleeves that were edgy, minimalist, unsettling, and ambiguous. Think of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, picturing radio waves received from a neutron star; or Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, with its embossed pattern on matt black card. The ambitions of the post-punk generation were more than simply musical, and the design boom of the 1980s would not have happened without them.
The enduring symbolism of Futurama owes a lot to the fact that it took place in Leeds, a city which embodies perfectly the unaccountably seductive anti-glamour of the English north. The city’s much-mocked slogan was “Motorway City of the Seventies”, a telling reference to a time when two-lane highways, multi-storey car-parks and dimly-lit pedestrian underpasses were the marks of urban progress. Otherwise the only famous thing about the city at that time was its football club, a team that contrived to be the best in the country but also the most disliked. That fact that they usually ended up coming second to someone else engendered a curious mixture of arrogance, meanness and losers’ indignation among its fans. The city was also notorious as one of the favoured prowling grounds of the Yorkshire Ripper (real name Peter Sutcliffe), a serial killer who murdered 13 women between 1975 and 1981. Thanks to the Ripper, Leeds was an unsafe, sinister city for young women; less so for young adult males, for whom it was simply slightly disappointing. The point of growing up here was to move away.
The fact that Futurama was held in a former tram depot, set beneath the Victorian railway bridges at the eastern end of the railway station, lent the event a certain amount of post-industrial poetry. The festival billed itself – however improbably - as the “World’s First Science Fiction Music Festival” and took a suitably gritty and dystopian vision of what the future (at least in Leeds) might look like, issuing tickets in the form of photo-identity cards emblazoned with the words “Big Brother is Watching You”. Looking at my ticket many years later I was surprised to see how long my hair was. New-wave hairstyles were far from compulsory in 1979 – certainly not where I lived. It was easy enough to fit in providing you had a grey jacket (if going to see the Gang of Four), a grey shirt (Joy Division), or a grey face (The Fall).
I realized that Futurama was a bit half-baked as soon as I walked through the doors. There was a definite lack of anything you might associate with a festival of the future. There were a few stalls selling snacks, T-shirts, punk badges; but hardly anything of the “science fiction” content suggested by the title. I saw parents dragging children round the hall, the disappointment of a wasted day etched on their faces.
However the essential squalor of Futurama didn’t hit me until the end of the first evening, when the flooded toilets and slippery floors made me wish that I’d left early and caught the last bus home. The floor was too wet and filthy to sleep on and people were curling up on bits of cardboard or torn-up plastic bags. Together with a group of friends I found a wooden board to lie down on - but we were threatened with expulsion when it transpired that the board in question was actually a torn-off part of the stage. The festival was being cannibalized by its audience.
The weekend after Futurama, Joy Division appeared on BBC 2’s “youth” programme Something Else, playing the songs Transmission and She’s Lost Control. The programme started at 6.35pm, which meant that I had time to watch Dr Who: Destiny of the Daleks on BBC1 before switching channels. Segueing from the sci-fi boogie of the Dr Who theme tune to the stentorian bass line that opens Transmission seemed like a perfectly logical progression. Having personally witnessed Ian Curtis throwing his limbs around the previous weekend, I tried to imagine what effect he might be having on people sitting on living-room sofas around the country, eating their Saturday tea.
Up until 1979 it had seemed as if punk was something that happened in London and only came north when the London bands were on tour. With the rise of Joy Division, Gang of Four and Echo and the Bunnymen, the cities of northern Britain were turning into an archipelago of creative activity. A lot of this was linked to the rise of independent record labels: there was Fast Product in Edinburgh, Factory in Manchester, Zoo Records in Liverpool, each of which seemed committed to nurturing a decidedly non-London roster of acts.
In the years that followed the onward ripples of punk and post punk kept on reaching new territories, creating new alternative scenes: Hamburg, Berlin, Ljubljana, Rijeka, Zagreb, Belgrade. Many of these cities developed a meaningful, authorial, domestic-language music scene for the first time as a result of the play-your-own-racket ethos of late punk, establishing a creative landscape that endured for much of the decade that followed.
In September 1980 I was back at Futurama 2. I saw a young Bono Vox (whose hair was a good deal longer than mine) holler his way through a rousing set which – although I didn’t like it very much – seemed destined for future greatness. Topping the bill were Echo and the Bunnymen, a band who had by now assembled a considerable following – the kind of following that Joy Division would have had too, had Ian Curtis not committed suicide the previous May.
My own career in post-punk came to an end on a cold damp day in Scarborough, when the band I was in (featuring a guitarist from the Sisters of Mercy – our ticket to fame) arrived at a demo studio only to discover that the recording engineer had mixed up his bookings and gone away for the day. Somehow our dreams of the big time dissipated in the North Yorkshire mist, and we never even rehearsed together again.
© Jonathan Bousfield