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Gavin Butt is Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University in Newcastle, UK. Since he graduated with a PhD in queer art history, Gavin has worked “as a writer and academic focused on the visual arts and their varied forms of connectedness with popular music, queer culture and performance.” His latest book is No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk, published this year by Duke University Press.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
I was taught as a fine artist and art historian at Goldsmiths in London in the late eighties, studying alongside members of the YBA generation. I then went on to study the social history of art at Leeds University and graduated with a PhD in queer art history from there in 1998. Since then I’ve been working as a writer and academic focused on the visual arts and their varied forms of connectedness with popular music, queer culture and performance. I’ve published a book on gossip and queer art, have made a documentary film about artist’s DIY use of moving image technology, have co-directed a project about contemporary performance and live art, and more recently have begun to explore the role of art school education in the history of popular music (check out my co-edited book Post-Punk Then and Now). I have held positions at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, London, Goldsmiths, University of London and University of Sussex. I am currently Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University in Newcastle, UK.
Can you please briefly describe the book?
No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment went Punk is published this year by Duke University Press. The book tells the story of the post-punk scene in 1970s and 1980s Leeds and shows how England’s then state-funded education policy brought together art students from different social classes to create a fertile ground for musical experimentation.
Drawing on extensive interviews with band members, their associates, and teachers, I explore how groups including Gang of Four, Mekons, Delta 5, Scritti Politti, Soft Cell and Fad Gadget were influenced by the outlooks of the art students amongst their membership. It tells the story of radical and avant-garde forms of art school pedagogy in Leeds at this time, and how band members sought to variously challenge and surpass these teachings by looking to the example of punk rock. The book chronicles the artists who swapped paint brushes for guitars and synthesizers and, in the process, became post-punk and pop music pioneers, taking avant-garde ideas to popular culture, sometimes even to Top of the Pops and American Bandstand. The book shows how they sought to dismantle art world and music industry hierarchies by making it possible to dance to their art.
How did you come to this subject for a book? What made the topic so interesting to you?
Around a decade ago I began reflecting on the higher education system which I had gone through as a young person in the 1980s. This was just as the Tories, aided by the lickspittle Lib Dems, were trashing what was left of it. In 2010 the ConDem government voted in a policy to triple university fees in England and Wales. The state-funded system that I had experienced—with no fees to pay and maintenance grants to be had—was finally being laid to rest. The Tories were undoing the legacy of a now long-gone period of social democratic governmental consensus in the UK. The new model replacing it was thoroughly neoliberal and has led to the horrors of what I call the evil “M”-pire of contemporary university life: marketisation, metricisation and managerialism.
I became acutely aware that, had I been born, say 30 years later (I was born in 1967), my life could have turned out very differently indeed. Coming from a working-class family, and one not untypically averse to racking up debt of any kind, I may indeed have been persuaded against going on to higher education, given the new costs attached to it, and, even if I did go, I would very likely be dissuaded from doing “art” for fear of not being able to get a job afterwards and pay off my debts. Going to art school when I did—in the 1980s—meant that I never had such worries.
This led me to thinking about what had been lost—artistically and culturally—along with this historic form of UK educational provision. Which was another way, more positively, of thinking about what it once enabled. I remember that one of the reasons I wanted to go to study Fine Art in the mid-eighties was because I was a fan of post-punk band the Three Johns—and I knew that two of the Johns were students of art at the University of Leeds. I got to thinking about how the Three Johns, alongside other bands from that era, might have been impacted by this education system and by the radical pedagogies in visual art made possible within it. Was the ready availability of higher education to working-class students part of the conditions of possibility for the forms of post-punk musical experimentation emanating from British art colleges? All this made me want to look more deeply into the place of art education in the development of popular music in the UK …
What did the research process look like?
If you ask me what it “looked” like, perhaps most immediately it makes me think of the huge timeline I created on the wall of my office. Lots of different coloured felt pens signalling different types of events and connections. I needed to create a sense of what kinds of things were going on simultaneously and also successively e.g. what was happening in the art studios in the immediate run up to, and in the wake of, the Anarchy in the UK tour arriving at Leeds Polytechnic in December 1976—a pivotal event for many who ended up in bands.
Researching this book also took me on a path of discovery unlike other books and projects before it—necessarily so. Previously I’d focused on specific works (of art) and had done archival research in order to inform my readings of these things. But in writing about art school experience—and of students in Leeds (as opposed to e.g. London)—there was little material already written to go off. So I had to turn towards oral history as my primary research method. I interviewed well over 80 people, including a lot of former students in these bands, in order to build up a granular account of the conditions of possibility at the time, and to recreate an understanding of why people did what they did. It was interesting to pick up on the sometimes clashing viewpoints that clued me in to what was once a fairly febrile and testy culture of dissent, disaffection and excitement which swirled around the making of art school pop at this time.
How did you go about writing the actual book?
It was actually quite difficult at first because I was reaching for a form that I wasn’t quite sure would work. I had to find a way to foreground the stories of my interviewees whilst also retaining my authorial narrative. I had to find a balance between the two and it took me several false starts to get to the right place. I began, in some senses, at the point where it all began for the subjects of my book. I wrote first about some failed or unsuccessful student attempts at making avant-garde art—at a point in time when avant-gardism was perceived to be reaching a dead end. Some of these students went on to be in bands including Gang of Four, Mekons and Cast Iron Fairies. Then, next, I wrote about the Anarchy in the UK gig and how being at that was a crucial step on the road to being in bands themselves for many, if not all, of the people I write about. Once I had these beginnings it was then easier to plot out the unfolding stories of the bands involved and to see where and why the book was going to end where it does—in 1981.
What was the easiest thing about the whole project?
I’m not sure much of it was that easy. Perhaps, if anything, it was conducting the actual interviews with people. Helping people recount their oral histories was a joy, stumbling over references to startlingly fresh and sometimes hitherto completely overlooked people, places and events which/who would only then become important within my story.
What was the hardest thing about the whole project?
Apart from achieving the right approach for the book as a whole, I would say it was finding a way to draw out connections between the social and educational contexts of Leeds in the 70s and 80s and the analysis of musical form. I am not a musicologist by training and so I quickly came up against the limitations of my knowledge of specialist musical terminology (my music education pretty much began and ended as a drummer in a teenage garage band!). My friend, and popular music studies academic at the University of Sussex, Mimi Haddon, helped me enormously in ensuring that I didn’t fall flat on my face in writing these passages.
What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of the topic?
I would say read Simon Frith and Peter Horne’s 1987 book Art into Pop, which in some respects is still unsurpassed in setting out the broader context of the influence of art schools on the British music scene. It certainly was a key text for me in enabling me to write No Machos. Then listen to almost anything by early Gang of Four, Soft Cell, Scritti Politti, Fad Gadget, and Delta 5. In particular early demos and very first releases. That would be as good a way in as any.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
Beyond Mimi Haddon’s guidance with musical analysis, I would say I have had two key mentors—and neither of them know it! Both, weirdly enough, are called Tim. Firstly, I am a big fan of Tim Lawrence’s books on US experimental music and dance culture. I absolutely love his book on Arthur Russell. I tried to borrow something of Tim’s narrative approach to his subjects. I really enjoy the granularity of his story-telling, capturing the complexity of the social worlds in which music is produced and in which it becomes sensible, meaningful. I think his work is exemplary in the ways in which he seamlessly incorporates citations from interviewees and sources in the unfolding textures and details of his story.
The other “mentor” is an art historian: a social historian of art to be precise: T.J. Clark. I interviewed Tim for my book as he was an important and influential teacher of members of Gang of Four, Delta 5, Three Johns, and Mekons when he was head of the Department of Fine Art at Leeds University in the late seventies. But he has also been important to me as a former student of the social history of art myself (which I studied at Leeds in the 1990s).
In many ways I thought of No Machos as carrying out an extended Clark-style analysis—like, for example, that discussed in his 1974 article “The Conditions of Artistic Creation”—but one focused on art school pop music as opposed to painting. I have always carried with me a sense of Tim’s writing as showing us how to bring the complexity of material conditions (social, economic) to bear upon an account of what is possible at any one time in art. Importantly, however, in No Machos the politics of gender, sexuality and race are foregrounded in all their intersected-ness with issues of social class which is less a feature of Clark’s classic writing on nineteenth century French painting with which I am most familiar.
What’s one tip that you’d give someone looking to write a music book right now?
I would say find an angle that is surprising and hitherto largely overlooked. The last thing anyone should do right now is write a potboiler—especially at a time of paper shortages!
What’s next for you?
I’m currently putting finishing touches to a compilation album of unreleased tracks and rarities of Leeds post-punk art school music which will complement No Machos the book. Expect it to be released late 2022 or early 2023. I am also beginning research on a new book which, in some ways, is a companion piece to No Machos. Focused also on the 1970s I am turning to New York, though, instead of Leeds. The book will focus on the queer New York underground and will track the fate of queer performers as they try to make it in the 1970s rock industry. I have already begun to draw an expansive timeline on my wall ….
Anything you want to plug?
Yes, I have a new personal website which I hope will be online by September and, some time thereafter, I hope to launch a new podcast series “Art into Pop”. It would be great if people could look me up and take a listen!
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