Bringing Down Chunks of the Ceiling

Andy Beckett

  • Manchester, England: The Story of the Pop Cult City by Dave Haslam
    Fourth Estate, 319 pp, £12.99, September 1999, ISBN 1 84115 145 9

On Tib Street in the centre of Manchester, in the part of the city keen to promote itself as the Northern Quarter, a new delicatessen recently opened. According to its website, Love Saves the Day is ‘an integrated, licensed, food and grocery store for urban living’. It has a mostly glass façade, and two different logos, and packages its goods with almost fetishistic attention. One brand of coffee comes in a metallic silver bag, with the following information printed down one side in varying sizes, colours and typefaces, as carefully laid-out as a magazine centrespread: ‘Northern Quarter Blend … Slack, smoky, complex, 24-7, domestic bliss … A cosmopolitan blend of coffees from each of the major growing regions, combining rich Indonesian complexity with sparkling Latin American fizz, and sunny African fruitiness, truly the world in a cup.’

The owner of Love Saves the Day used to be a pop musician. Chris Joyce was once the drummer for Simply Red, one of Manchester’s most internationally profitable and enduring bands. In one sense, his new enterprise is entirely appropriate: Simply Red’s music is the perfect sound for a certain sort of shop or restaurant – very upbeat and clean, assembled at some effort and expense, and keen to suggest luxury and good taste. You might hear it in the background as you reach for a shelf of cashmere sweaters, or see your food approaching on a big white plate. In Manchester these days, such pretend utopias are part of the landscape. Moderately prosperous people, and those who would like to be, can spend wet Saturdays as if they were in Milan or Madrid, consuming and coffee-sipping and practising their discernment. And in every other big British city, people will be doing the same: buying boots in the Italian Centre in Glasgow, bottled olives at Harvey Nichols in Leeds – little foreign treats lying in wait, behind thick glass, in repaved shopping precincts. It is hard to see this as entirely bad, but it might be making these cities blander.

Dave Haslam sometimes thinks it is. Towards the end of Manchester, England, a history of the city’s popular culture when it still could be described as unruly and unique, before it became comfortably Europeanised, before the delicatessens took over, he has a few sentences about the kind of life Manchester may be leaving behind: ‘This street culture is not about civic pride and marketing initiatives … It can, and will, thrive in crappy coffee bars, under leaking roofs or down unlit roads. It’s uncontrollable, uncomfortable and never far removed from the problems of everyday living.’

Haslam’s book is about Mancunian music and nightlife and intoxication, and all the rituals and subcultures the city has built up around them. It is not just local history: at times here, Manchester is Britain in microcosm, at others, a laboratory for modern leisure. Nor is it just extended music journalism: its story scrambles back into the 16th century, and loiters in the 19th. The quick, jittery pages attempt to chronicle and explain a collective sensibility: Manchester’s famed cheekiness and hedonism and aptitude for cultural invention. Haslam himself has been a participant in and observer of all this for two decades. He has been a big-name local DJ, a fanzine publisher, a face people recognise in Manchester’s tight grid of record shops and nightclubs. He can remember the days when Chris Joyce just made albums.

Haslam is not sentimental, though. His introduction starts in the smashed-up skeleton of a mill in the ex-industrial suburb of Ancoats, with a German TV crew wandering beneath the old walkways, looking for grimy shots to go with a three-minute guide to the city. Haslam patiently plays along (this is only for a satellite channel), steering them past a guard dog sign and deep into the rubble and silence. Then he gets his reward. The TV director gives him a quote which announces one of the themes of this book: ‘In Germany we know about the music and Manchester United, but when we think of how Manchester looks we think of this.’

It has never been a comfortable place. From its first years as an industrial city, Manchester was notoriously overcrowded, jerrybuilt and grey. The ‘poor quality of straight life’, as Haslam drily puts it, gave a ‘mania’ to the population’s efforts at escape. Drinking was already a notorious local pastime – the beer was safer than the water – but the sheer density and novelty of the 19th-century city generated less traditional mass appetites. Music halls with capacities of thousands crammed freak shows, songs and comedy acts together into drawn-out evenings of drunken, unstable raucousness. The way in was rarely wider than a shop doorway: ‘The authorities never really knew what went on in these halls.’ Precisely who went in mystified them, too; when a stampede at Ben Lang’s music hall killed 23 people in 1868, the victims were described as ‘street Arabs’. Local rumour muttered about prostitutes and criminals. A cycle had been established in which a craze or subculture would emerge, swell to bursting point, and alarm the city authorities into belatedly banning it. Venues would be closed, the promoters and their punters would move on, and a new mutation would appear down the road.

The very routine of the mills helped promote such illicit behaviour. On the one hand, there was the monotony of the work and the need to forget about it. On the other, there was the growing familiarity with noise and claustrophobia and environments that had nothing to do with fresh air and countryside. And the mill-owners, pioneeringly, provided shorter working hours – the ‘Manchester week’ – and relatively regular employment; the population acquired the money and time for new weekend pleasures. Some of these sound familiar. ‘Working lads,’ Charles Russell wrote in Manchester Boys, published in 1905, ‘generally change into their Sunday clothes, or, in their own expressive language, “toff themselves up”, for Saturday night, and even if they have been to a concert, a theatre, or a music hall, will take a tour round the market before finally going home.’ The street, after dusk, was becoming a place to hang around: to stare and pose, to show off your clothes, to avoid spending money or seeing your parents. Haslam is good at explaining the growth of Manchester’s particularly deep-rooted gang culture out of these basic desires. By the late 19th century, certain street corners were being claimed, certain routes into town had become parades. The only problem was the rain.

A way of dressing evolved to combat the Pennine chill. Gang members, who were known as ‘scuttlers’, wore layers of baggy clothes, caps to warm and hide their faces, thick-soled shoes for the cobbles and puddles, and – a perennial Manchester favourite – flares. Anyone who has seen today’s Mancunian lads, in knee-to-chin anoraks, clustering in Piccadilly Gardens, or watched the city fill up with flapping denim and fat puffa jackets in the late 1980s and early 1990s, will recognise the local preference for width and pavement presence. From the mid-19th century until the 1940s, the nocturnal shuttlings of such groups of young men and women were known as ‘monkey runs’: their routes formed circles and triangles, with one sex on each side of the road and countless halts in shop doorways. Passers-by complained to the papers about jostling and rowdiness. But the Manchester sprawl, with its canals and cut-throughs, its slivers of leftover countryside, its sudden new buildings and maze of yards, was a paradise for wanderers. With some relish, Haslam claims Thomas De Quincey as a prototype local raver: ‘He would get dosed up on Tuesdays and Saturdays and go out listening to music, carrying with him at all times “portable ecstasies”, tinctures of laudanum.’ Every time he passed a cotton mill on the city outskirts, the factory workers would bellow taunts about his knee-high tasselled boots.

In the first four chapters here, such details make Haslam’s Manchester feel concrete and alive. As the street names and small incidents and long-forgotten slang terms trail from paragraph to paragraph, there is a sense of a place being reclaimed, as when Iain Sinclair rediscovered East London in the late 1970s. And, like Sinclair, Haslam has a polemical intention, a wish to set up his favourite city as the true, mongrel England against the green fields beyond: ‘The disharmony you can’t miss; it’s in the collisions of race and class, the geography of the city, the architecture, the traffic, the pollution. It’s another world … to the England of the National Trust, the tranquil gardens of stately homes, or the untouched moors.’ He might equally be describing the difference between Somerset and South London; but Haslam is quick to distance Manchester from the capital. For the first half of the book, London is a malign, controlling presence, sending troops to suppress the Mancunian ‘mob’, drafting laws to smother their excitements. During the second half, London becomes the repository of ‘West End values’, described, stereotypically, as ‘hypnotised by “style”, by form over content, by “design” and packaging … It was all too lifeless.’ A few times, Haslam’s defensiveness turns into a kind of PR for his region. ‘Manchester is the clubbing capital of England,’ he asserts, all his usual distance disappearing, ‘the city with a renowned nightlife and dozens of important bands.’ Later, sounding like a memo-writer to the mayor, he calls for ‘a long-term strategy directed towards creative and social empowerment’.

The central section of his book is rather blighted by this sort of opacity and pride. The Manchester of the 1950s and 1960s flashes by too fast. There are a pair of droll stories about Jimmy Savile, the city’s first big DJ. When his lunchtime sessions at the Plaza, a club in the city centre, began to empty the neighbouring schools and colleges on weekdays, he prepared a stock answer for complaining headteachers. ‘You’ve had it too easy for too long,’ it began. ‘If you make your school more attractive than my dancehall you can keep them.’ For further publicity, Savile decided to acquire a flash car: he bought an old wreck with his tiny savings, had a Rolls-Royce radiator fitted to the front, and got a local garage to hammer and respray the car into an approximation of a luxury saloon.

As the book’s territory grows more contemporary, and more directly familiar to him, Haslam stops making the most of his stories. The pages narrow to a pop music narrative. And, like a lot of writing on the subject, it forgets to introduce us properly to the characters, or to tell us what the bands actually sounded like. Instead, we get a blur of names and assumptions: ‘Eventually Manicured Noise took to rehearsing there … Meanwhile, the Smiths were at their peak …’ Manchester’s development from a quiet outpost of British pop in the mid-1970s, to its second city in the late 1970s, to its boisterous capital for most of the 1980s and early 1990s, is not depicted with the vividness it deserves. In 1990, American news magazines were putting ‘Madchester’, as it was known that winter, on their front covers – complete with drug-dealing musicians, lurid ‘scuttler’-style fashions, and some of the most sinister pop songs ever to dominate the Top Forty. Yet Haslam is too busy being comprehensive and all-connecting to pause and magnify. He cites all the other clever British pop authorities – Michael Bracewell, Jon Savage, Simon Reynolds – while replicating their tendency to jump frustratingly between subjects and stiffen up their sentences with jargon. Haslam’s footnotes, interestingly, are much more relaxed and informative. Here he can just be an enthusiast, not a quasi-academic, and linger on his favourite records and venues without rushing to canonise them.

Once he has finished with his pop narrative, the book improves again. The physical city returns: he describes the link, for example, between Manchester’s manufacturing traditions of ‘importing cotton, then colouring and reworking it’, a ‘non-precious, non-purist attitude’, and the local talent for taking musical ideas from London and America, warping and fusing them, and selling them back. Then there is a revelatory chapter about Moss Side, the city’s most infamous inner suburb. It started as marshy fields, then filled up with overflow housing for poor Irish and Welsh arrivals during the mid-19th century. Lloyd George was born there in 1863; Engels rented rooms in the vicinity for his secret Irish girlfriend, Mary Burns. When West Indian immigrants started arriving in Manchester, one of the few places they could find landlords to take them was Moss Side. The same went for their entertainment: the city centre pubs and clubs, for all their noise and cheekiness, did not generally welcome revellers of a different colour. So Moss Side spread its own night-time strip along Oxford Road: black-owned clubs and restaurants, cafés and houses that held early-hours parties. Jomo Kenyatta, the future first president of Kenya, worked in a local restaurant called the Cosmopolitan.

The outside view of all this was predictably paranoid. In 1957, the Evening Chronicle called for ‘a united effort to sweep up the dregs of Moss Side’, describing it as ‘Manchester’s Little Harlem’ and a ‘hot-bed of vice and corruption’. During the 1960s and 1970s, the area was flattened for towerblocks. The old houses had been decaying, but the city council’s intentions, to judge by the promise of the Housing Committee Chairman to leave ‘no more than a sprinkling of coloured people’ in Moss Side, does not seem to have been benign. By 1981, the neighbourhood was rioting. Locally, Haslam says, the episode is still known as ‘the uprising’. His picture of the area in the last twenty years is, here and there, less bleak: he introduces the Moss Side sound systems and novelists and annual carnival with the enthusiasm of a city liberal. Until, that is, he goes to interview a photographer: ‘When I talked to him about his work in Moss Side, I kept using the word “community”, but he eventually interrupted me. For him, there are no supportive, identifiable, shared values and aims.’

The Manchester of Haslam’s conclusions is ‘an uneasy city’, ‘never a safe city’, a place of melancholy as well as manic energy. The current suicide rate for young men is twice the British average. The weather, the high asthma rate, the loneliness of the outer concrete estates – the late 20th-century city can be made to sound as alienating as the city a hundred years ago, when thousands of Mancunians still lived in cellars. ‘If Manchester in our era has a uniform,’ Haslam writes, ‘it’s the anonymous lad, hooded and hidden from the watchful gaze of CCTV.’ If Manchester music has a legendary sound, it is the empty-factory echo of Joy Division.

The book spends less time on the city’s happier recent exports – trophy-winning football stars and fashionable comedians and a gay soap opera loved by heterosexuals. Although Haslam, as a DJ, is an expert at getting people to smile and dance, his most striking section on nightclubs concerns the local gangs and how, evening by evening, they infiltrated, came to control, and eventually force the closure of Manchester’s most successful ones. At one venue, the Lighthouse in Hulme, ‘gunfire became a feature … shots fired into the air to hype up the vibe.’ The management got upset: ‘the bullets were bringing chunks of the ceiling down on the dancers’ heads.’ The Mancunian music scene will never become completely domesticated, however many times Tony Blair invites Noel Gallagher to Downing Street. But it could be hollowed out by London. Haslam DJs down there now. Gallagher drinks in Islington pubs. Morrissey of the Smiths, once a wanderer in crumbling Manchester cemeteries, bought a creamy villa near Regent’s Park.

Perhaps the delicatessens make such Mancunians unnecessary now. Perhaps bluster and street wisdom and scrambling a good night together are outdated skills, like running a music hall or spinning out a ‘monkey run’. Manchester’s pop culture – this is one of Haslam’s running themes – always shadows the city’s more respectable economy. Now that this means a vast Waterstone’s and vaster Marks and Spencer, and Love Saves the Day with its ‘specialist fresh breads’ and ‘committed team’ of expert vendors, the traditional local need for frantic release may be easing. One day, though, they’ll run out of Mancunian tunes for the in-store stereos.