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Felicity Everett: If northern men are so macho, how come they write such tender songs?

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Say the phrase ‘northern bloke’ and what comes to mind? Uncomplicated? Plain-speakers?  Emotion-free zone? Just guessing, but they do have a reputation for being a bit, well, male.

It’s a cliché, I’ll grant you, but, whether you put it down to hormones, or guys feeling increasingly irrelevant in the post-industrial cities built by the hard graft of their forefathers, the consensus seems to be that northern blokes can be a bit on the macho side.

Team that with the tropes of rock music – sex, drugs and guitar-smashing aggression, and you’ve got a pretty noxious brew. Except… you haven’t. At least, not exclusively. Some of the sweetest, subtlest, most subversive pop songs of the last thirty years have been written and performed by (predominantly) male bands from these working class cities.

Let’s start in Scotland. Think Belle and Sebastian, straight out of Glasgow, and still carrying a faint whiff of the shipyards in their references to working class culture, the music is joyful and jangly and the lyrics poetic and wryly humorous.

Far from sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, If You’re Feeling Sinister concerns faith, mortality and ahem… self-pleasure. It’s an existentialist cry from the heart, with a twist of humour and a nostalgic reference to Radio Rentals.  What more could you want from a pop song?

Then there’s Orange Juice, a post-punk band fronted by Edwyn Collins, whose campy, self-aware style couldn’t contrast more starkly with the leather-clad swagger of those other Scottish legends, Primal Scream.  Where Primal Scream in Jailbird are ‘scratching like a Tom cat’ and urging the object of their affections to ‘walk it like you talk it honey’ Orange Juice’s biggest hit Rip It Up sees Edwyn reduced to a paralysis of uncertainty,

My heart reached out for you,

But my arms stuck like glue to my sides.

Ahhh.

To Geordieland, then, in search of some straightforward rock machismo, but instead we find Prefab Sprout, whose greatest hit Cars and Girls might sound like a misogynistic anthem on the surface but puts no less an icon than Bruce Springsteen back in his box, with its gently teasing ‘Brucie dreams, life’s a highway…’ but ‘some things hurt more, much more than cars and girls’.

And so, to Leeds, hard-man capital of Yorkshire, where you might expect to be met by the Kaiser Chiefs cheerfully predicting a riot. But consider also local bands The Wedding Present, who in Why are you being so reasonable? can’t even breakup with a girlfriend without an agony of self-examination and navel gazing:

It seems I’m always the last to know,

And do I have to guess how you’re going to feel each day,

You never have a word to say,

You should have told me…

And if you think that’s a bit post-modern and complicated, may I introduce Alt-J? The tragedians of indie music, their lyrics sound like a Channel 4 news bulletin live from Armageddon, yet their woozy electric synth sound couldn’t be more tender or moving.

Call them indie pop, call them art rock, call them folktronica (if you must) but you can’t call them macho.

Heading south on the M1 we arrive in Sheffield, another city of musical paradox. Here, the two main contenders, in a strong field, for my ‘sensitive northern males’ category are Pulp and Arctic Monkeys.

You couldn’t get more art-school than Jarvis Cocker with his breathy voice and his nerdy persona. In Misshapes, he laments the risks run by him and his fellow Bohemians, of ending up ‘with a smash in the mouth, just for standing out’, but finishes in a crescendo of pounding defiance, claiming he and his ilk will win out over the thugs, not with guns or bombs, but with the one thing they’ve got more of ‘that’s our minds’.

And if that’s not mischievous enough, coming from Sheffield’s arch geek, there’s Pencil Skirt in which he tells his paramour that he ‘loves it when she tells him to stop and oh, oh, it’s turning him on’, a lyric that might cop some flak from today’s ‘Me Too’ movement, were it not for the fact that he also informs her, cheekily, that he’s kissed her mother once and now he’s working on her dad.

Arctic Monkeys give us the other side of the coin. Superficially quite a rocky rock band, their poetic lyrics and witty storytelling, often run counter to their high-octane sound, subverting our expectations with tenderness and vulnerability.

In Love is a Laser-Quest, it’s the girl, not the guy who’s kitted out in space-age garb zapping her metaphorical laser at anyone she fancies her chances with. The guy’s the loser in the rocking chair in the final verse, who, after a lifetime of unrequited love is still pretending “you were just some lover.”

And so, across the Pennines, to my hometown of Manchester, where the notoriety of the biggest ever Manc. band Oasis, owes as much to the well-publicised strops of its warring brothers as their prodigious talent.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Oasis, but I love Elbow more. As love songs go, One Day Like This trumps She’s Electric every time. The lush orchestration and tender lyrics of this ‘morning after the night before’ love song gives me goose bumps, and the euphoric chorus gives the lie to the cliché of the repressed northern male who can’t own up to his feelings.

The final line ‘one day like this a year would see me right’ strikes me as pure Manchester, the deceptive modesty of the ambition, belied by the soaring elation of the music, all topped off with the colloquialism ‘see me right’. I’m there.

Then, just to muddy the water, you’ve got The Smiths. Say what you like about Morrissey – and believe me, I have – back when he was a fey poet with a pocketful of gladioli, instead of letting us all down with his ‘For Britain’ badge, he wrote a lovely lyric or three.

The Night Has Opened My Eyes, from Hatful of Hollow (even the album name’s a poem) recalls the plot of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and is written with a compassion for its female protagonist and her unwanted pregnancy that makes you wonder how he could have ended up wearing that badge…

…Anyway, just fifty miles down the road, but a million miles, musically, from Manchester, is Liverpool. If Manchester errs on the dark and satanic side, Liverpool doesn’t take itself ‘too serious, like’.

I suppose since The Beatles it’s never had much to prove, so, musically, it’s all over the show. Nothing really fits a category. In the scouse hall of fame, you’ve got Echo and The Bunnymen (post punk) and The Teardop Explodes (a bit psychedelic) you’ve got Frankie Goes to Hollywood (camp synth pop) and The Farm (indie/baggy).

None of this is macho, really, so Liverpool you are off the hook. But just to drive home my point (and because I love them) I will cite in my invented genre of ‘snowflake rock’ The Wombats and especially the chiming guitars and warbling neediness of If you Ever Leave I’m Coming with You. This guy’s no callous heartbreaker. Not only will the lead singer eschew all other lovers, if his beloved will commit to him, he will make the ultimate sacrifice and stop listening to Radiohead. How romantic is that?

So here ends my whistle-stop and, I grant you, far from comprehensive tour of the citadels of northern music. I’ve no doubt that for every howl of pain, flight of fancy or ode to tortured love I’ve cited in defence of male sensitivity, you could quote me a couple of old-school guitar-smashing anthems that would make mincemeat of my argument, and you’d probably be right. I’m not even saying some of them aren’t good. I’m just saying… it’s complicated.

 

Playlist

  1. Another Sunny Day by Belle and Sebastian
  2. Misshapes by Pulp
  3. One Day Like This by Elbow
  4. This Night Has Opened my Eyes by The Smiths
  5. If You Ever Leave by The Wombats
  6. Get Better by AltJ
  7. Rip It Up by Orange Juice
  8. Love is a Laserquest by The Arctic Monkeys
  9. Couldn’t Bear to Be Special by Prefab Sprout
  10. Be Less Rude by Frightened Rabbit

Old Friends By Felicity Everett, published by HQ, priced £8.99, is available to buy now