Edited by Ewa Mazierska


Equinox Publishing

ISBN 978-1-78179-571-2  £22.95


Reviewed by Geoff Wills


    Sounds Northern is a book containing a set of essays which fall within the academic discipline of Cultural Studies. The majority of the chapters’ authors are academics whose disciplines cover not only music but also subjects such as Film Studies, Media, Architecture, Creative Writing, Art, Design, Fashion and Journalism. They therefore have a broad base from which to discuss the topic of Popular Music in the North of England, but nevertheless it is a base with the underlying idea that mass or popular culture needs to be studied in order to understand the working class, the ruling elite and Britain as a whole.


    The book’s editor, Ewa Mazierska, sets the scene by discussing how the North of England has lagged behind the South since the industrial revolution from an economic, political and cultural point of view. Although it is common for a metropolitan area to dominate a country, this is especially the case in Britain, with large parts of the North being some of the poorest in northern Europe, while greater London is the richest part. The South is also responsible for generating a negative image that ‘it’s grim up North’, and this has frequently triggered a Northern response, especially from popular music, which takes the form of defiance, an attitude that ‘We do things differently here’. Since the early 1960s Merseybeat explosion there has been a defiant and ongoing stream of eminent Northern musicians and groups, including Joy Division, New Order, Pulp and Oasis. As Mazierska says, ‘for many young Northerners music constituted a refuge from the bleakness of their everyday struggles, marked by unemployment or poorly paid and boring work.’ Also, after the post-industrial decline of the North there were many abandoned spaces that could be used for the production and consumption of music, leading to the transformation of Northern culture, society and economy.


    An interesting aspect of the book is that, instead of looking at the North as a whole, it focuses on particular music created in particular places during certain eras. Thus, although Manchester features in six chapters, there are also chapters on Sheffield, Hull, Leeds and Sleaford/Nottingham. At the same time the focus is extended to fit Northern music into a European and global picture.


    The book is split into three sections: ‘Northern Music, Regional Politics and Entrepreneurial Culture’, ‘Pop-Rock Soundscapes, Scenes and Artists’ and ‘Hip Hop and Grime’. Part 1 highlights the activities of certain music entrepreneurs, and in an interesting chapter entitled ‘Manpool, the Musical’ Richard Witts describes how musical figures like Tony Wilson and Roger Eagle had a foot in the camps of both Manchester and Liverpool, casting some doubt on the often-stated idea of rivalry between these two cities. ‘Another Uniquely Manchester Offering?’ by Paul Long and Jez Collins gives an account of Un-Convention, a global music network and development agency, started in Manchester and side-stepping the London-based nature of the music business. ‘Architecture, Urbanism and Pop in Sheffield’ by Owen Hatherley is one of the best-written and most intriguing chapters in the book. Hatherley examines why, in terms of popular music, especially post-punk and electronic music, Sheffield has made such a strong contribution and then, interestingly, explains the phenomenon in terms of the city’s architecture. After World War II ‘the city embarked on a massive programme of rebuilding, which had extremely melodramatic results.’ In the late 1970s, ‘various bands deliberately evoked, described, sometimes celebrated and sometimes critiqued the city’s architecture and planning.’ Sheffield came to be described as the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’ and was independent of, and hostile to, London.


     Part 2 of the book foregrounds scenes developed in the North of England, and the way that they related to the wider world. ‘African American Blues Performances in the North of England’ by Tom Attah describes the links between the Southern US and the Northern UK in the nineteenth century and the extent to which Northern English workers were in sympathy with the abolition of slavery despite being dependent on American cotton for their livelihood. When, in the 1950s and 1960s, American blues musicians toured the North of England ‘demographic and cultural inks were made between the rural and industrial poor of the United States and the disenfranchised youth of industrial Northern Britain.’ In the chapter ‘The Contrasting Soundscapes of Hull and London’ by Peter Atkinson, the contribution of a backing group from Hull to the music of London-based David Bowie at the time of his Ziggy Stardust period in the early 1970s is highlighted.


    Part 3 of the book examines the musical styles of Northern hip hop and grime. A chapter by Adam de Paor-Evans describes how Mancunian hip hop contrasted with both hip hop in London and the nationally high-profile Manchester scenes of The Hacienda and Madchester, and the final chapters focus on two individual careers, those of MC Tunes and Bugzy Malone. Reasons for failure in one and success in the other are pinpointed.


    Sounds Northern makes a significant contribution in terms of throwing light on aspects of Northern popular music that have been hitherto under-researched. It will make a strong addition to the Cultural Studies canon, and will be appreciated by anyone with a more academic approach to the study of popular music.