John Robb is a key Manchester chronicler, having experienced the city’s music scene first hand, both as a music journalist and a performer (The Membranes, Goldblade)
I grew up in Blackpool, a natural-born seasider. Punk taught us DIY and we strived to create something in the tatty seaside town. But it was impossible. Fifty miles south down the road the lure of Manchester was too much – a move was inevitable.
I arrived in the middle of the thriving post-punk scene. The first band I got to know was The Stone Roses – their original bass player Pete Garner worked in Paperchase, where he would stock my fanzine Rox. Ian Brown lived next door to my guitar player and we rehearsed next door to them in the Chorlton Lock Up, where a very youthful Reni was impressed by The Membranes’ graffiti campaign.
While we were careering off into a noise assault they were crafting that classic debut album. We couldn’t have sounded less alike but our paths kept crossing over the years in that curiously Mancunian way where disparate bands would criss-cross at gigs, at rehearsal rooms and in the clubs- the ‘village Manchester’ mentality: a big city with a tight-knit scene.
The mid-’80s Boardwalk rehearsal rooms was were where it was really happening – there was A Certain Ratio in their home grown studio, the Happy Mondays freaky dancing in the street, playing stoner football, and a whole cross-section of key Manchester bands rehearsing in the dust and dope smoke of the subterranean rooms.
Five years later Oasis would be in there rehearsing the same riff over and over five days a week, honing down their debut album. Fuck, that band worked hard! I already knew Noel from the endless circuit of gigs, late night clubs and illegal parties across the city. Noel, the nice kid who worked with the Inspirals who was funny as fuck and was, typically of the scene, steeped in pop culture. I remember getting the first Oasis demo off him in the street with ‘Oasis’ melted onto the front of the box.
The years I’ve lived in the city have been dotted with endless gigs and classic moments, from Buzzcocks’ eternal live jukebox to Oasis’ early gigs where you just knew, to The Stone Roses’ thrilling ascent through the warehouse parties to Blackpool to Ally Pally to Spike Island and that debut album.
There was the Happy Mondays’ leering genius and Shaun Ryder’s amazing wordplay; the Inspirals’ knack of writing killer singles; The Smiths’ melancholy and sheer wit; and New Order’s bringing of the new, built around Peter Hook’s heroic one-string bass runs. Hooky was everywhere. Either running the legendary Suite 16 studios or hogging the bar at gigs, you’d find him, leathered up and gruff, a rock’n’roll Viking.
I remember all those nights in the Boardwalk and the International clubs watching the scene come together. I remember The Smiths playing to 50 people at Dingwalls with a heap of flowers on the floor. I remember the Roses rehearsing next door and borrowing guitar strings off them and being surprised at how genuinely nice the surly-looking band were.
Sign up for the newsletter
I was forever seeing Ian Brown in West Didsbury on the way to John Squire’s to write songs. I remember the sound systems blasting across Hulme all night, the early pre-house Hacienda and classic gigs like The Birthday Party and Einsturzende Neubaten that get brushed over in the rush to remember the dance-era Hac. I remember the squat parties like the Kitchen where you didn’t know where in the pitch darkness you where the floor was. I remember endless classic Fall gigs and Mark Smith’s sneering, sardonic, malevolent presence. I remember Gareth Evans, the Roses manager, wandering around in my garden refusing to leave until I wrote about the band, not realising that I already had done.
I remember meeting Morrissey at a Ludus gig in 1983 when Ludus supported Depeche Mode at Rafters before The Smiths formed. It was a meeting of great quiffs – his has become legendary and mine has remained defiant. The Smiths were the perfect group, dreamed up by the fast-talking wunderkind Johnny Marr – who managed the Goth shop, X Clothes, where Jeff the Pirate would sell you half-price black drainpipe jeans under the counter.
The city was seething with music. You could sense the next generation coming, the Mondays, Roses and the Carpets groping towards the baggy psychedelic. Then there were the drugs, the all-night parties and the weirdness, the nuttiness of the characters and the special mish-mash of musical styles in those famous eclectic record collections.
There was the lack of bullshit and the sheer determination of the bands and the 24-hour party people in a city that was falling down around everyone’s ears. The world’s first industrial city had been the backdrop to Factory, Joy Division, the Hacienda and The Smiths, and was now going Day-Glo in the late-’80s party. E arrived like a Mexican wave across the city. Everything started to glow. Those were great times. Every day was fun and the music was amazing – it San Francisco in the mid-’60s gone all northern and gritty, everyone was in a band or a DJ. Hulme was party central and everyone had a glazed expression.
The hangover was mean and it looked like there were no tricks left up the Manc sleeve, but Oasis took the strands of baggy and invaded the Britpop stage and became the people’s bands of the ’90s. Their songs are so deeply entrenched into popular culture that it’s hard to separate that decade from them. And it just went on from there – if in the late ’80s one nation was under a Mancunian groove, in the 21st century a disparate collection of bands from The Ting Tings to Kid British to Elbow are part of the diverse current picture. The North Will Rise Again. It’s still a musical city, my adopted hometown.
Throughout May NME Radio is broadcasting in Manchester on 87.7FM – as well as the usual digital platforms