Friedrich Engels described the scene in the centre of Manchester on a Saturday night: ‘Intemperance may be seen in all its brutality. I have rarely come out of Manchester on such an evening without meeting numbers of people staggering and seeing others lying in the gutter.’ The habits of the citizens of Manchester are unchanged. Going out is still a high priority; so is intemperance. The night life in the city has even become a tourist attraction. A few years ago you’d see coaches from Stoke, Leeds and London lining the streets outside the Hacienda, a cavernous old warehouse and Manchester’s most famous nightclub. Working as a DJ first at the Hacienda, then at the Boardwalk, I’ve met Americans, Germans and Australians drawn there by Manchester’s reputation.
The Hacienda is no longer dominant in club culture, but night-clubbing remains as much a part of the cultural life of the city as the Hallé Orchestra, the cinemas, the theatres. The recession has hit hard, and for many clubbers the precious few hours on the dance floor on a Friday or Saturday are the highlight of the week. For excitement and camaraderie, the disco sure beats the dole office.
Manchester’s theatres have had a more difficult time in recent years, but there’s a new initiative which might reverse this trend: Manchester City of Drama 1994. Claiming to be ‘the greatest celebration of drama ever’, no less, City of Drama 1994 is to present a year-long festival embracing professional and amateur groups, youth theatres and visiting international companies. At a press conference at Manchester Airport in January, it was announced that the Airport was donating £300,000 towards the cost of staging City of Drama 1994. Celebrities were introduced and speeches were made. Mr Gil Thompson, Chief Executive of Manchester Airport, cited James Agate, Asa Briggs and J.B. Priestley on the splendours of Manchester’s cultural past. Mr Thompson didn’t quote Engels. Nor, understandably, John Ruskin: ‘Manchester can produce no good art, and no good culture.’
Despite the presence at the press conference of John Thaw (alias Inspector Morse), the good news announced at the Airport failed to make the front pages of any of the local newspapers. Manchester City Council had its own announcement to make: a £51m crisis, resulting in widespread cuts in jobs and services. Four hundred teachers’ jobs may be lost, and youth training schemes dismantled. The £6m cuts in social services are likely to put the disabled and the elderly at risk and pre-school provision for the under-fives is in turmoil. The Council says that the cash crisis has been forced on them by reduced government funding and rate-capping threats.
These contradictions – money being found for prestige projects while citizens suffer financial and social deprivation – have been evident in the last few years in cities like Glasgow, Sheffield and Birmingham. City-centre development in Manchester has grown apace recently, led by the Central Manchester Development Corporation, a body set up to dole out European and government funds to private companies in the area. Old warehouses have been turned into posh flats and derelict offices into luxury hotels; the British Council has a beautiful new building off Whitworth Street, and the Hallé Orchestra is getting £22m from the Council for a new concert hall. The new landscape is a result of a mixture of public and private-sector money and enterprise. But what it says to the citizens who don’t use luxury hotels or visit the Hallé is this: there’s a lot of money about, but the people who need it most aren’t getting it.
The Airport is owned by Manchester City Council and the surrounding boroughs. Although £300,000 is less than 1 per cent of its gross trading profit, technically the money could have been paid as an increased dividend to the shareholders to offset their cash crises. But the City Council’s support for the City of Drama is predictable: another boost to the city’s portfolio of prestigious schemes. In international and national competition with each other, cities are forced to market themselves. The struggle both to give life to positive images and to suppress negative ones is all-important in the drive to attract business, grants and investment. Like magazines on a newsagent’s shelf, cities vie with each other, proclaiming: ‘I am glossiest. Love me. Buy me.’ The arts are part of a city’s product development. Architecture is a form of packaging.
Perhaps we need the arts more than ever in times of crisis and recession: better self-expression with a pen than a gun. But it’s the greatest competition of them all, Manchester’s bid to host the Olympic Games in the year 2000, which provides the rationale behind the acceleration of public and private spending on the arts and city building projects. The city’s Olympic bid is turning into an almighty gamble. With sizeable amounts of money begged from the EC and the Government, our city fathers are mad novices at the casino: the stakes are getting higher and higher as desperation takes hold. If Manchester wins we’re promised a bonanza, but no one is telling us what will happen if we lose.
As well as football, pop music is one of the areas that has helped to give Manchester an international profile. Indeed – the traditional Mancunian intemperance and penchant for lying in gutters notwithstanding – the City of Drama press brochure makes great play of what it describes as ‘the continuing rise of [the] Manchester pop scene – the frenetic nightclubs, the trend setting youth’.
In 1989 and 1990 Manchester – then dubbed ‘Madchester’ – was the most talked-about pop city in the world. Back in 1987 the Hacienda (a club controlled by local record label Factory) had been the first club in Britain to play House music – a hard and technologically advanced mutation of disco music which originated in Chicago and Detroit. The arrival of House heralded a major change in British pop, and opened the way for the massive rave movement of recent years. It also reasserted the dance floor as the prime site for pop culture, and elevated the club DJ to a position of power and importance. Since 1986 my DJ wages have rocketed at a rate that leaves inflation well behind, and in 1990 I went with three others on a DJ-ing tour of America. During 1990 and 1991 I went to Paris every month. In March I’m going to Geneva and Lyons. It’s a lucky life: the luck was being in the right place (the DJ box), in the right club (the Hacienda), in the right city (Manchester).
House music was still underground when other Manchester clubs like the Thunderdome and Konspiracy spread the word, and the sounds these clubs were playing began to influence the predominantly guitar-oriented local band scene. Some groups fused the new dance rhythms with the rawness of rock, others (notably 808 State) made their own, skewed version of House. By the summer of 1990 the Madchester boom had peaked, but not before Newsweek had documented the phenomenon in a cover story.
Madchester is ancient history now, but history that offers lessons about what a city can gain from great moments in pop culture. The success of Manchester’s musicians dragged with it fashion designers, artists and clubs, and thus gave a certain section of the city cohesion and a means of self-expression. Applications for student places in Manchester rose by 30 per cent. Madchester also drew tourists, not just to the clubs, but to the clothes stalls and record shops as well. Madchester meant business. Madchester began as a grassroots phenomenon which the London-based media eventually stopped ignoring. Once noticed, the local music moguls rode on the waves of hype, and taught local politicians a lesson: the marketing of the city had started, and it hasn’t stopped yet.
Manchester’s music community, however, began to face problems from the middle of 1990, not the least of which was the inevitable press backlash. Once everyone had run the story of how alive Manchester was, they had only one story left – how dead it was. Another major problem was that violence began to infect the clubs. The troubles that occurred at the Hacienda are well-known, but most clubs suffered. The Thunderdome was burned down not long after a gang in a slow-moving car strafed the club’s doormen with gunfire. At the Hacienda events unfolded with apparently unstoppable momentum: drugs (especially ecstasy and speed) became part of the House music scene, drug dealers moved in to meet the demand, and then gangs fought over the lucrative territory. Violence forced the closure of the Hacienda for three-and-a-half months. The real world had invaded our adventure playground: suddenly it didn’t seem like fun any more. The high couldn’t be sustained. I left the Hacienda for the Boardwalk to revive the excitement of taking a place and bringing it to life. As for Factory Records, the closure of their club and the recession seriously damaged their financial position.
The situation at Factory was made worse by a lack of direction in the signing and nurturing of new acts on its label. Director, and sometime chairman, Anthony Wilson had been a happy surfer on the waves of Madchester hype, but while the reputation of his club was made on the back of House, his label misunderstood the revolutionary impact of the music. No House music acts were signed to Factory. Where it really mattered – in its roster of artists – it was clear that the record label was out of touch.
In September 1992 Factory hosted In The City, a gathering of international record company executives. It was a backslapping cocaine-fest which did nothing to save Factory from their money problems, and merely exposed the hideous way men in suits can distort a culture born out of reckless youthful creativity. Pop music culture doesn’t lend itself easily to establishment patronage. Its saving grace is that it can’t be guaranteed to provide positive images, or money-making opportunities.
Factory’s eagerness to embrace the pop music establishment showed just how far they’d come from their iconoclastic post-punk roots. Those of us who’d worked in parts of the Factory empire had long since lost our illusions. It had become clear that Factory were creatively and financially bankrupt. Within weeks of allying themselves with the industry’s businessmen at In The City, Factory Records went into receivership. No one can get by on hype alone. There’s a feeling in the local music community that the death of Factory is set to trigger a renewal of grass-roots energy in Manchester and the re-establishment of small-scale DIY networks of independent labels, venues, shops and clubs. These are the conditions in which inspiration should be able to thrive, away from the slow-moving corporate music industry. And my Factory-Madchester-Hacienda years are over, a love affair laid to rest.
Meanwhile, the kind of violence which dogged the Hacienda hasn’t disappeared. Last March the Wiggly Worm club was ramraided: a Salford gang crashed a stolen car through the front doors after being denied entry. I’ve seen guns in clubs on two occasions. I’ve also of course seen thousands of people having the time of their lives.
The murder of Benji Stanley in Moss Side on 2 January (the second killing in that district in a week) received widespread press attention. Benji, a 14-year old schoolboy, was shot by masked gunmen at Alvino’s pattie and dumplin’ shop on Great Western Street. In a show of support for the community, boxer Chris Eubank visited schools in the area and took part in a peace march. Eubank’s visit was national news, although the ironies of a professional fighter preaching non-violence weren’t missed.
Moss Side and Hulme seem to have avoided the worst of the Council cuts – councillors have heeded the pleas of local community leaders not to damage social services in the area. The difficulties remain, however. On the one hand, the City Council not only acknowledges the problems in Moss Side and elsewhere but depends on publicity to strengthen its case for government action and funds. On the other, the existence of this ‘downside’ can only undermine the attempts being made to present the city as a glossy, arts-saturated proposition for investors, private enterprise and the International Olympic Committee. The Council is caught like a beleaguered tourist at traffic lights in a foreign city: marooned, and looking both ways.
One of the commonest complaints you hear in Moss Side is about the way the media have sensationalised its problems, including Benji’s death. The hopelessness felt among the older generation especially is exacerbated by media images which some people feel fuel the crisis, and dishearten those struggling to do the ‘right thing’. Others, more cynically, accept that it can take lurid reports of killings like Benji’s to alert politicians both locally and nationally to the plight of areas like Moss Side.
From Madchester to Gunchester, the media stereotypes keep coming – and are no more inaccurate than the shrieking marketing slogans favoured by local PR companies. Feel-good phrases dreamt up by the Council and the Central Manchester Development Corporation – ‘Manchester – A Major European City’, ‘The City of Golden Opportunity’ and ‘Manchester – Making It Happen’ – do nothing so much as anger local citizens. Or make us fall about with helpless laughter. We’re not stupid. The gulf between what the rolling hype behind the Olympic bid is trying to tell us about our city, and the reality of our day-today lives is vast, with unemployment, homelessness and urban crime overwhelming us, and cuts in education and social services looming. So who speaks for our city? The celebrities? The councillors? The motormouths in the music business? The dead writers? In this miasma of competing voices, no one can be believed.
We’re thrown back on the most primitive form of human communication: rumour. Funny and believable, hundreds are in circulation. Some concern hospital closures, magistrates getting caught kerb-crawling, inside jobs when clubs are robbed, and crises with the rolling stock on the recently opened tram system. There’s a rumour that one teenage victim of a recent gun attack in Moss Side had £35,000 in the bank. That some councillor or other has privately conceded defeat in the Olympic bid. That Anthony Wilson is involved in attempts to start Son of Factory.
A week or so ago, I heard a rumour that the Airport was looking for five hundred volunteers to spend a day rehearsing the newly-built second terminal by checking in empty luggage. They were overwhelmed by the response: hundreds of people were only too keen to queue all day at the Airport with empty suitcases and bags, going nowhere. Yesterday the story was confirmed: it’s a rumour that turned out to be true.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.