The single reached number 7 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart in February 1986. It is their highest-peaking chart single in the United States, the UK, and Ireland.
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. Drake died of an antidepressant overdose in 1974 at the age of 26, but his music has influenced songwriters and guitarists long after his death. He was best known for sombre pieces composed on his favourite instrument, the guitar, and The Dream Academy intended the song as a tribute to Drake.
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.
Two different music videos were made for the song. The first was made in 1984 and filmed in Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, England. It was directed by Tim Pope. The second 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 UK and in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, United States, 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 Tube.
- "Life in a Northern Town" - 4:17
- "Test Tape No. 3" - 5:01
- "Life in a Northern Town" (Extended) - 5:19
- "Test Tape No. 3" - 5:03
- "Life in a Northern Town" (7" Mix) - 4:14
- "Poised on the Edge of Forever" - 3:32
|Australia (Kent Music Report)||4|
|Canada Top Singles (RPM)||7|
|UK Singles (Official Charts Company)||15|
|US Billboard Hot 100||7|
|U.S. Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks||7|
|U.S. Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks||2|
Sugarland cover version
The song was covered in 2007 by the country music duo Sugarland, along with Little Big Town and Jake Owen, on the Sugarland Change for Change Tour. A live performance from 2007 was made into a music video by Becky Fluke for the network Country Music Television. Although not officially released as a single, this rendition received airplay on country radio, debuting at 57 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart dated for 5 April 2008 and reaching a peak of 28. It also peaked at 43 on the Billboard Hot 100 based on downloads.
This performance was included on the Deluxe Fan Edition of Sugarland's 2008 album Love on the Inside and on Capitol Records' late 2008 re-release of Little Big Town's 2007 album A Place to Land. In addition, it was nominated for Vocal Event of the Year at the Country Music Association awards, Best Country Collaboration with Vocals at the 51st Grammy Awards, and Vocal Event of the Year at the 44th Annual Academy of Country Music awards.
|Canada (Canadian Hot 100)||53|
|US Hot Country Songs (Billboard)||28|
|US Billboard Hot 100||43|
- In 2014, Chris Collingwood, lead singer of Fountains of Wayne, released a cover version of the song on the multi-artist compilation album Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasion. Philip Price and Flora Reed of the indie rock band Winterpills provide backing vocals on this version.
- Dario G also sampled the African style chant in "Sunchyme". Released in September 1997 as the lead single from the album, Sunmachine, the song reached the top 5 position in many European music charts. It also topped the Billboard Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart in the United States following its release there in May 1998. In the United Kingdom, the song peaked at number two on the UK Singles Chart
- In August 2008, Roger McGuinn performed the song on the television show Nashville Now.
In popular culture
The song was used in the King of the Hill episode "Wings of the Dope."