The difference between the north and south of England has long been a theme in literature and art and films: as, for example, North and South, the paintings of Lowry, the film Billy Elliot. Inevitably, pop music came to follow the same path. At its start, pop music was largely a southern/London medium. The Beatles weren’t the first pop artists from the north, or even from Liverpool – the first successful pop artist from Liverpool was possibly Lita Roza in the early 50’s, (best remembered for How Much Is That Doggie In the Window),followed by Frankie Vaughan and Billy Fury. However, the Beatles and the other Liverpool groups that came in their wake shifted - if only for a while - the focus of British pop music from London to the north. After Merseybeat there was a short spate of other towns and cities discovering their own special sound - the ‘Manchester Sound’, with the Hollies, Mindbenders and Herman’s Hermits; the ‘Newcastle Sound’ with the Animals ;the ‘Blackburn Sound ‘ with the Four Pennies. ( This particular bandwagon started grinding to a halt further south with the ‘Solihull Sound’, a sound based on the Applejacks and a tinny organ that sounded like – ding dong, the Avon Lady had come to call).
Mostly, these were pop groups who happened to come from the north but there were a few place-specific songs from that era: Ferry Cross the Mersey, Penny Lane, Gonna Send You Back to Walker (the Animals’ reworking of an American r ‘n b song to reflect an area of Newcastle). However, the idea of a generic ‘The North’ suffered from stereotyping in a way that ‘The South’ seemed to escape. Take the UK Number One in April 1978, Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs, a LS Lowry tribute by Brian and Michael. The lyrics are Grim Up North and sentimental simultaneously and get in clogs, factory gates, northern folk , kids with nowt on their feet and old flat caps, with the artists appearing on Top of the Pops under simulated gas lamps and the dreaded St Winifred’s School Choir angelically singing ‘ally ally o’ in the background ( a possibly deliberate echo of the sequence in the film A Taste of Honey, also set in Salford, where children are heard singing the same refrain). In a clash of romanticism and reality, at the same time this nostalgia-heavy picture of a bygone Salford and Ancoats came out, local group the Buzzcocks were heading up Anti-Nazi League gigs in Manchester and around.
No-one does the whole ‘ northern past seen through rose-tinted glasses’ better than John Shuttleworth, the comic creation of actor/musician Graham Fellows, who first appeared as Jilted John and Gordon Is A Moron about the same time as the Brian and Michael hit. Songs like Shopkeepers in the North are Nice and Dandelion and Burdock work on two levels. They take stereotyped nostalgia to an absurdity – ‘Looking back on better times, when life was good and there was little crime, children played on their pogo sticks and on Saturdays went to the local flicks’ - and gently parody those who really do say ‘I’m talking now of old money’, rue the fact that boys no longer have useful hobbies and recount their day out at a tram museum with an air of slight pomposity. But they also work in their own right - partly because of the intricate little details - as a naive, sometimes poignant, view that ‘it’s nicer up north’.
In 1985 there was a hit by another one-hit wonder act, Dream Academy, also with an apparently generic ‘northern’ theme : Life in a Northern Town. It is a strange song, very oblique and perhaps not about the north at all. The original video accompanying the track was shot in Hebden Bridge, definitely a northern town: a former mill town in the Pennine hills of West Yorkshire and now a haven for artists, writers, New Age-ists, alternative practitioners, a literary treasure trove at the Book Case bookshop and a town once described by the British Airways in-flight magazine as the ‘4th funkiest town in the world’. The lyrics also start off as though placing the song in a northern setting, with the image of a Salvation Army Band and children drinking lemonade. However, by all accounts, Life In a Northern Town was written as a tribute to singer/songwriter Nick Drake, mainly associated with Warwickshire and Cambridge, so the exact meaning of the lyrics remains obscure.
The same reference point of a Salvation Army band had been heard in Blue Mink’s infectious 1971 hit, Banner Man, which was actually not about any place in particular but carried the echo of a Lancashire town. The song is heard in the opening sequence of the film East is East, another film set in Salford in the early 1970’s, and one commentator vividly recalled hearing it on holiday in Blackpool as a child: “ After a time we came to a cafe. A typical Blackpool cafe which probably almost certainly utilised lard for frying the chips and other 70s pleasures as sausages, bacon and eggs etc and there we sat down while my dad had a cup of tea and I had a hot chocolate. In the corner was a juke box and after a bit of pestering my dad let me put 10p in for us to have two choices. I seem to think he chose them as he knew what I liked and he knew I loved The Banner Man by Blue Mink. The juke box was one where you could see the records (special ones with a much larger than usual hole in the middle) being picked up by an arm, swung over and dropped onto the turntable before the heavy duty juke box needle started on its journey from the outside to the centre and filling the cafe with a such a joyous and wonderful song’ (Tom Gregory, 500 songs).
Nostalgia about the north, I feel, can be more complex than some other places because the past is often more visible in the present. In an alleyway off Dalton Square in Lancaster there used to be a chemist shop that looked as if it hadn’t changed in a hundred years, with a window full of herbal medicines, little green bottles, ointments and surgical appliances that made your eyes water just to look at them. Opposite was a small sweet shop, run by a man who had been made redundant at the local factory and had used his money to fulfil his childhood dream. Once when I went in, in between serving bonfire toffee and Pontefract cakes he was reading the autobiography of Henry Hyndman, leader of England’s first socialist party, the Social Democratic Federation, and parliamentary candidate in nearby Burnley in the early twentieth Century. The sweet shop man was, I suppose, the modern day equivalent of the weavers and clerks who used to go to the Mechanics Institutes still standing in places like Burnley and Skipton to better themselves. (As a antidote to over-romanticism here, it is worth noting that alongside the Reading Rooms, Temperance Clubs, Esperanto classes and Clarion Cycling Clubs that existed in Burnley at the start of the Twentieth Century there was also a peculiar pastime called ‘smacking’ – hitting each other on the head till one fell down. Maybe it still goes on.).Life in a northern town: you can see it through a multiplicity of prisms but , yes, different from the south.