Book: Sounds Northern
Chapter: 6. Hard Floors, Harsh Sounds and the Northern Anti-Festival: Futurama 1979-1983
In 1979 the Leeds based music promoter John Keenan announced Futurama: The World’s First Science Fiction Music Festival. This event would take place in Keenan’s home city, at the disintegrating Leeds Queens Hall. The venue switched to general entertainment in 1961, following a minimal makeover from its original purpose as a transport depot. It retained a cold and unwelcoming atmosphere, etching its character of bleakness into local folklore. Queens Hall witnessed Christmas indoor fun fairs in the 1960s, northern soul all-nighters in the 1970s, and large gigs in the 1980s.
As a musical statement Futurama gathered the post-punk micro-scenes that were congealing in many cities in the north and beyond. These scenes built upon a vaguely coherent common strand of moving beyond punk, by adding a sense of industrial angst and futuristic ambiguity. It was a festival without an equal at the time, as large festivals emerging from the hippie and rock scenes, documented in McKay (2015) and Clarke (1982), had settled with events like Glastonbury and Reading and catered for audiences within those scenes. In turn, Futurama eschewed a vision of hope and celebration, settling for anxiety and claustrophobia, the brittle and spittle of deviant punk in grim cities. Futurama would take place over a weekend in September, with punters allowed to simply sleep on the dirty, concrete floor between each day. There was no invitation or opportunity to get in touch with nature, with spirits, with yourself…
The event was repeated in 1980 at the same venue, and then taken out to a couple of significantly odd venues for 1981 (Stafford Bingley Hall) and 1982 (Deeside Leisure Centre). A final Futurama 5 saw the festival return to Leeds Queens Hall in 1983.
This chapter will provide the first academic documentation of the five Futurama festivals (and a small number of spin-off events) through a multiple set of interpretations. Firstly I consider the festival lineage in the age of post-war subcultures and punk’s resistance to such celebratory gatherings. Secondly, by drawing on Reynolds (2006) and Crossley (2015), I document the post-punk vernacular as a regional phenomenon. Thirdly, I turn attention to the north and the post-punk scenes, considering Leeds as a lacuna of identity compared to Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool. This is unpacked against the violent, intimidating and terrorising nature of the fabric of life around Leeds at the time: a city crippled by the serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, a violent football culture and a community divided by racial antagonism, fear and hatred. In addition, the theme of sci-fi (an initial branding for the Futurama festival) is addressed, and finally the representation of the north in popular culture is considered in regard to Futurama, with particular attention to the work of author David Peace (see Shaw 2011).
Drawing on recorded testimony of the Futurama events I propose an inversion of the open space and fresh air ideology of festivals and a celebration of architectural other-directedness (Sandvoss 2005) offered by the cold and dark spaces of the Queens Hall. From this sense of resistance to a dark life outside, to a new sense of absurdly embracing a dark life inside, the goth subcultural identity is established in Leeds and West Yorkshire. This situates the region as kind of ironic morass, allaying any optimism of a misconstrued hyperboreanism.