Nick March takes a look at four releases celebrating the anarchic scene that once turned Manchester into Madchester.
Four releases celebrating the 'Madchester' scene
There is a line in Suffer Little Children, the closing track of the 1984 debut album by The Smiths, which even now continues to cloud the Manchester music scene from which it sprung.
The song, written by Morrissey and Johnny Marr, is a disturbing piece about Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, the Moors Murderers who abducted, sexually assaulted and killed five young children in the Manchester area in the mid-1960s, before burying their bodies in the unforgiving hills that gather around the English city.
Hindley and Brady were sentenced to life imprisonment on May 6, 1966, but not before the jury had been required to listen to a tape recording of the pair tormenting Lesley Ann Downey, their penultimate victim, who was just 10 years old at the time of her death on December 26, 1964. The transcript of this tape has been published since, its absolute horror remains undimmed.
It is hard to overstate exactly how raw nerves were in Manchester after the murders. The city was consumed by loss, by shame and by a terrible anger that refused to subside. Even two decades later, many viewed Suffer Little Children as too much, too soon – it was withdrawn from sale in some UK record stores when it appeared as the B-side on the band’s fourth single – although Morrissey maintained he wrote the song out of compassion for the victims’ families. Its tenth line, “Oh Manchester, so much to answer for,” substantiates that claim.
If Morrissey’s words were once intended as a bitter admonishment, nowadays his lyric is most likely to be used to celebrate the emergence, in quick succession, of Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses during a golden era of indie music that began in 1977. It ended, in 1992, with the closure of debt-ridden Factory Records, the label that did most to support the Manchester music scene of that period.
The business of recording this era in the city’s pop-culture history, and of Factory’s influence over it, now borders on something close to obsession. To date, a handful of feature films, a small library of books and a pile of compilation albums have made their way to market, each one claiming to provide something close to the definitive view of the label, its associated nightclub (The Haçienda) and the artists themselves.
That mountain has recently been added to by Total, a compilation album of the greatest hits of both Joy Division and New Order; Weekender, a film about rave culture set in Manchester; Twisting My Melon, the memoir of Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder and a box set of The Smiths complete works.
It’s not hard to see why both pop historians and the era’s central players seem so eager to soak themselves in a warm bath of nostalgia. These were, after all, the best of times and the worst of times. The Manchester of Morrissey’s youth was an unglamorous place, decimated by high unemployment and choked of opportunity, far removed from the shiny metropolis of today, with its millionaire soapstars and its billion-pound football clubs. In such environments, great artists often prosper.
What we know now – at least in the words of the myth that wraps around this period – is that one man believed in the city, and that man was Anthony H Wilson. A star of regional television news, Wilson set up Factory as a hobbyist label and as a sideline to his lucrative day job.
“It began,” writes Jon Savage in the introduction to Shadowplayers, James Nice’s exhaustively researched and forensically detailed 2010 book on the rise and fall of the record label, “as an idealistic experiment that encompassed artistic and business practice, and that ... created an environment where things happened and people realised their potential.”
And they did – realise their potential. First, Joy Division then New Order and later Happy Mondays, even if the unique business practices of the label ensured none of these bands would ever fully realise the riches they were due. As Peter Hook, New Order’s former bassist records in his 2009 book The Hacienda: How Not to Run A Club, “I won’t appreciate how much cash [I] lost until I stop earning money.”
For now, Hook is still earning money, as an author, a musician and, the irony is rich here, as a nightclub impresario. He co-owns FAC 251: The Factory, a club based at the defunct record label’s former headquarters.
While Factory’s artists were missing out on their dues, the label would lose out on The Smiths, who spurned their advances in favour of another indie imprint, and on The Stone Roses, whom the label studiously ignored. Even outside the fold, both would prosper in part because Wilson’s belief prevailed. Factory made a noise and the world listened or rather, as Wilson who died in 2007, once said, “We didn’t make money, we made history”.
But what do these newest products add to that history? The Smiths Complete is the easiest to deal with here. Available in three formats – vinyl, digital and CD – this box set gathers and remasters all eight of their albums together for the first time. It is, above all, one for die-hards and devotees of the band’s melancholic sound.
The Joy Division/New Order compilation is anything but Total. Its name springs from this being the first time that Joy Division and New Order tracks have been collected on the same release. In the years immediately following the suicide of Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis in 1980, the band’s surviving members (Hook, Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris who would form New Order with Gillian Gilbert after Curtis’s death) were reluctant to play Joy Division tracks live, a policy they would later relent on.
The album’s 18 tracks span from 1979 to the present day, from the astounding beauty of Atmosphere by Joy Division, to Hellbent, a previously unreleased but relatively humdrum New Order track. Generally though, this feels like a patchy collection. It misses more than it gathers, it brushes over and sweeps away large parts of what was an often glorious story.
Total’s biggest problem is, however, that the business of releasing New Order’s greatest hits has been at work for close to a quarter of a century. The band’s eight studio albums have now been matched by eight compilations, including the four-disc box set, the singles, the 12-inch singles, the best, the rest and the iTunes special. There is really very little left to say that hasn’t been said better before.
That, of course, will not stop many buying Total. New Order fans are nothing if not completists, an instinct shaped in the Factory years when the label’s every move – from its nightclub (FAC 51) to its legal dispute with one of the label’s founding partners (FAC 61) – was marked by a catalogue number.
The label spawned a generation of avid followers turned amateur curators, whose appetite will undoubtedly be partially sated next week when a version of New Order (without Hook, but back with Gilbert for the first time in a decade) will play two charity concerts in Europe. A lucrative US tour is rumoured to follow.
Quite what those same devotees will make of Weekender is another matter. Karl Golden’s film follows a pair of twentysomething lads, Matt and Dylan, as they immerse themselves in the drug-addled Manchester club scene of 1990, before deciding to stage their own illegal raves in the disused factories that once littered the city.
This is, though, the landscape of the unfamiliar. The film fails to give any sense of the Madchester culture (as it was dubbed in the moment of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays’ fame) that coursed through the city at this juncture and ignores The Haçienda completely, which was then close to being the most important nightclub in the world.
Inevitably, the boys soon discover their “live fast, die young” lifestyle might actually live up to its promise. Matt, the more grounded of the film’s twin protagonists, can be heard muttering “it’s over” at regular intervals after the enjoyable opening segment of the film. He does so in reference to the guns and gangsters who overrun their good times, but he’s right in a larger sense, the moment the movie stops trying to have fun, it ceases to be worth watching.
Shaun Ryder, the lead singer of the Happy Mondays, was the pivotal figure in that rave scene, the man who put the Mad in Madchester, the lyricist described by Wilson as the greatest poet since Yeats.
That should make Twisting My Melon a decent distraction, even if Ryder himself is embarrassed by this overstatement. Sure enough, even all these years later, Ryder reveals himself as a faltering master of the one-liner: “I’ve always lived for the moment, not the memories”, he writes, at the end of his longish trip down memory lane.
It is his take on the closure of The Haçienda, however, that is most worthy of note. “It’s over. Get over it. Move on,” Ryder writes. Maybe all these years later, Manchester has answered all the questions, maybe it’s time to forget. Maybe it’s time to move on.
Nick March is editor of The Review.