The Dream Academy: “Life in a Northern Town” (The Dream Academy, 1984)

Yesterday, in responding briefly to Travis Morrison’s entry in this most recent round of debate about paying for music, I agreed with him that Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town” was great.

As it happens, I paid for this record. The band didn’t see a dime from it, though, because I bought it used, at an NPR record sale when I was in high school. It cost me a dollar, and I never missed the dollar.

When I went into that record sale, I had no idea what I was looking for. Just… something good. I’d been spiraling deeper into a consuming love for music, and when I first stepped into that giant room crammed with tables covered in boxes of records, I just about shorted out. Where was I supposed to start?

I found a row of boxes in the “rock/pop” section that had no one picking through them and put my hands in. I wish I knew what I blew past then because I didn’t know. Or maybe I don’t. All I know is that my limited knowledge at the time also limited what I came away with.

I came across the Dream Academy’s self-titled album in one of those boxes. I would have passed it by if I hadn’t been struck by the cover and turned it over. There, on the back, were the names of the band members. Gilbert Gabriel, Nick Laird-Clowes, and Kate St. John, in that order. It was the middle name that struck me, because I’d seen it before, in the liner notes to Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell, liner notes I’d completely internalized.

Laird-Clowes was credited as a co-writer on “Poles Apart” and “Take it Back.” I pulled out the inner sleeve, and there were lyrics, and more credits. David Gilmour was a co-producer, and he played guitar on two songs. And that was it. I knew it was coming home with me.

Thing is my knowledge was limited, but what I did know, I knew inside and out. I didn’t have to snap my fingers a few times and say to myself, “oh, I know that name. He was in… what was he in?” It was instant, and of course if it was related to my favorite band, I had to give it a spin.

I still have that LP, almost literally half a lifetime later. I’ve digitized it, too, which is why you’re able to listen to “Life in a Northern Town” while reading this. It’s a classic 80s anthem, isn’t it? Big, booming percussion, massed voices, and the whole rest of it make for a pretty great shebang in total.

The fact that I paid for it with no benefit to the maker means something in this whole debate. The very act of buying music doesn’t mean the people who made it will be compensated. How you buy it matters, too. And people have been buying used records for as long as there have been records. That’s easy to forget.