Culture

Manchester, so much to answer for in terms of great music

If Britain has historically done pop music better than anyone else in the world, Manchester is arguably its musical capital

BY John McKie   /  26 May 2017

“Manchester, so much to answer for.” A line courtesy of Steven Patrick Morrissey from the first Smiths studio album and a song about the Moors Murderers.

The bequiffed frontman proved he’d lost none of his capacity for tactfully skirting free from controversy with a toe-curling Facebook statement this week on Monday’s unspeakable events where he slated the Prime Minister, the Queen, the Mayor of London, the Mayor of Manchester and members of the press.

It is a small mercy that his sidekick Johnny Marr was on hand with a simpler, more sober tribute to the city on Twitter. “Manchester stands together.”

One of these men lives in the city, the other has spent the best part of the last 30 years living in London and then Los Angeles.

Morrissey’s bizarre outburst about a grisly event at a pop concert didn’t really matter because when it comes to Manchester music, it’s not short for spokespeople. They boast strength in depth. If you accept that Britain has historically done pop music better than anyone else in the world, and then look at our nation’s major cultural outposts, Manchester is arguably its musical capital.

The genius of the Fab Four was honed in Hamburg, and their greatest songs bloomed not on Merseyside but from John’s house in Weybridge and Paul’s further into town near Harley Street. Franz Ferdinand hail from the Glasgow Art School tradition but three of the classic quartet are English. Similarly Lloyd Cole and The Commotions’ Rattlesnakes may be evocative of the West End of Glasgow for graduates of a certain age but Cole’s creative wellspring originally flowed from where they produce the water, Buxton in Derbyshire.

Many chroniclers of London life are outsiders. The man who sang on London Calling was born in Turkey to an Indian father and mother from the Scottish Highlands. He settled in Somerset before his passing. Blur’s breakthrough album Parklife, with its launch party at Walthamstow dog track, tales of Tracy Jacks seeing a Harley Street doctor and London Loves’ playout of a cabbie’s talk radio, couldn’t have sounded more like the Big Smoke if the city’s future Mayor had guested on it (that came on the follow-up album). Parklife’s working title was London. The band are from Colchester, Essex.

Suede may have been renamed The London Suede for American audiences, but Brett Anderson’s spacey alienation came from another place entirely – two miles outside Haywards Heath, to be specific. Do The Strand (arguably about cigarettes or dancing anyway) was sung by a man from Country Durham, West End Girls by another North East native Neil Tennant (the other Pet Shop Boy is from Blackpool) and no wonder Ralph McTell struggled finding his way round the Streets of London – he’s from Farnborough, Kent.

So London’s rich music scene has been forged by the city dwellers and tourists alike. Even music legends like The Who, Stones, Bowie and Adele claimed by the city all spent many of their formative years on the outskirts. There’s a reason many critics call The Buddha of Suburbia one of the Dame’s most personal records.

Birmingham may boast Ozzy Osbourne but so does Beverley Hills, where he has lived for years and set all his reality TV shows.

Sheffield is probably Manchester’s rival in terms of a wide range of musical bands from the Human League and Def Leppard to Pulp, but for all Alex Turner’s Yorkshire lyrical wit and grit, Arctic Monkeys’ recent albums reflect the West Coast of America where they’ve worked with Californian Joshua Homme from Queens of the Stone Age.

But Manchester, to paraphrase the late, great Tony Wilson, they do things differently there.

One main point of distinction is that its musical titans tend to stay firmly entwined with the city.

When Joy Division became New Order, they stayed invested in the North West, often to their financial detriment, with Factory Records, the label’s Manc-born design guru Peter Saville and the Haçienda nighclub.

The Haçienda was such an influential moment in dance music that it places the city’s global status alongside Amsterdam, Detroit, Paris, Chicago and even Ibiza. The Chemical Brothers formed in the city, there’s A Guy Called Gerald, Sub Sub (who would become Doves), Mike Pickering (who would form M People) and Justin Robertson started his career from here. During the late eighties and early nineties, Manchester really was the 808 State.

They like to dance in this city. Bradfordian Tim Booth was chosen as James’ dancer (he would eventually be demoted to lead singer) because the Lancastrian bandmates liked his moves at a University of Manchester students’ union cellar bar.

The Happy Mondays had a dancer, Bez, as did The Stone Roses, Cressa.

There is a fuzzy through line from music to football to partying in this part of England which meant it didn’t seem contrived or forced for Manchester United players to link their Europa League triumph to the city’s horror 48 hours previously, or Eric Cantona and Pep Guardiola to pay tribute to the city this week.

United players still run out to The Stone Roses’ This Is The One and City frequently play the Inspiral Carpets’ Saturn 5 over the Etihad Stadium tannoy.

Although the Gibb brothers moved to Australia after their formative years in Chorley, and The Gallaghers decamped to London, other Mancunian musicians remain tightly woven into the city’s fabric. Mark E Smith, Shaun Ryder, Pete Shelley, the late Tony Wilson: they came (from the area), they saw, they conquered and then they came back.

Many of Elbow’s best songs, including Grounds for Divorce and My Sad Captains,  are about drinking in Manchester pubs. Many of the best watering holes have a jukebox, a pleasure denied to many London pubgoers. Singer Guy Garvey does his radio show from Salford, or Manchester Central Library and works with fellow Manc musicians I Am Kloot. He even appeared in the latest series of Peter Kay’s Car Share.

For all the Coronation Street cast on Smiths sleeves, songs like Rusholme Ruffians,  Roy’s Keen and Alma Matters, Morrissey left Manchester a long time ago even if the city didn’t leave him.

This is relatively rare.

Unlike other musicians in other cities (Bowie and Lennon both moved to New York, Rod Stewart and Jeff Lynne to LA, Bobby Gillespie, Annie Lennox and Sharleen Spiteri to London, most of the rest to country piles satirised by Blur), Manchester keeps a tight hold on its musical children. The rain may fall hard on this humdrum town, especially this week.

To counter Morrissey one last time, the city’s musical heroes show us how far from humdrum it really is.