From Joy Division and The Smiths, to the headliners at next month's Dubai Sound City, Happy Mondays and Doves, Manchester has long been Britain's self-styled music capital. But has the city's urban regeneration dulled its maverick creative spirit? Stroll around the gleaming metropolis of modern Manchester and you find scant evidence of the post-industrial wasteland that spawned some of the most legendary pop and rock music of the past 30 years. From the shiny Urbis building, a striking blade of glass housing a museum of urban living, to the monumental Beetham Tower, one of Britain's tallest skyscrapers, the fabric of Manchester has changed almost beyond recognition in barely a decade. The newly rebranded Northern Quarter, once a shabby warren of Victorian arcades a few blocks north of the city centre, now contains an assortment of chic boutiques and bars. And even lifelong fans of Manchester City Football Club admit that the team's magnificent new Eastlands stadium is a vast improvement on its much-loved but dilapidated predecessor, Maine Road. Manchester has long enjoyed painting itself as Britain's music capital, a calculated insult to faraway London and nearby Liverpool. It certainly punches above its weight compared with other urban centres: Joy Division, The Smiths, The Fall, New Order, Simply Red, The Stones Roses, Happy Mondays, Oasis and dozens more emerged from the vast housing estates that pepper this great industrial city. Many others, including Doves and Elbow, arrived from far-flung suburbs and satellite towns to become honorary Mancunians.
Heading for Dubai Sound City next month, Happy Mondays and Doves are two seasoned Manchester veterans with roots in the fabled Hacienda nightclub. This legendary local venue, a stylistic forerunner to the city's current love affair with modern architecture, is often cited as a key catalyst in Manchester's prolific canon of great music. Other factors include a relentlessly rainy climate, large student population and vibrant racial mix. But a kind of swaggering northern pride is also a crucial part of the chemistry. Many local musicians, even born-again Mancs from outside the city, share this chippy arrogance.
"Manchester's got a history of myth making," explains Guy Garvey of Elbow, "and it's got a history of defiance as well. It's big enough that you can do what you want with your life, but small enough to feel part of a community. The whole town is small enough that you can see your heroes on the street. I hate to say it, especially within hearing range of my sweetheart and true love Emma, but I've written more love songs to this city than I have to any woman." Most Manchester pop historians agree that the city's musical golden age began with a now-infamous Sex Pistols concert at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976, a small but momentous affair attended by most of the city's future music legends, including members of Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Fall and The Smiths. Crucially, the flamboyant local media figure and impresario Tony Wilson was also present. He went on to found the city's most influential label, Factory Records, the anarchic launchpad for Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays. Also at the concert were the journalist Paul Morley and the photographer Kevin Cummins, who would both become ambassadors for Manchester in the influential London-based music weekly New Musical Express (NME). Cummins is now an internationally renowned photographer who recently published a deluxe volume entitled Manchester: Looking For The Light Through the Pouring Rain. He recalls the city's late 1970s music scene as a tight-knit community of like-minded people. "It helped that I was there and Paul Morley was there to give it that start," Cummins recalls. "We bombarded the music press with all this stuff, some of it made up. But it meant Manchester was in the NME every week." During the Thatcherite 1980s, Manchester suffered from industrial decline and economic recession. But this was also a decade of low rents, cheap rehearsal studios and relatively generous state unemployment benefits. According to the DJ and pop historian Dave Haslam, the author of Manchester, England, all these factors helped make music an attractive career option. "In the mid 1980s, there wasn't much to do in Manchester," Haslam explains. "Unemployment and boredom - I guess that was one reason people took to music. We'd become a music city thanks to the Buzzcocks, The Fall, Factory, The Smiths etc. So there were role models, of a kind. There were empty warehouses, which made for cheap rehearsal spaces and gig venues. There was a sense you had to make a life for yourself-" The opening of the hi-tech Hacienda nightclub in 1982 was another milestone in Manchester music history, although few would have guessed it at the time. Conceived and financed by Tony Wilson, New Order and their manager Rob Gretton, this futuristic disco warehouse on the edge of the city centre began life as a notoriously costly white elephant. "It was ahead of its time," argues Cummins. "We used to sit around saying, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a New York club in Manchester?' Well, in our heads maybe. In actuality, nobody was interested. For the first couple of years, it was like going to a private members' club for people who worked for Factory Records. On a Friday night, there would be maybe 25 people in there." However, everything changed with the arrival in Manchester of rave music and the party drug ecstasy in the late 1980s. The Hacienda became one of Britain's hippest dance venues, attracting coach parties from as far away as London. The rising stars of the "Madchester" boom, led by Stone Roses and a new Factory signing, Happy Mondays, also congregated in this hedonistic palace. "The Hacienda was definitely the hub of it," recalls Peter Hook, formerly of Joy Division and New Order, who has just published a highly amusing memoir, entitled The Hacienda: How Not To Run A Club. "Everybody who was anybody in the gangs, in the groups, in the drug culture, they were all in the Hacienda because it was so hip and so hot then. Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson were running a free social club for all these people." The Madchester scene turned Manchester into the coolest pop city on the planet, at least for a glorious summer or two. But with intense media interest and huge sums of money to be made, the mood inevitably darkened in the early 1990s. Gun-toting criminal gangs took over the city's expanding drug culture, making the Hacienda an increasingly dangerous place. While the club struggled, Factory unwisely bought an expensive new office, plunging it into bankruptcy in 1992. "The mistakes we made in the 1980s, you couldn't survive them in the 1990s once the property crash happened," recalls Hook. "Basically, we were all spending and partying like there was no tomorrow. You always remember the good bits, which is one of the great things in life, but it was a very hedonistic and selfish period." The demise of Factory was a body blow for Manchester music. But an equally crucial setback was the urban regeneration of Hulme, a famously bohemian suburb a mile from the city centre. The Crescents in Hulme were four huge, horseshoe-shaped developments of brutalist concrete flats built in the late 1960s. Failed experiments in utopian social housing, they quickly became lawless breeding grounds for crime and violence. During the 1980s, the Crescents were effectively abandoned by Manchester City Council and handed over to an army of artists, punks, squatters and students. "When you left the Hacienda you'd go to some party in Hulme," recalls Cummins. "You could go into any of the Crescents and anything was happening. You'd find two or three flats had been knocked in and turned into a recording studio, a late-night illegal club, or a photography studio. It was the creative hub of Manchester. If you look at cities with a creative hub, they are always places with a lot of cheap living. Once that disappeared, Manchester became the same as most cities - in England, certainly. You could no longer afford to lie around all day being creative. You had to get a job." The Crescents were demolished in the early 1990s. In their place, low-rise estates of modern terraced houses now sit. But Hulme was just the start of a rolling wave of redevelopment that has transformed Manchester over the past decade. On June 15, 1996, the Irish Republican Army gave the council an unexpected helping hand by detonating a massive bomb in the city centre. Causing an estimated £700 million (Dh4.1bn) in damage, the largest peacetime bomb ever exploded in Britain amazingly did not kill anybody, but it injured 212 people. It was also, at the time, the most expensive ever man-made disaster in Britain. Although insurers paid £411 million (Dh2.4bn) in damages, dozens of buildings and businesses suffered irreparable damage. The aftermath of the bomb coincided with the election of Tony Blair's Labour government, economic boom and a rash of new building projects in Manchester. The museum, the Eastlands stadium and dozens of glitzy new apartment buildings sprang up across the city over the following five years. Even the Hacienda, which struggled fitfully on before finally closing for good in 1997, was reborn as a block of luxury flats in 2002. Glass and steel replaced the soot-caked redbrick of old Manchester and, some say, erased its maverick creative spirit, too. "There's an element of truth in that, but it's just mutated into a different form," argues Mike Joyce, former drummer for The Smiths, who now interviews bands and plays classic alternative rock on the Manchester-based networking website www.tincan.tv. "Just because a certain aspect of the city has been closed down, it comes up somewhere else. I don't think raw talent can be suppressed." For some purists, the end of Factory and the Hacienda marked a terminal decline for Manchester music. But the city continued to produce world-class acts throughout the 1990s. Love them or loathe them, Oasis picked up the torch from the Stones Roses and became the biggest band in Britain. The shimmering, melodic rockers Doves and the neo-folkie minstrel Badly Drawn Boy also emerged to great acclaim in the late 1990s. More recently, Manchester has scored on the national stage again with the rise of local heroes the Ting Tings and The Courteeners, plus belated recognition for Elbow, winners of the prestigious Mercury Music Prize in 2008. The city's musical history has also been celebrated in three recent films about the Factory years: Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, Anton Corbijn's Control and Grant Gee's Joy Division. Across modern Manchester, there are self-conscious echoes of this great musical legacy. But all this navel-gazing nostalgia is not healthy, insists Cummins, who fears the city is in danger of becoming a pop-themed museum, much like Liverpool with The Beatles. "Every bar, every club, every shop you go into are playing Oasis and the Stone Roses," Cummins protests. "And I'm part of the problem - doing my book, I'm hoping to propagate the myth I suppose. But everywhere I go in Manchester, all I hear is music from 15 years ago. We need something new. Don't turn it into a theme park." With the death of Wilson from cancer in 2007, Manchester music lost its most passionate champion and elder statesman. Cummins glumly concludes that the city's once-proud music scene has now become too insular and irrelevant, but others disagree. Joyce is certainly optimistic about a new generation of emerging talent. "Two bands straight away," Joyce gushes, "Delphic and Dutch Uncles. With the Dutch Uncles, it's probably the first time I've been that giddy about a band since Oasis. It's like being in love, just listening to the song over and over again. They remind me of the early Smiths, they've got their own in-jokes, their own community around them. The thing that turned me on to them, and it's the same with Delphic, is they do not sound like a 'Manchester band'. That shows a real sense of individuality. A lot of bands embraced the whole Manchester sound and attitude, which is just embarrassing." Haslam agrees. "Sometimes the weight of history can be too great," he says. "It's taken a while for the Stone Roses copyists to die off, all those local bands being formulaic and conforming to some stereotype. There's a difference between celebrating the past and living in it. But thankfully most of the emerging bands in the city now - Airship, Everything Everything, Delphic - have a much more varied sound." "Manchester's a different place now, much brighter and shinier," Hook admits. "But it still has the heritage of the Hacienda, Joy Division, Buzzcocks, The Fall: a wonderful, rich heritage. Manchester is still a very prolific place for people to grow and make music. People are still drawn here like a magnet, and that's the legacy we left behind." Dubai Sound City takes place at the Irish Village on November 5, 6 and 7. For a full lineup and ticket details, go to www.dubaisoundcity.com