Listen to this track by top-charting London folk-pop purveyors The Dream Academy. It’s “Life In A Northern Town”, a top ten hit in the US and top twenty in the UK that scored placement on the international pop charts. It’s taken from their 1985 album The Dream Academy, co-produced by singer and guitarist Nick Laird-Clowes and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.
The band released three albums. But this song is the one by which they are most widely known, with a gauzy and nostalgic atmosphere that is supported by an undeniable wordless vocal hook that makes it instantly recognizable. They were noted at the time through that song of bucking the pop music system somewhat in terms of arrangements, eschewing the standard synth and drum machine approach popular during the time, and relying on acoustic guitars, tympanies, and Cor Anglais instead. That’s a far cry from the DX7.
Another notable thing about this song was how contrary it seemed to the times in terms of its themes, providing a narrative that stretched wistfully into an idealized past during a period when the world was embroiled in some very present problems.
“Life In A Northern Town” feels, even today, like a throwback to a sixties-era Britain, with the appropriate references to The Beatles and to John F. Kennedy woven into the lines. And of course there’s those warm, acoustic arrangements mentioned earlier, delving into folk and chamber pop textures that were popular in that earlier era as well. This song seemed to be determined to capture that sound which had gone well out of style by 1985. It certainly does just that, sounding like nothing else on the radio at the time while it was at it. Maybe that was the secret to its success.
The authenticity of the sound may at least partially be down to Laird-Clowes early initiation into the counterculture while still a teen. Among other things, he spent some time staying with John and Yoko in the early seventies at their home in Tittenhurst Park, just before they relocated to New York. They were impressed by his fervor at a local protest, and he was invited into their inner circle for a time. During his early foray as a songwriter (encouraged to be one by singer Maggie Bell of Stone The Crows) and band member with a pre-charting group, he was produced by none other than Marc Bolan. Later, he studied songwriting with Paul Simon. That’s quite a list of qualifications and connections to have built up before he even scored a hit himself with The Dream Academy.
Besides all that, I think the main reason this retro-sound worked so well with this particular song is that it captures a mythical quality of a time in England that probably never existed, but that many people longed for; an idealized era where things were simple and unassuming. During the mid-eighties in northern towns all over Britain, with the closure of mines and other centres of resource-based employment and dwindling manufacturing jobs, there wasn’t much to idealize in the present. The pop charts were on fire with political resistance to regressive policies of the government courtesy of red wedges and social protest from songwriters gathering at events. This song could be viewed as an emollient to all that, looking back at a time in the past rather than being concerned with a troubled present.
“Life In A Northern Town” connects into another important narrative when it came to present times, though; idealism and imagining a world not as it was necessarily, but as it should be. On our side of the Atlantic, a similar longing for simpler times of community and relative safety while we were in the middle of a cold war was pretty welcome, too. This song is actually pretty political in it’s own right in this regard. It frames a vision for a possible future as hopeful and optimistic as the time of JFK and the Beatles. During a time when confidence was being lost in governments and in political and economic systems, and as the dark clouds of a possible World War III threatened a hard rain, it was important for us all to remember that the world could be peaceful if we really wanted it to be, with kids drinking lemonade while the Salvation Army played. That was a vision worth fighting for on both sides of the Atlantic. In an unassuming sort of way, that’s what this song was meant to be; no less than an old-fashioned, retro-style call to peace and love.
The Dream Academy put out their last album in 1990, after which all three members departed to take up solo careers and session work.
You can learn more about them by reading this interview with Nick Laird-Clowes from Rhino.com.