Manchester – A music city that takes no pity

Manchester is a city renowned for its bands and artists, past and present. The music scene’s major part in the city’s identity was highlighted in the wake of an unexpected tragedy.

Local group Lavender turning The Castle Hotel on Oldham Street into a sauna.

Pop music has been an integral part of Manchester’s cultural identity ever since the emergence of guitar bands in 1960’s with the likes of Herman’s Hermits and the Hollies hailing from the unofficial capital of Northern England.

This can be heard and seen everywhere from the campaign speeches of politicians, like the new mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham pledging to be the mayor for Manchester’s music scene, to matches of the town’s iconic football teams, like the Stone Roses’ ”This Is the One” being played during the players’ lap of honour after the final game of the season at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s home shrine.

The horrible events at Manchester Arena on Monday night May 22, furthermore underlined and symbolized the said integration. Granted, that night wasn’t exactly about Manchester music but an American pop singer and teen idol Ariana Grande performing in the second biggest indoor arena in Europe.

It was still an attack on music and the concert-going experience. Like Martin Blunt from The Charlatans put it during the band’s Oldham Street takeover (more of which later) on Friday the same week: ”People go to concerts for entertainment… It’s a very soft option to target. It’s basically an attack on civil liberties.”

And during the days following the attack you could really see that you were in Manchester, at where famously according to Tony Wilson, the founder of Factory Records and The Haçienda nightclub, ”they do things differently”.

The Mancunian poet Tony Walsh read his poem ”This Is the Place” at the vigil attended by thousands held on Tuesday the day after the attack at Albert Square in front of the town hall. ”And the songs that we sing from the stands, from our bands,” Walsh emotionally recited.

One particular song from their bands became a symbol of Manchester’s spirit that week. Oasis’ ”Don’t Look Back in Anger” was performed by Cheltham Music School students at the Albert Square vigil and on Thursday a crowd at another vigil at St. Ann’s square broke into spontaneous rendition of the song after a minute of silence for the victims.

Even though the tune in question is arguably one of the most singed along campfire songs of the last twenty years or so you wouldn’t dare not to see the significance and context in this very case.

There were also local newspaper covers and restaurant billboards quoting the song titles of other local bands like The Stone Roses and The Smiths. Street musicians spread the message of love instead of hate during a packed lunch hour at Piccadilly Gardens and afternoon dazed Market Street shopping hub. People were really stepping outside as the summertime was in bloom.

Sam Fairbrother, a full-time busker, was playing at Piccadilly Gardens but wasn’t taking money that day. “If I changed one person’s day today, it was worth it,” he said.

On Friday, even Liam Gallagher felt he had to do something and announced his first ever solo gig to be held on Tuesday the next week with all the profits going to the victims of the attack.

Legendary club Band on the Wall in the corner of the Northern Quarter area between Victoria and Piccadilly station was part of the cordoned off area the day after the bombing.

The Saturday before the attack it was all good when up-and-coming bands from Liverpool and Manchester took the stage as part of Future Vibes All-Dayer club. The genres during the night ranged from shoegaze to post-punk and from avant-garde folk to dark jazz.

Zuzu doing her thing at Band on the Wall.

Characteristic for Manchester, where there are heaps of live music of all styles to choose from seven days a week. The ever-buzzing Northern Quarter is the mecca of bohemia and culture in the city with its numerous music venues, bars, cafes, record stores and art shops.

Band on the Wall is a bit of an institution in the Manchester nightlife. Originally already opened in 1862 by the McKenna Brothers brewery, it has seen plenty of various activity during the years from being the favourite joint of soldiers of the allied forces in WW2 to hosting some of the first shows of the legendary Manchester post-punk bands like Joy Division and the Buzzcocks in the late 1970’s.

The club, that got its name from the fact that the house band in the early 20th century used to play in a stage installed on the wall few metres from the floor, is not just an ordinary watering hole offering live music. For ten years it has a been a registered non-profitable charity enjoying funding from Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund.

And it’s not just rock music on offer. ”One week we can have a reggae show on Friday, a hip hop show on Saturday and a jazz show on Sunday,” Marketing and Communications Officer Liam Cook from Band on the Wall says.

Being a non-profitable venue gives Band on the Wall the opportunity to have a diverse program and also offer more unknown bands a shot at playing at a proper venue, and play a part in the community in other ways as well.

The club is home to Brighter Sound project of Manchester College and the local government that organizes music education for young people and connects them with established artists. Band on the Wall also takes their programme outside Manchester to corners of the North of England that don’t have a very lively live music scene of their own.

For example, last year Brighter Sound connected American jazz saxophonist Chris Potter with Inner City Ensemble, a band that consisted of winning applicants from among the young musicians of the area. They were taught to play Potter’s songs at Band on the Wall before going on a mini Northern England tour of four shows with their bandleader.

The day after the Arena bombing was a normal working day at Piccadilly Records, a Northern Quarter record store. Martin Evans who is serving customers behind the desk says it’s all obviously tragic but life goes on.

Manchester Evening News quoting The Smiths in their headline on May 25, the day there was a minute of silence for the victims of the Manchester Arena attack throughout the country.

”I’ve been in Manchester after bombings before,” he says referring to IRA terror of the 1990’s. The 53-year-old Evans has been living in the city since 1979 and working at Piccadilly Records for 31 years.

”The Smiths were still around, ’Queen Is Dead’ was released when I was already working here. Then came The Stone Roses and Madchester about three years after I started working here,” Evans recalls and recounts the city’s magnificent pop music history.

”Madchester” is the name given to a scene in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when bands like The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays who combined dance music and indie rock were the toast of the town.

The scene was largely associated with local renaissance man Tony Wilson’s record company Factory Records and the nightclub The Haçienda. The nightclub, that was shut in 1997 and since been turned into apartments, was the beating heart of the scene that collided with the emergence of the rave culture as well.

”I used to go to Haçienda. People walked in with knives and drugs and no one cared,” Titus, a 42-year-old airline captain says at Band on the Wall during Future Vibes.

”The drugs and music really went hand in hand then,” Titus says. ”And as a student you think you’re bulletproof, you know.”

Rae Donaldson, 57, the manager of Vinyl Exchange record store, thinks that the days of Madchester were an era when there was particular interest in the city as such from all over the country and beyond. He used to work in another record store in Manchester back in the day.

”It was remarkable how many people from all around the country were ordering James, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets and The Stone Roses T-shirts. We made ridiculous amounts of money on T-shirts.”

Whereas these days Donaldson doesn’t think there is a particular Manchester scene anymore despite plenty of interesting current bands being from Manchester. He mentions The Courteeners and Blossoms as examples.

Andy Burnham, The Mayor of Greater Manchester, said in an interview with Manchester Evening News after being elected that “A bit of complacency really has crept in. We’re trading on the big names of the past too much. The Courteeners are the obvious exception. I don’t see a music scene that was like the one I remember growing up here.”

Tom Houghton, 28, who plays and sells records at Eastern Bloc, a record store and a cafe, again in Northern Quarter, also thinks the Manchester’s musical history can sometimes hold the city back a bit.

”There’s been like these Haçienda parties recently that get broadcast on the internet and people think that ’Oh, this is Manchester’, but it’s not really, it’s not Manchester, it has moved on and developed like any other city,” he says. ”It (Madchester) is a big part of the city’s history but people shouldn’t get too hung on that because the city has so much more to offer than just this one thing.”

Having said that he still thinks the scene these days is actually very good. He applauds the sense of community among the people in Manchester saying they are knowledgeable and genuinely passionate about music.

Tom Houghton sells and plays records in the upstairs of Eastern Bloc, a record store and a cafe that has been around since 1985.

Houghton says that unlike in cities like London and Berlin that have more fragmented audiences and groups of actives, people in Manchester help out each other and go to others’ parties and shows despite the genre.

”And you don’t really have the idea of ’Oh, if I go to this party and get seen with these people I will become famous’ here. No one moves to Manchester to become famous and anyone that has that attitude gets found out pretty soon.”

Which is probably what happened at Haçienda back in the day when, like with regional scenes often occurs, a couple of artists broke through and eventually attracted attention to the place where all the heat seemed to be at.

The Manchester scene can be seen as a wider Northern England, or Northwest of England as Martin Blunt puts it, scene really.

In football Manchester’s relationship with the neighbouring Liverpool, which obviously has its own history in pop music and lively scene in it as well, is famously not exactly chummy but the bands and artists do like to travel the 45 minutes or so trip to do shows.

One of them is Zuzu, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter from Liverpool. ”People are very similar in the two cities. I like Manchester, they’re our neighbours.” Zuzu has recently moved back to Liverpool from London and loves being back home because she’s not a “city slicker”.

She does think there is a bit of a northern identity in contrary to the South and London. ”Yeah definitely. That’s a big part of who I am and a big part of my music.”

Rae Donaldson from Vinyl Exchange doesn’t share the idea. He is from Manchester but doesn’t have a clue what that is supposed to tell about him. He thinks that a lot of time identity is imposed on people by how other people see them.

”The northern/southern thing is just bullshit, until someone makes an issue out of it”, he says. ”I will quote you Ian Brown on this ’It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at’,” he says.

Oldham Street was the place to be at on a boilingly hot Friday, May 26, when in celebration of their new album ”Different Days”, The Charlatans took over the Northern Quarter street for the whole day.

In the wake of the Arena bombing some events in the Manchester area were cancelled but many went on as planned. The Charlatans posted on Facebook the day after the bombing that their planned Friday fair would indeed go ahead. ”Less celebratory maybe, more a chance to spend time together,” the post closed.

Martin Blunt says it was about defiance as well: “Life does have to go on, you know,” he says. “This was planned three months ago.”

The events on the day ranged from turning a disused shoe shop into a pub with live music to album signing session and a screening of a documentary about the making of their classic 1997 album ”Tellin’ Stories”.

Robert and Ruth White from Sheffield were first in line in front of Piccadilly Records to have their new Charlatans albums signed on the band’s Oldham Street takeover.

It was a different day indeed on a week of very different days but like Tony Wilson said, I guess that is how they do it in Manchester.

People took to the street to spend their lunch break or a day-off to enjoy the music, the food, the drinks, the sun. Doing just the things the Arena attackers wouldn’t want them to do.

The scenes just begged another quote from Walsh’s poem: ”And these hard times again, in these streets of our city, but we won’t take defeat and we don’t want your pity.”