Subculture Lost & Found: Leeds

Leeds' lost past and newly found musical places

Thursday 21st February 2019

Johnny Marr performing at The Brudenell Social Club, Leeds. Photo ©Laura Dean.

Leeds has benefited in recent years from its growing status as one of the UK's key musical cities. It boasts a mix of big arena style venues alongside a good range of smaller indies. Leeds' expansion to one of the biggest conurbations in Britain was a relatively recent development for what was historically a Yorkshire market town. Finding its might in the middle of the 20th Century, the scene was set for an ecosystem of bands that included Soft Cell, Gang Of Four, Sisters Of Mercy and The Wedding Present. Through Thatcher's Britain, Leeds' industrial manufacturing landscape nurtured a uniquely dark side of the new-wave era.

Bucking the national trend Leeds seems to gain venues faster than it loses them. We look at some of the places that The Leeds' music scene has lost over the years, and with Leeds producing more bands than ever in the last few years, we look at some of the locations of today's Leeds scene.


The Duchess
Not only did Nirvana play at The Duchess in 1989 (full name The Duchess Of York), but Kurt Cobain ended up sleeping there on the sofa after the gig. Oasis had a notable early outing at the 300 capacity pub bringing queues around the block after their appearance on Channel 4's The Word a few days before. The Duchess is remembered as one of the pioneers of Leeds' underground live scene. As the indie scene picked up momentum in the early nineties it created a viable market for bigger venues and The Duchess lost out when newcomers such as Cock Of The North set up shop. Its final month included gigs by The Fall and Chumbawamba before it eventually closed in 2000.

Le Phonographique (‘The Phono’)
Some claim that this was the birthplace of 'goth' subculture in the UK, a not entirely unbelievable statement given Sisters Of Mercy's origins in the city and Leeds' industrial background. The underground club was accessed via a spiral staircase in The Merrion Centre, a 1960s shopping centre. The centre remains today, although The Phono, like the centre's branch of Woolworths, is long gone. Among its notable moments, there are stories of The Clash turning up unannounced one Saturday afternoon in 1980, playing a gig, not to mention some many DJ sets from a young Marc Almond.

The Cockpit
Opening its doors as The Cock Of The North in 1994, The Cockpit as it became renamed, lasted two decades before closing in 2014. Its existence was well timed to coincide with the rise of Britpop, the evolution of the emo scene and the indie revival of the early '00s. As if to datestamp the venue's heyday The Kaiser Chiefs had their initial introduction at The Cockpit. Eventually, the dilapidated nature of The Cockpit's building coupled with a change in customer habits resulted in the venue's closure. As great as a different flavour of indie disco for almost every night of the week sounds, it seems that people were staying at home on a school night. The clubs promoter's ejected themselves in favour of smaller premises in the Merrion Centre, naming it The Key Club, where it remains one of Leeds' best rock and alternative venues.


The Refectory
Not so much lost and found as it is never gone away, The Refectory's main purpose, as its name suggests, is a university cafeteria space. Its alter ego is a campus gig venue. In the tradition of Student Union bars of the late 20th century, there are anecdotes about not being able to see the band, the state of the toilets and flat beer. However, it is also the location where The Who recorded Live At Leeds in 1970 as the blue plaque on the wall points out.

Brudenell Social Club
One of the indie venue success stories of recent years, The Brudenell Social Club turned its fortunes around in the early 1990s when its owners branched out from traditional working men's club fodder in order to cater for the newly expanding student population. 

“We supported Purson on tour in 2016. Their final ever show was at Brudenell, all their fans came backstage to celebrate the end of the tour with us, they were all dressed up in 60s-esq outfits, the dressing room ended up looking like the album cover to Sgt Pepper, it was great”. - Joe Fisher, Crosa Rosa

Opened in 1999, The Wardrobe is a small independent arts-orientated bar with a performance space that lends itself to music and comedy. Past billings have featured the like of Amy Winehouse, George Ezra and James Acaster. The programming is rich with subcultural treats from Craig Charles' Funk and Soul and an upcoming gig form Acid Jazz pioneers Corduroy.

The Holbeck
The Holbeck is a unique venue located in what is listed as the oldest working men's club in Britain and boasts early performances by Ernie Wise among its claims to fame. In more recent times the club struggled, threatening to close, along with the local library and leisure centre, leaving the area with relatively few amenities. Luckily the club was rescued by a group of local artists and activists who formed a cooperative and relaunched the club as The Holbeck. The Holbeck Underground Ballroom (HUB) is now managed by Slung Low and acts as a hub for local artists and performers who can use the space for rehearsals, workshops and performances with audiences paying whatever they decide fair. Attendees can also help themselves to tea, coffee and soup for a donation of their choosing. If music's not your thing you can check out their community college to learn a new skill from recording podcasts or CPR to green woodworking.  

Wharf Chambers
Another workers' social club made good, Wharf Chambers is a not for profit organisation run by its members. The programming is diverse, grassroots and exciting. Above the club is Serf, and artist-led gallery space sure to inspire cross-pollination between disciplines.

Outlaws Yacht Club
Thankfully little or no sailing involved. Outlaws Yacht Club is a laid back music-orientated bar located on Leeds' pleasingly named New York Street. As well as the usual board games and mid-century furnishings, there's live music, book clubs, film nights, poetry readings and Q&As with the like of Irvine Welsh, Don Letts, Tim Burgess, Alan McGee, Greg Wilson and Horace Panter.

Belgrave Music Hall
While it didn't begin life as a working men's club The Belgrave was originally Leeds Children's Palace. Built-in 1934 to provide childcare for working parents. The Belgrave continues the theme of repurposing amenities that once served Leeds' huge factory worker population, nowadays replaced by the UK's biggest student population. Throughout its three floors and roof garden, the venue provides screenings, DJ events and more. From Don Letts to Sir David Attenborough, there's something for everyone, and that's before you even start to look at the gig schedule.

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