Many of its greatest musical talents may have left the city behind, but the success they enjoyed is built on their experiences there, says SOPHIA DEBOICK.
Although it began at the periphery, as a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall in 122 AD, Newcastle spent many subsequent centuries at the centre of the world. It was always famous for the greatest commodities of the day – first wool, then the print trade, and finally, it was as a city of coal, shipbuilding and steam trains that it amassed its wealth. Even though that wealth seeped away as first the pits and then the shipyards closed, the neoclassical architecture of the early 19th century still stands for the city’s golden age, and this is a city that overflows with civic pride.
Even as industrial decline set in, a cultural renewal was already gathering pace, culminating in the shimmering mollusc that is the Sage Gateshead music centre that opened on the banks of the Tyne in 2004. In the 1970s and 1980s, musicians who went on to international fame came out of Newcastle – Mark Knopfler and Sting had grown up in the environs of the city before both went to London, formed Dire Straits and The Police, and conquered the world. But they weren’t the first to hanker after escape to the south – Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch of the Shadows had been early émigrés who found wild success in London – and two bands who changed the course of British music in the 1960s and 1970s had already made that journey, but not before Newcastle had shaped them profoundly.
As Newcastle’s slow industrial decline began, the city’s younger generation was already building a new world for themselves. The ‘in’ crowd circulated around a handful of shops, buying their designer threads from the Marcus Price boutique on Grey Street, conveniently situated next to Jeavons Records, and as jazz gave way to ‘Beat’, venues like the New Orleans Jazz Club, behind the Central Station, the Marimba coffee bar, the Downbeat and Percy Street’s Club A-Go-Go were the places to be seen.
Londoner Michael Jeffrey was proprietor of the latter three establishments, and as the Club A-Go-Go quickly became the centre of the universe for Newcastle faces, he chose a new local group as its house band – the Animals.
The Animals took black American music as their lodestar, but they weren’t coy about their roots. Their debut single, Baby Let Me Take You Home (1964) had as its B-side Gonna Send You Back To Walker, a recasting of R&B singer Timmy Shaw’s Gonna Send You Back To Georgia, paying tribute to the suburb to the east of the city centre where singer Eric Burdon had grown up.
The B-side of their Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (1965) was a tribute to the Club A-Go-Go, an R&B stomper which proclaimed: ‘It’s one of the coolest spots in town’.
But the Animals had already moved to London and made it big by that time, sending shockwaves through popular music with their House of the Rising Sun, which hit No.1 on both sides of the Atlantic between July and September 1964. This traditional folk song they had heard on Bob Dylan’s eponymous debut album became a moment of paradigm shift in the Animals’ hands, the gothic proto-psychedelia of Alan Price’s Vox Continental organ breaks and the sheer ferocity of Eric Burdon’s blues vocal indicating a menacing turn to the Beat revolution.
The Animals had made their mark, and in the summer of 1965 they reflected on their escape from Newcastle, altering the lyrics of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s sultry We Gotta Get Out of This Place (1965) to sing of ‘this dirty old part of the city/ Where the sun refused to shine’, concluding ‘there’s a better life for me and you’.
The year the Animals broke big, Bryan Ferry enrolled on the Fine Art degree at Newcastle University and became immersed in a world that was a far cry from his roots. From the Tyne and Wear pit town of Washington, Ferry was the son of a pit pony handler, but from an early age American culture fed his dreams of escape and the city offered everything he needed to make it. It was in Newcastle that Ferry had his earliest musical experiences, from seeing live bands at the City Hall, to listening to the records he couldn’t afford to buy – Fats Domino, Little Richard, Elvis, Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy were his favourites – in the listening booths at the historic J. G. Windows music shop in the Edwardian Central Arcade.
Ferry wasted no time starting a band at university – the R&B covers outfit, The Gas Board – and became a scenester. But more significantly, going to Newcastle University brought Ferry into the orbit of pop artist Richard Hamilton, who taught on the course, as did Mark Lancaster, fresh from his time as one of Warhol’s Factory set. Hamilton’s assistant Nick de Ville was Ferry’s neighbour in his student digs on central Eslington Terrace. This was a trio who would be crucial for Ferry’s later success.
When Ferry graduated, the 1970s were just around the corner and it seemed time for something new in music. Taking the well-trodden path down to London, he formed Roxy Music there with bassist Graham Simpson of The Gas Board, and married his Americana obsession to Hamilton’s use of collage and Warhol’s focus on celebrity and consumer society to come up with songs which were a baroque bricolage of disparate cultural references.
Creepy 1973 album track In Every Dream Home a Heartache was directly inspired by Hamilton’s seminal 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, while Nick de Ville designed the album covers that made Roxy a full aesthetic package.
Roxy Music would be the most ambitious band of the glam rock era, both a launching pad for Brian Eno’s electronic innovations and a benchmark for 1970s art rock.
After a 1980s of steep industrial decline and the emergence of acts from Newcastle as diverse as the Pet Shop Boys (their This Must Be the Place I Waited Years To Leave (1986), was about Neil Tennant’s time at the city’s St Cuthbert’s Grammar School), black metal pioneers Venom and AC/DC’s Brian Johnson, late of glam band Geordie, the 1990s and early 2000s saw Newcastle step into the pop spotlight via TV cash-ins, and Geordie accents suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Jimmy Nail’s 1992 No.1 Ain’t No Doubt came off the back of his Newcastle-set police drama Spender, and his self-penned Big River (1995), featuring Mark Knopfler, pined sentimentally for the Newcastle of the industrial age, ‘when coal was king’ and ‘The river was a living thing’, namechecking the Neptune shipyard where his father had worked.
The TV-as-pop-springboard trend continued, as Soldier Soldier’s Robson and Jerome (the former from Hexham, half an hour outside Newcastle), briefly became a pop juggernaut in the mid-1990s with their three consecutive No.1s, and between 1994 and 1997 PJ and Duncan, aka Ant and Dec, stars of children’s BBC series Byker Grove, had 12 Top 10 hits. When Cheryl Tweedy, who grew up in a council terrace on Heaton’s Cresswell Street, bagged a place in Girls Aloud through talent show Popstars: The Rivals, she went on to huge solo success.
Despite a level of hypercelebrity that allows her to be known mononymously as ‘Cheryl’ and making the inevitable move south, she still says Newcastle is ‘the heart of me’. Newcastle’s musical stars have always been pulled between affection for and rejection of their home city, and have usually made it outside it, but their experiences there have been what has made them.