Dream Academy members Nick Laird-Clowes and Gilbert Gabriel wrote this song, which is dedicated to the singer Nick Drake, who was 26 years old in 1974 when he died of an antidepressant overdose which may have been suicide. His work was very influential to many British musicians and songwriters, and his legend grew after his death.
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."
"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."
The song's subject matter was inspired by the time Laird-Clowes spent working on a music TV program that was produced in the north east England city of Newcastle. He recalled to Mojo: "The lyric emerged because I was an early presenter on The Tube and Geoff Wonfor, who went on to shoot The Beatles Anthology series, showed me the long lines of people unemployed and the shipyards that were closed down. That's what 'Life in Northern Town' is really all about."
David Gilmour from Pink Floyd helped produce The Dream Academy album with Nick Laird-Clowes.
Dream Academy's record label didn't want to release this song, they felt it needed more drums. The band refused and it became a worldwide hit.
This was covered by country acts Sugarland, together with Little Big Town and Jake Owen on the Sugarland Change for Change Tour. Their performance was played live at the 2008 CMT Music Awards and this rendition began receiving airplay on country radio. Three months after debuting on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, it entered the Hot 100 listing. This represented the first Top 40 chart entry for both Little Big Town and Jake Owen.