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Manchester’s lost music scene wasn’t just about creativity, but economics
'Kill the punks. Kill the bastards.'
Recently, I took the bus to Hulme looking for the ghost of punk past. As a rayless sun peeked through the clouds, I wondered how Hulme would square up to what I remembered. After over three decades in America, I’d returned to my hometown to write a book about Manchester punk. Well, “hometown”. I was back where I grew up, but it felt like I’d moved to an entirely new city. Gone was the depopulated wilderness of the 1970s, a place defined by decline — in its place, a poster child for successful urban regeneration. On getting off the bus, I checked Google Maps to find out where I was. Like much of the Manchester I grew up in, the old Hulme had been swept away by £300,000 homes and £1000-a-month flats.
I was trying to locate the site of the long-since demolished Russell Club, where Factory Records was born. The Russell Club was located in the shadow of the notorious Hulme Crescents, dubbed “Valium City” because residents needed tranquillisers just to live there. The Russell Club was a West Indian nightspot that served Red Stripe beer and goat patties. In May 1978, Tony Wilson took over the place and re-christened it the Factory. Inside, the room smelled of marijuana and stale beer. Foam padding peeked through plastic-covered chairs. Drug dealers lurked in the corners. A sign at the entrance read “No Tams Allowed”, a reference to the crocheted caps popular among Rastafarians. Outside, burned-out cars and abandoned mattresses littered the landscape.
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The Factory was intended as a showcase for wayward music too weird-sounding for conventional venues. As well as featuring local acts on his new record label, Wilson booked a string of experimental bands from out of town, among them Cabaret Voltaire from Sheffield, Pere Ubu from Cleveland, and Suicide from New York. This didn’t sit too well with the Anglo-Caribbean regulars who had come to hear the roots reggae and the smooth American soul that the DJ played between the live sets. My own band, Manicured Noise, played the second night of the Factory and I remember the Rastafarians in the audience laughing uproariously at our dissonant art-funk, sticking their fingers in their ears to block out the noise.
The opening of the Factory signalled the end of Manchester’s punk period and the start of something new. While London punk became increasingly political, Manchester turned monochromatic, creating an experimental version of punk shaped by the Mancunian landscape that critics later called “post-punk”, but was really punk as it should have been before it turned into a cliche.
It was also the beginning of the rebirth of Manchester, not as an industrial town anymore but as a global brand, a world-famous centre for alternative music and nightlife, thanks to Wilson’s perseverance and vision. At this point, Wilson was the mayor of a city not yet built. The opening of the Hacienda and the Madchester boom was still years away. But the Factory planted the seeds of a musical movement that would not only change the face of modern music, but the face of Manchester.
Unable to find the site of the Factory, I wandered across the street to Hulme Park, where a party was taking place. A group of young girls were dancing in formation in front of a reggae sound system. I asked a woman if she knew where the old Russell Club was. She pointed down Stretford Road to a quiet side street. What about the Crescents? “You’re standing in them,” she told me.
As it turned out, the woman I was talking to was Lee-Ann Igbon, a local councillor. Igbon was born in Hulme in 1970, just as the Crescents were about to open. The Crescents, or the Bull Rings as residents called them, were four long, curved blocks of flats connected by elevated walkways. Each Crescent was named after a famous Regency architect. The labyrinthine development was so poorly constructed that the waste disposal system didn’t work, so residents discarded their garbage by flinging it off the elevated walkways. Because the flats were linked, if one flat got cockroaches, the entire building got cockroaches. The underground garages doubled as drug dens. A survey conducted in 1975 revealed that conditions were so bad, 96 percent of the tenants wanted to leave.
“All the stairwells stunk of urine,” remembers Igbon. “Men coming from the pub would pee everywhere. We had 34 pubs in Hulme in those days.”
Some Factory regulars took up residence in the Crescents, turning empty apartments abandoned by the original renters into rehearsal studios, recording facilities, and after-hours party spaces. By the 1980s, after all the families moved out, this unloved development had turned into a neo-brutalist bohemia. “We called them ‘the grungies’ or ‘the swampies’,” said Igbon. “They dressed differently from us but they were still part of the community.”
Former Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico lived in the Crescents for a while, her precipitous decline mirroring the city at large. No longer the imperious ice queen depicted on the cover of the group’s seminal debut album The Velvet Underground and Nico, by this point in her career, she was a bloated heroin junkie who performed gigs for drugs.
The Crescents became famous among music fans as the backdrop to the now iconic black-and-white image taken by local shutterbug Kevin Cummins of the members of Joy Division standing huddled together in the dead of winter on Hulme’s Epping Walk footbridge in the snow.
The council demolished the Crescents in 1993, and gradually rebuilt the community with money from the European Union, but this time with low-rise housing. Today, Hulme is a thriving community, but it still has problems.
“Hulme has improved a lot, but there’s a lack of services because of austerity,” said Igbon. “We don’t have gun violence anymore, but we still have a lot of knife crime. I recently had three young people, one of them only 13, convicted of stabbing to death a 16-year-old boy.”
The next stop on my tour was 35 Little Peter Street, at the southern end of Deansgate. Here, in the late 1970s, stood an abandoned cotton warehouse with broken windows nestled underneath a railway viaduct. This was the TJ Davidson Rehearsal Studios, where nearly all the major Manchester bands of the time rehearsed. Like the Factory, TJ Davidson was torn down and replaced by a block of flats. But back in the late 1970s, the address was a hive of musical activity.
Back then, the rehearsal space was a series of filthy rooms, floors littered with cigarette butts. Because there was no heat, bands had to practice while wearing overcoats during the winter. As many as a dozen groups would rehearse at the same time, but since the rooms weren’t sound-proofed, the noise would merge into an unholy racket that shook the entire building. One time, Wythenshawe punk band Slaughter and the Dogs were practising in the room below Joy Division. Slaughter and the Dogs were so loud that Joy Division could barely hear themselves think, so Joy Division bassist Peter Hook waited until Slaughter and the Dogs took a break and peed through a gap in the floorboards onto their drum kit below.
Manicured Noise used to practice across the hallway from Joy Division. Once, Hook paid a visit to congratulate us on the originality of the music he’d heard coming through the walls, which combined my three major passions at the time — black dance music, film scores and postmodern cultural theory.
“You sound like a punk Pink Floyd,” Hook said. “You should come on tour with us.”
Hearing Joy Division play provided a front-row seat to the band’s evolution. Joy Division rehearsed so relentlessly, it was as if they lived in the building, but all that practising would soon pay off. At first, there was nothing to distinguish them from a dozen other punk bands ploughing the same increasingly barren field. Over the next few months, however, Joy Division’s sound changed dramatically, as the band’s inventiveness became clear. Their music grew darker, slower and sparser, Hook’s plaintiff bass playing coming to the fore, often carrying the melody of the song. A turning point came in April 1978 when in a burst of inspiration, Joy Division wrote a song in their rehearsal room that would subsequently become a classic.
The starkly anthemic “Transmission” with its catchy refrain of “Dance, dance, dance to the radio” was the song that turned many alternative music listeners into Joy Division fans. Propelled by a simple but powerful bass riff composed of only three notes, “Transmission” would become the band’s first bona fide underground hit. Hook knew that “Transmission” was a standout when they played it in public during a soundcheck in May at a local concert hall, the Mayflower.
“The people in the hall all stopped to listen,” Hook said later. “That’s when I realised that this was our first great song.”
Joy Division had spent months gradually groping towards creating something different and now they’d found it. Some bands are born great, others take time to achieve greatness. Finally, after much effort, Joy Division sounded like Joy Division.
My last stop was Collyhurst to visit the site of the legendary Electric Circus, a dilapidated former theatre long gone, that in the 1970s was the city’s premier showcase for visiting punk bands from New York and London, including classic concerts by the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Slits, among many others. Collyhurst was one of the city’s toughest neighbourhoods, a blighted post-industrial wasteland of rubble-strewn lots, abandoned buildings and decaying housing developments that was Manchester’s equivalent of the South Bronx, but with Stanley knives instead of guns.
The locals were not pleased to see the freak show that had unexpectedly turned up on their doorstep, so they used the walkways from the abandoned 1930s council estate across the street to hurl bricks at the punks waiting in the line below. Most punks came by public transport, but the few who came by car made sure they paid the scruffy young kids who hung outside the entrance. Otherwise, they would find their vehicles vandalised or stolen.
My first trip to Electric Circus was to see the Sex Pistols in December 1976, on a bill that also included Buzzcocks, the Clash and the Heartbreakers. The Pistols were on tour to support their first single, “Anarchy in the UK”, but following a profanity-laden interview with TV host Bill Grundy, most of the concerts were cancelled. One of the few venues willing to host the Pistols was the Electric Circus.
A large crowd of soccer hooligans had gathered outside the venue throwing missiles at the windows and chanting: "Kill the punks. Kill the bastards." Police tried to hold them back, while concertgoers ran inside with their hands covering their heads. A group of thugs broke through the police cordon and stormed up the stairs of the front entrance but a wall of beefy bouncers repelled them and sent them tumbling back down the stairs before they could get into the main hall.
Ian Curtis turned up wearing a working man’s donkey jacket with “Hate” scrawled across the back in big white letters. It was here he first met his soon-to-be bandmates, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner. Morrissey was there too, although his interest in the gig was confined to the Heartbreakers led by former New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders. A few days later, he placed a classified advert in the British music weekly Sounds: "Dolls/Patti [Smith] fans wanted for Manchester-based punk band," but received no replies.
When the Sex Pistols hit the stage, they were greeted with a fusillade of phlegm. Spitting at punk bands (“gobbing” as it was called) was a sign of appreciation, a way of bonding with the musicians, even though most punk bands hated being spat on. “If you wanna keep gobbin', we won't play," guitarist Steve Jones protested from the stage, which did nothing to stop the rain of loogies. The set ended with the Pistol’s cover of the Stooges’ “No Fun”, after which the members of the group rushed for the exit, where a van was waiting for them, which sped off pursued by carloads of reporters.
My most vivid memory of seeing the Sex Pistols at the Electric Circus is what happened after the show while walking to the bus stop when I was jumped from behind by a group of Collyhurst hobgoblins who gave me a serious kicking that left me cut and bruised for a week.
Less than a year later, the Electric Circus would close after being pressured by the police and the fire department over unsafe conditions. The building that housed the Electric Circus was eventually demolished along with the housing estate opposite, replaced by rows of modest two-story homes, each with their own garden. But other than that, not much has changed since. The area is still one of the poorest in Manchester, lacking basic amenities and services. Weeds still grow between cracks in the pavement. The aggressive self-improvement campaign that has transformed the rest of Manchester has yet to reach Collyhurst, though that may change with the recent announcement of the Northern Gateway regeneration project, a £4-billion plan that will see hundreds of new homes built.
With the sun about to set, I head back into the city centre, where I’m struck by how busy it is. When I was a kid, the centre was mostly deserted after dark, except for the occasional all-night cafe that looked as lonely as an Edward Hopper painting. By any objective standard, Manchester is a better city than it once was: more tolerant, more liveable, less violent. But not everybody is happy with this shiny new city for two reasons.
For one thing, the uneven distribution of the benefits of a luxury-flat-heavy approach to city planning has led to a sharp increase in income inequality. Travel a short distance from the deluxe developments in the centre and you’ll find neighbourhoods with some of the worst child poverty and unemployment rates in Britain.
For another, some argue that Manchester has sold its soul to property developers, swapping radical music for luxury buildings. As Marxist architectural critic Owen Hatherley sardonically noted: “After the IRA bombing destroyed the city centre, property development became the new punk rock in Manchester.”
While there are still dozens of bands that play every night of the week, the last Manchester group that created a stir on the world stage was Oasis — back when Tony Blair was prime minister. Manchester is now better known for producing expensive condos than innovative pop culture. The constant harking back to Factory Records, Joy Division and the Smiths feels all too familiar, resembling, as it does, Liverpool’s obsession with the Beatles.
“I miss the Electric Circus and the Factory,” said Deb Zee, one of the original members of the Manchester punk scene, who now in her 60s, still dresses like a punk rocker. “I even miss the Hulme Crescents. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like the new Manchester. I just wish it wasn’t so bloody expensive.”
Cheap rents and abandoned spaces, along with generous welfare benefits, were the economic factors that made Manchester punk and post-punk viable. Decades of urban blight produced Joy Division, Buzzcocks and the Fall. In a city where rents are beginning to catch up with London, where will the new Ian Curtis or Morrissey come from?
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