How Gang of Four, The Mekons and other post-punk bands used Leeds art education to change music

Gang of Four frontman Jon King remembers the 1970s Leeds landscape being like a “bomb site”. But it was perfect. “I wanted to get away from the south,” he says, recalling his move from Kent to West Yorkshire, where he co-founded the four-piece that had an intestimable influence on music during and beyond the post-punk era.

“I didn't want to be in a sort of cosy place anymore, and I wanted to be somewhere that had some authenticity to it.

Leeds was like a bomb site. The photographs of Leeds of that time are very similar to Coventry after the bombing. I mean, there were acres and acres of abandoned streets with houses due for demolition, holes in the road,” he adds.

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“Our rehearsal room was in this abandoned house in rows and rows of abandoned houses, so we could make as much noise as we liked.”

Professor Gavin Butt. Picture by Michelle Henning.Professor Gavin Butt. Picture by Michelle Henning.
Professor Gavin Butt. Picture by Michelle Henning.

As an art student at the University of Leeds alongside his bandmate, the late guitarist Andy Gill, and members of other groups such as The Mekons, King found a happy home in which to pursue his creative ambitions.

Now academic Gavin Butt, a professor of fine art at Northumbria University, has released No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk. It not only provides a comprehensive history of that period in music, but places it in the context of the state-funded arts education which enabled people from working class backgrounds to study at university. However, he sees the book as a “manual” for younger generations today.

Although he studied in London, Prof Butt longed for Leeds because one of his favourite bands was The Three Johns, featuring another original member of The Mekons, Jon Langford. Later, he was a professor at Goldsmiths when the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government raised university fees and he wondered whether working class academics in arts and humanities were a “dying breed”. It made him think about the Leeds music scene in the 1970s and 80s and how art education was a “really important part of the cultural ecology”, but one whose influence had not been “substantively” linked to popular music in other writing on the subject. Over years of research he has spoken to people involved in the scene.

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King was the son of an electrician but got a scholarship to the Sevenoaks School in Kent, which he attended with future bandmate Gill, and Mark White, Tom Greenhalgh and Kevin Lycett, who went on to form The Mekons.

Gang of Four in Leeds, 1981. From left: Dave Allen, Jon King, Hugo Burnham and Andy Gill. Credit: Adrian Boot.Gang of Four in Leeds, 1981. From left: Dave Allen, Jon King, Hugo Burnham and Andy Gill. Credit: Adrian Boot.
Gang of Four in Leeds, 1981. From left: Dave Allen, Jon King, Hugo Burnham and Andy Gill. Credit: Adrian Boot.

King was not just drawn to Leeds’s “authenticity”, but the likes of the university academics such as Professor Sir Lawrence Gowing, who he says was the “world's authority on Cézanne and Vermeer”, two of his favourite artists.

He and Lycett arrived in 1974 and “sussed it all out”, he says, before Gill, White and Greenhalgh joined them afterwards.

King then lived in a Cromer Terrace flat near the campus with White and Andy Corrigan - another member of The Mekons - and Lycett took over the film society as they became “a very tight group of buddies doing stuff”.

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In 1976, former Situationist International (SI) member TJ Clark was appointed professor at the university and, along with staff including art historians such as Griselda Pollock and Fred Orton, the fine art department “began to draw in Marxist, feminist, and structuralist theory to the curriculum,” writes Prof Butt.

Such concepts later found their way into the lyrics and record art of Gang of Four, who played their first gig in the Cellar Bar at the Corn Exchange in Leeds in May 1977.

At that time, the student populations of the university and what was still the Polytechnic didn’t tend to mix, says King. But one place did provide “neutral ground” - the Fenton pub. They had “the good fortune - and I still don't know why there isn’t a blue plaque in the Fenton - of having a pub exactly halfway between the two (campuses) where we could all sit, and that became the centre of progressive and left-wing and arty-farty musical people,” says King.

Bands such as Delta 5, Scritti Politti and Soft Cell formed in that environment alongside Gang of Four, whose funk-leaning, Dr Feelgood-influenced post-punk contained subversive ideas inspired by the SI. Their 1979 debut album Entertainment! – with a line-up completed by Dave Allen on bass and drummer Hugo Burnham – has gone down as one of the most important of the era.

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“What I was trying to do was be interesting. I'm not sure I was trying to be influential,” says King, adding: “I suppose one of the reasons that what we did then is still being talked about now is because it doesn't really sound like anybody else. And it's not commercial at all. I mean, it's outside of music. It's very hard to think of, you know, a Taylor Swift song sitting alongside Natural’s Not In It on the radio. I like Taylor Swift, I'm not dissing that kind of thing, but it's not in the same world. And it never was.”

King adds that “the great thing about being in Yorkshire then was you got ignored by the journalists in London who thought nothing happened north of Watford”.

Consequently, when they, along with bands like The Human League “crashed down into London” to perform, it was like a “reverse attack”. He says: “Leeds could not have been a better place to be for all sorts of reasons, and it made us what we were.”

Speaking about the book, Prof Butt, who eventually did get to Leeds when he started his MA in the social history of art at the university in 1989, says: “I’ve written it for the present - that’s really important to me. Although it’s a granular account of what happened in Leeds, back then, it’s about what might still happen in places like Leeds today.”

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