At Tootal, we’re rather fond of Manchester – after all, we were “born” there in 1799. So when we learnt of the new ‘Manchester North of England’ 7-CD box set from Cherry Red Records, we were keen to learn more. We caught up with John Reed, the curator / compiler of this epic work, to ask what makes the city’s music scene so special.
How did this project come about?
When I worked for Record Collector magazine, way back in 1990, Inspiral Carpets were the first band I ever interviewed. In early 2014, double the age I had been at that first meeting, I was in a cramped side room of a small studio in Chorlton, watching that same band record a new album for Cherry Red Records. Conversation turned to a 1988 cassette entitled Manchester North of England. It featured local acts like James, Johnny Dangerously and Jean Go Solo. It had been put together by the writer / film maker Jon Ronson, then working for listings magazine City Life. What we found interesting was that many of the featured acts went onto make a career of it. Plus the front cover of a T-shirt wearing Morrissey lookalike was a statement in itself.
Why did you decide to go with that same title?
That cassette was the germ of the idea. There is no better way to describe it than this title. Mancs are plain speaking, no nonsense. They like stuff unadorned. It worked. Plus the photo sums up ‘80s Manchester. We managed to track down the photographer A.J. Wilkinson and everything just fell into place.
With 146 songs, each by a different artists, was it a long time in the planning stage?
I started compiling the tracks after that chat with the Inspirals in 2014. I had come up with the idea ‘From Buzzcocks To Brit Pop’ and I knew it had to start with something related to Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP and finish with Oasis’ first-ever vinyl outing, ‘Columbia’. I mapped out the running order across 6 CDs but it ended up taking 7 to complete the journey, with help from suggestions from those at Manchester District Music Archive. I was going to stop circa 1990 and ‘Madchester’ but it would miss the fallout from that scene and, of course, Oasis.
Why did you decide on 1977 as ‘Year Zero’?
There had been big bands from Manchester before – The Hollies, Sad Café, 10cc – but they weren’t street level, whereas punk was very much an inner city thing, even if the bands were largely from outlying districts. Earlier trends like Pub Rock were diluted, without focus. None of it was synonymous with the city.
With no disrespect to the ‘60s bands, you don’t really equate them with a Manchester scene (other than the Twisted Wheel). People think of Mersey Beat, Brum Beat, the London scene obviously. Pre-punk, there was a lack of iconic identity. When Punk came along, it was obvious something was brewing. The Sex Pistols played Manchester four times in 1976 but there was already a scene of sorts, like-minded people waiting for inspiration.
What makes Manchester such a creative hot bed?
Mancunians have a different way of looking at the world, as Mark Radcliffe describes it in his (box set) introduction. There was a self-belief, the knowledge that no-one was going to do it for you. Catalysts like Tony Wilson and Richard Boon preached “a doctrine of self sufficiency”.
A lot of the featured artists weren’t originally from Manchester but attracted by the creative atmosphere, they came and stayed. And no doubt The Hacienda was a hub but the Factory Club, the Electric Circus, the International, the Band On The Wall, these venues also mattered and were all in reasonable proximity of each other. I don’t think you could do that in London unless they were all packed into Hoxton. There was an opportunity to make this happen without the need to move to London.
Why don’t we associate a particular fashion with this music?
People didn’t have the money; it was done on the cheap. Manchester developed an ‘80s Indie look out of necessity, not because it was an art statement.
There was arguably a Manchester look, though; the Joy Division ‘big overcoat’ was a necessity, born from budget as much as style statement. And the ‘baggy’ fashion broke out beyond the region. It fitted with the sense of a new psychedelia that was happening. Fashion was and remains intrinsic to individuals like Johnny Marr or Ian Brown, who always seemed in tune with certain fashions, though maybe not the most obvious ones. If you look at the early Stone Roses shots, they are wearing Desert Boots, narrow jeans, Fred Perry’s – Ian and Mani had been Scooter Boys.
Could you see this happening again?
There is a contrast between instant recognition now and past eras of being allowed time to develop in isolation. It would be difficult to imagine local scenes happening again in the same way but then – in terms of what’s covered on Manchester North of England, we’re not talking about just one scene, of course. Essentially, these Mancunians defined themselves as not being from London – for today’s bands, now that everyone communicates via the internet, it’s arguable it doesn’t even matter where you’re based?
What’s next for you and Cherry Red Records?
I’d like to think we’ve built a reputation for lavish, well-curated box sets. Currently, we’re working on a Post Punk collection covering the era 1977-1981 and a similar set devoted to the independent music out of Liverpool. People are hungry for learning about musical themes/eras from the past and the stories associated with them. Current popular music doesn’t have the intrigue or cultural depth – or if it does, younger people aren’t buying into it. If people are smitten, if they have been touched by music, then it matters. Brit Pop was probably the last time it connected across the generations.
Manchester North Of England: A Story Of Independent Music, Greater Manchester 1977-1993 is available to order from www.cherryred.co.uk
With thanks to John Reed and the team at Cherry Red Records.