The One Love Manchester concert was a little different to the usual celebrity-soaked charity bash in that it should be largely immune to criticism. Forget what the cynics of social media might say. This was always going to be an easy target for naysayers (and, I should know, given that I’d normally be deep into my naysaying by this point). Sunday’s concert wasn’t just an attempt to raise money for a cause. Nor was it trying to make a political point or even change the world. The concert was its own beneficiary in the sense that the music was for those in the crowd who, barely two weeks ago, witnessed a suicide bomb attack in the heart of Manchester. The concert was for them. This was the tribute that Manchester needed.
It was not, of course, anything like the tribute that Manchester deserves. That would be a very different beast but one can only imagine what a real One Love Manchester concert would look like if it didn’t largely rely on talent from abroad. Because, really, Pharrell William bouncing about in the name of being happy is as far from the Manchester spirit as you could get without putting a Beatle on the stage and asking him to sing You’ll Never Walk Alone.
A place the size of Manchester has produced a diverse range of music over the years and continues to be one of the country’s wellsprings for new talent. The manic energy of the city is emerging in newer band such as The Ting Tings but so is the darker side in a band like Elbow. The influences are as broad as they are different: The Bee Gees were from Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Graham Nash from Salford, and Manchester has also brought us Simply Red, Sad Cafe, The Chemical Brothers, as well as the punk of The Buzzcocks. Of course, Take That have something of a Manchester connection but it doesn’t exactly define them in the way that Manchester is synonymous with The Stone Roses, The Inspiral Carpets, or even The Verve. Does anything embody a certain Mancunian attitude more than the video to Bitter Sweet Symphony, in which a dark, brooding and angry Richard Ashcroft struts and elbows his way through the streets in Hoxton, North London?
Manchester’s music is often hard to describe because it’s not simply an aural experience. Sometimes it’s a fashion, and very often it is also a way of being. There’s a breed of Mancunian who doesn’t walk like a normal adult. You can always spot them in the street, no matter what city you’re in. There’s a swagger and projected menace that are distinctive, even if they don’t always go in for the Ashcroft shoulder barging (though often they do). It’s an attitude you see and feel as soon as you leave Piccadilly Station and start walking through Piccadilly Gardens, where you find the grifters, the beggars, as well as the buskers. The most memorable of the latter – and perhaps the most famous given the length of their Wikipedia entry – is the group known as “Gaz Stanley And The Piccadilly Rats”; an oddball mixture that look like a throwback to the Crazy Gang of 1940s vaudeville, except these are pastiches of modern rock stars. Or, perhaps, modern rock stars are the pastiches of these characters with their chunky jewellery, track suits, strange square-cut fringes, policeman’s helmets, and the weird dance moves which has earned the non-musical members of the band the nickname the ‘three Bez’s’.
The best music often begins as a form of salvation and Bez of the Happy Mondays is a reminder that Manchester is a tough city, sprawling across different cultures and demographics. It is filled with contradictions. Perhaps it is only in a city like Manchester that a figure such as Bez could emerge onto the national stage. The Happy Monday’s dancer never allowed the fact that he could neither sing nor play a musical instrument (the maracas don’t count) stop him from being a member of the band that would lift him from poverty.
The constant tension between the necessity of the group and the will of the individuals means that many of these bands are unstable, constantly on the edge of splitting apart. Relationships quickly fray in bands that are only held together by a shared wish to escape. The brief appearance by Liam Gallagher on Sunday did at least remind people of that reality. The absence of his brother, Noel, did an even better job.
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Earlier in the evening, Twitter had been alive with rumours of an Oasis reunion. Clearly Twitter had not read the interview that Liam had given to yesterday’s Guardian (aptly and formerly the Manchester Guardian). There was no sign that the rift with Noel was healing. “I’d like [the reunion] to happen, because I miss him and I miss the band and I miss the fans and I miss singing them songs,” said Liam. “But it’s in the lap of the gods, not Noel Gallagher, as much as he’d like to think he’s a bit of a god, but he ain’t…”
The non-appearance of Noel was, perhaps perversely, a tribute to the real city that’s earned much of its reputation on fractured relationships and bitter estrangements, not only in terms of its music but in its football. The recent history of Manchester United has been as much about the players that left as it has been about the players that stayed behind. Given all the appeals for normality and the determination that a terrorist incident should not change us, the reminder of the poor relationship between the Gallaghers demonstrated that some things are beyond the power of terrorists to influence.
Of course the kids needed pop acts such as Justin, Katie, and Ariana, because this was not the right time for a concert to represent the actual city of Manchester. Look beyond the barely functioning relationship of the Gallaghers and you might have had The Smiths, hardly cheerleading us with tributes to a happier world. New Order would have reminded some of us of better days but those better days were also the days of Joy Division, the death of Ian Curtis, the subsequent bitter dispute between Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook. Even the names are problematic given their Nazi origin.
The tribute that Manchester and its music deserved would have been different to the one they needed. Would it have been better? Hard to say that it would given the scenes at Old Trafford on Sunday night. Let’s just say it would have been louder, more raucous, and, perhaps, not quite as happy. It would, however, have been far more like the Manchester we know and love.