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Oh Manchester, so much to answer for*

Four decades of musical excellence continues with latest addition to the lineage

ONE of the best new bands to come out of Britain in the past year or so is an outfit from Manchester called Afflecks Palace.

You only have to listen to the first few seconds of the opening track of their debut album to immediately know that they are Mancunian: it’s there in the jangling guitars, the singer’s northern accent and the irresistible dance beat. In interviews, lead singer J. Fender talks of his affection for the great Manchester bands of the past, particularly the golden era at the end of the 1980s, and his desire to emulate their appeal.

Just as San Francisco was home of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and a wave of other psychedelic groups, Detroit is synonymous with Motown and the proto-punk of the Stooges and MC5, and Seattle will forever be linked to Nirvana and grunge, the northern British city of Manchester has become a byword for a proud musical lineage from the late-1970s through to the present day.

What is it that makes these cities such fertile breeding grounds for great music? There is nothing about Manchester, a dreary, rain-sodden industrial city for most of its history (Nico once remarked that it reminded her of the desolation of Berlin immediately after the end of World War II), that immediately suggests a thriving musical culture, yet it has had brilliant artists on tap for decades.

Why Manchester — and not, for example, Leeds or Newcastle or Birmingham — that could produce both Joy Division and The Smiths, then a few years later spawn the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, and do it again half a decade down the track with Oasis, while also nurturing the unique talents of John Cooper Clarke and Mark E. Smith? Even Liverpool, birthplace of The Beatles, now stands in Manchester’s shadow when it comes to consistently churning out great music.

Manchester did not really emerge as a musical hothouse until the late-70s. The swinging sixties mostly passed the city by, apart from the Hollies, but the mythical Sex Pistols concert at the city’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976 (depicted in the Tony Wilson biopic 24 Hour Party People) was the spark that led to the formation of some of the city’s most influential groups, including Buzzcocks and Joy Division.

Also formative was the establishment a couple of years later of Factory records, which introduced the production genius of Martin Hannett. A third crucial element was the Hacienda nightclub, run by the Factory records crew and bankrolled by the commercial success of New Order. The Hacienda was the setting for one of the earliest gigs by The Smiths, and later in the ’80s was the incubator for rave culture and the baggy movement.

The breakthrough success of the Stone Roses in 1989 brought the full spotlight onto Manchester, and for a while it seemed that all you needed to get a recording contract was the slightest hint of a Lancashire accent, a bowl cut hair style and a pair of flared jeans. Early Stone Roses audiences included Noel and Liam Gallagher, and the band they formed, Oasis, cemented Manchester’s reputation as a music capital.

There is no ‘Manchester Sound’ but one thing most of the best known groups had in common was a talismanic frontman, whether it be Ian Curtis, Morrissey, Mark E. Smith, Ian Brown, Shaun Ryder or Liam Gallagher.

What follows is an introduction to the music of Manchester. Many other artists could have been included — such as the Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio, Inspiral Carpets, Charlatans and James — but these are the most enduring, influential and successful.

‘Ever Fallen in Love (with Someone you Shouldn’t’ve)’ — Buzzcocks, 1978

Bolton’s Buzzcocks were the Manchester area’s most successful punk band and spawned not one, but two of the greatest songwriters of the era. By the time this single was released in 1978, Howard Devoto had already left to join Barry Adamson in forming Magazine (his ‘Song From Under the Floorboards’ remains another highpoint of the era), leaving Pete Shelley as the Buzzcocks’ main man. They released a string of amazing singles between 1977 and 1979, including ‘Orgasm Addict’, ‘Boredom’ and ‘What Do I Get’, and the still fresh ‘Ever Fallen in Love’. All over in less than three minutes, it showcases Shelley’s knack for writing an incredibly catchy tune over a frenetic backing track and earworm guitar riff.

‘Beasley Street’ — John Cooper Clarke, 1980

How do you explain the enduring attraction of John Cooper Clarke? First coming to prominence at the fag end of the punk era, he was like a Mancunian version of mid-60s Bob Dylan, with the same explosion of dark hair, tight-fitting suits and wrap around shades. Clarke was a spoken word poet whose idiosyncratic tales of urban squalor were set to music which in the early days was produced by Martin Hannett. With his strong Lancashire accent and forceful delivery, his poems are both politically cutting and caustically hilarious and either consciously or not you can hear later echoes of his style in the lyrics of Morrissey and Shaun Ryder. ‘Beasley Street’ was as close as the Bard of Salford has ever come to having a hit single.

‘Atmosphere’ — Joy Division, 1980

Originally semi-discarded as a France-only release in 1980, shortly before Ian Curtis’ death, the majestic ‘Atmosphere’ is now considered among Joy Division’s greatest recordings. While ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart Again’ and ‘Transmission’ are better known, ‘Atmosphere’ encapsulates the beauty and tragedy of the band’s music within four and a bit minutes. Over icy synths, a throbbing Peter Hook bass line and echoey drums, Curtis’ sombre baritone barely moves beyond a few notes declaiming lyrics of alienation and isolation that predicted his suicide. Joy Division began as a punk band but quickly moved to the forefront of the New Wave scene thanks to Curtis’ poetic words and the groundbreaking work of Martin Hannett behind the production desk. In the four decades since their lead singer’s untimely demise, their legacy has only grown more influential, as has that of the band that came next…

‘Blue Monday’ — New Order, 1983

Out of the ashes of Joy Division emerged New Order, whose fusion of Krautrock electronica, late-70s disco and Manchester melancholia would set a template for an entire generation of British musicians. The band’s early highwater mark was ‘Blue Monday’, which was issued as a 12-inch single (remember them?) in 1983 and sold millions of copies around the world. With the release of ‘Blue Monday’, New Order had well and truly left behind their punk roots and embraced the dancefloor, while still containing traces of their earlier incarnation. The song had no chorus, there was not much to the verses and Bernard Sumner’s singing was a tuneless monotone, but the drum machines, sequencers and synthesisers created a fresh and exciting sound that New Order would go on to replicate for even bigger hits, which in turn would bankroll both Factory records and the cultural centre of the Madchester universe, the Hacienda club.

‘Kicker Conspiracy’ — The Fall, 1983

Among all the oddballs who have graced Manchester’s stages over the years, none has been more iconoclastic than Mark E. Smith. In the countless incarnations of The Fall (an estimated 66 musicians played in the band over its 40 year career), the one enduring element was Smith’s slurred half-spoken vocals and cryptic lyrics that rambled across an extraordinary landscape of subject matter. Between 1976 and the year of Smith’s death in 2018 from lung and kidney cancer, The Fall released 30 albums and dozens of singles, gaining modest commercial success and immeasurable influence on numerous imitators. But of course, Mark E. Smith was a peerless non-conformist who defied imitation. ‘Kicker Conspiracy’ is typical of the band’s abrasive sound and Smith’s absurdist lyrics, with his attention falling in this case upon the corruption of modern football.

‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’ — The Smiths, 1986

It’s impossible to distill the timeless brilliance of The Smiths into a single song. From the very first notes of their debut single, ‘Hand In Glove’, to the fade out of the final track on their last album a little over four years later, the Manchester four piece barely put a foot wrong, leaving behind a body of work that ranks them among the half a dozen most important groups ever to emerge from the British Isles. Lead singer Morrissey was another in a long line of Mancunian eccentrics, and in tandem with guitarist and composer Johnny Marr formed a songwriting partnership that compares favourably with Jagger-Richards, Lennon-McCartney and Strummer-Jones. The four-piece was completed by a brilliant rhythm section of Mike Joyce on drums and Andy Rourke on bass. ‘There is a Light’ was an album track from the second side of their masterpiece, The Queen Is Dead and its subject matter of unrequited love and thoughts of suicide was almost a Morrissey cliche, but as the title of the song suggests, it is ultimately life-affirming. Cheekily borrowing its stop-start opening from the Velvet Underground’s ‘There She Goes Again’, Johnny Marr’s arrangement is deceptively simple, unlike the multi-tracked guitars of much of The Smith’s canon. But that simplicity — little more than a strummed acoustic guitar — allows a gorgeous string arrangement to flourish and carry the melody. Sadly, in a little over a year later the band would be no more, having fallen victim to that old chestnut of ‘creative differences’, but the passage of time has only served to grow their reputation and legacy.

‘Hallelujah’ — The Happy Mondays, 1989

The Happy Mondays would have to be one of the most unlikely bands to ever top the charts, but without them there would have been no Madchester scene. Made up of a group of petty criminals and drug fiends from Salford, they inadvertently stumbled upon a fusion of indie rock, disco/funk/, acid house, punk attitude and rave culture that defined the ‘baggy’ sound that dominated British airwaves in the early part of the 1990s. Like almost all the great Manchester bands (New Order being a prominent exception), the Mondays had a unique and charismatic lead singer in Shaun Ryder, whose child-like lyrics (later in life he discovered he had both ADHD and dyslexia) somehow made sense, and who brought along the group’s other crucial element, the scarecrow-like dancer and percussionist Mark ‘Bez’ Berry. Fixtures of the Hacienda, they were signed to Factory and their first album was produced by none other than the Velvet Underground’s John Cale (who probably came to them through his association with Nico who was living in Manchester at the time and an acquaintance of key Factory personnel). The ecstatic ‘Hallelujah’ was the opening track of the Monday’s seminal Madchester Rave On EP and broke them into the mainstream by cracking the top 20. The original track was produced by Martin Hannett, while later remixes include the classic club mix by Paul Oakenfeld and Andrew Weatherall. The Mondays’ third album Pills ’n’ Thrills and Bellyaches was released soon afterwards, reaching number four on the charts, but the drugs soon led to the band’s downfall. They have since reformed several times and both Ryder and Bez recently featured on the UK version of Gogglebox.

‘I Am the Resurrection’ — The Stone Roses, 1989

The 18 months from the release of The Stone Roses in May 1989 and the release of the Happy Mondays’ Pills ’N’ Thrills And Bellyaches in November 1990 was the apotheosis of the Madchester scene. Originally formed as yet another jangly guitar driven indie rock band, the Roses’ eventually fused elements of rave music to create something original and fresh. While guitar virtuoso John Squire was as crucial to their sound and image as singer Ian Brown, the band’s not-so-secret weapon was drummer Alan ‘Reni’ Wren. On their debut album, which remains a bona fide classic to this day, the best examples of his prowess were ‘Waterfall’ and its reverse mirror image, ‘Don’t Stop’ and the album closer ‘I Am The Resurrection’, which begins as a stomping rocker, then takes off at the halfway point to become a dancefloor classic with wave after wave of euphoric sound that you never want to end. The Roses would achieve perfection again in 1990 with the ‘Fools Gold’ single, but the four-year delay between the release of their first and second albums, complicated by record company shenanigans, meant that by the time Second Coming came out, their moment had passed and Oasis had taken their place at the top of the pecking order.

‘Supersonic’ — Oasis, 1994

History will probably not be kind to Oasis, but for a brief period in the mid-1990s they were not only the kingpins of Britpop but the biggest band in the world, achieving commercial success that eclipsed virtually all of their Mancunian forefathers put together. The band’s chemistry sprung from the volatile relationship of the two Gallagher brothers. Noel, who had once been a roadie for Madchester heroes Inspiral Carpets, could write a passable tune, even if most of his songs seemed to plagiarise The Beatles. But it was charismatic Liam as frontman, a swaggering, cocky presence with a sneering voice that echoed Johnny Rotten, who lifted Oasis above scores of other wannabes. Without him, they were just a plodding pub rock band, but his tone and attitude elevated even the most mundane songs and spurred Noel to write better tunes. Along with ‘Live Forever’, ‘Supersonic’ is perhaps their finest moment, a simple beat underneath layers and layers of guitars while Liam snarls lyrics that veer from profundity to surreal nursery rhymes (‘I know a girl called Elsa/she’s into Alco Seltzer/She sniffs it through a cane on a supersonic train’). This was Oasis at their apotheosis, seemingly unbeatable and supremely confident, ready to take on the world, the whole thing coming together like a giant two fingered salute at the world. Eventually it all collapsed in a blizzard of cocaine and hubris, but it was fun while it lasted.

‘Forever Young’ — Afflecks Palace, 2019

From being named after a famous Manc department store to their lead singer’s bucket hat and Ian Brown swagger, Afflecks Palace unashamedly pay homage to the golden era of Madchester at the end of the 1980s. Front man J. Fender does not shy away from the Stone Roses comparisons, telling his home town newspaper last year “We’re really into the Stone Roses and the music of that era. I feel it was one of the last influential, cultural, counter-culture moments, where British music had a real sea change”. Debut single ‘Forever Young’, which came out in 2019, could easily be mistaken for a Roses track, and there was more of the same on the band’s album, What Do You Mean it’s not Raining, released last year. Positive reviews have stamped them as a name to watch, although as their career progresses they will need to develop more originality to avoid being labelled as a tribute band. But for the time being, Afflecks Palace are a pleasant trip down memory lane for those of us old enough to remember the hey days of The Smiths, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and their compatriots.

*The line comes from The Smiths’ song ‘Suffer Little Children’, which closes their self-titled debut album.

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