Life in a Northern Town :: The Dream Academy
from the album, The Dream Academy
directed by Tim Pope

Life in a Northern Town is a pop song by The Dream Academy, an English dream pop group. The song is the first single from their 1985 self-titled debut, The Dream Academy. Reaching # 7 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart in February 1986, it is also their highest-peaking chart single in the United States.

A cover version, recorded by the country music duo Sugarland with guest vocals from Little Big Town and Jake Owen, was a Top 40 country hit in 2008.

The Dream Academy released the original version in 1985 as the first single from their self-titled album. It was a Top Ten pop hit for them, peaking at # 7 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.

The lyrics include references to English singer-songwriter Nick Drake, who suffered from depression and insomnia throughout his life and often reflected those topics in his lyrics. Gilbert Gabriel, a member of The Dream Academy and co-writer of the song, has also said that the inspiration for the tune came from his experience at Dartington College of Arts. Nick Drake died of an antidepressant overdose in 1974 at the age of 26, but his music has influenced songwriters and guitarists well after his death. He was best known for somber pieces composed on his favorite instrument, the guitar, and The Dream Academy intended the song as a tribute to Drake.

The song was not specifically about Nick Drake, as some suppose, but merely dedicated to his memory. Laird-Clowes recalled to Mojo magazine in a 2011 interview:

The song was created in a Southgate bedsit where Gilbert Gabriel had a room. We wrote it while sitting on a floor. Just two guitars – one nylon strung with just three strings on it, while the other was the same guitar that was on the cover of Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter. We had the idea, even before we sat down, to write a folk song with an African-style chorus. We started it and when we got to the verse melody, there was something about it that reminded me of Nick Drake, who I had been turned on to in 1972 by Roundhouse DJ Jeff Dexter. It was Jeff who first informed me what a brilliant record Bryter Layter was. He claimed, ‘I know where that guitar is and one day we’ll get hold of it.’

I was working at the RCA record factory in Ladbroke Grove at the time and bought Nick Drake’s guitar for £100. When the single was completed I dedicated it to Nick.”

The song, which took a year to record, also includes elements of classical music, an “African-esque” chant (which was later sampled by dance duo Dario G for their track Sunchyme), and hints of psychedelia. It is in the key of E major with a main chord pattern of E-Amaj7-E and a vocal range from B3 to E5.

Life in a Northern Town started life with a different title. Laird-Clowes told Mojo that he had befriended Paul Simon at one point and the two stayed in touch. He recalled:

I played him the song and he asked, ‘What are you going to call it – ‘Ah Hey Ma Ma Ma?’ I told him that we intended to name it ‘Morning Lasted All Day.’ ‘That’s no good,’ he said and so I came up with ‘Life In A Northern Town.’ which he thought was a great title.”

There were two different versions of the music video. The first one (see above) was made in 1984 and was filmed in Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, England. It was directed by Tim Pope.The second version was filmed in 1985 and was directed by Leslie Libman and Larry Williams. It was filmed in and around Newcastle upon Tyne with some scenes filmed in Manchester in the UKand in Aliquippa, PA USA, using footage of the now closed LTV Steel and Duquesne Light facilities. The video featured footage from one of their first TV appearances, on the British music show The Tube.

Editor’s Note: This is one of those songs that is so instantly recognizable if you were an adolescent in the mid-eighties. I had it playing earlier in my office at work and within the first few notes a co-worker in an office across the hall yelled out “whose listening to The Dream Academy?”


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