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It Came to Define Us

By Emily Ryalls

The story starts 56 years ago, though this isn’t to discredit what came before 1965 - just to save that period for another day. For a city like Wakefield, there’s a certain spirit that’s inherent in its people – this spirit is rooted in hard graft and DIY culture. To a privileged outsider, it’s charming, endearing and inspirational and whilst it absolutely can be all of these things, in our case – it’s necessary.

I’m looking at the history of the local music scene, which way predates my time in Wakefield. As a late 90’s baby, I’m relying on the stories of others to navigate us through a yo-yoing music scene, starting with the legacy left by England’s first independent record label, Holyground Records, in 1965, and moving through to where we are now, with the help of Bill Nelson, The Cribs, Dean Freeman (the man behind Long Division) and Jamie Lockhart and Emily Ingham (of Mi Mye and Bodys).

Images left to right:

(Holyground graphics courtesy of Wakefield Museums and Castles, Alan Quinn and Bill Nelson recording at Holyground courtesy of Bill Nelson, Holyground photograph courtesy of Wakefield Museums and Castles)

It’s a little-known fact that England’s first independent record label was established here in Wakefield. Holyground Records influenced and supported a whole generation of musicians and as one of the most collectable labels in the world, it continues to do so. Bill Nelson tells the story of his first interaction with Holyground.

As someone who was, at the time, looking overseas to people such as Jefferson Airplane and Buffalo Springfield, for musical influence – Bill’s first meeting with Mike Levon (owner of Holyground) came by chance, after a stroll down Kirkgate to pick up his copy of the International Times from a local record store.

“At that time (the 60’s) there was a whole scene erupting in London around alternative underground culture and there was a magazine called The International Times and another called Oz who were covering this movement, as people moved away from pop and began looking at something more experimental.”

“One day I was walking down Kirkgate, I passed the end of Cass Yard and there was a window above me open. Through this window I heard the kind of music that was on the albums I was buying - I was pretty surprised because I didn’t think anyone else in Wakefield was listening to this kind of music. So, I went round the back, knocked on the door and Mike Levon came down. He invited me in, we had a chat, a cup of tea and I realised we had this common ground over music.”

Bill recalls that Mike Levon had a tape machine in his back bedroom where he’d record with some of his friends from Bretton Hall and after this initial meeting, Bill began recording on numerous occasions at Holyground – contributing on albums such as A to Austr and Astural Navigations. This friendship with Mike and ties to Holyground saw Bill through years of recordings with Global Village and Be Bop Deluxe from 1968-1972. Sadly, Mike Levon passed away in 2011, though his legacy continues to pave the way for new generations of musical talent and the superbly conserved (and pleasingly retro) Holyground website, keeps the label alive.

Images left to right:

(Global Village with their hand painted van at Thornes Wharf courtesy of Bill Nelson, Alan Quinn and Bill Nelson playing at Clarence Park concert 1968 courtesy of Bill Nelson, Be-Bop Deluxe ticket courtesy of @RasieRobbo, The Teenagers and The Gibson IV tickets courtesy of Bill Nelson)

During a conversation which looks back on his music career, pulling it back to his local roots, Bill Nelson takes me through the moments in his life which lead up to his band Be-Bop Deluxe signing with EMI records – a deal he attributes to the defining moment John Peel plays the entire Northern Dream album on the radio.

In grasping an understanding of what live music was like locally in the 60’s/70’s, I learn of the length bands had to go to, to get booked. “I still had my day job at this point, working at County Suppliers” Bill says. “I’d ring agents up most days, they’d ask what kind of music I play and after we got nowhere with promoting our originals, I soon realised I’d need to lie to these people, promising Cliff Richard numbers, just to get a shot”.

By far the most amusing memory is that of ‘Wakefield’s first free rock concert’ in Clarence Park, a venue which people have now come to know and love for hosting the annual Clarence Park Festival. With the perfect foundations at his day job, a phone, a copy machine and time to plot, Bill decides to put on his own show, demonstrating that do it yourself spirit that echoes through the district. “I designed some flyers, ran loads of copies off and drove Global Village into the centre of Wakefield announcing to people ‘come to the first free rock concert in Wakefield’.”

“I had to write to the council, asking permission to use the band stand - I knew that the words ‘rock concert’ would be a red flag for them, so with this in mind, I got a couple of friends roped in to do some poetry readings and masked it as a ‘poetry and arts festival’. After getting the go ahead, we piled in with a load of amplifiers and it was a great show.”

Images left to right:

(Photograph of The Cribs performing at Long Division 2014 courtesy of Wakefield Museums and Castles, The Cribs Long Division set list retrieved from Unity Hall’s floor courtesy of Wakefield Museums and Castles, The Cribs Zoom interview stills courtesy of Emily Ryalls)

Coming into the early 90’s, The Cribs, a garage rock band of brothers, log onto Zoom from three different time zones (Oregon, New York and Wakefield) to come together and reminisce with me, about their formative years.

As a big Cribs fan growing up in Wakefield, I have to start by describing that experience of attending a Cribs gig outside of your home and hearing the crowd chant “Waaaaakefield”. There’s a fairly popular geographical cop-out amongst some people in Wakefield – when asked where they’re from, many will say ‘Leeds’ or ‘near Leeds’ out of ease. Why? I’ll never understand. The Cribs are a band who have never compromised on their identity. In conversation about this, Ryan comments “In the 90’s and early 2000’s we had no good experience of playing in Leeds by that point, for one thing it would be really difficult getting a show, but secondly, they would try and force you to sell tickets - it always felt really commercial and really gross.” At this point Gary adds “it was the opposite of DIY in the fact that it was pay to play, it’s a promoter taking advantage of a bands enthusiasm for pure commerce.”

In a big leap to the 90’s, The Cribs take up the story of what the underground punk scene was like at this point. As well as being non confirmative, DIY and unapologetically loud, the Jarman brothers tell another side - most crucially it was dangerous. “For a punk or a weird kid, mainstream bars were dangerous for us. Long haired, effeminate, scruffy punk kids were like a red flag to a bull for the townies” says Gary, and Ross adds “even after The Cribs had formed, getting from the taxi to the bar was always like a gauntlet run”. The brothers found their crowd in places like Players and Mcdermott's, which they described as a ‘melting pot for outcasts like them’.

Before the band graduated to Players they took me back to the youth club circuit. “Before you were old enough to get into Players the youth club circuit was all there was. When me and Ryan started, we had a band called Wrinkle in 94” tells Gary. For a bit of context, Ryan says “the youth club workers obviously thought, ‘oh this is a great idea let’s get the bands to play at each other’s youth clubs’... this was a terrible idea. There was some serious tribal rivalry going on.” Gary adds, “when local kids from Kettlethorpe got wind some punk kids from Horbury were coming, you’d be expecting them waiting for you at the door.”

Once the boys had outgrown the Lord of the Flies style youth club circuit, they began playing venues such as Mcdermott’s, Players and Escobar, not forgetting nights at Audiozone (which Gary describes as a ‘rite of passage’). Thinking back to the experience Gary tells me “Wakefield was DIY by necessity, there was no opportunity. None of the venues had a PA, no promoters. It wasn’t a concept to be DIY, it was a case of believing things are done this way because we knew no different.”

We touched on the cliché question, ‘Do you need to move to London to be successful?’, and their response could not have been more grounded.

“Ironically, being from Wakefield and having our own scene made us more appealing. We were more than just another band who’d gone down there to impress them – we were self-sufficient, and those people wanted to be involved with us”.

Ryan adds, “When we were younger, we were always focused on the limitations and frustrations in Wakefield, but these frustrations are what drove us. When we first started in bands, there was always encouragement to find a fall back but even coming from Wakefield and not Leeds, it gives us that kind of subconscious outsider mentality. It was massively important in our formative years. Even now me and Gary have moved away from Wakefield – in ways its more important than it ever had been because, moving to New York, I realise how different I am to some people here and I’m sure that’s down to where I grew up. I always try to make sure I stay the same as I always were. I like my identity.”

Gary then rounds off by saying, “it came to define us because it became an easy way for people to attribute that to why we’re different. I think the work ethic from coming from Wakefield and the idealism of dreaming of something better is what we got. Even now, we never take anything for granted. If you build everything from nothing, as opposed to moving to London to seek your fortune, you will always be more precious about it and furthermore to it, you’ll always be more fiercely independent and wary of outsiders”.

Images left to right:

(Dean Freeman photographed on King Street outside the old Players Bar courtesy of Emily Ryalls, Long Division 2014 line up poster courtesy of Wakefield Museums and Castles, photograph of wall carvings on Westgate courtesy of Emily Ryalls)

Leaping forward again, I met with Dean Freeman – the man behind Wakefield’s well loved annual music festival, Long Division. In 2009, Dean took over the fanzine Rhubarb Bomb commenting on Wakefield’s musical happenings with a cult following. Two years later, Long Division was conceived on a shoestring budget, and is now an anticipated annual event, bringing a rolling sea of yellow t-shirts to Wakefield.

“It was quite a natural step for me. For a year or two I’d been writing about how great Wakefield’s music scene was – there was Philophobia Music, loads of gigs, loads of young bands and for me, I thought ‘if I truly believe in this place why is there not a festival here celebrating this.’ There was Clarence Park festival, which was great, but they weren’t putting the kinds of bands on that I was writing about”, says Dean.

This word ‘scene’ keeps cropping up in all the conversations here and both myself and Dean are in agreement on a total distaste for the word. “It sounds cliquey” laughs Dean, “but really, it’s just a social space.” Looking back over a yo-yoing music scene, spanning a couple of decades, Dean reflects on his experiences. “My first experience of live music in Wakefield was at Players. Players was an era, and I came into this right at the end. At fifteen, I went down one night and there was a flyer on the table for Wrinkle (now the Cribs) - they were playing a gig at Joseph’s Well in Leeds. If you paid, I don’t know - a fiver, you’d get on a bus picking everyone up from Players, driving everyone to Leeds and bringing you back. I’d never been to Leeds besides shopping with my mum at this point so to get on a bus and see a band for the night was pretty amazing.”

At the risk of this becoming too much of a love letter for Players, a place that will forever be in my mind as the best night I never had, we move on. Players shut down, Mcdermott’s and Escobar closed their doors, and the city is still left with holes from these pillars of the 90’s/early 2000’s. “The way we make things sustainable is by making sure everything is in place and we’re not reliant on a handful of people, working like crazy to their own detriment, to make things happen” says Dean.

“My hope for the next generation is that they have enough here to help them stick around for a little longer and when they come back, they support and champion the local scene. I don’t think the next high will be led by people like me or Long Division, but I intend to do the groundwork for whoever it might be.”

Images left to right:

(Contact sheet of Emily and Jamie outside their home in Wakefield courtesy of Emily Ryalls, Mi Mye and Bodys posters courtesy of Emily Ingham and Jamie Lockhart)

Two other people currently making things happen in Wakefield are Emily Ingham and Jamie Lockhart, who make up the band Mi Mye and are to thank for the city’s monthly live music night operating under the banner - Bodys.

Jamie moved to Wakefield in the heydays of Bretton Hall, looking back on spontaneous mid-weeknights where you’d throw a gig on and get crowds of 200/300 people. After a move to Wakefield, from the north coast of Scotland, Jamie soon realised that the city was an incredible place for indie music - no doubt a ripple effect legacy from the likes of Holyground Records. Emily, however, grew up in Wakefield but found herself travelling and slipping further away from her home in Yorkshire until the pull from the Merrie City (and her partner Jamie) brought her back. Emily says, “there’s so many amazing things happening in Wakefield because people are doing it for themselves, there’s no industry, there’s no one to impress to get through the door.” In a system where Emily is the promoter and heads up the organising for the night and Jamie is the man behind the sound, Bodys, like many other great things, was born out of frustration and a need to fill a gap.

“When we lost The Hop and gigs at Unity, it was pretty defining for me because we found ourselves going to a lot of gigs in Leeds and after a while we thought – if we wanna start going to gigs in Wakefield, we’re gonna have to start putting on gigs in Wakefield”, says Emily. Kicking off, in 2019, with Cruel World from Leeds and Mayshe Mayshe from York, the talk of Bodys brings us onto a conversation about inclusivity. I ask, is there a point where having a strong pride of place makes for a really exclusive scene? “It’s hard to tell once you’re inside it but I hope we have an outward facing scene. It’s easy for us to say everyone knows everyone and it’s collaborative but I hope as we put on more gigs, we see more new faces. The more people who wanna start bands, good. The more people who wanna start labels, great!” said Emily.

The stories here create a nostalgia for a Wakefield which was alive with live music in the 90’s and early 2000’s and yes, whilst we are lacking venues, PA’s and opportunity – we continue to rebuild with the foundations left by our predecessors. A common thought uniting everyone is that they see the next high starting now. Well, not right now (for obvious reasons), but as we look forwards, we might be looking at new crowds, filled with people, who after nearly a year of deprivation, have a newfound appreciation for live music.

This photo essay is a springboard for a much larger documentary project that we'll be taking forward collectively, exploring Wakefield’s music scene through photography and stories. If you’d like to contribute in any way, please get in touch.

This photo essay was commissioned by Creative England in 2021.

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