Leeds has birthed and moulded countless music acts over the years, from Soft Cell and Scritti Politti to Kaiser Chiefs and Alt J – and everyone remembers the scariest of the Spice Girls, Mel B.
As a Leeds lad born and bred, Thomas Leaning picks apart the booming music scene within the heart of Yorkshire and gives you an extensive guide to the ins and outs of the music culture in the third largest city in the UK.
Places to discover new music
Leeds prides itself on giving talented, unknown musicians the chance to get themselves heard by the masses, and instead of selling your soul to Simon Cowell there are a few quirky venues where you can hear up and coming musicians just itching to hit the big time.
The Cockpit is renowned for showcasing artists of all different genres, from hip-hop to metal to dubstep and beyond, for a relatively cheap price. I recall seeing several bands that I still love to this day, just by chance at ‘the Pit.’ Housed underneath the city centre’s railway bridge, this dark and endearing venue draws in crowds almost every night, and it usually presents artists when they are comparatively unknown. They played host to Ed Sheeran just before he hit the big time, when the price was only £6 – now it will set you back around £35 to see the ginger-topped acoustic star.
The Faversham – ahhhh The Faversham. Anyone born and bred in Leeds knows this wondrously sacred bar. Hidden behind Leeds University, during the day time it’s a luxurious hidden gem, with plush leather seating for any weary traveller. Its renovation turned it into a very swanky club, and a favourite with students across Yorkshire. Serving everything from your classic Yorkshire puddings and gravy to mouth-watering ale, The Faversham is not just a diamond in the rough but one of the leading music venues in Leeds. Every Saturday it houses an event for new musicians named Bad Sneakers and it has a grand reputation of supporting new indie, electro and folk acts. With a maximum capacity of 700, this intimate venue has exposed such musical wonders as the Arctic Monkeys, Paolo Nutini and Lily Allen, to name a few.
[On the hunt for vinyl rarities in Jumbo Records – picture: Phil Mellor / Flickr / CC]
Where would we be without the underrated record shop? Before the times of iTunes and Spotify, these establishments were the only way to obtain anything music related that didn’t involve taping the top 40 yourself every Sunday evening between Blankety Blank and Heartbeat on your mum’s radio. But some of them have weathered the digital storm…
Situated on the never-ending Eastgate road in the city centre, Crash Records seems to have always been the place to be for the latest CD or ticket release. Stepping inside feels like stepping into a physical embodiment of music. With band t-shirts lining the walls and a plethora of vinyl and CDs to rival Chris Moyles in his heyday (another Leeds native) you just feel the passion for music in this place. Open seven days a week, you sometimes find yourself being enticed inside just by seeing the band posters in the window or the eye-catching list of gigs, seductively whispering ‘come on in, you know you want to.’ I recall sprinting to Crash at 9am before college hoping and praying they had the latest gig tickets on sale, or seeing fellow music lovers camped outside waiting in line for Leeds Festival tickets year in, year out. Crash even play their own part in the independent record label Slam Dunk Records, who released pop-punk giants You Me At Six’s first album.
In the age where hard copy is dwindling by the second, Crash’s main rival Jumbo Records stands tall inside one of Leeds’ several shopping malls, the St John’s Centre. In a more modern environment, Jumbo prides itself on being slightly larger in scale than Crash. With an opportunity to purchase hundreds upon hundreds of musical wonders including vinyl, CDs, magazines, mugs, t-shirts, gig tickets and posters, Jumbo has been a beacon for anyone who finds solace in music and what it has to offer. In the past, they have had renowned signings and acoustic sets by bands such like Enter Shikari , who drew in so many people they almost had to shut the top floor of the shopping centre. As a more contemporary establishment, Jumbo sits side by side with Crash as a focal point of the Leeds music scene.
Places to see touring bands
[The impressive interior of the First Direct Arena – picture: Carl Milner / Flickr / CC]
With the opportunity of accessing music at the click of the button, what truly establishes an artist as talented and not just a heavily marketed ‘product’ is their ability to perform live. In Leeds we have several exceptional venues that help us sift the diamonds from the cubic zirconias.
As I write this, I’m thinking eagerly about my night ahead where I plan to visit the renovated Gothic beauty that is the O2 Academy. Originally known as the Colesium and opened by Prince Albert in 1885, this beautiful building now houses the crème de la crème of the music scene. Tonight for instance, I’m off to see rising trip-hop act London Grammar on this their first sold-out UK tour. Situated just off Millenium Square, this atmospheric creation has been known to showcase some of the greatest musicians in the world. David Bowie, The Stone Roses and Blur have all transfixed music lovers inside its walls. Holding 2,800 people, this venue is the second largest regular gig venue in Leeds, feeding fans of every genre for a price that won’t drain your wallet. Not only this, but it hosts some of the biggest club nights in the city, including the re-emergence of Pet Sounds on Saturdays, which plays everything from indie to Bassline, and has become a favourite for students all over this great city.
Towering over the Leeds skyline as it does, it would be impossible not to mention the impressive, recently opened First Direct Arena. For years, local music fans have begged the council to build an arena to further establish Leeds as a rival to Manchester on the touring map of the North, but without an arena we were forced to see big-budget shows go to neighbouring cities. Finally, however, Leeds has been granted the venue we’ve all been waiting for. Situated a stone’s throw from the O2 Academy, the First Direct Arena looks like a building concocted from the inner workings of an alien civilization. The outdoor lighting display that covers the circumference of the arena is truly spectacular to behold, changing colour like a £60m mood ring. The first arena of its kind in the UK that has a fan-shaped orientation, this welcome addition to the city saw Sir Elton John play its official opening concert, and with a capacity of 13,500 it rivals most arenas in the country. With the opportunity to see music, wrestling, comedy, sport and much more, it’s one of the biggest and best new venues anywhere in the UK.
Festivals and annual events
Despite the inevitably mediocre British weather, Leeds is known world wide for creating some of the biggest, loudest festivals in the entire world. Here are just a couple to wet your whistle as well as your brolly tops.
There’s no other place to start than Leeds Festival. As one half of the Leeds/Reading double act, Leeds Fest has run every Bank Holiday weekend in August since its inception in 1999 (previously staged in Reading only since 1961). Run by Festival Republic, it draws in crowds of over 75,000 and has had absolutely stellar artists play in the past such as Eminem, Prodigy, Nirvana, Jay-Z, Muse and many, many more. With some campers having the opportunity to stay in Bramham Park for up to five nights, this brilliant homage to music also has some of the best DJs in the world play all the way through until 6am. I myself have been a regular at Leeds Festival every year since 2009. Forking out £200 a ticket is something that some young Leeds residents save up for every single year. With the chance to get food from all over the world, ride roller coasters, shop for merch of all kinds and even visit the oxygen tent (when it gets to Saturday night, trust me you’ll need it) Leeds Festival really is the party of the year. With bands like Arctic Monkeys, Blink 182, the 1975 and Disclosure already on the bill, the 2014 edition is looking as lively as it’s ever been. If you’re (very) lucky enough you might even get a tan too.
Elsewhere in the calendar, Live at Leeds, a metropolitan music festival hosted by an ensemble of venues, usually takes place on the first Bank Holiday in May. Its ethos is to celebrate up and coming local talent by parading them alongside national and sometimes world famous artists. In the past eight years, Live at Leeds has put on gigs by some of the biggest artists currently selling out venues across the country, such as Mumford & Sons, Jake Bugg and London Grammar. For the unbelievably cheap price of £25, you have the opportunity to watch over 100 bands across the weekend. With the added benefit of being able to walk off that last tasty pint you necked far too quickly, you can see bands at several venues across Leeds, including The Cockpit, Brudenell Social Club and the O2 Academy. If the music gets a bit tiresome though, you can always take time out to attend guest speakings, workshops and even the five-a-side football tournament where bands face off for the coveted champions trophy. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?
Open mic nights
[Carpe Diem, a haven for music lovers, and burger fans – picture: savagecats / Flickr / CC]
If you’re a passionate performer or just have a keen eye for talent, there are several opportunities to have a crack at one of the many open mic nights Leeds has to offer.
If the hustle and bustle of life in the city centre gets to be too much for you, you can always visit Sandbar, a glowing café bar just a few minutes away from one of Leeds three universities, Leeds Trinity (no, not the gigantic new shopping centre … although that’s pretty awesome too). Hidden away in the small Horsforth community, Sandbar is like the Leeds version of the Star Wars cantina in Mos Eisley. With musical trinkets on sections of the walls in this independent watering hole, it’s plainly obvious that artistic talent is welcome here. Taking place once or twice a month, it hosts an open mic night for anyone wishing to perform any piece of work, whether it’s prose, poetry, stand-up, drama or live music. Not only this, but it’s a lovely little addition for those of you who don’t enjoy the unnecessarily vast amount of pub franchises sprouting up all over the place.
Back to the city centre, and back to the nitty gritty underbelly that Leeds has to offer. Carpe Diem is a peculiar basement pub placed just past the town hall that is like stepping into the Leaky Cauldron in Harry Potter. Its old school approach to pub décor really gives it an interesting atmosphere, and with £1.25 pints on a Tuesday night who can complain? Just like your usual tavern, it has football or sport on most evenings, with a pool room sitting just adjacent to the bar, but it’s the ‘Seize the mic on a Monday Night’ event that really speaks volumes about this place. All you’ve got to do is turn up, sign your name and you can perform there and then. Simple as that. Or, if you’re a little less confident, why not attempt their mega burger challenge which asks challengers to finish a 24oz of burger, four slices of bacon, six onion rings, cheese, salad and thick cut fries in 25 minutes or less. Wowza!
Clubs with a musical focus
Nightlife in Leeds has been likened to that of Ibiza on acid (or so a jolly drunk Geordie once had the pleasure to exclaim to me over a touching evening in McDonalds). Here are some reasons why.
When news started to spread of a place that had the largest LED Geometric Geodome in the world and a capacity of 3,100, a low rumble of anticipation spread through the youth of Leeds. If you ever get the chance to go to Control, you’ll know it was worth it. This futuristic beast isn’t even in the city centre (it’s close to the student community in Kirkstall), and it’s like stepping into the Tardis if it was built by Skynet whilst it listened to The Prodigy. Its Funktion One sound-system makes Dr Dre’s beats sound like two cans on a string. It really is a step forward into an age where technology is power. Not only does it play host to names like Mistajam, Professor Green and Pendulum, but every Saturday it houses its own night, ingeniously called ‘Control Saturdays’. It claims to be the biggest house, bass and R&B night in Leeds, and it definitely doesn’t disappoint.
In this economically challenging time, you’ve got to choose between having a good time and saving money. NOT at Space Tuesdays. 80p shots of Sambuca and Tequila still exist here. Space is open most nights, housing their own unique blend of DJ sets every single week. On a Tuesday they have the club night to end all other club nights. With two rooms open, one playing house and electro and the other blaring out hip-hop and R&B bangers, it’s got a little something for everyone (unless you’re a metal fan, unfortunately). This basement club has a uniquely vibrant and carefree aura about it … from what I can remember.
Blogs and websites
Everyone knows that the internet has now taken over the world, and is subsequently doing its best to eradicate printed media entirely. Leeds is no exception, with a large number of websites and blogs dedicated to giving us interesting and entertaining articles about everything to do with music.
Leeds Music Scene – It does exactly what it says on the tin. This comprehensive guide to everything to do with music in Leeds is a focal point for anyone who wants to know the latest info on all musical aspects of this cultured city. With extensive features, videos, news and reviews, you’ll find yourself visiting their site and discovering bands, gigs and events you never knew existed! It provides a helping hand to those in danger of missing out on any of the artists performing in Leeds throughout the year.
Leeds Student – no, it’s not one singular Pot Noodle-stained guy clutching a copy of the NME and shouting out of their dorm room window – is a frankly wonderful website (which also exists in print form). Offering not just news but reviews and musings from the worlds of cinema, fashion, art and everything in between, it’s the music section of this website that I find myself coming back to numerous times a week. Its humorous and informative articles cover events happening around Leeds as well as pieces like ’10 reasons why Justin Bieber isn’t all that bad’.
Sometimes, its the underground unestablished voices that speak the most truth. Leeds-based website Musical Mathematics is run by a group of writers, designers, musicians, free-thinkers and all round music-lovers who are dedicated to fostering a stable and persistent part of the Leeds ‘alternative’ scene by promoting up and coming talent. Originally created by friends Andy Crowder and Zarif Miah, MM now has a team of over 20 members who cover a wide range of alternative music with reviews, features, columns and news.
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Main image: The Cockpit – Braden Fletcher / Flickr / CC
Find these locations on our Leeds music map:
Got your own Leeds music tips – venues, shops, bands or clubs?