Skip to Content

‘I wrote it in a bedsit on Nick Drake’s guitar’: how Dream Academy made Life in a Northern Town

Nick Laird-Clowes, singer, songwriter

I was a part-time presenter on the first series of The Tube, with Jools Holland and Paula Yates. That was filmed in Newcastle, but they didn’t keep me on, so I went back down to London. It was so depressing. I’d been in a band called the Act with Gilbert Gabriel, our keyboards player – one day we sat strumming guitars in his bedsit and decided to come up with “a big, African-style chant chorus”.

My guitar was the one Nick Drake is holding on , which I’d bought for £100 and still had his tuning. When I got home, I started strumming again. I felt like I was in his harmonic space and just went “A hey ah ma ma ma … ” I was so depressed about what had happened in Newcastle I started writing about the empty shipyards I’d seen there. Lines like “In winter 1963 / It felt like the world would freeze / With John F Kennedy and the Beatles” came out as a stream of consciousness. As a child I remember when everything froze and we had to go halfway down the street to a water pipe before school. I think the Beatles and JFK represented optimism.

When I was in the Act I’d met Paul Simon in New York, and when he was in London he came to see me. I played the song to him and he said: “No one’s gonna know how to ask for A Hey Ah Ma Ma Ma in a record store.” I looked in my notebook, saw “life in a northern town”, and he said: “That’s a great title.” I went back in the studio and sang it over the mix. When we recorded it, I told the producer it sounded “like the fucking New Seekers” and he walked out. Then I produced it just like he had.

Obviously he’d been completely right. I played the rough mix on a cassette in the car to Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, whose brother had been in the Act. He suggested various things and suddenly we were back in the studio again, with David as a third producer. That’s when I threw in the “make it easy on yourself” line, a tribute to the Walker Brothers.

Every label turned us down, then Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis took the tapes to the US and got us a deal with Warner. After Kid Jensen started playing it on Radio 1, it went straight into the charts. People say Life in a Northern Town is about Nick Drake. It wasn’t, but I dedicated it to him, and I still have that guitar.

Kate St John, cor anglais, backing vocals

I was classically trained on oboe but loved pop music and didn’t want to go the orchestral route. After I finished my music degree I was working as a TV researcher when my friend asked me to join the Ravishing Beauties. Suddenly we were supporting the Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen and the Wild Swans, playing to 2,000 young men every night. TV researching or the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra never stood a chance!

Unfortunately, the Ravishing Beauties split up, but I met Nick at a party at the Royal Institute of British Architects, of all places. He and Gilbert were looking for people who played unusual instruments. They didn’t have a bass player or drummer – just a drum machine – which left space in the sound for my cor anglais. I sang backing vocals with my flatmate June Lawrence, and getting Benedict Hoffnung in on timpani really fermented our sound as a pop-classical mix. This wasn’t fashionable in the 80s, but the song captured people’s imaginations.

One video director had this terrible idea of me and Nick as a working-class couple, with Nick as a pigeon fancier. I mean, Nick’s quite posh and is from Hampstead. It was absurd. When we made the , there was a Siberian gale and Gilbert and I had to dance and punch the sky. They’d put lipstick on this poor child for some reason and at the end he went: “I’m going to wipe this muck off my face and go home to my mum!”

I’m so glad we shot the it’s great. When we did they gave the audience daffodils to wave. I am so happy that John Peel was the presenter and not Jimmy Savile. The song . When the Byrds’ covered it, he changed the line “he took a cigarette out” to “he put his sunglasses on”, which was more “life in Los Angeles” than life in a northern town.