Twenty years ago it was British music’s humming nexus; the drugs were ecstatic, the trousers baggy and the business sense dubious. Karen Frost ruminates on the legacy of the scene they christened Madchester and finds much to be positive about.
On the 23rd November 1989 The Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays both appeared on Top of the Pops, and a nation awoke to the news that ‘Madchester’ was up, running and open for business. The Mondays performed ‘Hallelujah’, a track from their Madchester Rave-On EP, the Roses, ‘Fool’s Gold’. Both bands were interviewed by Nick Kent for The Face who, in a predictably phonetic rendering of their Mancunian voices, laid their inarticulacy and drug-love bare and despaired: “A hundred years ago, most of this mob would've ended up on a pressgang. Today, one month shy of 1990, they’re the two great dark British hopes of pop for a whole new decade. So what does that tell you about civilization and the nineties?” Well, with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall during the very same month, civilization was doing quite nicely, thank you very much, but a cursory glance at the pop charts reveals that whether gormless gurn-fest or genuine musical revolution, whatever had been brewing in Manchester over the previous months had bubbled up to the surface in the nick of time.
The back end of 1989 had seen the distressing chart dominance of Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, a father and son outfit fronted by a cartoon rabbit. Seemingly straight outta the working men’s club circuit, their inane cut ‘n’ paste of re-recorded early rock n’roll records betrayed a cynicism that would have made Stock, Aiken and Waterman and the entire cast of Neighbours blush. Here, to save us, was a scene when we needed it most: drugs, swagger, naughty boys, strange trousers and funky drumming. Oh, and a nightclub, the Haçienda, to enjoy it all in. Perfect.
The Haçienda’s role as crucible for the musical alchemy that created ‘Madchester’ in the late ’80s and early ’90s has become the stuff of legend, if not cliché; embedded as it is in the stories of New Order, The Happy Mondays, Anthony Wilson and Factory Records and immortalized in Michael Winterbottom’s movie, 24 Hour Party People. The Haçienda has become emblematic of the period, a convenient symbol of the time when indie met dance, loads of people necked some E and got down to the same tunes. Its famously shambolic day to day operation (it was never ‘run’ as such, just kind of let loose) is also pretty useful for misty-eyed reminiscences about a time before everything got corporate; you know, the good old days. In an interview given to The Times in 2007, former Haçienda DJ and author Dave Haslam talks about the haphazard way the club developed: “it all evolved in a very unforced and instinctive way… there was never ever a meeting about the music the DJs should play; we just got on with it, did what we felt was right. Since then I’ve become aware of how much cultural activity isn’t like that; it’s all marketing theories and focus groups and corporate sponsors.”
While that undeniably wistful memory comes over a bit “we had a trip to the cinema, a bag of chips, a packet of fags and change from fourpence”, the idea of a genuine, creatively chaotic, heterogeneous music scene existing beyond the machinations of ‘the Man’ is incredibly seductive and it’s genuinely depressing to imagine that it might never happen again.
Clearly, the attempt to corral diversity and creativity in to a neat, tidy and easily ingested package like ‘baggy’ (a name coined in honour of the self-styled Mancunian uniform of voluminous jeans and outsized parkas) is reductive; one that goes hand-in-hand with the ‘marketing theories’ of commodification. Nostalgia too, has a part to play. As the musician and writer John Robb points out: “even bands that are seen as very much part of this legacy like the Stone Roses were once outsiders and only now comfortably fit into the myth because the passage of time has blurred the edges.” However, according to some, the domination of major labels at this time had a negative influence on the growth and survival of young bands. The journalist Jon Ronson remembers the frustrations of his brief stint as a band manager in Manchester in this period: “in 1989 the Roses and the Mondays became so loved, and were so charismatic, that anyone who wasn't really like them got swept away. There was a fantastic culture of Smiths-inspired bands that really got swept away, and awful baggy Mondays wannabes got major deals.”
Twenty years later, an increasingly decentralized music business has provided the space for diversity to flourish. Contemporary Mancunian musicians are overwhelmingly positive about a wide-ranging music culture that is sustained by a supportive infrastructure of venues, festivals and creative initiatives. Sophie Parkes, violinist with Mancunian psych–folk combo Air Cav, is one such: “There is a strong music community in the city, I feel, mainly because there are so many local venues/festivals/radio stations that are interested in the music that the city is creating and actively go out of their way to promote it. There are many platforms for local bands to get their music heard. I think the city’s music scene is fractured to a degree, though, as it is segregated by genre –but I think that’s inevitable, as that’s how we consume our music now.” Brothers David and Neil Newport, who comprise two thirds of the dance-electro trio Shmoo, agree: “There doesn’t seem to be any one ‘particular place’ where everyone wants to play in Manchester any more, as there are so many good venues and performance areas cropping up all over the city. All have their own personal feel/atmosphere which suits the huge variety of artists emerging.”
This ‘huge variety’ manifests itself in smaller communities of musicians developing at their own pace, as musician and club promoter Jay Taylor confirms: “Plainly there’s no all-pervading genre at work here (there never has been) and across two and a half million Greater Mancunians you’ll find devotees covering every base. What you will find is countless small communities huddling around their individual projects – festivals, labels, rehearsal spaces, studios, online resource sites and of course a handful of smaller venues serving as some sort of nucleus for these emerging communities to congregate and mix in. It was difficult for the Haçienda to do this with nascent scenes as it was so damn huge.” The internet is invaluable here, of course, with services such as Twitter providing instant contact and communication. Jay continues: “Gone are the days when event and release information rested solely in the hands of newspaper listings and street posters; music consumers now have the huge benefit of minute to minute information.” This all suggests a very healthy DIY culture: motivation and a bit of business nous on the part of musicians allowing for an unprecedented pluralism in the city.
The received wisdom on pre-baggy, post-punk Manchester is that the gloom of unemployment and boredom, combined with an inherited punk ethic, led people to music (or to football, but that’s another story). The empty warehouses and factories provided cheap rehearsal spaces, and the success of bands such as the Buzzcocks, the Fall, Joy Division and the Smiths provided inspiration. The pervading culture was DIY by default: in a lousy economy, and with no other alternative, bands worked hard on their projects and forged a community, crossing paths at the same gigs, clubs, rehearsal rooms and parties, not to mention the Government funded ‘Restart’ courses for the long-term unemployed. Today, in our technologically empowered times, DIY has evolved. David and Neil from local electronic popsters Shmoo agree. “In terms of the DIY-ness that bands were adopting back [in 1989], this is something you see now more than ever. With the scale and power of the internet over the music industry you see more and more DIY indie labels coming up or being put together.”
This is where initiatives like the Un-Convention conference come in. Launched by Manchester’s Fat Northerner Records, the conference aims to address the issues faced by self-releasing bands, promoters, agents and DIY labels in a constantly evolving music industry. With panel discussions debating topics such as the effects of the current economic climate on the live industry, Un-Convention is practical, forward thinking and inclusive: event organizers ensure that tickets are kept to a reasonable price, and, rather like the Ladyfest festival, the development of the format in other cities (the next one is to be held in Belfast) is actively encouraged and supported.
It was, arguably, the success of the bands of the baggy period that laid the foundations for today’s kind of creativity to happen. According to John Robb, whose oral history The North Will Rise Again – Manchester Music City 1976-1996 details Manchester music in this period, the legacy of this era is felt far and wide: “The baggy period made it easier for independent bands to chart and even Radio One started playing guitar music. This resulted in the boom of guitar bands throughout the next twenty years.” He continues: “Britpop was arguably Madchester part two: a version of Madchester played out nationally with London bands joining the fray.” According to Robb, the self-confidence generated by this level of success and influence even has a distinct physical presence in the city: “You could argue that the baggy/Haçienda/acid house period rebuilt the whole of the Manchester city centre; the ideas were already in place and the opening of the Haçienda in the early eighties showed the way […] the celebration of the Haçienda myth at the heart of the city’s music scene and culture has been replicated right across the city.”
This sense of reification has taken shape in more ways than one: ever self-aware, Manchester’s creative elders gathered together in 2008 to stage a 24-hour conversation as a tribute to Anthony Wilson, the late Factory Records founder and enduring Manchester music icon. Billed as a “Binge Thinking Session” Reification: the Tony Wilson Experience featured a panel of music and media creatives in conversation before a selected audience of two hundred young people from across the city. According to Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, the body funding the event, “the Tony Wilson Experience [was] designed to stimulate, inspire and engage the next generation of cultural innovators from Manchester.” While undoubtedly nostalgic, with the potential to turn into one big Mancunian smug-athon, the impetus behind this event points to perhaps the greatest legacy any era can leave, the passing on of knowledge: encouraging, nurturing and valuing independent cultural activity. Whether this leads to the kind of high-profile successes of the Madchester period or not, a culture that actively promotes participation rather than passive consumption can only be a positive thing. John Robb was one of those who took part in the event, and in his view, the most constructive aspect of it was the opportunity it afforded for people to build relationships: “The connections they made are one of the things that makes a city culturally work – people knowing each other and working together: that was one of the key factors in eighties Manchester – the so called ‘village Manchester’, when everyone seemed to know everyone else and no matter how diverse the music scene was there was a sense of community. The Tony Wilson Experience was an attempt to rekindle these ideas with one generation attempting to pass its energy to the next generation and also mix the ideas up.”
Ventures such as this and the Un-Convention conference suggest a new approach: while the Haçienda’s ‘instinctive’ and spontaneous, unplanned evolution and attendant cultural impact belong to days gone by, there is now more room than ever for innovation. As Jay Taylor puts it: “In this respect Manchester is in far greater shape than it’s ever been [...] yes, there is far less instinctive, organic growth here but budding musicians, promoters, managers, label owners, publishers and punters are far better served which is unequivocally a good thing.” In the re-imagining of Manchester’s Madchester years it is the sense of diversity that gets lost, a scene in that sense is necessarily insular, parochial, something that belongs to the past. Now with an increasingly sophisticated relationship between music producers and consumers, and the global reach of the internet, it seems a good time to move on.