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Music

The rise of Madchester: How Manchester became the epicentre of British music

@TomTaylorFO

In Manchester, vignettes of everyday life like a horse trotting around a living room simply colour the daily lives of natives. It is a kaleidoscopic soot-covered utopia for bohemians on the rather more fizzing side of the spectrum. Thus, bands like the bouncing Happy Mondays are wild enough to be considered a sonic glass slipper to the streets of L.S. Lowry where stupefying sights are so common that it is, in fact, normality that seems amiss. 

In this world where banality is blitzed in a maelstrom of manic sights, but art itself is grounded in the everyday struggles of industrial strife, it perhaps isn’t so surprising that the Madchester scene arose like the sudden perk up of a pill and indie boomed in Britain’s foremost musical hotspot. Alas, even a horse in a living room has a backstory all the same. This is the tale of Manchester’s music revolution… 

June 4th, 1976, the Sex Pistols take to the stage at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall and change the world forever. In attendance that evening are Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Morrissey, Mark E. Smith, Factory Records founders Martin Hannett and Tony Wilson, and about a thousand other liars apparently crammed into the 150-capacity venue (that reportedly wasn’t even sold out). The show cost £32 to book and tickets were flogged for 50p—how the fucking hell then did the show change the world forever, let alone Manchester? After all, punk had been imported from New York in the first place.

On the 40th anniversary of the gig, Peter Hook told the Manchester Evening News: “It’s my 40th anniversary, too, because I walked out of that gig as a musician. I came home with a guitar and told my dad, ‘I’m a punk musician now’, and my father said, ‘You won’t last a week’. Here I am 40 years later.” This exchange, rather than being a charming little titbit from a would-be musical pioneer, happens to be the perfect tableau for the movement that followed. 

As Mark E. Smith also commented, stating: “When I was 18, the vision was to make music that didn’t exist, because everything else was so unsatisfactory”. Now, both Smith and Hook had their eyelids peeled off by a manic stage show and the naysaying of their forefathers was lost in the old-hat world of prog rock where performers had to be virtuosos rather than adrenalised mentalists.

On February 21st, 1976, a piece in NME written by Neil Spencer ran with the headline: “Don’t look over your shoulder, but the Sex Pistols are coming.” Therein it documented tales of band members cavorting with half-dressed members of the public on stage, chairs and tables being utterly Chernobyled in a seeming mutiny against anything perceived as jejune or even functional, and a Frenchman shouting to Steve Jones “You can’t play!” to which the guitarist flippantly replying, “So what?”

Iconic Manchester music venue The Star & Garter. (Credit: Stephen Richards)

That utterance was punk taking the pop culture mantle a step further and handing a P45 to fellows in cheesecloth shirts transposing their ayahuasca trips into 20-minute violin solos. If the psychedelic bandwagon was coasting along through the council estates of Britain in Rolls Royce’s touting unrelatable tales of finding the meaning of life in swaying bluebells that had long been buried under concrete in Manchester or drowned out of existence by the drumming rain, then here was where the wheels came off. 

Hang the DJs was the call because the music they constantly played said nothing to Mancs about their lives. Then punk pulled up alongside the turgid times of old in a Mad Max-style convoy and it had a generation of disenfranchised youth clambering to be there to witness the birth. In a few short years, this snarling omen child was ubiquitous and most of its weird-looking siblings were at one single gig. 

To be clear, Manchester was not the birthing ground of punk; it had made its way over when John Peel played Ramones records on late-night radio. However, the reason it seeded and blossomed into new flowers in the city is deep-rooted in cultural history.

At that point, labour strikes besieged the city, slum clearances made it look dystopian, factories closed their doors, and even the football teams were shit at this stage. The place was positively Victorian, which would’ve been a befitting period for the clocks to stop considering that it was during that era when it boomed, but the reality was far too dower to ponder quirky kismet.

However, despite the degradation at the time, Manchester has always been a city with an eye for style. After all, the Victorian boom of the town was grounded in the textiles trade which influenced the fashion of the streets. And art travelling over from America often docked in the region. Thus, when punk came aground, there were enough misguided young fools looking for answers in art to propagate it to the next level.

The Sex Pistols may have departed back down to London none the wiser that the Lesser Free Trade had started a revolution, but enough people caught the right wind to blow it in all sorts of directions themselves. 

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“I remember I was holding hands with my mam going up a lane in Manchester,” Noel Gallagher recently recalled on Jools Holland, “And I remember seeing a guy walking in front of me. He had peroxide white hair and dyed into the back of his hair was a huge exclamation mark in black. He was a punk.” This was the day when music happened for him, not through a song but through an attitude so potent it irreparably twisted a young boy’s melon.

Naturally, the Gallagher brothers and thousands like them were too young to follow in the punk footsteps at this stage, but their minds were given a wallop by these creative freaks suddenly skulking around the neighbourhood and art was glaring for everyone in a way that it never had been before. 

Punk, however, was always destined to be short-lived. And in some weird ways, it was a tragedy that ensured that the boom that had created it would not be subsumed by its subsequent demise in Manchester. Joy Division were one of the frontrunners developing the new Manchurian brand of music. For better or for worse, Joy Division were the sort of pioneering band that needed a champion. Fortunately, their rise coincided with the quintessential tastemaker John Peel espousing the best in class on a nightly basis. Then, tragically, just as they were gathering a head of steam, came the death of Ian Curtis. 

The subsequent tale of their transitioning sound is best summed up by John Cooper Clarke in his magnificent memoir, I Wanna Be Yours; he had been there at the start and now he was there as they were trying to reinvent themselves as New Order in the land of Aus. He writes: “After Ian’s death, the rest of the band had reinvented themselves out of necessity, throwing themselves headlong into the construction of their new corporate identity. [They were] forming their new sound as a sort of electronic pop outfit.”

Concluding: “Indeed, New Order were the frontrunners in that world. They’d become much more proficient as live performers, as you can imagine, but they were still very young and they weren’t ‘great musicians’ in inverted commas. Nevertheless, as a band, New Order made it happen: they went from nobodies to somebody to somebody else, quite effortlessly, really.”

This reinvention, although borne from tragedy, was vital in sustaining the Manchester scene. Joy Division were post-punk innovators, but in some ways, they were so singular that anything overly inspired by them proved (and still proves), to be highly derivative. Busting into a new wave pushed Manchester away from the realm of a potential fad towards a kaleidoscopic mix-up of arts. What’s more, the commercial success of New Order helped to sustain Manchester’s very own Factory records and a growing swarm of local bands were being signed and honed into global products.

(Credit: Remko Hoving)

The youth filtering through on the post-punk wave needed their own iconography to cling to and a large part of that came from an unlikely source. By the mid-1980s the first twitches on the seismograph of Britpop were appearing. It is largely thanks to Franc Roddam’s film Quadrophenia that the latest craze was born. The movie took the narrative of The Who’s album and gave it the all-important aesthetic and story that defined the rules of the game.

If punk was indeed destined to be short-lived, then Quadrophenia boxed-clever by riding the wave of its energy but surfing on something a little bit more manageable. For many kids, a little bit too young to be asking for a mohawk at the barbers, but nevertheless enthralled by the movement, Roddam’s film offered up something that looked like a thrilling version of their own life. All the while, the music of The Who that intersperses the soundtrack alongside old sixties mod classics opened up a bohemian back catalogue for kids to explore and brought the likes of The Kinks and The Small Faces into the future Britpop sound. 

As Roddam said himself when looking at how influential the movie seemed on the likes of Oasis who followed afterwards: “It is a working-class British film. If you’re in the north and you go to Manchester or Liverpool, they have a strong working-class ethic. What I mean by that is they see themselves as a tribal group, they see social injustice, and there’s certain things they will accept and will not accept. It’s all about experience. People like to see their own experience being dramatised on the screen. Quadrophenia was not unlike the experience of Liam and Noel Gallagher when they were growing up.”

In 1982, all the forces seemed to combine with the conversion of an abandoned warehouse into a new rave spot for the kids coming through as New Order themselves helped to open The Haçienda. Like the Sex Pistols gig a few years before, this sacred spot became a place where every band who followed had no doubt stepped foot.

Now, the scene had a heritage, a look, a scope wide enough not to succumb to trends, a label, a headquarters, a string of supporting bars and venues and a culture that the rapidly gentrifying city has been able to stop escaping elsewhere. With all that, an explosion of contemporary bands swarmed out of punk and continue to do so. When it comes to great Manchester bands since 1976, the end is listless (but a fair few crop up in the playlist below).

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