Growing up working class in 1970s Manchester felt like living in a city that history had left behind. With constant labor strikes, weekly factory closings and ever-lengthening unemployment lines, the one-time Victorian boom town made rich by the mass production of textiles had come to resemble a disposable industrial appliance that someone had thrown out with the trash.
Slum clearance had turned large swathes of the city into an eerie lunar landscape, where the only buildings left standing were a handful of pubs and churches. Traveling to school by bus every day, I would peer through the window and watch in bewilderment as construction workers bulldozed shabby-but-stable row house communities and slowly replaced them with monstrous A Clockwork Orange-style housing projects that soon became incubators for the social ills they were supposed to cure. The fear that our modest home would be next to fall to the wrecking ball—as well as the fear that my dad, who could barely read or write, would lose his job printing cereal boxes in a local factory—dominated the conversation at my family’s dinner table. Times were so tough, we seriously considered emigrating to Australia.
Add in the atmosphere of purposeless violence that permeated the social life of the city, where a casual remark in a club could end with a trip to the hospital, and it’s no wonder that “grim” was the adjective best used to describe Manchester in those days. I distinctly recall checking the soccer scores before I went out on a Saturday night so as to gauge the level of mayhem to expect from the spew-flecked beer monsters waiting at the bus station.
But something was about to happen that would allow Manchester to reclaim its place in the history books, something that spoke to the self-sufficiency and creativity of the people who lived there, something epoch-making that would not only change the city but the face of modern music. And it all began with a concert by a then-obscure London rock group on the 4th June, 1976 in an upstairs room of a classical music concert hall that was better known as the home of the world-famous Halle Orchestra.
The Show That Made History
The Sex Pistols’ Manchester debut at the Lesser Free Trade Hall is one of the most mythologized gigs in rock history, the concert’s meaning dissected in countless books, documentaries and magazine articles. Widely regarded as the genesis of the Manchester punk scene, the actual event—at which the Pistols hammered through a set that included covers of the Monkees’ “Stepping Stone” and the Stooges’ “No Fun”—was a relatively low-key affair, certainly not the world-shattering event it was subsequently portrayed as, especially compared to previous raucous shows by the punk rock pioneers who had a reputation for getting into fights with the audience.
The concert’s mythic status rests less on the Pistols’ performance that night and more on the fifty people who ponied up the equivalent of a dollar admission price: the writers, entrepreneurs and musicians who subsequently become famous. Among them were Buzzcocks’ founders Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley, who organized the event and met their bass player Steve Diggle there after Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren introduced them. Two boozy buddies, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner, were also on hand to witness the performance. Duly impressed, Hook went out the next day to buy a bass guitar and set about forming a band with Sumner that would become Joy Division.
Also present was a local teenage wallflower named Steven Patrick Morrissey, the future Pope of Mope, who thought that the Pistols were a poor imitation of his beloved New York Dolls and wrote a letter to the British music weekly New Musical Express after the gig. “I’d love to see the Pistols make it,” he wrote. “Maybe then they can afford some clothes that don’t look like they’ve been slept in.”
An encore performance by the Sex Pistols at the same venue six weeks later attracted local newscaster Tony Wilson, who would go on to co-found Factory Records; Mark E. Smith, soon-to-be uberfuhrer of Mancunian musical mainstays, the Fall; and a shy young man named Ian Curtis who was accompanied by his wife Deborah. Curtis had yet to meet Sumner and Hook but Deborah Curtis later described the effect the gig had on her husband: “It re-affirmed Ian’s belief that anybody could become a rock star.”
Despite the meager turnout, the two Lesser Free Trade Hall gigs created a buzz in the city which only intensified after Tony Wilson booked them to make their television debut on his early evening experimental pop show, So It Goes, where the group performed “Anarchy in The U.K.” four months before the song was released as a single. Now there was maybe ten, twenty times as many people who attended the Lesser Free Trade Hall shows talking about this revolutionary rock band who were more into chaos than music.
The look of the Sex Pistols—what Vivienne Westwood, who designed the band’s clothes, called “confrontation fashion”—particularly fascinated Manchester’s large contingent of David Bowie and Roxy Music fans. The boys who dressed like Thin White Duke-era Bowie or, like myself, Bryan Ferry during his GI Joe phase, and the girls who modeled themselves on the pencil-skirted vamp from the cover of Roxy Music’s second album For Your Pleasure, would soon be spiking up their hair and ripping up their clothes, spray painting “Hate and War” on the back of their jackets. Bowie’s message to his fans that they were their own self-creation found a natural fit with punk’s DIY spirit.
By December, when the Sex Pistols played a third gig at a dilapidated and foul-smelling former bingo hall known as the Electric Circus, on a bill that also included Buzzcocks, the Clash and the Heartbreakers, the pocket-sized community that had formed after the Lesser Free Trade Hall concerts had morphed into a fledgling scene.
“Punk had started to hit the press hard,” says Denise Shaw, one of the original Manchester punks, referencing the profanity-laced interview that British TV host Bill Grundy conducted with the Sex Pistols that catapulted them to tabloid infamy. “The place was packed due to massive amount of publicity the Pistols had been getting.”
My most vivid memory of seeing the Sex Pistols at the Electric Circus is what happened after the show when I got jumped from behind by a bunch of neighborhood kids and received a serious kicking that left me cut and bruised for weeks. That was my introduction to the Perry Boys, an ultra-violent subculture of soul boys who sported wedge haircuts and Fred Perry t-shirts, and who would be later immortalized by the Fall on the song “City Hobgoblins.”
Still, that didn’t stop me the next week from chopping off my Bryan Ferry-style hairdo, buying a dog collar and black garbage bag on which I stenciled “I Hate Pink Floyd,” much to the amusement of my poor Irish mom. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, just look at yourself,” she said between gales of laughter. “You’re wearing a dustbin liner.”
Manchester during this period was a dangerous place to stand out from the crowd. If the Perry Boys didn’t get you, then the Teddy Boys (the U.K. equivalent of rockabilly fans) and the soccer hooligans were waiting around the corner. Manchester punks had little choice but to take refuge in gay clubs, one of the few venues where punks could hang out without the risk of getting a broken beer glass shoved in their faces. That’s how a small downstairs gay nightclub called the Ranch Bar on a desolate street surrounded by empty warehouses became the Manchester punk scene’s headquarters.
Owned by local drag performer Foo Foo Lamar, the space was hidden in the basement of Foo Foo’s Palace and was connected to the main establishment by a door behind the bar. The Ranch had a strict admittance policy. After knocking on the door, a sliding letter box would open up like an old time speakeasy and Jerry the doorman would inspect you through the slot and decide whether to let you inside.
“He could turn you away on a whim and often did,” remembers Francis Taylor, a well-known local face on the scene. “A friend told me years later his mood depended on whether he had been able to get tugged off in the public toilets in Stephenson Square earlier in the evening.”
Then it was down a flight of rickety stairs and into a dingy basement which was decorated like a country and western honky-tonk, complete with cow horns, oil lamps and saddles for bar seats. Probably the most incongruous aspect of the decor was an illuminated sign perched on the bar saying “Hot Pies.”
“It was a peculiarity of late license laws in Manchester at the time that food had to be available until the premises closed,” says Taylor. “When the police raided, one of the first things they would check was that there was food available, because if you didn’t have it they would shut down the club and kick everyone into the street immediately.”
The music played at the Ranch was a strange mixture. Because only a few punk records had been released at the time, most of the tunes the DJ played were standard fare from Bowie, Roxy and Lou Reed, interspersed with oddities such as the Andrew Sisters’ 1945 calypso hit “Rum and Coca-Cola” which usually packed the tiny dance floor. The night always ended with “What A Way To End It All” by the whimsical art-school band Deaf School who were from nearby Liverpool.
At first, the place catered mainly to Bowie and Roxy fans. As more and more of them grew bored with the glam look and started to sport leather jackets adorned with safety pins and razor blades, it turned into an exclusive social club for the Manchester punk set. On a typical night, you’d find scattered about the room musicians from all the major bands that formed in the wake of the Sex Pistols’ Lesser Free Trade Hall gigs, preeminent among them Buzzcocks, the Fall and Joy Division prototype, Warsaw.
It’s the Buzz, Cock
If the Sex Pistols kickstarted the Manchester scene, Buzzcocks embodied it. Formed when singer Howard Devoto and guitarist Pete Shelley met at Bolton Technical College, the duo not only introduced the Pistols to Manchester when they booked them to play the Lesser Free Trade Hall, but the group they formed in the wake of the Pistols’ performances probably influenced more kids in Manchester to become punks than the Pistols did.
Lou Reed fan Denise Shaw recalls seeing one of their early shows at the Ranch. “When Howard and Pete came into the room I was mesmerized,” says Shaw. “Pete had a toothbrush hanging from his neck and Howard looked like an alien from another planet. Foo Foo stopped the gig halfway through because she thought they were too loud. I went home that night, ripped up an old t-shirt and wrote ‘Punk Rock’ in glitter across the back.”
Not long after, Buzzcocks borrowed 500 pounds (about a thousand dollars) from Pete Shelley’s father and recorded Spiral Scratch, a four-song EP which they released themselves, a revolutionary idea back then, and the template for all the indie music labels that followed. The EP was a triumph of compact lo-fi minimalism. The best-known track “Boredom” featured a trebly two-note guitar solo (the same two notes repeated sixty-six times) and lyrics that declared punk was over before it had hardly begun: “You know the scene is very hum-drum.” If the Pistols convinced their fans that anybody could be a rock star, Buzzcocks showed that anybody could make a record.
A month after the release of Spiral Scratch, Howard Devoto left the group and Pete Shelley took over singing duties, steering Buzzcocks in a more romantic pop-punk direction. Sensing early on the musical straightjacket that three-chord punk was already becoming, Devoto formed a new band called Magazine, which as the name suggested, was a much slicker outfit that drew on influences as diverse as Sly and the Family Stone, Captain Beefheart and film music composer John Barry.
Another music group that hung out at the Ranch was the Fall, who perfectly illustrated the characteristic literary bent that set Manchester apart from other punk scenes in the rest of the country. They began as a group of pissed-off working class teenagers who were destined to become factory fodder, but instead congregated in singer Mark E Smith’s attic to protest the limits of proletarian existence by eating mushrooms and writing poetry. Fierce autodidacts, they initially called themselves the Outsiders after the Albert Camus novel L’Etranger, but they quickly changed their name to the Fall, after another Camus novel (La Chute), when they realized their original name had already been taken by another band.
The Fall took their inspiration from the streets they grew up on, singing about the Trafford Park Industrial Estate (“Industrial Estate”), the local bingo hall (“Bingo Masters Breakout”) and Perry Boys (“City Hobgoblins”), turning the withering sarcastic wit and stubborn bloodymindedness so typical of Mancunians into a type of fractured social surrealism.
And then there was Warsaw, so-named in honor of the bleak instrumental “Warszawa” on David Bowie’s Low album after the group rejected Pete Shelley’s suggestion they call themselves Stiff Kittens. Warsaw featured three Ranch regulars: Hooky on bass, Barney on guitar and Ian as the singer. The band were heavily indebted to Berlin-era Bowie and Iggy Pop, particularly Pop’s album The Idiot. Morrissey caught an early concert by Warsaw, and just as with the Pistols, he was unimpressed, writing in a local fanzine: “They offer little originality with Ian Curtis’ onstage antics resembling one Iggy Pop.”
Despite their later image as gloomy existentialists, in person the trio were ordinary working class guys who liked to laugh, drink beer and engage in the occasional fist fight. Unfortunately, the stern monochromatic look the group adopted as their stage personas—a mixture of German army surplus gear and Boy Scout uniforms—got them unfairly labelled as fascists, an impression underscored when they changed their name to Joy Division, a reference to the female sex slaves supplied to German troops during WW2. Their debut record, a muddy-sounding four-song EP entitled An Ideal for Living, featured an illustration of a Hitler Youth drummer boy on the cover. But if they were Nazis, they were a strange breed of Nazi. One of Warsaw’s first gigs was a benefit for Rock Against Racism, the 1970s campaign organized to combat the rise of white nationalist groups such as the National Front that at the time were terrorizing immigrant communities
Of course, Warsaw weren’t really fascists, though they were fascinated with fascist imagery, as were many punks at the time. Swastika t-shirts and armbands were common fashion accessories at the Ranch. However, most of us realized if real fascists like the National Front ever came to power, punks would be among the first to be put up against a wall and shot. Like a lot of what we did, it was purely for shock value, serving the dual purpose of negating hippiedom’s peace-and-love ethos and pissing off our parents, who were always prattling on about the bloody war and the hardships they endured, as if WW2 had never ended.
It would be remiss not to mention one final band that hung out at the Ranch, a group called the Worst that are today largely forgotten but in their time represented the true amateur spirit of punk distilled to its very essence. The nucleus of the band was a pair of car mechanics, Ian Hodge and Alan Deaves, who rarely bathed and whose dirt-encrusted faces left you with the distinct impression that they lived down a coal mine. When not sniffing glue, they ate handfuls of mushrooms from a Maxwell House coffee can they carried around with them. Ian sported condoms as ear rings and Alan liked to wear a black leather gimp mask with “RAPIST” scrawled across the forehead in big white letters.
Even by the lax standards of the time, they were terrible musicians (hence the name) and only had two songs, “Pass The Vaseline” and “Fast Breeder.” While the band never recorded, the handful of gigs they played left an indelible mark on anybody who ever saw them perform. Local music critic Paul Morley proclaimed, “They make the Clash seem like Rush.”
“They were a pretend band and I was their pretend manager,” says Steve Shy, who, when not working behind the bar at the Ranch, edited the punk fanzine Shy Talk. “I remember one night the Worst was supporting the Fall at the Marquee in London. Some bloke came in the dressing room we’d never met before with a load of booze saying how much he enjoyed the show. We went out with him to this punk club, the Vortex. When we walked in with him, everybody was staring at us and we had no idea why. Turned out the bloke was Keith Moon.”
While it was always hazardous being a punk in Manchester, it got a lot more dangerous after the Sex Pistols released their second single “God Save The Queen” in June 1977, as it did for punk rockers nationwide. Released in the same year that Britain was celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, the single’s mocking lyrics (“God save the Queen/ She ain’t no human being”) and controversial artwork (one poster depicted the Queen with a safety pin through her lip) scandalized a nation and sparked an immediate angry backlash.
Local councils banned the group from performing and the BBC refused to play the song on the airwaves. As a result of the outcry, Johnny Rotten was viciously attacked in the streets by nationalist thugs. Every punk now had a target on his or her back. The fear of violence meant the Sex Pistols could no longer play under their real name so they adopted the moniker the S.P.O.T.S (Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly) and set out on a clandestine tour.
And so it was in this climate of fear and hysteria that in mid-August, nearly all the core members of the Manchester punk scene boarded a private coach outside the Electric Circus and headed the seventy odd miles down the M6 motorway to Wolverhampton, a gritty industrial town near Birmingham, where the Pistols were due to play one of their first ever gigs with their new bass player Sid Vicious. The concert was set to take place at Club Lafayette, a tacky downmarket disco reputedly owned by one of the West Midlands most notorious gangsters. When we arrived, Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren was standing at the entrance to the club wearing a multi-colored mohair sweater. He recognized Pete Shelley and ushered us all inside, despite the catcalls from the locals who were lined up around the block.
The scene inside the disco was pure pandemonium, more like a soccer riot than a concert. Every few minutes a fist fight would break out among the 500-strong crowd. The DJ tried to calm down the crowd by warning them that if they didn’t behave, the S.P.O.T.S wouldn’t perform, but that only seemed to make them crazier.
Around midnight, the band finally made an appearance. Such was the unbelievable crush of bodies at the front of the stage that the PA system started to rock back and forth, threatening to topple over onto the audience Johnny Rotten had a big smirk on his face, seemingly enjoying the chaos he had helped create, while a sullen-looking Sid Vicious stared intently at his bass guitar, an instrument he clearly had no idea how to play.
The Sex Pistols were barely into the second song, “I Wanna Be Me,” when smoke started to billow from under the stage. A group of National Front skinheads had managed to sneak into the club and set the stage alight. The bouncers quickly put out the fire and then directed their anger at members of the audience who were pogoing themselves into a frenzy.
“They were dragging their victims into the men’s toilet to batter them,” says Francis Taylor, an eye-witness to the mayhem. “When I went in it was swimming with claret, which was congealing like lumps of liver in the trough.” By the time the Pistols played “No Fun” as as an encore, the club was trashed, and just as the Pistols finished, the PA system exploded, a fitting finale to the musical madness.
But the insanity wasn’t yet over. After the concert, the Manchester contingent had to run heads down through a gauntlet of soccer hooligans who had gathered outside of the club and who were throwing insults and beer bottles at us as we scurried back to the safety of the coach. After stopping for a bathroom break on the motorway, we came back to the coach to find it full of cops. The coach driver had called the police because he was upset at our unruly behavior. After taking down each of our names (“What’s your name?” “Gus Gangrene.” “How do you spell that?”), the cops let us go, but we soon discovered that we’d left Pete Shelley stranded at the service station. The bus driver refused to turn the coach around so Ian and Alan from the Worst protested his decision by unzipping their flies and urinating all over the back seats.
When we finally got back to Manchester at four in the morning, we were greeted by a line of police officers with snarling dogs who escorted us off the bus.
As summer turned to autumn, the violence only seemed to increase. Teddy Boys wanted to kick your head in because some punks had started to appropriate their look, Edwardian-style drape jackets and brothel creeper shoes. Fascist skinheads wanted to kick your head in because punks had insulted the Queen. Booze-sodden football hooligans wanted to kick your head in just for the hell of it. Punk had courted infamy from the get-go, but now that it had arrived, it didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore.
Contrary to popular myth, punk wasn’t the music of the streets, the council estates or even the dole queue. Jazz-funk and disco were more popular musical genres among Manchester’s poor and working class. With our ripped clothes and disheveled hair, we may have looked like street urchins, but in reality Manchester punk drew its members largely from the upper end of the proletariat, arty working-class graduates of grammar school who knew how to pronounce Albert Camus or Jean Paul Sartre and who did well enough on exams to get boring office jobs or attend art college. (The members of Warsaw/Joy Division did clerical work for the local council; Mark E Smith worked as a shipping clerk; even that delicate bloom Morrissey—who failed his grammar school entrance exam—worked for a time at the local tax office).
In fact, the council estate kids were punk’s sworn enemies, in particular the Perry Boys, who were the distant descendants of the “scuttling” gangs of Victorian Manchester, right down to their floppy fringes and belt buckles they used as weapons.
The Perry Boys would often try to sneak into the Ranch to instigate fights. One weekend, I got into a brawl with a Perry Boy in the bathroom of the Ranch that quickly ended when the club’s bouncer burst in, grabbed my opponent by the scruff of his neck and turfed him out onto the street. “No big deal,” I shrugged. It was the kind of minor scuffle that happened all the time in Manchester clubs.
As it turned out, it was a big deal for the Perry Boy, who the next weekend gathered some of his friends and waited for me to leave the Ranch at 2 a.m. I was walking towards the Piccadilly Bus Station to catch the all-night bus, when I suddenly found myself stumbling to the ground and losing consciousness. I felt like I was in a dream floating on my back down a warm river.
The Perry Boys had snuck up behind me and one of them had hit me over the head with a specially sharpened Levi belt buckle, leaving me lying on the concrete in a halo of my own blood. They probably would have kicked me into a coma if it wasn’t for my PVC-clad friend Denise Shaw, who stood over six feet tall in heels and dressed like a fetish model. She saw the incident and rushed over to fight off my attackers with her handbag.
The following week, now with ten stitches in the side of my head, I spotted the gang that had attacked me hanging out at a record store in the city center. I briefly entertained the idea of finding a public phone booth and calling up some friends so as to exact revenge. But instead I decided to see if I could try to engineer a truce with them. The violence was getting out of control. Someone was going to get killed if this kept up.
So I walked over to them, told them I knew what they had done and gave a little speech pointing out that punks and Perry Boys had a lot in common: we were both working class kids who were being screwed over by the system and instead of fighting each other in the streets, we should be united. After I finished, one of them turned to me with a look of utter contempt on his face.
“We’re nothing like you,” he said, one eye peeking out from under a henna-rinsed Vidal Sassoon-style bob. “We fuckin’ hate you punks. You’re all a bunch of poofters.”
So much for peace and unity.
Crackdown on Punk
The anti-punk backlash wasn’t just confined to street thugs. At the same time, local politicians were increasingly putting pressure on live music venues not to host punk bands. After featuring the Sex Pistols the previous December, the Electric Circus had become the city’s premier showcase for visiting punk bands from New York and London, including classic concerts by the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Clash and the Slits, among many others. Soon the venue was targeted by cops and the fire department. Denied a license to sell food, which meant it could no longer stay open late, and ordered by the fire department to restrict its capacity, the concert hall’s shady owners decided to close, but not before throwing one last bash—a two-night celebration in early October featuring the cream of Manchester punk bands.
The Electric Circus was located in Collyhurst, one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, a blighted post-industrial wasteland of rubble-strewn lots, abandoned buildings and crumbling housing projects that was Manchester’s equivalent of the South Bronx, but with Stanley knives instead of guns. The locals were none too pleased to see the freak show that had unexpectedly turned up on their doorstep every Sunday night, so they used the walkways from the abandoned council estate across the street to hurl bricks at the leather-clad punks waiting in line below. Most punks came by public transportation, but the few who came by car made sure to pay off the scruffy young kids who hung outside the entrance, otherwise they would later find their vehicles vandalized or stolen. Photographers there to shoot concerts for the British music weeklies had to be particularly careful in case they were mugged for their expensive camera equipment.
Among the groups that performed during the final weekend were Warsaw, who played “At A Later Date,” which Barney Sumner (then using the Teutonic-sounding name Bernard Albrecht) inexplicably decided to introduce by grabbing Ian Curtis’s microphone and shouting to the crowd “You all remember Rudolph Hess”—a reference to the Nazi war criminal, who was then in the news after suffering a massive heart attack in a German prison. Warsaw almost didn’t play after rival Manchester punk band the Drones tried to persuade the promoter to nix them from the bill.
Howard Devoto’s new outfit Magazine made their first live appearance with a short if impressive three-song set that included a jarring cover of Captain Beefheart’s “I Love You, You Big Dummy” and the original song “Shot By Both Sides,” whose lyrics (“I wormed my way into the heart of the crowd / I was shocked to find what was allowed”) seemed to reiterate Devoto’s criticism of punk conformity he’d previously expressed on “Boredom.”
The weekend climaxed with a performance by Devoto’s old band Buzzcocks, who had just inked a lucrative major label deal, signing the contract on the bar at the Electric Circus. After Buzzcocks finished their set, they invited one of the Manchester scene’s most eccentric characters Jon the Postman, a real life singing mail carrier, to come up on the stage and he led the crowd in a rousing sing-along of the Kingsmen’s garage rock classic “Louie, Louie.” The event was recorded by Virgin Records and later released as a compilation album, Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus.
“The final weekend was fittingly a shambles,” recalls author Mick Middles, who back then covered the scene for the music weekly Sounds. “A cacophonous mess of blurring noise and more sweat, blood, spit, urine and stale beer than it seemed safe to experience. I remember the moment just as the Fall launched into ‘Hey, Fascist’ when Big Dave—once a punk-baiting Teddy Boy, then a Teddy Boy-baiting punk—wandered nonchalantly into the crowd, carrying a toilet bowl above his head which he’d just ripped out of the wall.”
In January 1978, Warsaw changed their name to Joy Division to avoid confusion with the London punk band, Warsaw Pakt. Curtis and company played their first gig under their new name at Pips, a flashy disco famous for its Roxy Room, which catered to fashionably-attired David Bowie and Bryan Ferry clones and where Ferry himself was once turned away at the door because he was wearing jeans. Predictably enough for Manchester, Joy Division’s live debut ended with a brawl.
The concert nearly didn’t happen when bouncers expelled Ian Curtis from the nightclub prior to the performance for breaking a beer glass on the dance floor. After much pleading, he was re-admitted and Joy Division took to the stage twenty minutes late. Looking out into the audience, Peter Hook saw a grand total of thirty people, twenty of whom were the band’s friends from their neighborhood pub. Joy Division has barely begun to play when a punch-up erupted between their friends and a group of visiting Liverpudlians, which soon spread to the rest of the club. The group had to cut their set short after Hook jumped into the sparse crowd and joined in the fight. It was hardly the most auspicious start for a group that are now revered as legends.
Even with a new name, Joy Division found it difficult to get gigs. Envious of other local acts who were making records and making waves on the national level, outside of Manchester, few even knew the band existed. In March, Buzzcocks released their debut album, Another Music In A Different Kitchen, a peerless collection of arty punk-pop that met with near universal acclaim and yielded the minor hit single “I Don’t Mind.” Earlier in the year, Buzzcocks off-shoot Magazine scored another hit with their first single “Shot By Both Sides,” though their appearance on the then all-important BBC TV show Top of the Pops turned out to be a disaster after a clearly nervous and heavily mascaraed Howard Devoto froze in front of the camera, stalling the commercial momentum of a group tipped by critics as the next big thing.
Joy Division was so desperate for a break that in April they entered a battle-of-the-bands contest organized by London-based labels Stiff Records and Chiswick Records. Stiff and Chiswick were looking for the next Sex Pistols or Clash and were organizing what amounted to musical cattle calls across the country. The Manchester stop on the Stiff-Chiswick Challenge took place at Rafters on Oxford Road, the downstairs nightclub that became the main showcase for punk bands after the Electric Circus shut.
Seventeen bands played in all, with the Joy Division the last to perform at around two in the morning. A drunken Ian Curtis was in a foul mood the whole night and took his anger out on Granada TV presenter Tony Wilson, who was also present. Curtis was pissed because Wilson, who often showcased local bands on his TV show So It Goes, had yet to book Joy Division.
Whether it was the long wait, or the building frustration with the band’s career trajectory, when Joy Division eventually got a chance to play they performed a blistering set that left the London A&R executives unmoved, but impressed Wilson, who was then in the process of setting up an independent record label called Factory Records to expose local talent. Despite the verbal abuse that Curtis had heaped on him earlier in the evening, Wilson, who was nothing if not magnanimous, thought Joy Division would be the perfect fit for his new label.
And then in early May, another future Manchester musical legend Morrissey made his public debut as the singer for the Nosebleeds at the Ritz where the Smiths would launch their careers four years later. The Nosebleeds were originally called Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds but after releasing the energetic but largely forgettable single “Ain’t Bin To No Music School,” Ed Banger quit to be replaced by the then-president of the British branch of the New York Dolls fan club. The Nosebleeds were the opening act on a bill that included Manchester’s punk poet laureate John Cooper Clarke and Magazine as the headliners. Among the songs Morrissey performed that night was a song he co-wrote, “I’m Think I’m Ready for the Electric Chair.” For years, Morrissey denied he was ever in the Nosebleeds, presumably out of embarrassment, but NME actually ran a small review of the concert calling him “a front man with charisma” though the reviewer did misidentify him as “minor local legend Steve Morrison.”
By May, the slump that followed the closing of the Electric Circus had ended as a new venue opened its doors, thanks to Tony Wilson. It was called the Factory, a nod not to Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York as was assumed at the time but to Manchester’s rapidly fading industrial past. Housed in what was normally a West Indian nightclub that served Red Stripe beer and goat patties, the Factory was located in the middle of the notorious Hulme Crescents, a vast, futuristic-looking housing project which was dubbed “Valium City” because you needed tranquilizers just to live there.
Wilson bought in a string of weird-sounding experimental bands to perform, among them Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu and Suicide, which didn’t sit too well with some of the Anglo-Caribbean regulars who had come to hear the roots reggae and American R&B that the DJ played between the live sets. My own band Manicured Noise—so named after a Buzzcocks flyer (“Manicured Noise and Cosmetic Metal Music”)—played the second night of the Factory and I remember the Rastafarians in the audience laughing uproariously at our pretentious attempt to combine Russian futurist poetry and spiky art-funk, going so far as to stick their fingers in their ears to block out the noise.
Joy Division first played there in June and the Factory became their new home, as they finessed the dark atmospheric sound that stood in stark contrast to the random thrashing of Warsaw, and which would soon make them famous. On stage, the cold inner-landscape and visceral sense of alienation of Curtis’s lyrics seemed to perfectly match the desolate space outside. Joy Division now sounded how Manchester looked and felt.
Not long after, Joy Division inked a deal with Factory Records, Wilson in typically flamboyant fashion signing the contract in his own blood, and the band went on to release their seminal debut album Unknown Pleasures in the following year. On the 17th May, 1980, Ian Curtis committed suicide, hanging himself from a clothes line in the kitchen of the Macclesfield home that he shared with his wife but not before listening to his favorite album, Iggy Pop’s The Idiot for one last time. Curtis was 23.
The opening of the Factory signaled the end of Manchester’s punk period and the start of the post-punk era. It was also the beginning of the re-birth of Manchester, not as an industrial town anymore but as a global brand, a world-famous center for alternative music and nightlife, thanks in no small part to Wilson’s perseverance and vision.
In 1978, Wilson was still the mayor of a city not yet built. The mythical town that became known as Madchester was still over a decade away. But over the next few years, Wilson’s indefatigable presence united the warring factions that made up the Manchester music scene. According to Wilson, Manchester was the coolest city in the world, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, as well as punk rock and later house music, none of which happened to be true but which served the purpose of instilling a sense of civic pride and regional self-reliance in a town used to living in the shadow of the cultural capital of London.
Tony Wilson died of a heart attack in 2007 at the age of 57 after a long battle with cancer. But this proud Mancunian lived long enough to see his beloved hometown transformed. “Some people make money, some make history,” he liked to say when questioned about Factory Records’ notoriously chaotic finances. Wilson made history.
There’s a pop cultural lineage that runs directly from the breakthrough of punk in the mid-1970s, through the rise of Factory Records and Joy Division in the late 1970s, to the coming of the Smiths in the early 1980s and on through the acid house boom of late 1980s and the “Madchester” mania of the Stone Roses and Oasis in the early 1990s to today, where Manchester is a thriving metropolis virtually unrecognizable as the threadbare and half-deserted place it was when I was a teenager.
But not everybody is happy with this shiny new city. “There’s no character left in Manchester anymore and I hate it,” complains former punk queen Denise Shaw, now in her fifties. “All the old warehouses have been turned into expensive flats and all the old pubs and clubs have gone, replaced with trendy wine bars and fancy restaurants.”
“People say that Manchester was a gloomy place in the 1970s,” she sighs, “but to me, it was heaven.”
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Frank Owen is the author of Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture, soon to be made into a TV series
Follow Frank Owen on Twitter @frankxowen
Top photo of Electric Circus by Kevin Cummins