When starting out a piece on music in my ‘home’, I’m embarrassed to say my first thoughts were not ones of excitement or inspiration. I thought of my fellow university friends who basked in small underground bars in Liverpool or Leeds or those who spoke fondly of memories down south at the O2 or Alexandra Palace. I realised my most exciting and varied experiences with the bands I loved were in big cities, well away from the reality of my ‘home’.
Examples of the music scene in Huddersfield, as with much of ex-industrial Yorkshire, seem few and far between. Though several local venues provide some respite, chart-topping artists rarely pop in for a visit. Myself and my teenage friends invariably spent years travelling to Leeds, Manchester and even further afield to catch glimpses of artists with big names and expensive ticket prices.
So, you can see where I drew a blank for a piece which ultimately revolved around music and my home town.
I turned to my grandparents and even parents, to ask: was Huddersfield’s music scene ever thriving? The answer was overwhelmingly: yes.
And with this came the realisation, the music scene was still here, if one looked with an open mind. Music doesn’t have to be topping Radio 1’s charts to be interesting and exciting. In fact, northern towns like Huddersfield continue to celebrate and produce grassroots genre-bending music.
A small delve into the history of local music presented these facts all too easily.
Perhaps the most surprising and least well-known to me, was Huddersfield’s Reggae scene. Dubbed the ‘unlikely capital of UK sound system culture’, in the 1970s and 80s, Huddersfield regularly hosted international stars in its centre on Venn Street. Big names from Gregory Isaacs to Desmond Dekker played there, with the street gaining a massive reputation. This allowed the street’s clubs to venture into other genre including the wildly popular ‘punk’, with massive acts such as Adam and the Ants playing Huddersfield.
‘Sound System Culture: Celebrating Huddersfield’s Sound Systems’ is part of a heritage project put together by historian Mandeep Samra and documents some of the history of this vibrant scene. It describes a culture which was ground-breaking when arriving in Huddersfield with the first wave of Caribbean immigrants working in the textile mills in the 1960s.
In an article in The Guardian, Paul Huxtable (builder and operator of the Axis sound system) spoke of the friendly and ‘broad-minded’ attitude of the community towards visiting artists in the 1970s. Seemingly, artists found the welcoming northern attitude a stark contrast to receptions in big cities. He claimed, “People would say to [reggae superstar] Dennis Brown: ‘We’re having a christening tomorrow. Why don’t you come along?’”
Though Venn Street was replaced with a car park in the 90s, those who witnessed the ‘sound system culture’ remember it as something truly remarkable.
The oldest and most famous part of my home town’s historical music scene is that of choral music. Whilst group singing has likely existed in the North of England since at least the thirteenth century, by the outbreak of World War One there was at least fifteen choral societies in a three-mile radius of Huddersfield, with our own Town Hall attracting many of these choirs to perform. Huddersfield’s Choral Society (formed in 1836) has a long recording history, the most significant being the first televised performance of Handel’s Messiah (choral work associated with the Yorkshire region) with the BBC Northern Orchestra in 1953, conducted by Sir Malcom Sargent.
For myself, it seems difficult to imagine just how popular choral music was and just how bigger part it played in the lives of people of all ages. Yet my Auntie’s stories of Sir Malcolm Sargent, regarded as Britain’s leading conductor of choral works, show just what a central part it played close to home. She told me of how Sargent used to visit Huddersfield every year for ‘around twenty years’ and would always stay in The George Hotel (where my own grandparents worked). It seemed an exciting prospect that my Grandma once walked ‘on town with him to the town hall’. I couldn’t help but feel my grandma would have felt star struck in the same way that we today would if we walked ‘on town’ with an indie band front man to his gig.
‘Skiffle’ music is yet another genre which may seem alien to many. Yet this was an example of music which engrossed those all over the country, not just those living in the big cities in the 1950s and early 60s.
Starting out in the early 20th century USA in African-American communities, the origins of ‘skiffle’ are said to lie in the use of simple everyday objects as instruments including the washboard and the cigar-box fiddle. It’s revival as a genre in 1950s Britain was largely through the developing post-war Jazz scene and ultimately the success of a certain Lonnie Donegon. Many household names today began their careers in skiffle including Van Morrison and Mick Jagger. Such a fact seems so poignant in understanding the music in my own local community. Such raw grassroots genres did and continue to define artists who go on into popular culture. When my grandad tells me of the days he and his friends worked on their own ‘skiffle’ band (‘The Pennines’ – named fondly after the hills and mountains surrounding my home town), the magnitude of this often bypassed me. Young boys from industrial towns with only the money to use old washboards for instruments is the true meaning of music and community.
Undeniably my home town is unlikely to make any headlines any time soon for big stadium tours or global boy bands, but on reflection, this seems unimportant. Seemingly, we can all learn from the history of music in our towns and how they reflect our deeply diverse culture. After all, music reflects the people of the town, the way in which the town has grown and developed.
Today in Huddersfield still thrives a basement underground scene and each year a folk festival attracts tourists from afar. In the same way that once ‘skiffle’ bands inspired the youth of a working-class town, new genres continue to do this today and present hope that those from all cultures and backgrounds can still break down industry-created barriers.