Acid Northumbria: dreaming up new realities in the North of England

Image from photographer Patrick Harrison's book Spike Island (published by IDEA)

In an excerpt from his new book The North Will Rise Again, Alex Niven traces a lineage from the Beatles and Factory Records, to the psychedelic thinkers enduring the political landscape of today.

In the context of the North of England, which contributed disproportionately to the pop music of the late twentieth century, the notion that an imaginative countercultural sensibility might hold the key to social liberation has been a fairly common one.

We might describe this approach as an acid Northumbrian’ one, with Northumbria viewed here in the broadest sense as the whole of northern England – and with due respect to the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher, who coined the term acid communism’ to describe the political potential in remembering the freeing countercultural adventures of the 60s and 70s (it is also important to emphasise that this psychedelic’ mode is based mainly – like Fisher’s definition of acid communism – on a premise of radical imaginative freedom. It does not – or does not necessarily – derive from the actual experience of taking specific substances.)

Of course, in trying to define acid Northumbria, we must look first of all to the Liverpudlian Beatles, and their popularisation of psychedelic experimentation from around 1965. For our purposes, the really important thing about the Lennon – McCartney acid experiment – endlessly documented in countless books, documentaries and sleeve notes over the years – is that it allowed Liverpool to rise to the surface of the Beatles’ music, where previously it had only been evident in the accents and mannerisms of the band members in public appearances.

To be sure, the first Beatles’ songs written after their initial encounters with LSD are best viewed on a purely aesthetic level, as part of their famous sonic evolution across the major albums of the mid-Sixties. This trajectory is mapped by the mild psychedelia of Nowhere Man, Day Tripper and Norwegian Wood on 1965’s Rubber Soul and its outtakes, and then by the more vigorously modernist She Said She Said and Tomorrow Never Knows on Revolver. But by late 1966, after Paul McCartney had joined his bandmates in the acid adventure, there was a clear turn inwards and backwards on those Beatles’ works which were most directly influenced by LSD. Recorded in the last weeks of 1966 but released in February 1967, the double A‑side Strawberry Fields Forever/​Penny Lane was, among other things, a historic breakthrough in northern English art – and a foundation moment of sorts for acid Northumbria. This was largely because of the manner in which its two lead tracks suggested that the backstreets of the apparently provincial North could be a repository of infinite imaginative potential.

For Factory Records, the implicit argument was that northern people should have the right to remain where they were, and yet still access the freeing energies of other psychological realms”

The idea was implicit on Lennon’s lyrically chaotic Strawberry Fields – partly in its title, which nodded at a neo-Gothic mansion near Lennon’s childhood home in Liverpool, and, more forcefully, in its musical arrangement, which arrayed a series of dazzling sonic irruptions emerging out of the trip’ down into this real and imagined Liverpudlian location. But it was made yet more explicit on McCartney’s Penny Lane, a staggeringly lucid celebration of northern civic life, which depicted the euphoric, liberating side of the acid experience in brilliant psychedelic colours. McCartney’s initial reluctance to take LSD was a response to second-hand reports that it led to a kind of permanent exile from origins; as he later commented: ‘[We’d heard that LSD] alters your life and you never think the same again. I was rather frightened by that prospect… [to] never get back home again.’ But on Penny Lane it became evident that McCartney had managed to use acid to reimagine a street from his Liverpool childhood as a literally utopic space – a place where everyone says hello to each other and youthful laughter is heard everywhere. Nonetheless, there is a sense of strangeness and transcendence on every corner (the nurse who feels she is in a play, the fireman who rushes in from the rain) to offset any sense of cosy northern parochialism.

In the wake of the Beatles’ acid Northumbrian experiment, late twentieth-century pop would repeatedly try to find creative ways of uncovering the psychedelic colours lying beneath the monochrome surfaces of the deindustrialising North. As is fairly well known, the great flowering of the Manchester pop tradition in the Long Eighties was nothing if not such an endeavour. From the spacey sonic backdrop Martin Hannett painted behind Joy Division’s austere post- punk soliloquies, to the bedroom psychedelia of the Happy Mondays and the flower-pop of the Jackson-Pollock-spattered Stone Roses, Manchester’s catholic drugs culture would recurrently provide inspiration for musical daydreaming amid cold and lonely streets.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the current bleakness of the northern political landscape, acid Northumbria remains a potent dream for those who want to transform the North without having to migrate to new worlds elsewhere. Disparate contemporary pop bands from the Unthanks (from Ryton) to the Orielles (Halifax) offer various colourful versions of northern weird folk and indie psychedelia, while Richard Skelton (Anglezarke) and Richard Dawson (Newcastle) deserve great credit for pushing past parochial stereotypes to come up with genuinely new and bizarre embodiments of the northern terrain. Skelton’s glacial ambient drones capture the singular atmosphere of the paleo-industrial West Pennine Moors, while Dawson’s solo output – and his work with the band Hen Ogledd (‘the Old North’) – combines hallucinatory discord with excavations of the medieval history of Northumbria. For Dawson, this psychedelic approach offers a way of transcending portrayals of northern subjects as humble worker bees’, in the crass, arts-funded version of northern regionalism which goes in for flat caps, exaggerated accents and sentimental reveries of industrial community.

Attempting to revise and revoke the limiting clichés of northern identity is in itself, of course, a political gesture. But there have also been attempts to channel acid Northumbria towards more overtly political ends in recent years.

The foundation of the Northern Independence Party (NIP) in 2020 was arguably the most notable development in northern regional politics since the negative result in the North-East England devolution referendum in 2004. In common with previous attempts to create a large-scale pro-North element in Westminster and local government (notably the North-East Party and the Yorkshire Party, both founded in 2014), NIP has very little chance of even moderate electoral success – largely due to Britain’s antiquated first-past-the-post system. Nonetheless, it is not implausible that NIP’s playful, acid Northumbrian approach might ultimately pave the way for a more substantial political tendency to emerge at some point in the future.

Originally a sort of bedroom joke devised by its Sedgefield- born founder Philip Proudfoot in the 2020 Covid lockdown, NIP has made a virtue of its poor electoral prospects by innovating a sort of high-camp, surrealistic political brand, which is probably best seen as a social media provocation rather than an actual independence campaign. (In this respect, it might be seen as a distant cousin of earlier situationist media experiments like Factory and ZTT’s Relax’ campaign.) Through calls to nationalise the Greggs bakery chain, imagery which juxtaposes pictures of the proverbial northern whippet with the lucid yellow-and-red hues of the ancient Northumbrian flag and Twitter posts which narrate hallucinated encounters with Sean Bean on Ilkley Moor, NIP is in a deep sense the culmination of a long-running, disruptive, psychedelic tradition in modern northern culture. This tendency acknowledges that regional inequality will probably persist for a good while yet. But looking beyond the apparently fixed strictures of the present, it is nonetheless determined to offer provoking glimpses of an alternative northern future in the meantime.

The North Will Rise Again: In Search of the Future in Northern Heartlands by Alex Niven is published by Bloomsbury. You can pre-order it here (enter the code FACE20 at the checkout for 20% discount)

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