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The misfits and mavericks of Manchester’s punk HQ
‘It was a bit like Australia. The animals had a chance to develop in their own peculiar ways’
Frank Owen was born and grew up in Manchester, worked as a writer for Melody Maker in the ‘80s (where, interviewing Morrissey, he elicited his infamous statement that “Reggae…is to me the most racist music in the entire world”) before decamping to New York to become an editor at pop-culture bible Spin. He then went on to work for the Village Voice, where he cracked the club kid killer case, and Playboy, where he broke the news Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay was murdered over a drug deal gone bad. We’re excited to be publishing an essay by Frank about a gay bar where bands like Buzzcocks and Joy Division flourished — and where the city’s punks could enjoy their night minus the threat of violence that came with the outfit.
Appropriately enough, given the sheer density of homegrown talent name-checked in the essay, the piece features a couple of photos taken by the great Mancunian photographer Kevin Cummins (who you probably know as the man behind the famous photos of Joy Division in the snow in Hulme). Enjoy!
The misfits and mavericks of Manchester’s punk HQ
By Frank Owen
In the summer of 1976, a then-obscure rock group called the Sex Pistols jump-started the Manchester punk scene with two gigs at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. The concerts acted as a catalyst, inspiring a group of young mavericks to forge careers not just as musicians, but also as writers, designers, photographers, promoters and managers. From an initial nucleus of 50 people, punk spread via word of mouth and attracted other recruits who themselves became recruiters, until by the end of the year a distinctive musical world had taken shape.
But the fledgling scene lacked something: there was nowhere in the city centre where punks could congregate without being assaulted because of their appearance.
Then, punks discovered the Ranch Bar, a gay club on Dale Street in the basement of Foo Foo’s Palace owned by drag queen Foo Foo Lamar.
“When punk started in Manchester, the Ranch was the only place that would let punks in,” said singer-guitarist Steve Diggle, one of the original members of the punk band Buzzcocks. “Upstairs, Foo Foo would be entertaining hen nights and stag parties, and downstairs, there’d be punk rockers. If a fight broke out, Foo Foo would come charging down the stairs in a dress, bang their heads together and personally throw them out.”
A typical night at the Ranch began with a knock on the door. A slot would slide open and Jerry the doorman would inspect you and either tell you, “No, fuck off” or let you in. Once inside, you’d walk down a staircase into a dingy basement decorated like a country and western bar with saddles for bar seats and barrels for tables. To the left, a glass cabinet with an illuminated sign saying “Hot Pies” sat atop the bar. If nightclub owners wanted to serve alcohol after eleven, licensing laws dictated they had to sell food, though during all the nights I spent at the Ranch I don’t recall seeing anybody eating there.
Scattered around the room, you’d see girls with heavy eye makeup and dyed hair wearing short skirts, fishnet stockings, and high boots, while the guys sported leather jackets or ripped shirts held together with safety pins, some of them with razor blades dangling from their ears. In those days in Manchester, you couldn’t just wander down to the local punk shop to buy the appropriate gear to match your new punk personality. The clothes we wore were usually homemade, comprising items stolen from our parents' closets or bought from second-hand clothing stores, which we then ripped up and customised with slogans using marker pens or paint. If you couldn’t find straight leg jeans, you got your mum to take in the legs of a pair of flared trousers.
Punk pin-up girl Denise Shaw, who wore shiny fetish outfits she created herself, remembers making dresses out of black bin bags: “You would get so sweaty, you would have to peel them off at the end of the night,” she said. “They were thick bin bags, not the crap bin bags you have today.”
Swastika t-shirts and armbands were common fashion accessories at the Ranch. My favourite item of clothing was an expensive t-shirt I’d shoplifted from Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren’s SEX boutique in London. The shirt featured the word “Destroy”, a massive swastika, an upside-down Jesus on a cross, and a postage stamp depicting the Queen.
One night at the club, a member of the Anti-Nazi League was handing out pamphlets. The Anti-Nazi League was a group that organised “squads” to confront neo-Nazi skinheads. The activist noticed the swastika, and gently chastised me: he said he understood punks wore Nazi symbols to piss off the establishment, but if I wanted to be anti-establishment, I’d dump the swastika and join him and his comrades fighting fascism on the streets of Manchester.
I thought about it for a moment. “You know what,” I replied. “You’re dead fuckin’ right.” I never wore the t-shirt again and began attending anti-fascist demonstrations.
At first, the Ranch was a hangout for David Bowie and Roxy Music fans, of which there was an unusually large number in Manchester. But by 1976, the scene felt stale. Roxy Music had broken up so Bryan Ferry could pursue a solo career. Bowie had moved to America to become a blue-eyed soul singer. So they ditched the glam look for a grittier punk style. An example of Bowie fans who converted to punk were the Mee sisters, Sarah and her older sister Lyn. With her panda eyes and brightly colored spiky hair, the androgynous Sarah, who was only 16, looked like if Ziggy Stardust had joined a punk band.
“Punk came out of the Bowie and Roxy scene,” said photographer Kevin Cummins, who, along with writer Paul Morley, covered the Manchester punk scene for the New Musical Express. “Most of the people who became punks in Manchester used to be Bowie and Roxy fans.”
But not everyone at the Ranch dressed like a punk rocker. One of the club’s regular attendees was John the postman, an overweight mail carrier with an encyclopaedic knowledge of 1960s garage rock, who wore his work uniform to the club. John was known for rushing the stage at the end of punk rock concerts and leading the crowd in an a cappella version of The Kingsmen’s classic “Louie Louie”.
Because the record companies had not released many punk records, the music played at the Ranch was mainly Bowie and Roxy, mixed in with songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The deejay always ended the night with “What a Way To End It All” by Liverpool band Deaf School, after which began the most dangerous part of the proceedings: running the gauntlet of spew-flecked beer monsters to catch the all-night bus in nearby Piccadilly Gardens.
Francis Taylor, one of the original members of the Manchester punk scene, remembers leaving the club and walking with Buzzcocks guitarist Pete Shelley and the Mee sisters across Piccadilly Gardens when he heard a squeal and turned around and saw Shelley lying on the ground. Rushing to help his friend, a bunch of hooligans surrounded him, knocked him to the pavement, and began kicking him. He rolled himself into a ball until they grew bored and ran away.
“In the mid-1970s, violence was an inherent part of Manchester working-class life,” said Taylor. “It could be an incredibly dangerous place to be different from the herd.”
The influence of the Ranch reached beyond one small nightclub. The bands that hung out there created a musical movement that eventually became central to Manchester’s identity, a symbol of the city and its history. None more so than Buzzcocks, whose self-financed four-song EP Spiral Scratch was credited by critics with inaugurating the indie rock revolution.
Buzzcock’s Pete Shelley practically lived at the Ranch. Shelley was friendly and soft-spoken with a high-pitched voice who didn’t seem cut out for punk’s rough-and-tumble. I remember him walking around the club in ill-matching jumble sale clothes sporting an “I Love Boys” button and selling copies of Spiral Scratch at a pound a pop out of a satchel he carried with him.
Buzzcocks built on the scene they helped create by financing the Ranch’s in-house fanzine, Shy Talk. Ranch bartender Steve Shy stapled together pages featuring blurry photos and brief articles about all the local punk bands, along with visiting groups from London. Buzzcocks also inspired other Ranch denizens to form bands and offered them support slots.
Because of Buzzcocks’ influence, Manchester punk charted a different course than punk music in the rest of the country: smarter, more experimental and less clichéd.
“It was a bit like Australia,” Shelley would later say. “The animals had a chance to develop in their own peculiar ways, untainted by what was happening in the rest of the world.”
Another band that hung out at the Ranch was The Fall. The Fall was named after the Albert Camus novel La Chute. Singer Mark E. Smith was scrawny with a pronounced stoop and wore diamond-patterned sweaters purchased from the local flea market. He was nobody’s idea of a rock god, yet his presence was strangely mesmerising. The band was crude and tinny-sounding yet similarly hypnotic. One time, the group played a show at a youth club in Collyhurst, but after three songs, the man who ran the centre stopped them. So The Fall’s manager phoned up the Ranch and asked to finish the set there.
Two other musicians who frequented the club were bass player Peter Hook and guitarist Bernard Sumner. Like The Fall, the duo learnt to play their instruments after seeing the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. Despite their later gloomy image, the duo were ordinary working-class lads who liked to drink beer. “I remember Bernard [Sumner] because he had a ‘tache and always wore a white short-sleeved shirt with a black tie,” said Francis Taylor. “One night at the Ranch, he was selling copies of Shy Talk at the pie counter, and he said to me ‘You won’t see us around for a while, we’re forming a band and we’re going to start rehearsing.’ That band was Joy Division.”
Less famous musicians who frequented the Ranch were just as memorable. The Worst comprised Ranch mainstays Ian Hodges and Alan Deaves, two leather-jacketed car mechanics from Preston who looked like they never bathed. Alan liked to shock people by wearing a leather gimp mask with the word “RAPIST” scrawled across the forehead. Ian wore condoms as earrings. The quintessential punk band, The Worst couldn’t play their instruments and only had two songs, which didn’t prevent them from developing a cult following among rock critics. Writer Jon Savage called them “inspirational”.
Eventually, the Ranch changed. What at first was a safe haven for punks that allowed them to fly their freak flags high became more and more dangerous. People who wanted to beat up punks tried to sneak into the club. A crew of Teddy Boys who used to hang out at the Midland Hotel in Didsbury came to the club to start fights. Alan Deaves from The Worst got glassed in the face after he tried to break up a fight between punks and straights. A group of Manchester United fans stabbed another Ranch regular. One night, a mass brawl erupted between National Front skinheads and punks, which ended when Foo Foo Lamar smashed a beer bottle over one of the neo-Nazis’ heads.
A group of Perry boys — council estate kids who, with their floppy fringes and sharpened belt buckles, resembled the scuttling gangs of 19th-century Manchester — attacked me after I left the club. One of them snuck up behind me and hit me over the head with his belt buckle, leaving me with ten stitches and a nasty-looking scar.
By early 1978, the Ranch was on its last legs. The police raided the club, looking for drugs. They lined up the customers against a wall and searched them. As the violence increased, more and more punks stopped going. A new venue opened, Rafters on Oxford Street, which became the new punk hang-out.
As punks deserted the place, Jerry the doorman started letting in more hooligans. “One night, a fight broke out over a girl between kids from Wythenshawe and a group of barrow boys from Ancoats who sold fruit from stalls on Tib Street,” remembered Ranch bartender Steve Shy. “The bouncers threw out the Ancoats lads, but when the club closed, the Ancoats lads were waiting. One of the Wythenshawe kids punched out one of the Ancoats lads and he hit his head on the pavement.”
Two days later, he died in hospital, according to Shy.
Still, violence aside, the Ranch left an indelible mark on those who attended the club.
“That small room was a hive of chaos and creativity,” said Steve Diggle. “All those experiences are why I am who I am today. We had so little, yet we had so much.”