The Story and Meaning Behind “Life in a Northern Town,” a Desperation 1980s Hit from The Dream Academy

The British band The Dream Academy decided to go their own way with their music, far from the prevailing trends of the mid 1980s. They almost followed that path right into extinction when it seemed like they would never succeed. But then along came “Life in a Northern Town,” a song that brought them into the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic in 1985.

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What was the song about? How did it come about at the last possible moment to save the band? And how did a bit of forgetfulness help Dream Academy singer Nick Laird-Clowes stumble upon the song’s iconic chant-along refrain? Let’s go back and enjoy a little “Life in a Northern Town,” shall we?

A “Dream” Nearly Abandoned

In the beginning of their existence, The Dream Academy consisted of the duo of Nick Laird-Clowes and Gilbert Gabriel. They originally struggled to find a sound that fit them, at least until the two decided they would try and avoid listening to pop radio and instead play music that inspired them. That music contained bits of classical interspersed with folk and psychedelia, and it was a far cry from the aggressive sounds prevalent on the pop charts. Considering their throwback sound, labels weren’t exactly knocking down their door to sign them.

Laird-Clowes was getting so frustrated about the band’s lack of success he started to have doubts about whether it was worth it to continue. His commitment to the band was tested when he had the opportunity to take a vacation to India with his girlfriend. He thought it would just be a getaway to clear his head. But Gabriel gave him an ultimatum: If he wanted Dream Academy to continue existing, he’d need to skip the vacation and get back to work.

Laird-Clowes decided to stay, but he still felt depressed that his girlfriend was off on a dream vacation while he was stuck in a cramped rehearsal space. He was playing a guitar that day that once belonged to the folk legend Nick Drake, and the instrument seemed to send him off on a contemplative path. He told Gabriel he wanted to try a song with an African-style chorus.

“Northern” Lights

The pair had recorded their rehearsal efforts, but only the music. When Laird-Clowes took the tapes back to his house that night to fool around with lyrics, he couldn’t remember the specifics of the African chorus they had written. As a kind of placeholder, he scatted some wordless syllables to replace them. That ended up being the iconic refrain on “Life in a Northern Town.”

Kate St. John, a recent addition to the group, added English horn to the mix to join the wistful strings. One of the song’s co-producers was none other than David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame, although Laird-Clowes stated Gilmour mainly took a hands-off role, instead impacting the recording by telling the band to trust their instincts. (A few years down the road, Laird-Clowes would write the lyrics to a few Floyd songs on the album The Division Bell.)

As for the words to “Life in a Northern Town,” Laird-Clowes had been inspired by a visit to Newcastle, England, located in the northern part of the country. The region was suffering through an economic downturn. But the people Laird-Clowes met kept a positive, resilient spirit about them, which then crept its way into the song.

What is the Meaning Behind “Life in a Northern Town”?

In “Life in a Northern Town,” the narrator tells the tale of a stranger who comes to a location that’s down on its luck and helps to raise the spirits of those around him. The song doesn’t skimp on the hard times the townspeople are enduring: All the work shut down, Laird-Clowes intones.

But we open this story not in the doldrums, but in the middle of a kind of town bazaar full of music and refreshments. Into this setting comes that new face, and the lyrics imply he is a performer of some sort: And through an open window came / Like Sinatra in a younger day. The folks gather around him, and he regales them with his tales of the past: It felt like the world would freeze / With John F. Kennedy / And The Beatles. What’s unspoken is that those halcyon days couldn’t last.

At song’s end, this charismatic fellow is on his way out of town. As the train rolled out of sight / Bye-bye, Laird-Clowes sings, before that iconic chorus kicks in again. “Life in a Northern Town” tells a tale of people living their lives in hope, even when fate suggests they have no reason to do so. The Dream Academy, who believed their big day would come even when everything seemed to be working against them, could certainly relate.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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