Lift the Lid: 23 Voices was a 10-week podcasting and journalism course co-hosted by LEEDS 2023 and Creative Lives, providing participants with the skills and confidence to create their own media about the culture that matters to them. In this article, Joseph Chilton shares his research and reflections on Leeds' rich musical history.

I feel like Leeds has always been an artistic city - what many who live here don’t know is that the first recorded film was made in Leeds. The first steam train was made in Leeds. Leeds’ West Indian carnival is among the longest running Caribbean carnivals in the world and is most certainly the oldest one in Europe. If you are living in Leeds, attending carnival is essential- I have never been to such a hectic, but so deeply special event before. The stalls from people’s gardens, serving food, drink, and even “Ganja wine”, demonstrate this city’s incredible sense of community. There is such an incredible hardship, but the most brilliant sense of humour throughout this place, and I couldn’t be prouder to be from such a great city.

So, why do I talk about these details? I want to explain just how exciting this place is. Leeds has become a student city, full of young people from all over the country and even the world. Too many people live here for a few years, and only experience the night life, the bars, and the nightclubs. But Leeds isn’t that sort of city deep down, it’s a place with deep artistic vision; in this essay I want to show and highlight some of the incredible musicians who are from Leeds. Why musicians? Because I am a musician, and part of the reason why I pursue it myself is the incredible inspiration I can get from many of the people I will discuss here. Just like me, they started here, and ended up in the stratosphere.

When you think of musicians from Leeds who do you think of? I think of Corrinne Bailey Rae. Her voice is like that of an angel, there is something so whimsical about it that I can’t quite put my finger on. There was a comment that I read which I loved about her from her NPR tiny desk (well worth watching), where someone described her as the "human equivalent of sunshine". It's true. There's something so infections about her smile, she radiates joy and hope- something which I think she provides to many people. She grew up in the Hyde Park area of Leeds, the truest one could come to inner city life in Leeds. She rose to the very top of her craft, winning Grammys and being nominated for the mercury prize. A triumphant artist. Of course, I love her hits, whether it be 'Like a Star' or 'Put Your Records On', these songs have cemented her in pop culture forever. Despite this, if you are convinced to listen to one song of hers, please listen to her cover of Joni Mitchell’s 'River'- the greatest Christmas song ever (if you know you know) that she did with the irreplaceable Herbie Hancock. I think this is my favourite vocal of hers, she is so delicate and so strong in her delivery. She does wonderful justice to Joni’s masterpiece. I think Corrinne encapsulates the spirit of this city; she’s unwaveringly talented and artistic and, despite her fame, she still lives in Leeds to this day. 

Another of the legendary Leeds natives I want to mention is the amazing George Evelyn, known to his fans as 'Nightmares on Wax'. He blends genres such as trip hop, jazz, techno, dub and soul to create a distinctly unique and fascinating sound. When people think of British music, all too often do they cite the white-washed punk and rock scenes from the 60s and 70s. I love this music don’t get me wrong, but Nightmares on Wax represents the underground. The DJs, the samplers and the amazing British innovation that came in the 80s and 90s. Trip Hop is of course from Bristol, whether it be groups like Portishead or Massive attack, but George Evelyn was equally important in this musical movement. This guy was doing things in the early 90s that even these pioneering trip hop groups had not even reached yet. In his 1991 album 'A Word of Science', George was making legitimate trip hop, just months after Massive Attack’s 'Blue Lines' and years before Portishead’s 'Dummy'. One of my favourite aspects of his music was not only how ahead of its time it was, but equally how quintessentially British it is. Like I mentioned earlier I’m not talking about what most would think of as British music - I'm talking about those dirty drums, and that Synth String sound. To me, that sound is what British underground music from the late 20th century is all about. As someone from Leeds, but more broadly someone from a city in the UK, that sound feels like home to me. It couldn’t come from anywhere else. If you want some great listening, make sure you check out the previously mentioned 'A Word of Science' as well as the album 'Carboot Soul', (featuring 'Les Nuits', a song that perfectly encapsulates that synth string sound).

As well as natives of this great city, I also want to highlight some of the musical wonders that, while they weren’t born here, started their musical journey here. Everyone knows the smash hit 'Tainted Love' by Soft Cell. Featuring one of the most iconic synth lines of all time, this song is an amazing pop tune and a timeless moment in British music. What many don’t know is that this duo met at Leeds Beckett University. Like so many others, this city brought these artists together and sent them on the path to superstardom. Similarly, the brilliant Gang of Four formed in Leeds, and went on to be one of the most important and influential post-punk bands ever. Rolling Stone ranked their incomparable debut 'Entertainment!' as the fifth best punk album of all time, and they have been cited as influences by R.E.M and Flea of the Red-Hot Chilli Peppers. Kurt Cobain even said that Nirvana began as a "Gang of Four rip-off". As put by The Independent, "Bands occasionally get described as ahead of their time, and usually this is mere hack hyperbole. In GO4’s case, it's a stone-cold, empirical fact."

Leeds isn’t just a birthplace of amazing music, but also incredible musical moments, mainly in debt to the infamous Leeds/Reading festival. Whether it be Kendrick Lamar’s first show in Leeds, where the rapper said that the fans were the loudest he had heard all tour, or the iconic 2005 performance by the Arctic Monkeys, Leeds fest has brought some unforgettable moments for live music in this country. One of my personal favourite moments in live music in Leeds is when The Who recorded their astounding 'Live at Leeds' show in 1970. If you like rock music and haven’t heard this do yourself a favour and play it on your speakers as loud as they will go. I could go on about this album all day, it’s so so so good. Perhaps the greatest live recorded rock album ever made. The guitars sound so good for a live recording of this time, and Keith Moon’s drumming is in another universe on this thing- it's just that good. It was recorded at the Leeds University Refectory, and soon after 'Live at Leeds' release it made the venue a stomping ground for other equally legendary British rock bands like Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones. This album is an absolute triumph of live recording, and the fact it was recorded just down the road from the hospital where I was born is the closest to an ‘I was born in the wrong generation’ moment that I could possibly have.

I could go on about this music originating from my home for hours. I hope that if you take anything away from reading my article, it's to go and listen to some fantastic music; if you’re from Leeds I hope you can get some new pride for the place that you’re from, and know that this city isn’t just cotton mills and farmland, but is a truly important place in so many musical and artistic movements. And if you aren’t from Leeds, I hope that this has given you an insight into this city as a creative hub of this country, and that we can hold a candle to Manchester, London and Bristol any day of the week. My biggest joy in life is giving people music to listen to, and if only one person finds something they like from this article, then I couldn’t be happier. So go and listen, I’m sure you’ll find something you like.

My name is Joe and I’m a young musician from Leeds. I got involved with LEEDS 2023 because of my passion for writing and learning new skills. I’ve enjoyed being involved in this project and have cherished the experience immensely, and I hope you can enjoy my work and maybe learn something interesting. Thanks for taking the time to read. Joseph Chilton, Lift the Lid participant