What springs to mind when you imagine ‘Manchester’ music? The gospel according to google images is quite telling when you search the term. Similarly the immense success of this summers Stone Roses resurgence certainly demonstrates how closely we hold our Manchester icons to our hearts.
In the light of this I got together with legendary Madchester scenster, writer and DJ Dave Haslam to discuss what effect our Madchester obsession has on creativity in the city. I soon discovered that those who helped to shape the era are also largely responsible for deconstructing its cultural grip; to make room for what is and has always been their passion – new music!
Dave Haslam does not need an introduction. A musical legend in his own lifetime he was the epitome of ‘social media’ at a time when the word ‘web’ was solely associated with spiders. While many of us were getting over excitable with our Spectrum ZXs (age dependent; my friend’s dad had one) Haslam was doing what many people think is now only possible through the twittersphere via his early ‘80s fanzine Debris, something he describes as “similar to a blog, tumbler, facebook, and myspace all put together”. It provided Haslam – a total new music obsessive – with a platform from which he could write about and share what he though was great on the new music scene.
Despite its limited print run and select distribution, Debris was soon praised by the likes of John Peel and NME, resulting in the latter requesting Haslam write for their magazine. Consequently Haslam, aged 23, wrote his first double-paged feature for the NME; at a time when hundreds of desperate music-journo-wannabes were pitching to the mag on a daily basis.
“They didn’t have anyone in Manchester, Paul Morley had just moved down to London, so I became the Manchester correspondent”. Rather than reveling in the opportunity, Haslam, used to the creative freedom of Debris, “actually got a bit bored of the NME”. As the Manchester correspondent “they just wanted you to write about all the local bands. There was stuff I wanted to write about that I couldn’t. I remember wanting to write a piece on Public Enemy, and they were like, ‘ah no we have people in the office to do that’. I got pigeonholed and I didn’t like that.”
Haslam remedied such creative bracketing by DJing at the Hacienda – one of the most iconic clubs of the era (as you might expect of someone who get’s bored of the NME) and the rest, to most of us, is history. However it really isn’t. Yes, the Hacienda gained beyond iconic status on the club scene. It was also largely responsible – along with bands such as Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets – for perpetuating the whole ‘Madchester’ sonic landscape. Yet even as that scene was forming, Haslam and the artists involved wanted to break free of its restrictions.
“I’d found the years leading up to Madchester quite exciting. Everyone was kind of hungry and experimenting with music and DJing, nothing was under control, and then suddenly people put a label on it! It was like, this is Manchester, these are the clubs and these are the bands. It all became defined and confined.” By the early ‘90s, Haslam had been approached to write for The Face magazine. In a reaction to the limitations he was already beginning to feel from the Madchester scene, the first piece he wrote for the magazine was titled “Madchester is dead, long live Manchester!’
Stirring further provocation Haslam would come out with statements such as “99.9% of local bands are shit and I don’t like them”, the main reason being to break the confines of location in order to return the emphasis to the music. “I grew up listening to New York bands like Talking Heads and Blondie and I loved the idea that I could connect with what they were talking about and what was happening in New York clubs. I got into all sorts of different stuff, but I really felt, why would I necessarily like a band from down the road more than any other band.”
As with most of the people who shaped the Madchester sound, Haslam’s main emphasis was good new music, not simply Manchester music. “If you have a profile in magazines, on radio and through DJing, people presume you allow geography to take over the criteria by which you judge music, and I never did”. Such music focus was not always the most beneficial to his career. Despite getting calls from the NME, if Haslam hadn’t found anything worth playing or writing about, he simply wouldn’t. “I’d get calls from the NME asking ‘what are the latest bands’ and i’d say, ah well they’re all shit.” Equally ‘local’ bands would give him tapes requesting write-ups, but if he didn’t like it, whether it was Manchester based or not, it simply wouldn’t get done.
Initially such behavior can seem incongruous to someone who pioneers new sounds and assists struggling artists. However, the reliability of reputation that grabbed John Peel’s attention would easily be undermined by the glorification of local bands for the sake of NME column inches. Instead, it adds importance to those that are pushed, played and promoted, no matter where they’re from.
“People mistake the whole Manchester music history and the tradition that we have – the whole story, the whole mythology – for some kind of local pride”, on the contrary as Haslam explains “I interviewed Joy Division, The Smiths, Stone Roses, all those iconic bands and none of them wanted to be ‘local’ bands. They were all inspired by widely different things – like the novels by Franz Kafka for instance.” Like Haslam himself, these bands were culturally inspired by things from far further afield than Manchester, and in return hoped their sound and influence would reach further out still. “As Ian Brown said ‘It’s not where you’re from it’s where you’re at!’”
Although aesthetically and aurally, these bands became what defined the city, “It’s worth remembering that they didn’t form to promote Manchester” Haslam explains, “a lot of them, when they first came out, found the vast majority of people in Manchester detested them.” It’s hard to imagine it now but “for example, a lot of the passion and the feeling in Morrissey’s lyrics came out of the fact that he’d get chased through Piccadilly gardens by knob heads wanting to beat him up.” Despite the ultimate success, people like Morrissey were, at the time, social outcasts; themselves trying to create something new.
That ‘something new’ became so definitive, that it was all that people wanted and expected from acts emerging from Manchester for years to follow. Many bands found such infamy creatively claustrophobic and it even lead to criticism from the like of Haslam himself as he wrote his 2007 article ‘Is Nostalgia Killing Manchester Music?’ When I asked if he still thought this was the case however it seems his feelings have since changed, “Six or seven years ago I’d have said yes. That whole Madchester moment, that I guess lead up to Oasis being as big as they were and included the whole Hacienda/Stone Roses/Happy Mondays thing, was big and culturally important and a massive turn around from how the city had been perceived. That was all good in many ways, but I think it took a good ten years, from Oasis, for people to begin to allow room for other kinds of music.”
Finally now, people are making that room. “If you look at bands like Elbow, yes they are still boys in a band to an extent, but they are not a ‘lad band’. Guy Garvey himself even talks in ‘Build A Rocket Boys’ about that sensitivity that is very different to that ‘laddish’ thing”. This acceptance and interest in bands that do not fit into that Madchester sound, has also allowed for bands such as “the Ting Tings, which did get a bit Top Of The Pops, which was a bit sad, but also great singer songwriters like Badly Drawn Boy, Delphic, Everything Everything. If you to look at what’s happened in the past five or six years, there is stuff coming out of Manchester that isn’t falling into quite such a constricting definition as it would have done seven or more years ago.”
So it seems slowly the mould is breaking, or at least re-shaping, to allow room for new sounds and scapes. This is all a apart of the transitions that have always happened and been experienced by whoever is creating at the time. As Haslam says, “What you become aware of as you live longer and you hang out over a longer period of time is how long things take to happen, to reach the surface; like Elbow.” Haslam experienced first hand how long that process can take: “Going back, I wrote about the Happy Monday’s in the NME in 1985, four years later they had a hit single. I gave the Stone Roses their first positive review in the NME in 1986 three years before their debut album.”
So, without stating the obvious, there is no such thing as overnight change. The artists emerging from the city now have as many hurdles to work their way over, all be it maybe slightly different ones. As Haslam reminds us “All those bands, The Roses, the Mondays, James etc, didn’t have success on a plate. When they started out, nobody was interested in Manchester bands”. If there is a benefit to the Madchester label, it is surely its influence. “Back then, there wasn’t as many clubs, there were less DJs, less interest from local radio about Manchester bands and there was no international profile.”
Manchester does now have a profile that reaches beyond the M60. “So now a band might come along and feel that they’re at a slight disadvantage, because what they do is compared to all that history, and that is a disadvantage, but I think it tends to be journalists from out of town who do that, they don’t live here, their perception of Manchester is always a bit backward.” Plus, newer bands have all the advantages of the internet that the Madchester bands never had “Via the internet you can bypass the media and get your music heard.”
The Madchester scene was definitive. It helped to further widen the floodgates that northern musicians had been pushing their way through for years. Its position as a reference point, from which all emerging Manchester bands must be compared, is however slowly shifting; which is a good thing for new creative. Haslam sums up his thoughts on the issue: “My thing about the whole nostalgia issue is that being interested and inspired by the past is really important for creative people and by understanding what’s gone on, you can learn from it you can be inspired by it. So celebrating the past is OK. But I think if you’re an individual living in the past, then that’s really unhealthy. Equally if you’re a culture or you’re a city living in the past, that’s really unhealthy too. There’s a difference between celebrating the past and living in the past. I think that’s the key.”
With new artists, bands, nights and DJs emerging from the city all the time it’s nice to build on what the past has laid out, but equally important not to get hooked on its memory. “The most harmful thing about nostalgia is that it says things were better back then. That the past was more culturally significant than the present ever will be.” With a city as culturally diverse and vibrant as Manchester, we know this simply is not the case.
This article first appeared in Manchester’s Finest
As usual, my picture is nothing to do with my feature. This was taken looking out from our campervan on a beach in Jura a couple of weeks ago. Tis quite calming and nice to look at when you’re so stressed you want to punch a cushion :O)