No Machos or Pop Stars

When the Leeds art experiment went punk

Published October 2022
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Winner of the 2024 Historians of British Art Book Award for Exemplary Scholarship on the Contemporary Period

Podcast interview with Dave O’Brien

“Beautifully written and meticulously researched, No Machos or Pop Stars will intrigue anyone with interests in politics, education, art, and popular music. Using a focus on Leeds in the 1970s and 1980s, Gavin Butt brings together theoretical acumen with vivid personal testimony to tell an engrossing tale of power, pedagogy, and dissent. This is a fascinating story of how fine art painters and performers became post-punk and pop pioneers.” — Green Gartside, singer-songwriter, Scritti Politti

After punk’s arrival in 1976, many art students in the northern English city of Leeds traded their paintbrushes for guitars and synthesizers. In bands ranging from Gang of Four, Soft Cell, and Delta 5 to the Mekons, Scritti Politti, and Fad Gadget, these artists-turned-musicians challenged the limits of what was deemed possible in rock and pop music. Taking avant-garde ideas to the record-buying public, they created Situationist antirock and art punk, penned deconstructed pop ditties about Jacques Derrida, and took the aesthetics of collage and shock to dark, brooding electro-dance music.

In No Machos or Pop Stars Gavin Butt tells the fascinating story of the post-punk scene in Leeds, showing how England’s state-funded education policy brought together art students from different social classes to create a fertile ground for musical experimentation.

Drawing on extensive interviews with band members, their associates, and teachers, Butt details the groups who wanted to dismantle both art world and music industry hierarchies by making it possible to dance to their art. Their stories reveal the subversive influence of art school in a regional music scene of lasting international significance.

“With his energetic and fluid writing, vivid and entertaining interviews, and focus on fine art’s relationship to the origins of post-punk, Gavin Butt brings a new and valuable perspective to music’s history. Exciting and original, No Machos or Pop Stars invites us to hear post-punk in a new way.” — Mimi Haddon, author of What Is Post-Punk? Genre and Identity in Avant-Garde Popular Music, 1977–82

No Machos or Pop Stars is an account of the plethora of post-punk bands that emerged out of the ‘Leeds experiment.’ . . . The range and richness of Butt’s research is evident throughout.” — Peter Suchin, Art Monthly

“Butt is conversant in both music criticism and theory, as he cites everyone from Greil Marcus, Simon Frith, and Mary Harron (back when she was a journalist and not a film director) to Lucy Lippard, Stuart Hall, Julia Kristeva, and Antonio Gramsci with Dick Hebdige in between. But more powerful than his scholarship, and his own voluminous interviewing of those in the scene, is his clear passion. He writes as someone moved by the music, weird, wonderful, and varied, that Leeds spawned.” – George Yatchisin, California Review of Books

“No Machos delves into the music scene in the region in terms of how critical theory and art education had an impact on conceptual approaches to music-making of the time. […] One of the most striking aspects of the book’s historical approach is how Butt zooms in and out of the map of post-war European art, locating Leeds’ particular underground music acts that were connected through an educational freedom offered to them.” – Temmuz Süreyya Gürbüz, Cultural Studies

“Written with both scholarly precision and an evident fan’s enthusiasm, the book is a serious history of popular modernism in West Yorkshire, as well as a social sketch of artists and young people reacting to a collapsing society with a rarely matched intellectual, aesthetic and social application. […] A welcome feature of No Machos —which is sadly unusual in many books related to punk and post-punk — is a contextualisation of the environment that created these scenes.” – Marcus Barnett, Corridor8

“Butt provides a document of bands who created their own version of (post) punk, away from the London-based Svengalis who dominate the narrative. This is a story where the politics of gender, race, and sexuality are foregrounded. The book provides a fascinating insight into how the budding bands built on the collaborative approach championed in the art schools, forming overlapping groups of friends and enabling cross-cultural and social experimentation.” – Rebecca Binns, Historical Studies in Education

“No Machos or Pop Stars is a highly engaging book about the late 1970s post-punk scene in Leeds. Groups such as Gang of Four, Mekons, Scritti Politti, Delta 5, Fad Gadget and Soft Cell emerged from this richly diverse place and period. The author does a thorough examination of both the upsides, and downsides, of art schools in the UK. This unique project is both a celebration and a critique. Butt draws on a number of interesting and illuminating interviews (musicians, professors, etc.) and manages to come up with a book that is fun, informative and thought-provoking in equal measures.” – Jim Dooley (author of Red Set: A History of Gang of Four)

“As someone who was a student at Leeds University during this period and was acquainted with many of the people discussed here, I was impressed with the detailed research Gavin Butt had put into his book as well as by his handling of the larger historical, political and theoretical currents that shaped many of the artists involved and their work. It was a tumultuous, creative period with a large cast of characters at the various educational institutions involved and outside them, all brought to vivid life here, but the book does not neglect the city of Leeds itself or its people and how they influenced the bands it considers and their music. However, you needn’t have been there to enjoy this significant study of an important cultural moment and I can’t recommend it too highly.” – Ian Duhig, poet

“The dive into primary sources is impressive. The author conducted dozens of interviews over six years, including two with Andy Gill, the influential Gang of Four guitarist who died before the book’s publication. […] This work is borne out by the copious photos of musicians and events and other ephemera that predated their wider, more heavily documented fame.” – Marci Cohen, Music Library Association

"As a history of educational ideas and systems this book is excellent. As a work of cultural history it is superb. . . this is also a book about music and musicians and it is full to the brim with insightful anecdotes and recollections from those who were active participants within this pre-figurative artistic community. It is a deft piece of writing and structural organisation, and there is no shortage of visual materials either. . . . No Machos or Pop Stars is extremely thorough and thoroughly readable."   Richard Thomas, The Wire
"This is an important book. . . . It reminds us of—and perhaps implicitly yearns for—a time when a university art school education was free, open, inclusive, and multidisciplinary, where theory was able to re-energise practice and offered new paths out of the cul-de-sacs of art practice, where a local scene that was largely self-supporting and independent could be local without ever being parochial, where contemporary debates arising out of feminism, race, and left-wing politics could be acted out in an exciting form of ‘praxis’ and where competition between educational institutions could be collapsed, where a small city like Leeds could host a self-supporting creative eco-system where students were able to freely cross-pollinate."   Aidan Winterburn, Tribune