Words by Jess Ralph
Before you ask, no relation to the Matt Groening cartoon….
North of the capital, the punk lineage of Manchester – Joy Division, The Fall, Buzzcocks- and to an extent, Sheffield – Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA- is well documented. However, Futurama Festival put Leeds on the map. Running annually from 1979-’83 (and later taking residence in Strafford and Queensferry, Wales), “The World’s First Science Fiction Music Festival” played host to some of the biggest names in post-punk, new wave, and gothic rock. Many of the acts were local talent, signalling not only a celebration of the city’s musical scene, but a spit and safety pin spewed defiance in the face of London-centric elitism.
The story of Futurama Festival begins in the late seventies with promoter John Keenan and his creation of club night “The F Club.” Keenan, around a decade older than the punk upstarts he was platforming, had already been trying to break it as a promoter for some time, his first (failed) foray being trying to book Lou Reed for a gig at the Leeds Grand Theatre.
Hot on the heels of a pre-anarchy Sex Pistols gig in ‘76 and sensing the city’s youth culture explosion, Kennan set up an embryonic F Club, then titled “The Stars of Today” as a weekly fixture in a disused common room in Leeds Polytechnic in ‘77, the summer stint seeing acts such as The Slits, Buzzcocks, the former Warhol superstar fronted Wayne Country and the Electric Chairs, and future stadium fillers XTC and The Police play.
Kicked out in September when the students returned, Kennan’s club night transferred to the faded glamour of onetime ballroom, now struggling cabaret venue The Ace of Clubs. To mark the change, the night was christened “The F Club”- “F” standing for “fuck the polytechnic.”
Ian Curtis at Futurama – Photo: Peter Bodenburg
The Ace suspiciously burned down, and The F Club moved to Roots in Chapeltown in August ’78. Bands such as Gang of Four – fiercely left wing, with dub and funk driven guitar riffs-encapsulated a new mood, one that was in opposition to Leeds’ increasingly bleak and violent landscape. The city’s once booming manufacturing industry in decline and with the spectral gloom of The Yorkshire Ripper haunting the streets, racial tensions were bubbling and the National Front were an increasingly common presence; the neo-Nazis, presumably not understanding the deconstructionist ideology of “the eradication of symbols” adopted many of the more provocative aesthetic signifiers of punk, and like wolf’s in sheep’s clothing, became a threatening presence on the generally leftist leaning music scene.
Wires were crossed to such an extent that local fanzine “The Leveller” suggested that the “F” in The F Club stood for “fascist.” Despite the accusation being false, Keenan recognized a revamp was in order to fully put any right leaning suspicions to bed; The F jumped ship once again in October ‘78, this time to basement club Brannigans. It was here that the members of The Sisters of Mercy first met, when The Cure played.
Clare Grogan of Altered Images
The first Futurama festival took place on the 8-9th September ‘79, in the dark, dank, and industrial surroundings of Queens Hall, a former tram depot that was repurposed into a music venue in the sixties. The conditions were infamously dire (one attendee remembering a lack of running water and usable toilets, fights breaking out, vomit piled up in buckets and sleeping on his leather jacket on the concrete floor) with the NME making a damning reference to the Joy Division track “Atrocity Exhibition.”
However, the milieu of bands – The Fall, Echo and the Bunnymen, Cabaret Voltaire, The Teardrop Explodes, Public Image Ltd and of course, the aforementioned Joy Division – kept the revellers happy and cemented Futurama’s legendary status. The Sci-Fi element was added via screenings of Barbarella and The Man Who Fell to Earth, and perhaps more abstractly, the collective post punk fascination with J G Ballard.
Futurama 2.0 (again at Queens Hall) added Siouxsie and the Banshees, Clock DVA, Altered Images and Soft Cell to the roister, number 3 (at Bingley Hall, Stafford) Bauhaus and a now fully formed Sisters of Mercy, and finally in ‘82 ( leaving Leeds for Queensferry, Wales) The Danse Society, Dead or Alive, Sex Gang Children and Southern Death Cult.
Sisters of Mercy at Futurama 1981
According to urban mythology, the use of the word “goth” to describe the gloomy and theatrical offshoot of punk music Futurama was known for, can be first attributed to a Yorkshire Post article on the festival; “goth” referring to the dark and grime of the festival’s habitat.
Siouxsie Futurama 1980
Plans to reboot Futurama circulated in 2020 but were unfortunately postponed due to the pandemic. If “The World’s First Sci-Fi Music Festival” will get its resurrection, just shy of 40 years after its last outing, we are yet to see.
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