Hit Factories: A Journey Through the Industrial Cities of British Pop

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Read 05/04/2021-18/04/2021

Rating 3 stars

Hit Factories is a curious and eclectic book. The title and the flyleaf blurb suggest a social history of pop in industrial cities – how the industrial landscape influenced the music and vice versa. It’s not that, though. It’s more personal, built around an attempt by author Karl Whitney, a Dubliner transplanted to the North East of England, to understand Britain differently.

Whitney has drawn on a travel writing approach of exploring the relationship between landscape and community, finding the out of the ordinary and drawing on the voices of those involved in the story. The book examines why certain industrial cities developed, or didn’t, distinctive music scenes and represents the condensed musical histories of 11 cities across just over 300 pages.

The mechanism that Whitney uses to link successive chapters together is to reflect on his time in each city and find something that connects to the next city he visits. It’s not applied universally – he doesn’t connect Manchester to Liverpool, for example, or Belfast to Birmingham, but where he does use it, it works and sometimes surprises.

The eclecticism is found in the variety of focuses chosen for each city. For some, Whitney examines the life and career of a big name musician from the city. For others there’s a broader focus on multiple, changing scenes. It’s a travelogue of Whitney’s visits to the cities that interested him most. He draws on existing literature about music scenes in these cities, and adds new content via his observations on his city walks and occasional interviews with members of one or other scene. I’d describe it as a jumping off point for anyone who wants to explore these cities’ musical pasts but doesn’t quite know where to start.

I found it a curious book. I spent a fair amount of time wondering what the book was supposed to be – a psychogeographical examination of the relationship between cities and music, a paean to the bands Whitney loves, a series of musical biographies, a potted history of British pop? I got the impression as I read that Whitney wasn’t sure, either, and was fumbling with the concept of the book a little, unsure of its direction, relying on chance to forge the links between the chapters. The result is a personal view of the cities and their music scenes with a charm about it that won me over.

There are interesting ideas, such as Whitney classifying the defunct record pressing plant near Washington, Tyne and Wear, set up by the label RCA, as a fossil of a lost era in music. His visit to the site, where only the tiled floor of the factory remained, formed an idea in his mind of a history of the British music industry outside of London, traced out through its locations.

Whitney also shares his thoughts on things like the brain-drain of higher skilled, well educated workers from the regions to the capital and the parallel need for musicians to also leave for London if they wanted any kind of commercial success. Whitney unpacks this further in relation to the emergence of independent record labels that allowed talent to stay local and the music business as a new, light industry to replace the declining heavy industries. Whitney’s theory is that record labels, studios and the ancillary operations that support the music industry were a transition moment in this move towards a lighter industrial future for the UK.

Many of the music scenes described by Whitney were happening as I became interested in music; the Sheffield synth-pop and Manchester/Factory Records scenes in particular, Factory because Manchester is the city just down the road from where I grew up, Sheffield because of the chart presence of The Human League, ABC and Heaven 17 in the early and mid 80s. I came to know Gang of Four, the main band Whitney focuses on from the Leeds scene, later on, and hadn’t appreciated that other bands I loved as a teenager, Scritti Politti and Soft Cell, were from that same scene. I really enjoyed the chapters on Sheffield and Leeds, and also Glasgow, another city whose music has personal meaning in my life.

Whitney also covers cities that I only know bits and pieces about musically. My musical knowledge of Birmingham and Black Sabbath comes from my visit to the Home of Metal exhibition in 2019 as research for the exhibition I’m working on about Factory Records. I knew less about the Bhangra and Reggae scenes in the city and appreciated Whitney’s overview. Hull and Newcastle are also cities that I’m unfamiliar with, although I know the names and music of most of the bands Whitney talks about. I enjoyed his positioning of these cities as lacking in scenes and therefore presenting a blank canvas to the musicians who started out there before pursuing success elsewhere. Bristol is a city I’ve visited and feel reasonably familiar with geographically, less so musically. Having been there I was able to link the sites of the Trip Hop scene led by Massive Attack with areas I’ve visited, while learning the background to and connections between bands I was aware of but not an out and out fan of.

Equally, I have minimal knowledge of Coventry, just its folkloric reputation as a city destroyed by bombing and resurrected in concrete post war. Whitney debunks that slightly on his walk through the city, pointing out that older, higgledy-piggledy areas still exist alongside the wide boulevards of a city reimagined for the cars it manufactured. I loved 2 Tone in my pre- and early teen years, and I enjoyed the focus on The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter. I also appreciated Whitney’s linking of the violence in some English cities in the early 80s arising from the stop and search ‘sus laws’ with the violence in Northern Ireland during The Troubles.

Belfast is another city I don’t know. In this book, the focus is on Van Morrison, touching only briefly on the punk scene that attempted to counter the violence of the Troubles with its anti-sectarian openness. I’m only vaguely interested in Morrison, but Whitney’s writing about East Belfast held my attention. It’s Whitney’s Republic of Ireland eye on the area that makes this chapter interesting; the things that he notices as he walks the streets and his take on the Troubles as someone who grew up over the border looking in. As with anyone not resident in Northern Ireland, myself included, Whitney’s knowledge of the province was mediated through the tv news reports of the violence. Whitney first visited Belfast as a child in 1986, having never left his own country before. He says of the experience, marked as it was by superficial differences between north and south, “I returned home unsure whether this counted as a trip abroad.” His abiding memory of subsequent trips across the border are of the barely repressed violence of the checkpoints. As I was reading this chapter, there had been eight nights of rioting in Belfast, allegedly in reaction to the new hard trade border in the Irish Sea, the result of the UK leaving the EU, but in reality more about the simmering grievances felt in loyalist unionist communities about perceived preferential treatment of their republican nationalist equivalents. When Whitney visited again for this book, the peace of the Good Friday Agreement was still holding, but the resurfacing of sectarian tensions in the aftermath of Brexit meant it was no longer assured. The bright pink Translink bus Whitney took to East Belfast to visit Van Morrison’s family home was the same type as the one petrol bombed on 7 April 2021.

As with the Belfast chapter, some of Whitney’s writing about the cities engaged me more deeply. They tended to be the chapters where my personal experience of the city met Whitney’s deeper interest in the music scenes there.

The Liverpool chapter both fascinated and frustrated me. Whitney’s focus is on The Beatles, but not about Merseybeat in any real sense of a scene. Whitney takes a surreal psychogeographical approach, which I greatly enjoyed, walking the route between Paul McCartney’s childhood home and John Lennon’s, imagining that he is McCartney. He draws out the curious hard-to-pin-down-ness of McCartney, this talented musician who prefers to pretend to be other people than be a star. It’s possible for everyone to have a different McCartney. Whitney’s is Frog Chorus McCartney. Mine is Mull of Kintyre McCartney. That sense I’d picked up on of Whitney not being quite sure what his book is meant to be is backed up by this article describing the writing of this chapter.

The Beatles have never been my thing, but I enjoyed the walk Whitney took around Calderstones Park because, when I took my Master’s in Liverpool, I lodged around the corner, on Cromptons Lane, and the park’s Beatles-flecked environs were the backdrop to my time in the city. 

I wanted there to be more than just The Beatles in this chapter, though. Liverpool to me is Probe, Zoo, Eric’s, The Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen. Whitney talks to Geoff Davies, who saw The Beatles at The Cavern early on and went on to open the Probe record shop in the 1970s, frequented by musicians from the scene I’m more familiar with, such as Julian Cope and Pete Burns, followed by a record label, Probe Plus, in the 1980s. Whitney doesn’t expand on Davies’s own part in Liverpool’s musical history, or any of the bands that came after The Beatles. No Teardrop Explodes, no Dead or Alive, no Frankie, no La’s, no Zutons. No Zoo Records, and only the briefest nod to Eric’s Nightclub. Nothing contemporaneous with Factory or even Oasis in Manchester, or with anything coming out of the other cities. I feel like I know plenty about The Beatles and, although I bought records by bands involved, less about the scene that emerged in the 1980s. But then, as with Factory in Manchester, Liverpool’s music history is dominated by that one band.

I really enjoyed Whitney’s overview of the industrial past of Leeds, and the way he linked it to present day Leeds. Leeds is one of my favourite cities to visit. I like its sense of place and its retention and repurposing of older architecture. Even though Manchester is, on the face of it, ‘my’ city, Leeds feels more comfortable. Whitney describes the shopping arcades as “architectural products of a thriving city whose expansion had been underwritten by the wealth accrued from industry.” The same is true of Manchester, but Manchester has reinvented itself differently over time, perhaps in a way in keeping with its radical nature that involves clearing away the old to make way for the new, whatever the cost turns out to be. Whitney also says of Leeds, “The construction of the arcades in Leeds now seemed to be a precursor of the contemporary city, a dream space of the consumer-capitalism yet to come.” I hadn’t appreciated that Victorian Leeds was influenced architecturally by Paris, that its grand beauty was planned rather than accidental. Nor did I know that Leeds in the mid-1970s had a Situationist International flavour to its cultural sector. Here, Whitney was able to make a link between Leeds and Manchester through the Situationist theory that underpinned Factory Records. I was delighted with the discovery. Out of the Situationist influence emerged a Marxist music scene, led by Gang of Four. Students at the University’s Fine Art department Andy Gill and Jon King used music to explore the Situationist tenet about art being used to subvert society, with Marxism their political seasoning of choice. Gill and King had made a funded research trip to New York as part of their degree and came back laden with ideas around being explicit in their songs about the relationship between art and politics. This is definitely very different to Manchester, where Factory’s use of Situationist theory centred on a desire to make the aesthetic universal.

In contrast to the post-punk politics of Gang of Four, Whitney introduces Soft Cell, students at Leeds Poly whose musical output was cabaret tinged performance art that emerged against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper and the Chapeltown riots. These events found their way into Soft Cell’s noir pop renderings of everyday life undercut with darkness. For Whitney, “Making the specific universal in this way, tapping into the atmosphere of a city to create a piece of music with wider resonance, is one way in which location makes itself known in pop.” I agree. It’s something that Joy Division did, too, in songs like Shadowplay.

The Sheffield chapter was one of my favourites, because of the happy memories it brought back of being a teenager in the 1980s and feeling like I was discovering something new in the music of The Human League, Heaven 17 and Cabaret Voltaire. I appreciated Whitney saying that musicians who used synthesisers, synthdrums, digital studio equipment and other new technology needed great technical ability as much as musicality. Most of the bands that I think of when I think about synth bands of the early 1980s were creative explorers of what this technology could do. Some of them, like Bernard Sumner of Joy Division, and Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh of The Human League and later Heaven 17, also built their first synths from kits. Chris Watson of Cabaret Voltaire used his telecomms experience to wire together electronic effects. There was a level of technical ability involved that was different to musical ability, which Whitney picks up on. I also liked the way Whitney evoked the sounds of steel production in Sheffield as a sonic influence on the industrial electronica being made by bands like Cabaret Voltaire. The detail Whitney goes into about Ware and Marsh’s use of synths in their pre-Human League band The Future is really interesting.

I also enjoyed Whitney presenting a socialist/Trotskyist slant to Sheffield’s musical politics, outlining the subversive nature of Heaven 17’s and The Human League’s lyrics as a satirical form of Entryism – where small groups join larger organisations and subvert their aims. In this instance, the charts and major labels. This brought back a memory of living in Sheffield and encountering the Socialist Worker vendors who hawked their wares between the Town Hall and its ‘egg box’ extension. Sheffield is, after all, the capital of the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. It’s also ‘my’ city in a way Manchester isn’t, thanks to its socialist openness.

I laughed when Whitney’s wanderings took him along Brown Street past the former National Centre for Popular Music. I worked on Shoreham Street at the city archives at the time this millennium folly was built. Cutting up Grinders Hill on my way into town took me past its steel drums/curling stones on a daily basis. It opened just before I left the city for pastures new and was bizarre.

Whitney brings the chapter to a close by bringing in a few of my favourite musical things from Sheffield – ABC, Warp Records, Pulp and Richard Hawley. The city archives are next door to Red Tape Studios where Longpigs’ sessions punctuated my time cataloguing in the archive store. Richard Hawley wasn’t the celebrated artist he is now, and I only worked out later that it was he who roped me in one day on my dinner break to help shift some kit from the back of the band’s illegally parked van on Shoreham Street into the doorway of the studio. Because everyone is a comrade in Sheffield.

The chapter about the glorious city of Glasgow was another favourite. Glasgow has an embarrassment of bands and every part of the city is connected to music. Whitney’s initial focus is on a band I’m aware of but not very familiar with, The Blue Nile. There’s a very personal slant to this chapter. Glasgow has the sort of resonance for Whitney that Sheffield has for me. Glasgow bands fuel his musical nostalgia. The chapter is beautifully lyrical as a result.

Whitney’s familiarity with the music related geography of the city is a delight and something I’ve never developed as a weekend tourist in the city myself. My Glasgow music awareness is of Postcard Records, Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, Altered Images, Arab Strap, Belle and Sebastian, Teenage Fanclub, Del Amitri, The Delgados, Chemikal Underground, and Franz Ferdinand, all of whom, bar Altered Images, Arab Strap and Del Amitri, Whitney discusses in this chapter. The Blue Nile is an unknown quantity for me, and Whitney’s detailed overview of the band’s career revealed some surprises. I had no idea that Linn, the high end hi-fi manufacturer, is from near Glasgow or that it had a record label and developed a more precise cutting lathe for vinyl pressing discs in its quest for vinyl perfection to match the quality of its turntables.

I loved Whitney’s interview with Duglas Stewart of BMX Bandits about growing up in post-industrial Bellshill with Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub and the fey escapism in their music that grew out of the economically depressed, masculine environment. Most of all I enjoyed his physical description of Glasgow and found parallels with the Manchester I grew up knowing.

In all of this chapter I found elements that I wished Whitney had employed in the Manchester chapter. There are so many links between the Factory scene and Glasgow that a similar deep dive into Manchester’s recent musical past would have revealed. Both the Manchester and Glasgow chapters are 28 pages long, but reading Whitney’s writing on Glasgow was a richer experience. What separates the two in this book is Whitney’s personal passion for Glasgow’s music, a passion he doesn’t feel for Manchester.

Which brings me to the frustrating stuff. I was deeply frustrated by the Manchester chapter. Although it opens the book, it felt like an afterthought, something pulled together because you can’t write a book about musical industrial cities without mentioning it. As a chapter, it isn’t connected to the other chapters in the same way, although there are plenty of links particularly with Liverpool, Sheffield and Glasgow through Factory, and I didn’t think Whitney gave the same level of consideration to what followed Factory as he does for some of the other cities. I learnt some things all the same, and enjoyed the contribution from Ian Rainford, who I know socially. Whitney’s conversation with Ian is about the glorious World of Twist. Mysteriously, though, they don’t talk about Twisted Nerve, the label Ian’s band Mum & Dad was signed to, or the other independent labels and surrounding scene that followed Factory. I thought that was a missed opportunity.

Whitney’s trajectory in the Newcastle chapter lacked coherence for me, piecemeal as it was. It was at this point in the book that I began to wonder why, if he was willing to examine more local, underground scenes in Newcastle and consider more political aspects of music in that city, he hadn’t been willing to do the same for Manchester and Liverpool in the preceding chapters. I also felt a lack of comparison with contemporaneous scenes in the cities considered across the book. Take away the specific music genres, and there are multiple similarities between their musical histories, but in Whitney’s chosen format, with the gaps that form through lack of space, the links aren’t fully forged.

I found plenty within the pages of Hit Factories that interested me. While I recognise that it is about Whitney’s personal grappling with the music history of Britain and his travels across most of the nation (Wales doesn’t get a look in, sorry Tom, Shirley, Manics, Gorky’s, Super Furries, Catatonia, Gwenno), I wished that it had been more even-handed in its approach, covering similar time periods for each city, perhaps, to draw out the similarities and differences in the music scenes, and how each scene intersected.

It’s worth a read if you’re interested in the subject of how place and culture intersect. Its stand out moments countered the frustrations I felt from time to time while reading.

8 thoughts on “Hit Factories: A Journey Through the Industrial Cities of British Pop

  1. Well, even though Manchester was my student home, and Sheffield and Leeds were both places I lived in for several years ( I still carry a torch for Sheffield), I breathe a sigh of relief that here at last is a book I don’t have to TBR. Being from an older generation, the music scenes you mention mean nothing to me, so it’ll just be easier to keep it that way!

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    1. I found that chapter fascinating, Cathy. The response Van Morrison had to the violence that gripped his birthplace after he left is quite a contrast to that of the punk bands who grew up in the thick of it. And Whitney’s ROI perspective is very interesting – how uncomfortable he feels in East Belfast and how little he says about West Belfast in comparison.

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      1. I imagine so. It’s a deeply ingrained sense of identity and the Good Friday Agreement was a remarkable achievement. I have a limited amount of knowledge through friends on the Catholic side of the divide and from the miniature replica of Ireland we have in Manchester, with Irish communities of each stripe here.

        Whitney has ideas about why Van Morrison was silent – conjecture, but interesting conjecture all the same.

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