A Musical Mystery Tour (or Around the City in Eight Ditties)
Published on Friday, 29 November 2013, 4:47pm
Let me take you on a tour of the city of Leeds. We’ll start at the railway station near City Square. It’s one of the biggest stations in the North of England with about 25 million people passing through it every year. Let’s stand for a moment by the information boards and watch the people sitting on the ranks of grey metal chairs by Boots the Chemist.
A thousand boys and girls are sitting
Friday night at the station
You and I we grasp each other’s hands
We keep our heads down
from The Queens Hotel to The Headrow
I am home, Leeds Station, I am home
That’s a quote from the song Leeds Station by the 80s group The Parachute Men. It was released as a single in 1989 and appeared on an NME compilation video in aid of the CND. It’s a gem of a song and it makes the Station sound a hell of a lot more romantic than it is in actuality.
Leaving Boots behind, we’ll step out of the glass doors at the front of the station and cross the road to the taxi rank. Ahead of us is a set of covered steps. Following them down, we come out onto Bishopgate Street. Across the road is The Scarborough Hotel and on the right a tunnel that passes beneath the railway.
As I walked out one day in the month of July
A pretty young damsel I chanced for to spy,
Singing Vilikens and Dinah so blithe and so gay
Down by the dark arches under the railway
The lyrics above are from the song Down by the Dark Arches, a popular ditty about the tunnels beneath the railway station that open out onto Granary Wharfe. Apparently in the 19th Century, the Dark Arches used to be a notorious den of iniquity, the haunt of prostitutes and ne’er do wells, and the song details the misadventures of a young man who takes up with a seller of broadside ballads. These were sheets of lyrics telling bawdy and occasionally blood-curdling songs that could be set to well-known tunes of the day. The song itself was a broadside ballad so it’s all a bit self-reflexive really.
The Dark Arches open out onto the Leeds-Liverpool canal and brings us to another old song from the 1800s.
Oh dear! Oh dear! This a curious age is, Alteration all the rage is,
Young and old in the stream are moving, All in the general cry improving,
From the Exhibition I brought news down, They’re going to make it a seaport town
Instead of factories and cheap tailors, Nothing you’ll see but ships and sailors.
Thus ’twill be, I’ll bet you a crown, When Leeds becomes a seaport town.
When Leeds Becomes A Seaport Town, talks about the changes wrought upon the city by the Industrial Revolution. In this case, the focus is on the river and the canal system which, according to the song, were going to bring untold wonders into the city – animals from foreign lands, mighty steam ships and rich produce from around the world. I suspect that the intent is mildly satirical – puncturing the hyperbole of the better future promised by those developing the city at the time. It’d be a bit like writing a song nowadays about how much better our lives all are since the Trinity Shopping Centre opened.
It’s possible to walk from Granary Wharfe, along the waterway to Leeds Bridge and then to head back up into the Town Centre, crossing over the intersection of Call Lane and Swinegate and heading up onto Lower Briggate. Running off the main street are various little snickets and alleyways – the lanes or “loins” that may or may not have led to the creation of the nickname “loiner” for the people of Leeds. These too have been immortalised in song – this time by one Steven Morrissey on The Smiths song Panic.
On the Leeds side-streets that you slip down
Provincial towns you jog ’round
Hang the DJ, Hang the DJ, Hang the DJ
Burn down the disco, Hang the blessed DJ
Because the music that they constantly play
IT SAYS NOTHING TO ME ABOUT MY LIFE
In the light of the last few years, it’s hard not to wonder which DJ he was talking about. Whichever one it was, it’s an evocative and provocative image and it raises an interesting question. Do the songs we listen to in our daily lives really have anything to say to us? Do they reflect the lives we live and the feelings that we have? Do they talk about places that we recognise and things that we actually do? And more to the point, should they have to?
If we carry on walking, up towards the Headrow, we reach New Briggate, home to the Grand Theatre, the Mint Club, The North Bar, the world’s most expensive newsagents and an endless cavalcade of Fried Chicken Emporiums. On a weekend, after dark, the street is a hive of activity.
Watching the people get lairy
It’s not very pretty I tell thee
Walking through town is quite scary
It’s not very sensible either
That’s the Kaiser Chiefs on their song I Predict a Riot. Apparently it’s about walking down New Briggate on a Saturday night. As songs go, it’s pretty catchy (if rather judgemental) but then we can be a pretty censorious lot in Leeds.
A friend of a friend he got beaten
He looked the wrong way at a policeman
Would never of happened to Smeaton
An old Leodensian
John Smeaton (the civil engineer who John Smeaton Community College is named after) may have escaped the long arm of the law but it isn’t just the rich and famous of the city whose dealings with the criminal justice system have been immortalised in song. The Ballad of Joseph Myers tells the story a double hanging outside the gates of Armley Gaol in 1864. It’s not a cheerful song but there’s a beautiful version by Leeds-based folk singer John Rennard on his album Brimbledon Fair.
I am a poor unhappy man
In Armley Gaol I lie
And for the murder of my wife
I am condemned to die
Oh Joseph Myers is my name
In Sheffield Town was born
And for the murder of my wife
I’m doomed to die in scorn
Whatever your feelings about Leeds City Centre, it’s a pretty hectic place on a Friday night and so we’ll quickly turn left onto Merrion Street and head up past The Wrens pub and the shell of the old lap-dancing club to the taxi rank. From there we’ll jump into a cab and head towards Kirkstall. As we go, spare a moment to think of those inhabitants of Leeds who have left the city far behind and gone on to what the papers call “better things”. That’s what Leeds boy Jake Thackray, the “North Country Noël Coward“, did when he wrote the following:
Now that she’s the queen, the Aphrodite of the socialite magazines,
Though her photo’s à la mode, we knew her before down the Kirkstall Road.
Those jewelled arms and neck that taste of Chanel … well …
When they were none so white, all Kirkstall knew them well.
On arriving in Kirkstall, we’ll step off the road and head towards the Abbey. It’s been here since the 12th Century and the ruins are a sight to see in the moonlight. As we stand by the river, listening the water roaring through the darkness, spare a thought for those who have wondered the grounds of the Abbey before. Mary, the Maid of the Inn is another broadside ballad, this time based on a poem by Robert Southey, a former Poet Laureate. It tells the story of Mary, a young woman who worked at a local inn. On wandering the ruins of the Abbey one night, she spied her lover, Richard burying a corpse in the grounds and, having reported him to the local magistrates, went mad when her testimony led to his execution.
Where the old abbey stands on a common hard by,
His gibbet is now to be seen;
Not far from the inn it engages the eye,
The trav’ller beholds it, and thinks, with a sigh,
Of poor Mary, the maid of the inn.
Southey reputedly heard the story whilst staying in Leeds in the late 1700s and it’s said that on cold and moonlit nights, the ghost of poor mad Mary still stalks the aisles and cloisters of the Abbey. So I guess we’ll have to keep to keep our eyes peeled.
We’ll draw our journey to a close here in the grounds of the ruined Abbey. It’s one of the oldest buildings in the city and it seems like a suitable place to end our musical mystery tour. The songs above are by no means the only ones that reference the city of Leeds but I think they’re fairly representative of the way in which the city has been portrayed in song.
It has to be said that some of them are quite obscure though, and I think perhaps there ought to be more songs about Leeds – ones that really do, as Morrissey would have it, say something about the lives of the people who live here.