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Art into Pop in Leeds

Gavin Butt’s new book 'No Machos or Popstars' tells the story of a moment in Leeds when theory, art, and pop got themselves mixed up, producing groups like Gang of Four and Scritti Politti in the process.

Andy Gill with the original Gang Of Four line up. (Credit: Virginia Turbett / Redferns / Getty Images)

First of all, I’ll hold my hands up: I have skin in this game. I have taught at what used to be Leeds Polytechnic [then Metropolitan, now Beckett University] for the last twenty-one years. Before this I played in an art school band in the late eighties and early nineties. Bandmates studied (if that’s the right word) at Leeds Polytechnic and I was drawn into this scene through a mixture of curiosity, a vague awareness of something unusual happening, and the openness and generosity of the courses at the Poly. I was not a student of the Poly but I was tolerated hanging around in both the studios of H Block and in the Fenton pub, mainly because I was a dedicated (Walter) Benjamin-ite, as were so many of the tutors at the Poly. Through this I got a fleeting glimpse of the workings of the art school at the Polytechnic at one remove and a few years subsequent from the narrative detailed in Gavin Butt’s new book No Machos or Popstars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk.

Butt’s book recounts what he believes is a neglected cultural scene coming out of the city’s art and design courses at the University of Leeds and the Polytechnic in the late seventies and early eighties. Gavin has previously contributed essays and chapters in such as Post Punk Then & Now with Kodwo Eshun and Mark Fisher, and recently curated a room at Nottingham Contemporary’s Bauhaus Still Undead exhibition in 2019, that highlighted the work specifically coming out of Leeds Polytechnic at the time.

No Machos or Popstars attempts to refute any nostalgia for this time. The scene that this book describes, documents and contextualises, was not given to nostalgic retrospection. It was a self-consciously obtuse and difficult cultural scene, contradictory and ornery in its debt to punk and Situationism on the one side and to more academic Marxist thought on the other, particularly as these were disseminated through these art schools in late seventies. This rather self-conscious ‘difficulty’ feels like the last great cultural taboo today—the idea that a cultural form might break away from ‘common-sense’ structures and idioms by using theory as a way of postulating new aesthetics and musical forms. This feels particularly current: there are some hard-won lessons here about how to ‘queer’ common-sense through a form of Pop that is artful, self-conscious, and highly visually literate.

Butt admits his own partiality and the book manages to walk a fine line between personal preoccupation and a wider contextual cultural analysis. The theory is never crow-barred into the narrative since it is so central to the story. And it is this vexed relationship between theory and practice at art school that comes to be a major subtext of the book. After the 1960 Coldstream Report on Higher Education advocated for a 20% split between theory and practice, a one-day a week ghetto as a way of providing some academic prestige for the new DipAds and subsequent degrees, it was never clearly proscribed what this day a week might consist of. While many institutions fell back on art history lectures/seminars, many other art schools used this vagueness to their advantage. New courses around feminism, race, and institutional critique flourished in this period. Certainly the Fine Art course at the University of Leeds drew on these progressive debates, and the book documents the influence of such as the art historian and former Situationist T.J. Clark and Terry Atkinson of Art and Language, as well as the work of Griselda Pollock and Fred Orton on the Fine Art course at the ‘proper’ University.

At times I feel that the impact of this upon the burgeoning post-punk scene in Leeds is over-played in the book. It’s easy to see the influence of Clark’s Situationism on some of the lyrics and visual presentation of the Gang of Four in particular; it seems like there was a rather precipitous confluence of privately-educated male punks from Sevenoaks in Kent who arrived at Leeds Uni at a time when some of these post-’68 ideas might have been most vociferously welcomed. Similarly it’s easy to make direct connections between the influence of Griselda Pollock’s feminist theory at the University and, say, the work of such as Delta 5. But here I think Butt elides context with causality. Many artists, graphic designers, and musicians in this period, through the art school, were self-consciously aware of themselves as inheriting a tradition that linked Situationist practice with Pop and back to Futurism and Dada. Many made explicit references to these antecedents in their record covers, graphics, and visual presentation, as well as within their music and performance at the time. This period saw a form of recuperation of the spirit and potential of these artistic forms that had perhaps grown dormant with the increasing commodification and State-support of modern art. These ideas were part of the cultural atmosphere and climate at that time. The music these bands produced outside of their academic studies was informed by these debates, but it’s unlikely many University of Leeds bands really regarded their music as a form of art practice.

In many ways these debates were more central to the teaching on the Fine Art course at Leeds Polytechnic and I feel that Gavin Butt underplays the real radicalism of the course under Jeff Nuttall and Geoff Teasdale. It was here that issues of what might constitute a contemporary art practice, following on from the influence of Fluxus’ notions of ‘intermedia’ practice, as well as the work of artists like Dan Graham in the mid-seventies, were vociferously debated. Indeed in the 1981 BBC documentary A Town Like New Orleans, referenced in the book, Teasdale is filmed being confronted by a student who challenges him to avow the notion that pop music might constitute fine art practice. Teasdale, in a telling interview in the book, admits that he felt he had to continue Nuttall’s advocacy of all forms of cultural production as potentially capable of being defined as art practice.

Nuttall, the author of the widely-known 1960s counter-culture manifesto Bomb Culture, hangs like a ghost over these scenes in the book—his wilful sense of avant-garde shock tactics, which could verge on macho bravado, can appear in the book off-putting and anachronistic, a mixture of Aktionist/Theatre of the Absurd with Dadaist performance. But it’s interesting that the most renowned graduates of the course at this time were either self-consciously camp and queer—Mark Almond from Soft Cell and Frank Tovey from Fad Gadget—or were bookish and androgynous, in the figure of Scritti Polliti’s Green Gartside.

This continued at the Poly up until very recently with the influential teaching of Harold Offeh. It is also at the Poly where voices from South Asian diaspora like Chila Kumari Burman and working-class artists and designers were more consistently heard. As Butt recounts, it was in the Fine Art studio at Leeds Poly where a rudimentary sound studio was established, initially to produce more abstract soundscapes for films, installations, and performances, but this was a direct and immediate influence on the musicians coming out of the course. In particular, Green Gartside’s account of his art education at Leeds Poly is quite disparaging about both his tutors and the culture and atmosphere on the course, to the point where he asked his tutors to requisition the more theoretically adept tutors at the University of Leeds to assess his final year work.

The post-punk musical scene in Leeds was created organically both in opposition to the prevailing cultures at both universities—it was a constructive and creative resistance—but ironically also reflected some of the ideas and debates within the courses at both institutions. In this regard, the example of Green Gartside’s Scritti Polliti is telling. His transition from making a kind of difficult and opaque, self-consciously awkward music, informed by his interest in far-left and anarchist politics, to the hyper-glossy, sweet blue-eyed soul and Lover’s Rock of the later Scritti is fascinating. Where many commentators (including both Gavin Butt and Simon Reynolds in his Rip It Up and Start Again) see a huge disparity between these two forms, regarding it as a wilful attempt to start ‘a long march through the institution’ (of pop) or at least a recognition of working within the ‘belly of the beast’, the similarities of approach are striking. Green’s voice and his interest in black music as a true revolutionary form is echoed by Gang Of Four’s alienated Marxist funk, and compounded by the bands’ engagement with Rock Against Racism in this period, playing at a number of benefit gigs alongside established reggae sound systems. This was not so apparent in the post-punk of other cities in the same period, with Sheffield and Manchester perhaps regarding themselves as a new Dusseldorf, Chicago, or East Berlin.

It is unavoidable to think about this book on a Leeds music scene without reference to those more feted scenes in other urban centres in the same period. Certainly, this seems to have been a main driving motive for writing the book—to shine a light on a rather over-looked and neglected cultural moment. At first it is disappointing for a book about art and music, to have so little interesting visual material accompanying the writing. However, this reveals a disarming lack of self-consciousness in the Leeds scene of the early eighties, taken to an extreme by The Mekons’ obtuse disavowal of themselves as a static and photogenic ‘band’. All the musicians here, whether from the University or the Poly (or from both like Delta 5), however self-conscious they might have been in the production and presentation of their music, seem to have been too busy (enjoying themselves) to regard themselves as part of a commodifiable ‘scene’. It doesn’t help, as Butt points out, that the scene lacked a definable Svengali figure like MacLaren or Tony Wilson, who might galvanise or organise—in fact part of the charm of the book is that it attempts to document a rather disorganised rabble of artists and musicians who were perhaps too busy helping each other and debating ideas to be photographed for NME or Melody Maker. It is easy to forget that northern cities like Leeds in the late seventies and early eighties were largely very depressed, drab and dank places where the obvious urban neglect offered opportunities for artists and musicians that today’s hyper-gentrified spaces work to preclude. Butt is particularly successful in sketching in this wider picture. There is a visceral and keenly-felt sense of place in the book—the result both of Butt’s exhaustive research as well as his own connections to the city, having studied at the University of Leeds in the mid-eighties.

This is an important book—and for its American publisher, this scene must represent something exotic in both time and place. It reminds us of—and perhaps implicitly yearns for—a time when a university art school education was free, open, inclusive, and multidisciplinary, where theory was able to re-energise practice and offered new paths out of the cul-de-sacs of art practice, where a local scene that was largely self-supporting and independent could be local without ever being parochial, where contemporary debates arising out of feminism, race, and left-wing politics could be acted out in an exciting form of ‘praxis’ and where competition between educational institutions could be collapsed, where a small city like Leeds could host a self-supporting creative eco-system where students were able to freely cross-pollinate. Gavin Butt is absolutely right to identify some of the flaws of this system—the reliance on the ‘charismatic’ shaman/artist/teacher, the sexism and misogyny that was prevalent at the time (Butt skates quite quickly over an earlier ‘sex for grades’ scandal at the Polytechnic) but the book is a gripping and fully engaged evocation of period and debates that still have much resonance for many of us on the Left. In particular, Mark Fisher’s late writing and lectures see this period as a key cultural moment, on the cusp of Thatcher’s neo-liberal takeover but owing much to a previous social mobility and postwar settlement, that might help us understand how culture could find new routes out of the contemporary shit-show.

On a personal level, when I started playing in art school bands in the late eighties in Leeds, I was only dimly aware of the recent precedents in the city. I had drunk in the Fenton, the neutral ground where so many of both Leeds Poly and University tutors and students hung out, and I knew some of these figures by face or by legend. But many had subsequently moved to London or started teaching elsewhere. My real disappointment was that I did not understand this lineage—I may have rebelled against it anyway—but what strikes me as consistent about provincial cities like Leeds is that while important cultural moments and scenes quietly erupt and just as quickly run out of steam and dissipate, each new generation of artists/musicians starts again at ground zero. It’s a great achievement for Gavin Butt to have so engagingly sketched this culturally significant scene and to have been able, with hindsight, to understand its ongoing significance both to Leeds as a city as well as the relationships between art and popular music at a time when the latter offered possibilities for an expanded form of cultural expression that engaged with a popular audience.