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Music beyond the M6

In a recent interview with the Sunday Times, musician Sam Fender discussed the importance of singing in a Geordie accent for his latest album Seventeen Going Under. Whilst working upon his debut Hypersonic Missiles, Fender had felt the obligation to soften his voice and dialect, a response to mainstream industry standards. For his most recent work, however, he realised that the beauty of the Geordie accent should be embraced in his music, considering it to be “one of the most melodic accents in the English language.” Seventeen Going Under itself is a homage to Fender’s roots, a Springsteen-esque depiction of life growing up in North Shields. The authenticity of singing in his own voice echoes across the subjects of his songs, from the disappointment of first love to the government’s neglect of the working class.

Northern identity has long been entwined with music. Most famously (and inescapably), bands such as The Beatles, Oasis and the Arctic Monkeys have played an integral role in elevating the fame of places such as Liverpool, Manchester, and Sheffield respectively. Yet the culture of music runs much deeper, ingrained into the daily life and spirit of these cities. A long list of those who left their mark on the musical landscape feels slightly excessive, though it ranges from the melancholic sounds of the Smiths and Joy Division to the height of the ‘Madchester’ scene, made iconic in the hands of the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses.

For decades, music has shaped the community. Cultural movements have stemmed from songs alone. Northern Soul of the 60s swept across unassuming towns and cities, renowned particularly in venues such as Wigan Casino. Beginning as a love of soul music and dance, it soon manifested in recognisable mod fashion and culture. The aforementioned ‘Madchester’ scene, tied to the Second Summer of Love movement, became infamous during the 1980s and early 90s. A hedonistic lifestyle, fuelled by rave music (and MDMA,) hit the city of Manchester and held little back. It witnessed the soaring rise and fall of establishments such as the tumultuous Haçienda, synonymous with adolescence for many who grew up during the 90s.

These past communities linger still. Walk through the Northern Quarter on a sunny day and find yourself amongst many-a middle aged men who are crowned with mod-style haircuts and dressed exclusively in Fred Perry. Wander outside the cultural staple Afflecks Palace, underneath the ‘AND ON THE SIXTH DAY GOD CREATED MANchester’ sign, and you may very well find a horde of awkward pre-pubescent teens dressed in parka coats, despite the fact it is nearly twenty degrees. We have all been there – it is a rite of passage.

There is a loving and humorous obstinance amongst fellow northerners to loudly proclaim our cultural supremacy when it comes to music. I would like to address the elephant in the room – we do know that music exists past the M6. Sort of.

Certain stereotypes do exist around northern life and people. This happens much less frequently today, but there is an uncomfortable truth in admitting that the stereotypes do still exist (personally, it does not go unnoticed that most ‘northern’ accents in popular culture are used to represent those less intelligent or uneducated.)  In the past, northern cities and towns were left neglected and underfunded by government policies, governments far out of reach with the reality of living in industrial working-class England. Amongst the effects of these policies, arose the image of northern people being sufficiently ‘un-cultured.’ Though, one must ask, whose cultural expectations were they being measured against? And so, it is with a kind of belligerence that an alternative culture was created. A culture that would always belong to the northern identity, obstinately clung to for generations to come. A reminder of the richness that we are capable of, a cultural trove that binds the community.

As a music-lover, I admit that most of the time I scandalously branch out of the northern circle. However, in a recent bout of slight homesickness, (I’m currently in a different country to home) I found myself scrolling through the depths of Spotify to find some small comfort. Stumbling upon the band Elbow, I queued their albums and set out for a quiet stroll across the foreign city that has become a makeshift home for the last few months. Surrounded by crowds of French people in 26-degree heat, I found myself humming along to ‘Jesus is a Rochdale girl.’ There is a delicate nature to most of their songs, still entirely rooted in the place where they have grown up. Their lyrics really are a kind of poetry (please do try ‘Switching Off’ if interested,) but it is made all the more piercing by Guy Garvey’s voice, gently unassuming in a soft Manchester accent. It made me think of Fender’s interview, and how at the end of the day we owe it to ourselves to hear the beauty in the voices that remind us of home.

Image credit: Highways Agency / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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