A black and white photograph of Mekons, a group of young white people in 1979 justling with each other, drinking and smoking

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Amrit Randhawa & Marcus Barnett on subcultures across the North from the 1970s to now

Mekons Jan 1979 ©Jill Furmanovsky

We are launching our new subscriber-only newsletter with a double bill of companion pieces from Manchester-based designer Amrit Randhawa on Request Line at Manchester Museum’s South Asia Gallery, and Tribune Associate Editor Marcus Barnett on No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk by Dr. Gavin Butt, read on for a taster of what to expect…

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It is likely that you will have heard tracks released by Oriental Star Agencies (OSA), particularly the songs of Malkit Singh, who appears on the ‘Bend It Like Beckham soundtrack’. The label offered a genuine range of diversity; from old Bollywood tracks, to a 1980s synthpop/new wave/disco album recorded by Pakistani siblings (aged 14, and 19) during their summer holidays whilst living in Birmingham. Mr Ayyub took creative risks, nurtured talent and helped establish the genre of Bhangra. As such this important exhibition offered a necessary glimpse into an incredibly significant half- a century of British-Asian culture. There is a joke in Manchester, that every man and his dog was at the Sex Pistols gig at the Free Trade Hall back in 1976, and it’s a gig that has come to signify the start of the punk rock movement in Britain. Those who were actually there went on to form bands such as Joy Division, The Smiths, Buzzcocks, and The Fall. In turn, as a Manchester-native I feel privileged that not only has Faisal Hussain undertaken this incredible project, reviving sounds which could have so easily been lost, displaced, and forgotten, but that it can take place within the South Asia Gallery at Manchester Museum. This new space has so far hosted SEEN magazine, a Manchester based publication, focused on the archiving of untold global majority stories, as well as commissioning Alina Akbar with her piece Pardesi Raga (2023), in which a narrative of heritage and community pride was told through generational sounds, performances, sports, and Kabana in Cheetham Hill. It is clear that in its first six months the space has welcomed the young British-South Asians of Manchester with a new paradigm…

Photograph of Request Line installation at Manchester Museum South Asia Gallery, Faisal Hussain sits on a chair in the centre of the space surrounded by projected images of record sleeves.
Request Line installation at the Manchester Museum South Asia Gallery, photograph by Jody Hartley

As the 1970s creaked to a close, Leeds was as pinched as any other Northern city. The former textile and engineering heartland was far from immune to the disorder generated during British social democracy’s death throes; post-war housing estates crumbled due to chronic underfunding, decent work became difficult to find, and West Yorkshire’s streets played host to mass football hooliganism and a resurgent fascist movement, with violence from both above and below. But nor was Leeds immune to the cultural responses, and resistance to these morbid symptoms. While musical mythology was built on the Sex Pistols’ June 1976 gig in Manchester – the show that launched a thousand bands from Joy Division to Simply Red – nowhere near as much is made of the band’s appearance across the Pennines in December that year. As one of the few dates of the tour that survived in spite of other cancellations by nervous authorities, the performance at the Leeds Polytechnic students’ union bar left an indelible impression on a generation of frustrated art students, desperate for social and aesthetic rupture. This moment, and the new possibilities identified by and generated from it, have been captured in Gavin Butt’s No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment went Punk. Written with both scholarly precision and an evident fan’s enthusiasm, the book is a serious history of popular modernism in West Yorkshire, as well as a social sketch of artists and young people reacting to a collapsing society with a rarely matched intellectual, aesthetic and social application…

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Published 26.10.2023 by Lauren Velvick in Features

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