The Perfect Wasteland: The Significance of Manchester to The History of Post-Punk
I was staying in a townhouse in Preston, a suburb 45-minutes north-west of Manchester in the district of Lanchsire. It was my first time, and I was purposely and definitely very much alone. Having gone to England to make something of both the city and myself, I was simply put, unaware. Getting off the bus at Shudehill Interchange, I felt as if I was standing in a place where something once happened. While certain things maintained an unfamiliar quality even after hours, other things, particularly the buildings, seemed to wear their past like a badge of honor, refusing to crumble in the wake of a new history. There is a particular shade of grey that seems to sweep across the city; the kind of grey that tends to remain in place of human despair long after it has gone. But there is also a sense hope about this place––a general notion of longing that is harbored within each of us, but when nurtured under the right circumstances, may radiate through us and catch on like wildfire.
Before I made it to Manchester, I had been attempting to live my life in accordance with the belief that rock and roll can save the world. But if truth be told it was more of a nice mantra; something to say out loud rather than a theory I had personally contributed to. It wasn’t until after I went there myself that I understood the weight of that statement, and the ability of rock and roll music to pick people up when they have been knocked down on bloody knees and provoke them to live again.
Rock and roll saved Manchester in the 1980s, when it gave a name to the heartache and desperation that had come to embody the city, and pulled its people out from beneath the rubble of its desolate industrial past. Bands such as The Smiths, Joy Division, and The Fall became vehicles for masses of Mancunians who needed something more to believe in. Rock and roll became a life force for this city, molding its misery into something spectacular. In a strange way, Manchester needed rock and roll in the same way that rock and roll needed it. Had it not been for the desperate conditions in the city, certain musicians would have never been inspired to create the music they did. But in the same breath, had the music not been created the city itself would have died long ago.
In understanding the music of Manchester and the impact it has had upon subsequent music of this generation, it is important to first understand the history of the city of Manchester itself. Manchester, like its music, was born on the backs of the working class poor. The first Industrial city in the world, Manchester’s roots lie in the crumbling cotton mills and concrete factories of Ancoats, a district just outside the city centre. In its prime Ancoats was the thriving urban capital of the cotton trade. As a self-sustaining empire that built wealth for the whole of Britain, it was one of the richest places in the world. Now she is nothing more than a ruin, housing the wreckage of a former time. There is nothing left over – her buildings emptied, their windows smashed, just the slow, sucking sound of silence filling the spaces in between.
At the turn of the 19th-century immigrants began to flow into Manchester from across Europe in search of work in the rapidly expanding factories, a massive population boom took place and the landscape of Ancoats was given an indefinite facelift. It became routine for houses to be built next to factory buildings, and all at once the line between industrial and residential space was blurred indefinitely. As the district developed the living conditions worsened with extreme air pollution, open drainage, chemical plants and slaughterhouses becoming regular features of the community for most Ancoats residents. At the time, the death rates were higher than any other district in Manchester, and although the people of Ancoats were fueling the wealth of the city, they were forced to live like caged animals, admits their own filth.
The poor quality of living in Ancoats would only foreshadow what was to come for a vast number of Mancunians in the future. When the cotton trade was finally abandoned and industry shifted from manufacturing to the service sector in the mid 20th century, the families of hundreds of thousands of people who had planted their roots in Manchester during the industrial era were being left for dead. By the time the 1950s rolled around, the city had a full-blown housing crisis on its hands. The impact of 150 years of industry had finally been forced into the light and was too extreme to ignore.
At the time nearly a quarter of a million houses in Manchester and the surrounding Salford area were damp and leaking slums with no indoor toilets or running water. The city was reaching its breaking point, and with no likely future other than demolition, so to were its residents. Finally forced to take action, it was at this time that the government began a painful and prolonged transition into city-wide urbanization, a foray that would prove to come at a high price for most Mancunians, as a great deal of sorrow and frustration lay in its wake.
Stephen Morrissey and Johnny Marr of The Smiths, Bernard Sumner originally of Joy Division, Mark E. Smith of The Fall, and a countless number of other future musical Mancunians, all grew up in the slums of Manchester, spending the majority of their childhood years in areas of the city that were eventually demolished. This is where the story really begins. Noted as one of the most radical attempts at urban renewal in European history, the redevelopment of Hulme and Moss Side in the 1960’s saw the extraction and relocation of 30,000 residents from their homes. Traditional Victorian terraced streets were wiped out and replaced by rickety high-rise flats, designed for quick completion rather than sustainable living. The new communities were like prisons for their residents; they were cold, damp, cockroach infested complexes that reeked of piss. During the mid-1970s, poverty, and rising unemployment rates significantly contributed to the degeneration of the area. As a direct result, many residents suffered from mental distress, with the claustrophobic environment fostering both extreme anti-social behavior and destructive boredom.
For many, the lives they had always known crumbled along with buildings. Although most communities were essentially ghettos at the time of their destruction, they were also home to the people who lived, worked, played, slept and built their families in them. Gone were the lives so many had labored tirelessly to build, and in their place remained only the broken memories of what used to be coupled with new and equally devastating hardships. Then in 78’ something finally gave.
The opening of Factory Fridays at the Russell Club, a joint venture by Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus, eventual owners of Factory Records, marked the beginning of a new era for Manchester, an era defined by rock and roll. Manchester has spawned a number of world class acts over the past 40 years or so, however the city’s shining music moment really came in the 1980s when the post-punk movement began to take shape. No art form exists solely in a vacuum, but that being said, in the case of Manchester I feel it is fair to say that its music is a breed exclusive to the city that produced it. The entity that is the city itself is responsible for harboring, particularly amongst the youth, a driving urge to break free from the poverty stricken places they lived, and above all else, prove that they were capable of being “somebody.” Rock and roll gave them the freedom to do that ¬– to rise above the bullshit they’d been handed and to answer back at the top of their lungs.
Although it developed musically on the coattails of the London punk movement that swept the whole of England during the mid-1970s, the music that came out of Manchester was a totally different animal. Punk rock in London had a political agenda – it was about youthful rebellion and purposeful anarchy, and it was a generational revolt against the Thatcherist politics of the time coupled with the popular notion of “no future for the youth.” Headed by the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, and Manchester’s own the Buzzcocks, London punk was, at its highest point, a media dream. Breaking all conventional rules, it absolutely turned the UK on its head. While London punk rock was undoubtedly stylistically responsible for the post-punk scene that developed in Manchester, with the Sex Pistol’s gig at the Free Trade Hall in 1976 inspiring the likes of future members of Joy Division, The Fall and The Smiths, the musicians of Manchester were coming at it from a different angle. The Manchester scene was deeply rooted in both death and survival, and it was similarly reflective and inspired by the history of the city. Even the original New York punk scene that developed around the Mercer Arts Centre in Greenwich Village and most popularly around CBGB’S in the early to mid-1970s, was more of a social commentary than a survival cry.
The music of 80’s Manchester was characterized by lyrically vivid true to life storytelling, told via first person accounts, while musically the sound was often dark, gritty, and even haunting at times, capturing the gloomy essence of life in the slums of the city. While it still remains a matter of musical opinion, some have said that The Smiths captured this essence better and more sympathetically than anyone else. The band’s sound, which was based on a songwriting partnership between Stephen Morrissey and Johnny Marr, was a tightly knit combination of lyrical satire and roaming guitar arpeggios.
It was no secret that Morrissey, the face of The Smiths, who grew up in Queens Square of Old Trafford, maintained a particular affinity toward the sorrow filled years of his youth. While the media often construed him as an arrogant intellect that was always miserable and all too aware of his own greatness, others saw him as an artistic and musical innovator with a sharply tuned wit. Nevertheless, Morrissey became infamous for his poetic articulations of working class life in the city and specific references to the cityscape that were tangled amidst the lines of so many of his lyrics.
While certainly not the only reference found in Morrissey’s work, The Smiths third album The Queen is Dead, released on Rough Trade Records in 1986 is a seminal example of this. Consider the following lines from the song “Never Had No One Ever”:
“When you walk without ease
the very streets where you were raised
I had a really bad dream
It lasted 20 years, 7 months, and 27 days,
Never had no one ever.”
While many have speculated the meaning of “20 years, 7 months, and 27 days,” it seems an obvious reference to the lonely years of Morrissey’s youth spent growing up amidst the “nightmare-ish” conditions in Ancoats. Other songs from the record such as “Cemetry Gates” with its purposefully incorrect spelling, and “Vicar In A Tutu,” make notable references to physical locations in the city, the first being the Southern Cemetery and the latter being the Holy Name Church. The song “Big Mouth Strikes Again,” one of the band’s most recognizable hits, contains an interesting vocal credit. Although the song is both sung by Morrissey himself and is about his public image as a loud mouth, the high-pitched harmony that can be heard on the track is credited to an Ann Coats, a clear homage to the city of Ancoats, the place that birthed the band.
The Smiths were also a highly visual band, often including footage of city streets, buildings and factory wasteland in their music videos, while regularly choosing figures from popular culture as subjects for their album covers. Even the original album jacket for The Queen Is Dead contains a now famous photo of the band standing in front of the Salford Lads Club, a popular boys and girls recreational facility located in the Ordsall area of Salford, in Greater Manchester.
The Smiths encapsulated the spirit of the city of Manchester at the time. By default, they were products of the places they lived in but by nature, they embodied the same throbbing impulse to escape that so many other Mancunians did. Morrissey had both a knack for creating hooky melodies in places they shouldn’t have been able to exist, and the ability to take the feeling of living in that city, put it into words, and then play it back to the people, making him the voice for those who had long been drowned in urban anonymity.
As the most influential record label to ever come out of the city, Factory Records really put the Manchester music scene on the map in the 1980’s when music magazines from around the world began dubbing it a “musical hotbed.” Named of course in reference to the city’s industrial past, Tony Wilson’s Factory Records teamed up with a little-known local act called Joy Division in 79’ to release their debut album entitled Unknown Pleasures. Formally known as Warsaw, Joy Division was another Manchester act with working class roots. Lead guitarist/keyboardist Bernard Sumner grew up in Lower Broughton in Salford, another district that fell victim to demolition during the mass urbanization projects of the 1960’s.
“By the age of twenty-two, I’d had quite a lot of loss in my life. The place where I used to live, where I had my happiest memories, all that was gone. All that was left was a chemical factory. I realized then that I could never go back to that happiness. So there’s this void. For me, Joy Division was about the death of my community and my childhood.” – Bernard Sumner
While much has been made of lead singer Ian Curtis’s life and death, Joy Division’s sound, primarily orchestrated by Sumner and coupled with Curtis’s dark and personal lyrics, were really what solidified the band. While the music was much more obviously rock and roll influenced, it was haunting, and it captured the remnants of a former time that still loomed over the city like an unfortunately situated birthmark for all to see. Joy Division was about the experience of the music. Particularly evident during their live shows, the band created a sort of ambiance for its audience, one that allowed their music to exist momentarily within that space, float along the air they were breathing, and in between their bodies swaying and bumping up against each other in the crowd.
The 2CD Collectors edition of Unknown Pleasures, something I picked up at Piccadilly Records during my travels, contains a live at The Factory disc from a concert on July 13th of 1979. While it’ll never replace the physical experience of being in the room at the time of the recording, you can get close enough to it to know what I mean. That weighty doom that seems to hang on the edge of every last word Ian Curtis sings, the sound of calloused fingers against worn wire and someone’s feet stomping on the hollow floorboards in the stage. The sound of hundreds of hands clapping and the low hum of people cheering in agreement and saying “thank you, thank you.” Live CD’s have this strange way of calling upon us to use what we’ve already got – our experiences, be them good or bad, and our emotional ties to things and people of the past and present, and to forge a connection with the sound of that particularly real moment in time.
While The Smiths were very much about capturing the feeling of city living with words, Joy Division was about encapsulating that sometimes darkness that we each possess with sound. Both Morrissey and Sumner have sighted the demolition of their communities and proverbial death of their childhoods as driving forces behind their music, bringing to light the severity of impact the city had upon the development of its people and the subsequent way they chose to express themselves. After the death of Ian Curtis in 1980, Joy Division took on legendary status almost immediately, as most rock bands do after their lead singer commits suicide. Factory Records went on to find huge success in the following years after re-launching the remaining members of Joy Division when they formed a new band called New Order, and with the opening of the Hacienda club which became the centre point of the city’s music and rave culture in the latter half of the decade during the so-called “Madchester” years, a term I also found out most Mancunians have come to resent.
Every scene has its underground circuit, and in the case of 80s Manchester the band that led that circuit was The Fall. Fronted by Mark E. Smith, a highly intelligent, self-assured northerner with a working-class ethic, The Fall embodied the DIY spirit of Manchester’s youth, with every original member of the band being either a self-taught or non-musician. Also born in Broughton but raised in the town of Prestwich, Smith was ahead of the curve. Armed with art school nihilism and working-class slang, it was this overt self-confidence combined with his obvious intelligence that quickly established him as an innovator. In the summer of ’77, Smith lit a fire under the asses of media outlets across the country when he proclaimed The Fall to be “the northern white crap that talks back.” Smith was a working-class man with a working-class attitude and that manifested itself both musically and visually when it came to the band. Ultimately it was Smith’s vision coupled with his work ethic that led The Fall to carve out a niche for themselves as the seminal underground act in the Manchester scene at the time.
The band’s sound was abrasive, guitar-driven and clearly influenced by punk rock, while Smith’s lyrics were often wordy, witty and filled with cutting social observations. To Smith, rock and roll wasn’t about playing instruments it was about abusing them. His attraction to the music was not the polished production quality he heard from so many other pop and rock acts, but rather in the ability of the people holding those instruments, to draw something, anything out of them.
While The Fall never really achieved commercial success on an international scale, the band still exists to this day under Smith’s guiding hand. Having released an astounding 28 studio albums, at a rate of nearly one per year since the release of their debut album Live At The Witch Trials in 1979, the band has released a number of successful singles, ones you’ve likely heard but didn’t know were theirs. Songs such as “Totally Wired” (1980), “Mr. Pharmacist” (1986), and their most popular hit, a reworking of the Motown classic “There’s a Ghost In My House” (1987).
Radio personality and close friend of the band, John Peel, once famously described The Fall as “always different and always the same.” Although as a band that was primarily making “non-commercial” music The Fall had to work that much harder to stay afloat, it seems that Smith’s inherent work ethic and blighted Salford upbringing were ultimately what led The Fall to achieve permanence in the music industry as a cult classic of the post-punk era.
Music, like history, is cyclical. It rises and falls and it most certainly repeats itself. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. Since the birth of rock and roll in the 20th century, music has become a measure of that history––interchangeable and interdependent, one is constantly reinforcing and creating the other. I met a lot of people while I was in Manchester, some who I’m sure I’ve already forgotten and others who I’m sure I’ll never forget. But nonetheless, the single most important thing I took with me when I left was the feeling of standing in the center of it all, in the middle of two centuries worth of heartache and despair, in a city that continues to survive.
When rock and roll finally began to break in Manchester in the 1980’s, it was what revitalized the city. At its peak, the Manchester scene, lead by those who had come of age in a city that was barely breathing, existed unto itself. While both the London and Manchester scenes exemplified elements of survival, the two were fighting for different causes. London punk was about surviving the future and the Manchester scene was about having already survived things of the past. The music was, for many Mancunians, a chance to come out on the other side of that past, open their arms to the world, and take a gasping breath of air.
Not unlike blues was to the slaves in the southern U.S., country and folk music during the Depression in the 30’s, or even the hip-hop culture as it developed on the streets of New York in the 1970’s, rock and roll is about that same sense of survival. It is the working man’s music, rooted in our past pains and current longings. It is that same story we continue to tell over and over again because it is human nature to reach inside our pain, pull out our guts and leave our hearts bleeding on the table. Rock and roll gives people the strength to carry on, to push forward and to take a stand. It rips endlessly at our heartstrings and it provokes us to live again.
In the 1980s, Manchester was a perfect wasteland. A city that needed rock and roll in the same way that rock and roll needed it. Out of desperation came inspiration, and out of that inspiration came the music of Manchester.