Brutalist bus depots. Concrete cows. Space-age branches of C&A and Woolworths. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, British town planners and architects were fired with a burning desire to create a futuristic utopia from the ruins of desolate, bombed-out town centres. To those of us who were children at the time, it was an exciting sneak preview of the 21st century: the clean lines and pebble-dashed pallor of utilitarian 1970s New Towns were surely an exciting augur of the jetpacks and monorails to come. The drizzle-soaked 1980s reality, however, provided a depressing contrast of half-hearted investment and social decay.
It’s a dichotomy evocatively explored by Gordon Chapman-Fox on his 2020 album Interim, Report 1979. Recording as Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan, his stark synth instrumentals effortlessly evoke an era of both ambitious urban renewal and dystopian decline. And his swift 2021 follow-up, People & Industry, is a similarly touching tribute to the abandoned factories and neglected workforce of his native North-West.
On an appropriately rain-swept Thursday afternoon, we linked up on Zoom to discuss the inspirations behind both albums. Here’s how the conversation went:
Bob: A lot of the electronic music I hear is inspired by a film or a book, or set in a distinctly fictional place. And yours isn’t – its setting is decidedly real. Is it important to you for your albums to have that grounding?
Gordon: [Laughs] As much as anything, it was created as a counterpoint to those albums that pretend to be a lost soundtrack to a John Carpenter film. They always feel exotic and glamorous, and Warrington Runcon is as un-exotic and un-glamorous as can be! So yes, I wanted it to be grounded, and as… dull as possible. Well… maybe dull isn’t the word, but I wanted a contrast to “Oh, it’s the lost soundtrack to a Dario Argento film”. It seems to exist in the same genre as those albums, but I wanted to give it my own spin.
And March 1979 feels like quite a definitive period. In my mind, anyway. You’ve got post-punk and electronica coming through, and kosmiche coming in from Germany. That era feels like it’s a bridging point between different forms of music… and a turning point in the social history of the UK, too.
Culturally, it’s a really interesting time. It’s the beginning of the period that I always call “Fatcher’s Britain”. The Britain of Boys from The Blackstuff, Johnny Jarvis and Tucker’s Luck. It’s dole queue Britain. My Dad was unemployed a lot in the early 1980s, and I spent my childhood waiting for him outside orange-fronted Job Centres. So all that stuff has a very personal resonance for me.
Yeah. I mean, in March 1979 I wasn’t even four, so my personal memories of that period are very vague. But you’ll know this, being a fellow Northerner… sometimes the things that happen down south take a few years to travel up north. So it actually feels like the 1970s never really ended until about 1984 up here.
Was there actually an Interim Report in 1979?
[Laughs] I have no idea! But I do know that the Warrington Runcorn Development Corporation didn’t exist until 1980. Before that there were separate bodies for both towns, but then they merged.
I’ve never been either to Warrington or Runcorn. What kind of places were they to grow up in?
I didn’t! I grew up in Preston and Chorley. And later, in my twenties, I gravitated towards Wigan. But it seemed like every commercial break on TV would have these constant adverts: “Base your business in Warrington Runcorn!”. So that was the basis for it all, and I do now feel a bit of a fraud now the albums have been successful. I’ve had so many people get in touch, saying “You really captured the feel of these places…”
Please tell me you’ve actually been to Warrington and Runcorn!
Oh yeah, I’ve been! Many a time to Warrington, and a few times to Runcorn. And I’m familiar with New Towns – I grew up on the outskirts of Skelmersdale. It’s just maybe not as catchy or as resonant as Warrington or Runcorn.
“Skem”, it’s called, isn’t it? And I’ve got that entirely from reading Stuart Maconie’s books.
He’s from Wigan isn’t he? But he had a teaching job in Skem. It’s sort of next door to Wigan, with the old mining village of Orrell inbetween. That’s where Richard Ashcroft grew up.
But yeah, I think everyone was aware of New Towns. There was a lot of negativity about concrete when I was growing up! But although these places turned out to be a failure, I don’t think you can blame the architects. Their intentions were to improve the lot of everybody, and despite the fact that they failed and had no appreciation of actual human existence… they dreamed. And you’ve got to love a dreamer.
There’s quite a lot of New Town development in the North-East as well. There’s a place on Teesside called Billingham whose design was actually inspired by the space race and the moon landings. There was even a pub called The Astronaut! It was clean and futuristic with lots of leisure facilities – the theatre, the ice rink, the shopping centre – all in the same place. And although it began to get little tired as the decades wore on, in the 1970s it did look like it belonged to the space age! Why didn’t it work, do you think? Where did the failings lie?
Did it fail, or was it failed? Lack of funding is a key thing.
I mean, with the Southgate Estate in Runcorn, the big concrete estate you see on the album cover, there were faults within the actual planning of it. There was a communal central heating system, and people don’t want that! It was one massive boiler, where the person at the end of the line got no heat. So there was a definite failure to appreciate how people were likely to react. Despite being futuristic, I don’t think they anticipated the future that actually happened. Runcorn was a town intended for travelling on foot and by public transport, but in the 1980s everyone said “No thanks,” and went out to buy a car. People didn’t want to walk to the shopping centre… because shopping can be heavy!
But, as you say, Thatcherite Britain then came along. And the whole mood changed. Doing anything communally fell out of favour.
There’s no such thing as society, Gordon!
Did you buy into the New Town dream as a kid, though? Do you remember it as an exciting, forward-thinking time?
Yeah, I think so. In my science fiction-addled mind, it all tied in. You’d turn on the radio and listen to Kraftwerk or Depeche Mode and it all seemed incredibly modern and futuristic. It’s a cliche to say it, but everyone was expecting to have a jetpack in a few years…
I genuinely thought I would!
Was it the 1984 Olympics that had a jetpack in the opening ceremony? The future seemed exciting. Whereas now, you look around and think “Actually… the future’s not very exciting”. In fact, it’s repulsive and frightening. So the music I make is created not so much from nostalgia for 1979, but nostalgia for an optimistic future.
That has gone hasn’t it? I guess, because we were running up to the millennium, visions of the future in the 1970s and ‘80s were tinged with excitement. “Wow – what will the world be like in the YEAR 2000?” It felt like an impossible date to comprehend. But nobody does that any more! Nobody says “Wow – what will the world be like in the YEAR 2050?” Because it’s likely to be shit…
Yeah. Oh God, will we be still even be human… [Laughs]
Although I suppose, in the 1980s, we had nuclear war to think about. That gave things a little frisson.
That’s true. We were watching, as a family, Terminator 2 the other week, with the nuclear strike scene. And it absolutely freaked my daughter out. She’s 16, and she was enjoying the film up until that point! And we had to explain that we grew up expecting that. It’s quite visceral, that scene, and viewing it again… you appreciate how formative those feelings were.
I always think the height of that terror was 1983 and ’84, with the Cruise missiles arriving at Greenham Common. I was 11, and despite not coming from any kind of religious background, I prayed every night for a nuclear war never to happen. It was something I thought about every single day of my life.
Yeah. Afghanistan was happening, and there was the invasion of Grenada, too. I was still at Primary School, but I remember designing “BAN THE BOMB” posters in my bedroom.
Wow, really? Was that a school project?
No, it was because I was terrified!
Amazing. So what is the current state of the New Towns of Warrington and Runcorn? A lot of the Brutalist architecture in the North-East is very much under threat.
A lot of the housing in Warrington is a bit later than the Brutalist boom – it’s a bit more brick-built, and homely. But Runcorn – at least the main shopping centre and the buildings around that – is a desolate hellhole at the moment. There are about six shops in that centre, and one of them is a casino. It’s not a particularly edifying sight. And you think… how old is this place now? 50 years? It’s so solidly built, but it feels so hollow and empty. It’s tragic, really.
I live near Stockton-on-Tees, and that has a dark history to its concrete shopping arcade. In order to build it in the late 1960s, they demolished a huge chunk of a historic Georgian high street. As you can imagine, that was somewhat controversial. My parents will never forgive. As far as they’re concerned, the greatest crime against humanity was the redevelopment of Stockton High Street. But all I knew was the concrete version, and now that’s being knocked down as well… and I’ve got mixed feelings. That building was my childhood, and itself now has its own history.
Yeah. In Preston, it was the bus station for me. And the market that was next to it… that was even more Brutalist, and that’s gone now. It looked like the alleyway in A Clockwork Orange where they beat up the beggar! Concrete on an angle. And that was a shame to lose. There’s something about a market that Sainsbury’s can’t replicate.
Society again. It’s a communal meeting place.
It is. So that’s gone, and so has the indoor market in Lancaster. It’s been replaced by a giant Primark.
Oh, I used to buy vinyl from a little stall there, as a student. 30 years ago…
Yeah. It feels like all the quirky little stalls that markets have are disappearing. All this stuff is being shoved out of the way. I suppose the pandemic has hastened this, with everybody buying online. We get our grocery shopping to the door now, so we’re partly to blame…
I still go to Tesco, so I take no responsibility. Can I ask a little bit about your musical background? You seemed to arrive in such a blaze of glory in 2020, with Interim Report, 1979. I remember speaking to Colin Morrison from your label, Castles In Space, and he basically said the album and artwork had all arrived completely fully formed, out of nowhere. He was amazed. But I assume you’d been making music for some time before that?
Oh yeah… I picked up my first guitar when I was 11 or 12, and I’ve still got it – it’s a treasured possession! And I went into the rock and metal world. Until my late twenties, I was in a grindcore band called Mechagodzilla. We tried to schmush together as many different musical styles as possible into one song. We listened to a lot of Mr Bungle and Naked City as well as the metal influences… and Melt Banana, bands like that. Really weird stuff. So we’d try to do songs with funk or jazz breaks. I was the bassist… there are recordings around, I’ve digitised them recently and stuck them online. I’ll find them and dig them out if you’re interested…
I definitely am!
But in about 2003, I got into making music by myself on a laptop. That was fun, because I didn’t have to argue with anyone else about how I wanted the songs to sound! But it took me years to become any good at it. Both from a technical point of view, and in terms of making anything that was actually listenable. I made music as Heskin Radiophonic, but then I started moving into techno, so changed the name to Dublock.
And I became aware of artists like Polypores, Field Lines Cartographer and Emotion Wave. All these people in my area making electronic music. Stephen Buckley and Mark Burford – Polypores and Field Lines – work together just outside Lancaster services! So I was astonished that scene existed nearby. And my music got a bit more experimental than just techno.
Interim Report, 1979 actually came about because I had five songs that I didn’t know what to do with. They didn’t seem to fit with anything else I’d done… but they did fit together! So half of that album was from the “odds and sods” file. It was just lying there… then it began to take shape in my mind. I thought it had the feel of a soundtrack, and began to wonder – what’s my spin on a film soundtrack? And that was it… in my head, I was a making a documentary film about New Towns in the North-West. That was me.
So it feels like it’s taken years to get to this point, but better late than never!
How did the connection with Castles In Space come about?
I just contacted Colin on Twitter. It’s a label that has really exploded in the last couple of years, and I got in just before everything went crazy! I said “Here’s the album…” and I’d already done the artwork, because I work partly in a graphic design role at Lancaster University. I actually like to have the artwork to compose to – I create it early in the process, and use it as a visual guide.
So I sent it all to Colin as a bunch of MP3s, and said “What do you think of this?”. And about an hour later he got back to me and said “Brilliant! We need to do something with it…” He was literally the first person I contacted, and thank God I did.
The second album, People & Industry, feels like a very natural follow-up to Interim Report, 1979. Have I read that you pretty much recorded them back-to-back?
Yeah. Just like the Let It Be sessions flowed into Abbey Road! That’s hubris isn’t it, comparing yourself to The Beatles? [Laughs] I’m often working on lots of tracks at different times, so the second album was very much part of a continuous process that bled through from the first.
And obviously, again, taking inspiration from your background in the North-West. What was the prime industry in your area? Was it mainly petro-chemical?
It certainly was round Warrington and Runcorn. There was an ICI Plant at Weston Point, and every time we went on holiday to North Wales we’d drive past it. It looked like the beginning of Blade Runner. These towers with the flames at the top…
The ICI plant at Wilton, near me, actually was the inspiration for the beginning of Blade Runner! Ridley Scott is from the North-East, and had seen it at night…
Of course! And on the Warrington side, to the north, there was a huge colliery as well. It was only built in the 1950s or ‘60s, so it was a very modernist colliery… as up-to-date as coal-mining could be. That whole area was just awash with industry, really. We’re not too far away from Ellesmere Port, with the car factory. It felt like everything was going on around here at the time.
Did you have family working in those industries? And, if so, did you have them in mind when you made the album?
Yeah, my Dad was an electrical engineer, and he also designed quite a bit. So I imagined him with his big bushy beard and his nylon shirts! He was in and out of various factories, and I remember him working over near Rochdale, at a mill right next to the motorway. I suppose that’s old industry in a way, but it was very formative. And all these places seemed to be thronging with jobs. Until the 1980s…
Well, that’s the thing. Until the 1980s, it was never anticipated that those jobs wouldn’t exist. It was generational: grandparents, parents and children all worked in the industry that your area was built around. It was unthinkable that anything would ever threaten that.
Yeah, it’s amazing how much everything changed. There’s a fantastic museum in Burnley, Queen Street Mill. It’s often used in TV and films, and it’s more or less unchanged from the day they shut up shop. Forty years has passed, and there’s still stuff just left on the side from that last day. It’s incredibly haunting.
It wasn’t just a political threat to these places – it was technological as well. There’s a track on the album, ‘Built By Robots’. It’s a similar story to the New Towns – automation was sold to us as an exciting future where robots would do all the hard work, and we’d be free to enjoy lives of glorious leisure! We could swan around on monorails all day. And, of course, the reality was that people just lost their bloody jobs and had to sign on.
Yeah.And we still get sold that glorious future, working from our smartphones! It always gets a new spin, but the end result is that the rich get richer and the poor get shafted. It feels like an unending cycle at the minute.
Do you think of them as political albums, then?
Yeah, to be honest. As I was doing the research into Warrington and Runcorn, I started to feel the New Towns were the last gasp of attempting to build better lives for working people. The last time that something was actually done to make the lives of ordinary people better. Things have got better since then, I’m not complaining about that, but they’ve been done to make a profit. But as misguided as the architects and town planners of the 1970s were, they simply wanted to make things better. There is nothing to criticise about that intention. In some respects, I think that’s the biggest thing we’ve lost in the last 40 years.
Do you almost feel a responsibility to mark that with your music? Nobody else is making albums about 1970s town planning and the industrial heritage of the North-West.
Yeah! I know there’s a growing appreciation for Brutalism now, working on that 30-year nostalgia cycle. People our age are now in positions of authority, and we can share our thoughts about these places. Places that were planned to be great.
This is going to sound fatuous, but after the first album came out I was contacted by so many people who grew up in Warrington or Runcorn and wanted to share their experiences with me. Having lived outside of these places, I felt like a fraud in some ways – and I had to redouble my efforts to make the albums more fitting for the people who actually grew up there. To capture not just the architects and the planners, but the actual people. So the second album became more about their experiences, their jobs and their lives. It felt like a way of trying to capture that.
And I’m guessing industry in the North-West has been decimated in the last couple of decades?
Oh, yeah. All the mines have gone, and half the docks in Liverpool have shut. In Thatcher’s England, it felt like industry became a dirty word. There are still some big chemical works at Weston Point, but it feels like we’ve outsourced so much of our actual making of things. All the jobs are about working in huge warehouses, sorting Amazon parcels… or jumping into vans and delivering Amazon parcels! It feels like that’s what industry is at the minute, and I struggle to see how anyone can take any satisfaction from that. As hard and as horrible as working in a coalmine must have been, at least you could say you’d achieved something.
And there was the sense of community that came with that.
Yeah. Certainly, that whole community of working shifts together is long gone.
And will there be a third album that follows on, thematically? Is it a trilogy?
There is! I’m not going to completely spoil it here and now, but it does follow on. The geographical locations of Warrington and Runcorn, and how these places interact with each other… I think that’s the theme. And one other thing I want to do on future albums… my son is actually really good on the cornet, so I’m going to write a piece for him to play, for a bit of colliery band nostalgia.
Have you told him this yet?
I have! He gets very shy about performing in public, so he might do it under a pseudonym.
And you must be delighted with the reaction to the two albums so far…?
It’s been amazing for something that was created as such a specialist concept. I’d never sold more than about 30 copies of anything I’d ever made. Then I created something that I thought even my 30 loyal followers were going to find a bit niche, and it blew up to be the biggest thing I’ve ever done…
Interim Report, 1979 is available here:
People & Industry is available here:
And Gordon is performing live as The Warrington Runcorn New Town Development Plan, supporting Haiku Salut on 4th November 2021 at the Kanteena in Lancaster. Tickets:
And at the Castles In Space Levitation festival in Whitby on 5th and 6th November 2021. Tickets:
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