Before Brexit: Pop, escapism and racism in England

Young socialists demonstrate at a meeting held by Conservative MP for Smethwick Peter Griffiths in Birmingham in 1965. Photograph: Jobson/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
I wanted to write about where I now lived, England, but I had no pre-existing knowledge of the place, no map to guide me. Eventually I found the answer to what I could use to map this territory: British pop music

After I published my first book, Hidden City, in 2014, I found myself not knowing what to do next. There’s a question you’re often asked in interviews, that’s no doubt meant politely but can trigger an existential crisis in the writer whose future is undefined: what’s your next book about?

When I was asked this, I was stuck for an answer. The years before the publication of Hidden City had been difficult – health problems, unemployment, you name it – and I had focused all of my energies on getting it done, published and out there in the world, without a plan of what I might do afterwards. Perhaps this blinkeredness was a useful strategy during a fairly tumultuous time.

During that period I moved around a good deal, so it was important to me that the places in which I wrote the book were solid and reliable. These were places that might help me to maintain a fairly strict routine of writing a thousand words a day. They weren’t particularly good words, I hasten to point out. The aim was to make me believe that I could produce such a word count whenever I needed, to break at least some of the fear of writing. This would come in handy in later years, and it was an exercise I’d return to in gaps between projects. (There’s a folder on my hard drive with 650 documents, many a thousand words or more long, that I’ve never read.)

Where do you start when you’re an outsider who doesn’t know the lie of the land?

I wrote Hidden City in: the basement level of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the reading room of the National Library of Ireland, in Tallaght library, in the spare room of a rented house in Firhouse in south Dublin, and in a windowless room in a converted church in Sunderland city centre, a sunless work space that inevitably affected my vitamin D levels.

By September 2013, my wife and I had moved to northeast England and that’s where we’ve stayed ever since.

Following the first book, which concentrated on the history and lived experience of Dublin, a city I knew since birth, I wanted to write about where I now lived, England, but found it a tough nut to crack. I felt that I had no pre-existing knowledge of the place, no map to guide me. Where do you start when you’re an outsider who doesn’t know the lie of the land?

Eventually I found the answer to what I could use to map this territory: British pop music. It took me a long time to realise that I could use the records I had been listening to for years to navigate my way around the UK. Its scenes and bands and records and venues would guide my journey.

Record of a record plant

I got the idea for the book when I found out about a record pressing plant run by the RCA label that was once located in Washington, a new town built in the 1960s and 1970s between Sunderland and Gateshead. It was only a short bus ride – well, two short bus rides – from my windowless office.

Washington is a sprawling mass of modern housing clustered around old pit villages that sit above the Durham coalfield. One of its most famous sons is Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, who played football at school with the future Everton manager Howard Kendall and studied fine art at Newcastle University with Richard Hamilton, the designer of The Beatles’ White Album. Ferry’s father was an agricultural labourer from a nearby village who took a job looking after horses down the mines.

I talked to people who had worked in the record plant, eventually finding myself in the house of Audrey Young, who had been an employee at the factory from its beginnings in 1969. She told me that at one point, in what must have been about 1971, David Bowie materialised in the record plant’s canteen as if from, well, Mars, to cut cake for the staff at the Washington plant in celebration of him signing for the label. (The canteen was a suitably high-tech, space-age room for the otherworldly pop star to engage in such an everyday activity, in which sleek microwave ovens sat alongside automatic coffee machines.)

Audrey described to me where the factory once had been and I went to see what was left of it, which was nothing much except for sections of the flooring. I picked up a couple of fragments from the floor and tucked them into my pocket, returning to my office and piling them up like a cairn. They sat there as not merely a souvenir of the factory; rather than mementoes of a suburban curiosity, the tile fragments began to seem like a signpost pointing towards what I had to do next. I realised that my visit to the old RCA record plant was only the beginning of a long, strange trip that would end with the publication of Hit Factories.

Why would I be drawn in this way to a factory that no longer existed? It wasn’t interesting to me merely because of its place in pop music history, but because it embodied the relationship between industry and pop in a physical way. Music was a product you could hold in your hand and it had to be manufactured somewhere. But it was also an intangible thing, something you whistled or heard on the radio. Or something you composed in the front room of a terraced house in Hull or another of the many regional musical cities of the UK.

Sounds of a city

I had long been interested in the spaces in which art is created – the writer’s room, the painter’s studio, the musician’s rehearsal room – and wondered if these places were an effort to constitute something different from the prevailing culture, alternative spaces in which utopian things might happen. Part of this was mere romantic fascination with the mystery of artistic creation. But there was also a personal angle: I was wrestling with my own creative problem: the question of how to create cultural work in a regional industrial city. Perhaps through writing about how musicians were able to do it I could come to a better understanding of my own work, and myself.

Music wasn’t the inevitable result of some essential character of a place – there wasn’t something in the water

It’s tempting to think that there’s a direct relationship between industry and culture, that music merely channelled the character of a working-class city into song. Does heavy metal sound the way it does because of the clank and thud of factories, or does synth-pop have some connection with the steelworks? It’s true that the link between certain cities and scenes is well established: Merseybeat in Liverpool, 2-Tone ska in Coventry, trip-hop in Bristol. But this music wasn’t the inevitable result of some essential character of a place – there wasn’t something in the water.

Instead, pop was often an escape hatch for working-class kids seduced by what the music journalist Nik Cohn, who as a schoolboy spent much of his free time in Tyneside’s R&B clubs, calls the “forbidden glamour” of rock’n’roll. It was an effort to remake themselves, an implicit, and sometimes explicit, rejection of who they were and where they were from. At first it might have just been about consuming the culture – listening to the radio, watching films such as Rock Around the Clock, but soon you were copying Elvis’s moves and playing guitar, forming a band and recording your own songs. As children, the Gibb brothers, who would later become The Bee Gees, appeared in a cinema on Manchester’s Oxford Street in the 1950s during an intermission between films. They were meant to mime to a record, but the disc broke and instead they played a couple of live cover versions of hits.

A decade or so before the record factory opened in Washington, a young Ferry would go to see Hollywood films in a cinema next to an allotment behind a row of terraced houses near his home. He went with his sister to a Bill Haley concert in Sunderland.

Young people were increasingly immersed in pop culture and many instinctively grasped that it promised a new world. It was different from traditional working-class culture: it was adversarial, it wanted a break with the past and had no idea what the future might look like. It was nihilistic and material. Jazz musician George Melly wrote in his 1970 book Revolt Into Style that pop was “against a great deal but for nothing”.

Postwar immigration

As my journey continued from the record plant, through the northern industrial cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds, I began to concentrate on the influence of postwar immigration on music in Britain. This shift in the book’s focus didn’t happen in a vacuum. The referendum on EU membership took place in June 2016, and that event and its aftermath alienated me from British society in a way that was personally deeply traumatising. And I knew others felt it too. Friends and acquaintances began to leave the country, moving elsewhere for work if they had the option.

And I couldn’t blame them. In the months and years of fractious debate, racism and intolerance that followed, more moderate voices often claimed that “we’re better than this”, but, for me at least, a suspicion remained that the mask had slipped to reveal a truer face, one that might be difficult to conceal again.

The sociologist Stuart Hall, who died in 2014, wrote in his autobiography Familiar Stranger about “third spaces” that migrants create as alternatives to the choice between the monolithic identities of colony or metropole – in Hall’s case, Jamaican or English.

The migrants from Ireland, India, Pakistan and the West Indies brought their own music with them

As an Irish immigrant in England, I increasingly related to this conception of identity. It was a lens through which I could examine both my own experience and those of fellow immigrants to Britain. For Hit Factories, I chose to focus on “industrial cities” rather than “working-class cities”, because it seemed a more inclusive term, although I would point out that being working class is an economic rather than racial status.

British rock group The Animals came out of working class Newcastle in the 1960s. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
British rock group The Animals came out of working class Newcastle in the 1960s. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

So, I thought not only about the white British working-class musicians that had formed bands such as The Animals in Newcastle, but also the postwar migrants from Ireland, India, Pakistan and the West Indies who had brought their own music with them. The sequence of cities was broadly chronological, moving through a history of British pop from the 1950s to the late 1990s, and that chronology and those cities suggested the increasing influence of Jamaican ska and dub, Irish folk and Punjabi bhangra on British music.

In Birmingham, I found three adjacent suburbs, Smethwick, Handsworth and Aston, which were instrumental in the development of bhangra, reggae and heavy metal. There were contemporary resonances: the Smethwick election in 1964 saw a Conservative candidate embrace openly racist language in a successful attempt to win votes from white residents aggrieved at West Indian immigrants living on the suburb’s Marshall Street. The parallels with the dog-whistle, or often plainly explicit, racism of the Brexiteers were difficult to overlook.

The Specials, The Selecter and Madness performing together on stage. ‘In Coventry, I was drawn to the anti-racist, multiracial 2-Tone label and its bands.’ Photograph: Virginia Turbett/Redferns
The Specials, The Selecter and Madness performing together on stage. Photograph: Virginia Turbett/Redferns

In Coventry, I was drawn to the anti-racist, multiracial 2-Tone label and its bands The Specials and The Selecter. In Bristol, I tracked the development of what was known as trip-hop from the reggae clubs of St Paul’s to the basement Dug Out club in Clifton where members of Massive Attack melded dub, hip-hop and post-punk.

An Irish view

I’ve come to realise that the Irish experience in Britain is far from unique – that it in some ways (but obviously not all) resembles the experience of Commonwealth migrants. Clair Wills’s wonderful Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain gave me something to think about while I was writing the second half of the book, providing a context for not just what I was researching but the life I was living, a toolkit for understanding both my own experience and the land I was travelling through.

It was a very personal journey through a country enduring a period of profound crisis. Nostalgia – for empire and for Britain’s place in the world, for a supposed immigrant-free past – helped to fuel Brexit. But writing Hit Factories showed me that these weren’t the only stories to be told about the UK’s past.

Now when I’m asked about what I’m working on, I’m often strategically vague. But I have a fairly good idea what will come next. Eventually I realised that the deeper problem was my inability to imagine the future. I dealt with that by looking to the past, and I needed a map of British pop to find my way.

Karl Whitney’s Hit Factories: A Journey Through the Industrial Cities of British Pop is out now from Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£20)