In the last in our series on the musicians made in Yorkshire, Shed Seven’s Rick Witter tells Sarah Freeman how York became an unlikely home for Britpop.
In the summer of 1984, George Michael was no 1 in the charts with Careless Whisper and Duran Duran were about to cement their reputation as the decade’s extravagant pin-ups with the release of their £1m video for Wild Boys. Over in an ordinary suburb of York, the quiet murmurings of a very different style of music were just beginning.
It would be a few years before Rick Witter and the rest of Shed Seven would record their first album, still more before the term Britpop would be coined, but that year while cycling home from Huntington School he formed a friendship which would be the core of the city’s most famous band.
“I’m pretty sure I met Paul Banks while cycling home from school,” says Stockport-born Witter, who moved to York when he was 11. “It didn’t take much, I think he said he liked my bike and that was it, we were friends. We also fairly quickly decided that we were going to be in a band. My earliest memories of York are spending hours in one or other of our bedrooms designing album covers and thinking up song titles for music that hadn’t even been made.”
While Shed Seven would go onto write some of the most enduring songs of the Britpop era, from Chasing Rainbows to Going for Gold, Witter and Banks’ early experiments didn’t exactly draw the crowds. “Eventually, we couldn’t put off the writing any longer, but the only thing we had was a Casio keyboard, which anyone who grew up in the 1980s knows didn’t exactly produce music to make your heart sing.
“Basically we used the tracks on the demo setting, Paul played along with a guitar which only had three strings and the end result was called Creature in Dreams. We called ourselves Enam, which came from Paul’s obsession with Vietnam war films and we took ourselves pretty seriously.
“For some reason, there happened to be a load of foreign exchange students staying in Paul’s house. I’m not sure where they were from, Germany, maybe and they became our first ever audience. I have no idea what they thought of it, but I’m pretty confident that we high-fived each other afterwards.”
While York has always had a thriving live music scene, its roots like much of the architecture lay in the past. The local pub circuit has no shortage of folk groups and acoustic duos, but by the late 1980s they were joined by two teenagers with big ambitions.
“By the time we were in the fourth form we were playing places like the Spotted Cow, which closed down years ago and The Winning Post, just near the racecourse,” says Witter, who will turn 40 this November. “I doubt these days that you’d get away with playing pubs that young, but we couldn’t think of anywhere we’d rather be. Either my dad or Paul’s dad would drive us there and the other one would bring us back. Our families sacrificed a lot of evenings when we were rehearsing in the kitchen and they were trying to watch television in the living room. In fact, the only people who weren’t impressed were the teachers. They didn’t think posters encouraging a load of underage kids into various pubs just to hear us play was a particularly good idea.”
By 1990, Witter had left school and was enjoying his first outing with Shed Seven. An article in the Melody Maker a few years later described the band as “taking the insular bedsit angst of Morrissey’s early music and subverting it with a brash insensitive sexual narcissism”.
It was a sound that York wasn’t quite ready for. Not that Witter, a born frontman, minded.
“You know what? Twice we entered a battle of the bands competition and twice we didn’t win, but I always think there’s something good at coming second or third in things like that. Just look at X-Factor, the winner doesn’t normally do so well, but the runner-up usually turns out okay.
“When we started out we were the only indie band in town and we stuck out a bit. We knew that if we started playing regularly people would soon get bored of us. When you’re different people tend to remember you, so instead we just did one or two gigs a year. I guess it meant that York was always a place where we could relax, where we didn’t feel we had to perform all the time.”
While Shed Seven may never have been crowned champions in their own town, in 1993 they signed a six-album deal with Polydor. For Witter, who had spent most of his meagre earnings in local record shops, it felt like a lottery win.
“I’d had all sorts of jobs from a milk round to shifts at Grandma Betty’s Yorkshire Pudding and Pie shop. I was at Sainsbury’s when we were signed. I was always a bit unkempt and late, but the manager must have liked me because I remember when I told him we’d got a record deal he said, ‘Rick don’t make a rash decision, we can offer you a promotion here’. I was grateful for the offer, but working with groceries wasn’t the same as a six-record deal was it?”
For much of the mid to late 1990s, music took Shed Seven, the band who took their name from a railway shed the other side of Leeds, took them away from York. Between 1994 and 1999, the band had 15 Top 40 singles and four Top 20 albums. While they never enjoyed the mainstream success of Blur or Oasis, they became a staple of the Britpop scene.
In 1996, they had more hit singles than any other act and after appearances on Top of the Pops they made their live debut at the York Barbican. That year turned out to be the peak of their band’s success and as Britpop faded so did Shed Seven with Witter returning home to York.
It came as something of a surprise then to fans when the reunion tour, which followed an eight-year hiatus, was announced in 2007 and there was no mention of a homecoming gig.
“Paul was quoted as saying we were too big for York,” says Witter. “It wasn’t supposed to a slight, he just meant there wasn’t a venue big enough. We could have played somewhere smaller, but we would either have left a lot of people disappointed or we would have had to play a series of nights. Sometimes you do have think about yourselves.”
Last December, following the reopening of Barbican, Witter and the rest of Shed Seven finally got to have their homecoming gig and it was much like old times.
“The sound is all over the place and it is still just a sports hall, but it’s a sports hall that can fit 5,000 people in. I don’t know any band that doesn’t enjoy playing to a home crowd and those nights were pretty special.”
Witter, who married his long-term girlfriend last year, has numerous children – he doesn’t like to be specific – and admits life is a rather mundane cycle of school runs and trips to the park, but he’s not about to complain.
“I’ve honestly never once thought about leaving York, not even when we first signed the record deal and suddenly this world of opportunity opened up, I didn’t think, ‘Right, that’s it best move to London’. I like London, I like playing gigs there, but it’s too big. I prefer my cities small.
“In the old days we’d come back from gigs and meet up with our old mates, we’d tell them what we’d been up to and they’d tell us about their day at work. There was something quite grounded about that and when we started getting a bit of attention I think the fact we stayed in our home city stopped us living in a bubble. We couldn’t have delusions of grandeur, people knew us too well.”
Music rather than the fame or the money was what drove Shed Seven and Witter still indulges his own musical tastes with a DJ set each Thursday at York bar 1331.
“It’s basically the stuff I would be playing in my living room, so you might as well have an audience. The truth is, I’m still that same teenager growing up in York dreaming of playing music. I’m not sure that will ever change.”
All roads lead back to York
At the end of this month Shed Seven will head out to Indonesia to play a one-off gig in Bandung.
They will be back for the summer festival circuit with appearances already announced at Kendal Calling in the Lake District in July and both the Staffordshire and Chelmsford legs of the V Festival in August.
It’s not quite the hectic touring schedule of the band’s Britpop era, but you get the impression that Rick Witter is these days more than happy to be just an occasional frontman.
“When we used to go on long tours, the sign for York and the A64 was the one thing I wanted to see most,” he says. “It’s still the same, there’s a good feeling about coming back to a place you really call home.”