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Memories of Rocking Roundhay

In the 80s and 90s Roundhay Park played host to the world’s biggest music acts.
We find out more about this pop-tastic chapter in Leeds’ history.
 
Peter Mills is Senior Lecturer in Media & Popular Culture
at Leeds Beckett University and has been delving into
the history of the gigs at Roundhay Park.
 
We asked him to write a short history of the events.

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Roundhay Park has been part of the life of the city of Leeds for nearly 200 years. It was bought in 1803 by the Nicholson family who lived in the park’s Mansion at the (now-redundant) St John’s Church on Wetherby Road. The park then passed into the hands of the city in 1871; the move from private to public land was overseen by Leeds MP John Barran, whose link with the park is commemorated in Barran’s Fountain. The immediate and enduring popularity of Roundhay Park ensured it was primed for large gatherings - the well-loved Children’s Day and Military Tattoo events, for example - and musical performances. This reached an apotheosis in the 1980s with a series of large-scale pop concerts, which took advantage of the Arena’s intimate ambience and natural acoustics.

Despite worries from local residents and the local constabulary, the first gig by The Rolling Stones on Sunday July 25th 1982 was a great success.

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Despite worries from local residents and the local constabulary, the first gig by The Rolling Stones on Sunday July 25th 1982 was a great success. Complaining councillors were soothed by the sum of money the city earned from the show, some of which went toward refurbishing Roundhay Park’s decaying infrastructure. Fears thus allayed, a startling run of gigs flowed through the 80s, reading like a playlist of the era’s biggest acts – Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Genesis, Michael Jackson, U2 and more. This was good news for music lovers, but also for the city. Leeds was at last on the international music map, attracting the world’s biggest acts and it really caught (caused?) an optimistic mood in the city. In the 90s smaller events (such as the free Heineken Festivals and ‘Shine’ events) became the norm. The last stadium -sized gig was the second visit of U2 in August 1997. Civic will shifted in the late 90s and, after the debacle of an ill-advised dance music weekender in 2000, a moratorium seems to have been called. There were no more big events at Roundhay until Robbie Williams played two nights in September 2006. Another 13 years would elapse before Ed Sheeran acknowledged his West Yorkshire roots by picking Roundhay for two of his four UK gigs in August 2019. Both were very successful engagements, but council records show that many of the same objections raised in advance of the Rolling Stones show in 1982 were made in regard of these shows!

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What we notice when we look at the history of these big events in Roundhay Park is the role of civic will, certainly, but also the changing nature of pop- staging and presentation. Contrast Mick Jagger’s fluorescent jacket in 1982 and the video-screen close-ups of Ed Sheeran’s fingers in 2019. A road manager for Simple Minds, who played Roundhay at their commercial peak in 1988, praised the site but also noted that ‘When you book Roundhay Park, that’s what you get – a park. Not a lightbulb or a three-pin plug in sight’. This is part of its appeal, certainly, but also represents a problem for events on the scale needed to fill it. Regardless, Roundhay Park is a natural spot for such events – encore, please!

Thanks Peter! We heard that Peter was at many of the gigs in the 1980s so we contacted him for a chat about his own experiences of the concerts.
 
Peter, what started you on this research?
 
I grew up in Oakwood, which is just down the road from Roundhay Park. The park is the city’s playground. Whenever there’s been a public event, that’s where it went. Even Queen Victoria went there when she visited Leeds. So, I grew up near that park and felt that sense of ownership.
 
My theory is that Leeds has a civic tradition of underplaying its advantages and its history, particularly where culture and music is concerned. There’s Fanny Waterman and the Leeds Piano Competition; the great jazz scene in the 50s and 60s; and the gigs in the park. I can’t believe nobody else has written a proper history of them.
 
I was also interested in the extraordinary improbability of all these famous names coming to this northern park. Pop stars descending on the park and what happens when an event like that happens. It’s a story about music, who’s in and who’s out, and a story about Leeds.

How did the gigs affect Leeds?
 
Leeds has always been seen as the poor relation to Manchester and Sheffield, in terms of getting big acts. These gigs were important for the city’s sense of itself. In 1982 Leeds was a completely different place. Having these acts come to the city changed things. A sense of “let’s do this – we’ve got the environment and the resources.” And a sense of “why not?”, whereas before the question was “why should we?” Leeds tended to take pride in industry, volume, financial turnover – and culture was a sort of bolt-on.
 
You were at the first Rolling Stones gig in 1982?
 
Yes, but I wasn’t even particularly a fan! I was there because I wanted to see this interesting thing in the local park. A lot of people were the same. There was a communitaire feeling. It was a big gig, the end of the Stones’ World Tour. It was a special show – it’s now available on DVD. There was a lot of local resistance to it happening. Up round the park is a wealthy area so people have a bit of clout. So, the audience numbers were kept low, and it had to finish by 7.30pm. The Stones came on about 5pm. We were in the arena. It was a really warm, sunny afternoon. A good-natured crowd, good atmosphere and the sound was great – which doesn’t always happen in these outdoor events.

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Above: Burton Harrogate branch 1974

Who was your favourite of the artists that played in the 80s and 90s?
 
I loved Madonna, I thought she was “it” – I was really excited when she came. That gig was actually her debut live performance in the UK.
 
What did she make of Leeds?
 
I’m not sure she even knew where she was - she kept saying, “Come on England!” - she never said Leeds. Apparently, she flew into Leeds Bradford airport about 2 hours before the show, then got in a car, drove back to Leeds Bradford and flew back to London!

Who was behind all these gigs?
 
Michael Johnson was the music officer for the city. A famous promoter called Kennedy Street contacted 
Leeds City Council, looking for a venue for an unnamed band. Michael said, “come and have a look at Roundhay Park.” So, someone from the promoter came to the park and the pair of them decided the arena would do very nicely! Michael Johnson made sure it happened, fought to get the council onside. The Tory group in the Council were against it, but he got it through. Michael is the hidden hero of the story! He left in 1989 and the gigs did tail off after that.

Why did the gigs stop happening? Was it the local objections you mentioned?
 
No, I think after a few gigs it had been shown they were successful and wouldn’t leave the park in ruins. They generated money for the city. When I was a kid the infrastructure of the park was dying. But the money generated from the gigs went into regenerating the park. I think the reason they stopped was as “unsexy” as the fact that the people who had championed the idea in the council had moved on or retired – like Michael Johnson. And to some extent it’s about fashion – which acts are “in” and do they want to play in a park? In the 90s, the fashion was for acid house and electronic dance music. The 80s were the era-of stadium-sized gigs. There have been a few open-air converts more recently.
 
How do they compare to those of the 80s and early 90s?

I went to the Ed Sheeran gig to see what it was like. I sort of treated it like a research exercise. Maybe I’m just a nosy parker. I was interested in who was there. People had come a long way - from all over the UK. A genuinely national audience. Which is different to the local atmosphere of the 80s gigs. The staging of pop concerts has changed so much. I was hard not to be impressed by the show! With the screens and effects and zillion dollar budgets. But the security was very different. It was like going to the Fall’s Road in Belfast, this massive ring of steel. At the Rolling Stones gig it was like school fencing, people could gather outside
it and hear and see the gig quite easily. There’s less of a local feel these days.
 
Thanks Peter.

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Artist and designer Paul Atkinson went to many of the gigs in the 80s and 90s – but he never bought a ticket. Paul’s illustration of Madonna is above right, and he shares memories with Shine.

"The first one me and my wife went to was the Stones in 1982. Then Genesis and Madonna. I worked at a studio in Oakwood so we could park there and walk up the way to the far end to the Mansion pub. You were on a hill there so you could see over the barriers!

A good place to sit and listen. We carried various chairs, a table, a cooler bag, always 2 bottles
of wine, a wine bucket, glass holders, a brolly, a picnic blanket. Very civilised. Prawns, avocado, French bread, cheese. And always proper glasses, not plastic. It was a terrific position and a terrific view.
The Stones were good. They put on a good show. It was a great feel. Madonna too. During the day, you’d see people streaming towards the park. Hundreds of them! People selling memorabilia. A lovely time. I took my granddaughter to Ed Sheeran a couple of years ago. It was chaos! Not as good an atmosphere. Nowhere to park at all. But the access in the 80s was brilliant and really lovely. Not as restricted in the old days."
 
Thanks to Peter, Paul and to Patrick Bourne at Leeds Abbey House Museum for help with the article. Do you
remember any of the gigs mentioned. You can share your memories below.

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