Welcome to ‘The City and the Scene’ in which we playlist the music incubated or hosted, by a particular place. For ‘Ep 1’, we go to Hull. But why? Mick Ronson, Bowie, The Housemartins, The Beautiful South, EBTG, Eliza Carthy and a boat load of new bands - Life (that’s them on the cover), The Blinders, Amy may ellis, vialetters etc. That's why!
In Karl Whitney’s hugely enjoyable book Hit Factories, the author takes: ‘a journey through the industrial cities of British pop’, he literally does take the physical journey, the book being as much an observational travel memoir as it is a history of British pop culture. But it’s the music that drove Whitney to write the book, the cities themselves merely providing the backdrop.
But how much is a city really connected to the music that emerges from within its sprawl? It’s a question Karl revisits throughout the book. In the chapter on/in/from Leeds, he observes: “I didn’t think there was anything inevitable about the connection between a sound and a city. I began to see almost everyone as a migrant, and their supposed connection to a place as far from eternal”. It’s an important point, as we’ll see.
When I first read a review of the book, it was the fact that Whitney had travelled to and from Hull (for there is no way through Hull) that made me make an immediate note-to-self ‘read that book’. Hull may not be the first city you think of as part of Britain’s rich pop tapestry but, this playlist might make you consider the city has at times, punched above its weight. And Hull is where I’m from, so there!
My own experience of Hull’s music scene back in the day was limited to say the least. I played in bands that never got beyond the rehearsal stage. I saw a handful of gigs at places like The Adelphi Club (to this day the self proclaimed ‘Music Capital of Hull’) or Hull University, where I saw Phil Lynott for one time only - sadly sans ‘Lizzy’ but for some reason with the ‘pale imitation of Lizzy’ band he formed straight after they’d split. And at school, being mates with Mark Johnson, the drummer of Duran Duran wannabes Passion Spent (amazingly their album ‘Tales From The Slaughterhouse’ was uploaded onto Spotify in 2015 by Paragon Records).
The only other time I had a dalliance with bands was in the 90s in London, but the Hull connection remained via not one but two (London 1, Hull 2, I guess) Hull connected covers: The Housemartins bona fide smash hit ‘Happy Hour’, and Bowie’s ‘Queen Bitch’ (which featured Hull’s most famous backing band, the Spiders From Mars).
And so we begin. No musical pilgrimage to Hull can start with any other figure than Mick Ronson. So the story goes, back in early 1970, the drummer John Cambridge travelled to Hull from London in search of Ronson, to recruit him into a new David Bowie backing band called The Hype. He found Ronson marking out a rugby pitch, one of his duties as a Parks Department gardener for Hull City Council. Ronson was incredulous, but went back with Cambridge anyway to meet with Bowie. Two days later, on 5 February, Ronson made his debut with Bowie on the John Peel show on BBC Radio 1. From there, as they say, it is written. Ronson was in league with legend, and played along with Bowie at his early best, not just as lead guitarist but principal music arranger. Ronson went on to produce and play with Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Morrissey - and that’s just a few. Genuine rock royalty from King’s Town Upon Hull. Check out his wonderful solo work ‘Only After Dark’ and some of that arrangement skill on ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’.
Other Hull music luminaries, Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl (the duo formed in Hull in 1982, and took their name from Turner’s furniture shop in Beverley Road), returned in 2017 for the City Of Culture jamboree. In an interview before their visit Watt noted: “Hull has been unfairly treated as a cultural dead end over the years. Even during our time it felt quietly vibrant - Hull Truck and John Godber in the town; Larkin, Andrew Motion and Anthony Minghella at the university”. Indeed he’s quite right, for a minute there it really was happening. In actual fact, Hull’s ‘golden era’ musically lasted a whole decade from the mid 80s through mid 90s, powered by EBTG and a triangle of connected Hull bands: The Housemartins, which splintered off in 1988 into The Beautiful South and Beats International, then Fatboy Slim.
Hull was abuzz. During this period, Paul Heaton and company bottled-up everyday domestic life, often peppered with Hull sentiment & humour, and laid it on doorsteps up & down the land. And, made frequently massive dents in the top 40 for good measure, with a couple of number 1’s to boot. As a glimpse into the humour and the mindset, when The Beautiful South (the irony’s in the name too) broke up in January 2007, the official line was that it was ‘due to musical similarities’. That’s the Hull brand of Northern English wit right there.
Precisely a decade later, when the illustrious John Grant hosted the North Atlantic Flux: Sounds From Smoky Bay (once again for Hull’s highly successful term as UK City of Culture 2017), he described Hull as such: “I’ve always heard that Hull was very bleak and that it was a rough place – and that sounds really good to me.” I’m sure he was given a warm Hull welcome. He’s a decent bloke John Grant. I met him once - in Caffe Nero, Twickenham - and he was very approachable and talkative. That would have helped him in Hull for sure.
So, does Hull define any particular sound? Or does any particular sound define Hull? Back to Whitney’s book, he quotes from Tracey Thorn that few bands came to Hull due to the city’s geographical isolation, and there was ‘no scene to fit into, you had to create your own’. Judging by the crop of playlists sitting on Spotify for new Hull bands, that’s still true. Although, just perhaps, there is a slight gravitational pull towards indie-punk, with a definite bent towards bands - in the old-fashioned guitar, bass, drums and vocals mode. And now that Hull is a two Arena city (London 2, Hull 2) it’s certainly the case that more bands actually go to play there.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but putting this playlist together has led me to discover a modern vibrant scene in and around Hull going on right now. The punk band Life look like they are going places much further than the Humber Bridge Hessle Foreshore - that’s the band right there on our cover art. Check out their latest single ‘Hollow Life’, sitting comfortably between Ronson & Bowie (and note their current singles on rotation on 6 Music). Credit to The Hubbards, continuing Hull band tradition in capturing everyday domestic detail in vivid form on their excellent track ‘Box 42’. The lovely indie jangle of Far Caspian (okay, down the road a little towards Leeds way, but too good to miss) and their track Conversation further riffs on the theme, if you will.
More quality guitar-based indie from Hull? Sure. The wonderful ‘State Of Me’ by the VIALETTERS will have you hankering after the days when British guitar bands lit up the charts, and may do again with songs of this quality. Another brief excursion to Doncaster finds Guest Singer (nom de plume of Doncaster’s Jake Cope) and yet another indie pop gem ‘New Experience’. We stay a while in Donny, maybe sit on our suitcase for a bit and sip a coffee while listening to a bit of blurry psychedelia (and most excellent too) from The Blinders. And if northern psychedelia catches on, I have a feeling that Lola + The Cosmic Getaway might have something to do with it. Check out the track Tangerine Dreaming and see if you agree.
If Northern humour appeals and you like music with a wry lyric (think Pulp, The Divine Comedy) then solo star My Pleasure may tickle your fancy. His Three Singles and a Bonus Track EP was released in May this year, and we include one of the singles here ‘Drive Thru’, continuing the indie-pop-punky feel that seems to run through Hull. Maybe the original influence is rooted somewhere in Lene Lovich’s 1979 single Lucky Numbers, a number 3 in the UK charts, when charts reflected massive actual sales, of actual records. One of those musical migrants Karl Whitney referenced in his book, Lovich moved to Hull aged 13 and must have been one of the city’s most exotic residents, having migrated from Detroit, Michigan. Some music heritage there too then! (and, we will get to Detroit with The City and the Scene, of course we will).
That indie-pop-punkness flowed through 90s almost-famous bands The Paddingtons, and Kingmaker. 10 years earlier, even though Passion Spent may have been way too far from the dream, another Hull band, The Red Guitars - were closer. Close but yet so far - and their music doesn’t even seem to have made it onto streaming platforms, except Soundcloud.
But Hull isn’t just guitars, bass and drums. The more chilled, experimental sounds have emerged these days - in the music of The Broken Orchestra, the Slowdaze collective, and the brighter afrobeat of Bud Sugar. But for experimental Hull, the scene was set many years ago by Throbbing Gristle, Cosi Fanni Tutti and others. That spirit is what really intrigued John Grant to visit in 2017. Want to really feel the spirit of Hull through its music though? Well, listen through to those last three numbers on this list, and feel something in the waters, and the Tapping at your door.
Thanks to: Karl Whitney, Emily Pilbeam (Humber Street Sesh 2019 Spotify playlist), Nick Boldock’s #HullMusic playlist. Thanks to Col & Steve for help with the Housemartins and TBS song choices. To hear The Red Guitars finest effort Marimba Jive, SoundCloud to the rescue….