Is there a Widening North / Regional, London Youth Culture Divide?


I am sat reading yet another headline that says a regional city is suffering compared to London. This time it’s one of my favourite cities, Sheffield “Action needed to stop Sheffield’s 30-something braindrain”.

The media is full of justified concerns about an increasing financial chasm between London and regional cities outside the South East. The discussion about whether High Speed 2 will benefit the regions it stops in is one worth continuing and analysing. The two speed housing market is gaining momentum (but may in time, turn out to be more of a problem for London) the jobs market outside London continues to be sluggish in most areas. But I am being nagged by a thought that culturally there may be a widening divide.

There was a north / south divide when I was a teenager growing up in Lancashire, in the 70s but we had football teams that dominated (isn’t it great to see Liverpool and Everton doing so well again?) and regionally based hot spots of youth culture. My mum was able to witness and enjoy Mersey Beat (a name which came from an independent magazine that celebrated the music of Liverpool), a movement that had a recognisable style and was more than just the Beatles, with over 500 gigging bands in Liverpool between 1958 and 1964.

My first “youth culture”, and one that has stayed with me, was Northern Soul, a movement with a distinct fashion style, based on dancing and collecting black music of the 60s and 70s. Northern Soul was famously based around northern towns such as Wigan, Blackpool, Stoke (and Burnley where I met my wife at a Northern Soul Club). Coach loads of southerners and Scots would descent on these northern clubs every weekend. Many Northern Soulies went on to embrace Disco and Jazz Funk and venues like The Highland Room in Blackpool and The Ritz in Manchester became mecca’s for young dancers from all over the British Isles.

Punk shook Manchester as much as it did London. We were spoilt for choice with the likes of The Buzzcocks, Slaughter and the Dogs, Warsaw, V2, Eater and The Drones. The Post Punk scene was incredible in Manchester with bands like Joy Division, Magazine, A Certain Ratio, The Durutti Column and a fashion aesthetic mined regularly worldwide (Raf Simons seems obsessed by it).

The New Romantics came out of Birmingham in equal step with London (The Rum Runner Club was as important as London’s Blitz and Billy’s). Two Tone was defined by Coventry (and defined Coventry) what a style and what a list of bands, The Specials, The Beat, The Selector. Sheffield was unbelievable with its asymmetric haircuts and modernist leathers and of course those seminal electronic bands, Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League, Heaven 17, The Thompson Twins. Cool had a real home in Sheffield then.

Liverpool had its own significant music and fashion scene going on in the early 80s with Echo & the Bunnymen, A Flock of Seagulls, Teardrop Explodes, the Mighty Wah!, OMD, China Crisis, which left a lasting legacy.

Meanwhile in Glasgow, the distinctly indie Postcard Records created a recognizable indie movement with Orange Juice, Aztec Camera and The Go Betweens.

My first label, Red or Dead, flourished in the massive Madchester scene of the late 80s and early 90s and we picked up distributors in Japan as a result of the 1000’s of Japanese kids who would flock to Afflecks Palace and The Royal Exchange to get baggy and emulate their heroes in The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, 808 State, A Guy Called Gerald, Northside, James et al.

My home town of Blackburn had its time in the sun at the same time as Madchester with the infamous Blackburn Raves. The powers that be may have hated this at the time but Blackburn could do with more of that youth culture spirit right now.

Bristol spawned Trip Hop’s Massive Attack, Tricky and arguably the graffiti movement that led to Banksy.

But whilst there has been nothing quite as seismic as punk since the 70s there has been a youth movement of sorts, Britpop (albeit being loose and being music only rather than music and fashion). Britpop, with the exception of Oasis and Pulp, was mainly centred on Camden, London. There the “urban” movements of Jungle, and Drum and Bass, the modern day version (bastardisation?) of R & B but whilst none of them can be classed as overtly visually recognisable, and are not “owned” by London, they are linked with London more than any other city.

There are some that would argue that it’s not a divide but rather that youth culture movements don’t happen like they used to. The argument coming from some quarters that how can young folk rebel against their parents when their parents were so rebellious? Hence all that “norm – core” rubbish coming out of the fashion industry. Another argument is that the all - pervasive internet both prevents youth culture from fermenting and brings things overground too quickly and also allows young people to build their own individual online identity making mass youth culture movements obsolete. Anyhow, come on youth of Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow, Newcastle, Nottingham, Birmingham. Show us what you are made of, make London jealous.

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