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Hey, remember this one? Really takes you back, right?

Sigh. How disconcerting to arrive at the point where the songs still filed under “Modern” in your great big mental Rolodex o’ Tunes are now being classified as “golden oldies”…

…and anybody younger than dirt goes “what’s a Rolodex?”

Dream Academy burst briefly on to the scene in the mid-1980s, and scored a global hit with the attached, written by band members Nick Laird-Clowes and Gilbert Gabriel. Like so many other groups that have happened to produce a song with a complicated arrangement featuring a few “classical” instruments, they were labelled “Beatle-esque”, and I guess you can hear a hint of Penny Lane in there somewhere, if you try. Plus, they mention the Beatles in the lyrics. Perhaps we could call it “Beatles-inspired”, or “Beatles-adjacent”. In any case the song was expressly dedicated not to the Fab Four, but to Nick Drake, which might seem a little odd, since Drake was brought up in a little town near Birmingham, nestled squarely within England’s midlands, but it wasn’t meant to be about Nick; it was just that when they were writing it, something in the emerging melody of the verse reminded them of him, perhaps because at the time, Laird-Clowes was actually strumming on a guitar Drake had once owned (so he claims, anyway). The inspiration arose from the impressions garnered by Laird-Clowes while he was working on a music TV show called The Tube, then being produced in (the indeed very northern) Newcastle:

The lyric emerged because I was an early presenter on The Tube and Geoff Wonfor, who went on to shoot The Beatles Anthology series, showed me the long lines of people unemployed and the shipyards that were closed down. That’s what ‘Life in Northern Town’ is really all about.

The mood certainly seems suited to a rather rain-drenched, nostalgic melancholy, as experienced by listless, jobless folk who remember better days, an impression enhanced by the video, with its damp and dreary exterior shots. The Beatles reference seems intended to hark back to a bygone era when the air seemed full of energy and promise, and the country emerged for a little while from its post-war torpor, only to settle right back into the gloom as the years sped by, at least up Newcastle way.

Curiously, given the arrangement’s emphasis on booming timpani, their label was reluctant to release Life in a Northern Town until more drums were layered into the mix. The group stood its ground, and listening today, it’s hard to imagine what it was the record executives wanted, exactly, or what the song would have sounded like if they’d gotten it. Maybe they wanted it to seem more danceable, like the club-friendly tracks then being produced by so many of their Eighties contemporaries, which often featured the distinctive sound of electronic drums (remember those flat hexagonal plates that the big-haired drummers used to club)? It won’t sell if you can’t dance to it, right?

Record company guys in their suits, and their artistic opinions. I ask you.

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