The current crop of Manchester bands continues a long-standing local tradition of communality, both in regards to a vibrant inter-band network and a conscious connectedness to audiences. This practice of participating in a mutual support system, of working together for the greater good, is as practical as it is missionary in nature. Set apart from the industry’s and country’s capital, London, Manchester—like so many of Britain’s musical outposts—has found that strength can only come through the presence of numbers. By banding together, Manchester has fostered and forced its own scene within and beyond, garnering attention for multiple bands simultaneously.
Thus, when one ship sails beyond the city limits, all surrounding boats rise, too. Such a survivalist ethic of underdogs uniting for both an individual and common cause has long maintained Manchester as a focus and fountain of talent. One might argue that this communality has deeper local sources, too, in the early trade unions and protest groups that forged solidarity amongst the working classes as Manchester struggled with the transformations of the industrial revolution. Asked to explain the tight-knit Manchester music scene, Damon Gough (a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy) pinpointed “the general pride” and “the hustle bustle of being in a working class environment.” (“Q&A: Badly Drawn Boy interview”, CNN, 24 November 2006)
Doves benefited from Mancunian hospitality early in their career when—as noted—Bernard Sumner of New Order assisted them in their Sub Sub recordings and manager Rob Gretton adopted them into his fold. Later, when Doves’ studio burned down, it was New Order who stepped up to rent the band their old practice space. “We look after each other,” says Elbow’s Guy Garvey, a local figure increasingly tagged with the moniker “Mr. Manchester” since the death of Tony Wilson. Besides assisting with the local Skinny Dog label, Garvey has worked with many on the local rock roster, even producing I Am Kloot’s debut album. “I’ve had a beer with everyone,” Garvey adds. (“Seldom Seen Never Bettered” by Kev Heath, Liberation Frequency.co.uk)
For Elbow, communality means more than just working with neighboring artists, though. It is a pronounced feature of the band’s very identity. Cast of Thousands (2003) paid tribute to their fan base, its song “Grace Under Pressure” featuring the cast of thousands (among them Doves’ Jimi Goodwin) in attendance at the band’s 2002 Glastonbury Festival performance. During the song’s soaring finale, Garvey updates old Beatles sentiments by leading his cast through a communal sing-along of the line, “We still believe in love, so fuck you!” Such a sentiment of commitment and togetherness, of us against the world, has become a hallmark, not only of Elbow’s lyrical philosophy, but often of Manchester and the Manchester music scene in general.
Alexis Petridis recently described Doves as a “humble” band, saying, “the sarky hauteur common among Manc musicians is nowhere to be found.” He no doubt had such singularly-driven provocateurs as Oasis and Stone Roses in mind with this statement of contrast. And though these earlier bands exuded the spirit and pulse of Manchester every bit as much as Doves and Elbow currently do, the recent bands embody an almost hippy-like community consciousness that sets them apart from their more punk-inspired, spit ‘n’ spite predecessors. Unglamorous, understated, and undemonstrative though they may be, Doves and Elbow signify a commitment to cooperation, collectivity, and community.
However, because such “activism” has taken place in local obscurity—rather than via the media spotlight—these bands have been less rock star-amenable than some of their peers and predecessors. Modest and dedicated, Doves and Elbow register in the nine-to-five tradition of working class Manchester, where respect is earned over time through practices of hard work, and character is assessed by the criteria of true-to-self authenticity and true-to-others selflessness.
Home is Where the Art Is
Guy Garvey’s girlfriend once quipped that her “guy” had written more love songs about Manchester than he had about personal relationships. In reality, though, the two are inextricably linked in Elbow songs, Manchester invariably playing backdrop to more intimate intimations. Furthermore, to call these “love songs” is to underestimate the level of ambivalence inherent. In his songs of both people and places, Garvey’s romantic yearnings are always tempered by a disquieting despair, cravings to stay, leave, and return tugging at each other and in constant tension.
“How’s about getting out of this place anyways?” Garvey sings on “Any Day Now” from their debut album, Asleep at the Back (2002). The band got to satisfy this wanderlust in the years thereafter, hitting the road beyond the parochial confines of hometown Bury. With the release of Leaders of the Free World (2005) a few years later, however, it was apparent that such escapist dreams had been supplanted by homesickness. The sentiments of that album’s “Station Approach” are forthright, blunt, and typically confused: “I never know what I want but I know when I’m low that I need to be in the town where they know what I’m like and don’t mind.”
Pride of place and comfort in the familiarity of home inspire this sentimental ode to Manchester. “Coming home I feel like I designed these buildings I walk by,” Garvey sings, adding a psychogeographical dimension to his celebratory homecoming.
“Forget Myself” (2005), with its “Penny Lane”-like detailed observations of Manchester street life, is more ominous, its images of “packs” of shoppers “moaning for mercy” serving as a backdrop for the narrator’s “broken heart”. One is reminded here of Morrissey’s plaintive juxtapositions of public views with private reflections in The Smiths’ “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”. Here, though, place is more pronounced in the personal, the chorus line forging the two: “No, I know I won’t forget you / But I’ll forget myself, if the city will forgive me.”
More than any other Manchester band since The Smiths, Elbow use local imagery to evoke emotional states. “As long as it’s part of the bigger picture,” Garvey explains. “Great Expectations” (2005) is particularly poignant in illustrating this lyrical methodology. A filmic portrait of a moment in love, the song charts a couple’s walk down the aisle of the last bus home. With understated simplicity, an emotional crescendo is reached through the weight of memory and the specificity of details, as the narrator imagines the surrounding passengers as participants in the love ritual, a “call girl” acting as “witness and priest” and the “Stockport supporters club” supplying the heavenly choir. As Simon and Garfunkel did in songs like “America”, Elbow employ the particulars of place—here on a Greater Manchester bus—in order to pictorially animate universally common emotions.
Whereas Leaders of the Free World captured a band seeking to reconnect with their Mancunian roots, Seldom Seen Kid (2008) finds them in a deep state of ambivalence, despair fueling feelings of uncertainty and dislocation. Primarily sparked by the loss of their close friend and local musician, Brian Clancy, the album investigates how loss relates to both personal and geographical displacement. “I’ve been working on a cocktail called ‘Grounds for Divorce’ / Polishing a compass that I hold in my sleep”, Garvey wails with blues-infused grief on “Grounds for Divorce”. “There’s a hole in my neighborhood,” he adds resignedly, suggesting that the loss of his friend amounts to the diminishment of the spirit of Manchester culture itself.
Equally adept at capturing personal circumstances via topographical settings are Doves. Album titles like Some Cities (2005) and Kingdom of Rust (2009) establish their urban milieu, while nature-bound titles like “Winter Hill” and “Bird Flew Backwards” (both from Kingdom of Rust) suggest alternative desires to escape the city-scapes. Like Elbow, Doves use sounds and words as visual devices, as sparks for our imaginations to cross sensory lines. And as befits bands hailing from the city that provided the first passenger railway service, travel—particularly by trains—provides metaphors for themes of movement, unrest, escapism, and life journeys. Doves’ equivalent to Elbow’s “Station Approach” is “10.03” (2009), a conventional riding-the-rails blues melody set against a techno-modern rhythmic backdrop, while an earlier song, “M62” (2002), had the band surveying urban topography from the context of a North-West motorway; indeed, they even recorded the song under one of its overpasses.
Reflective of their techno roots, Doves experience Manchester in fast-forward mode, with a rhythmic momentum of and about movement, speed, and change. Some Cities recognize the transformations that cities like Manchester have gone through in recent decades, the progressions weighed against the inevitable loss of tradition, the commercial vibrancy against the erasure of character and distinction. “Home feels like a place I’ve never been,” reflects Jimi Goodwin on “House of Mirrors” (2009).
For “mature” local bands like Doves and Elbow, contemporary Manchester—like so many cities in recent years—is barely recognizable from how it looked and was experienced a generation ago; it’s a city in flux, its personality mutable and unclear. As such, these bands continue to find personal inspiration from their place of identity, to see themselves in the city and the city in themselves, each serving as apt metaphors in accounting for the changing conditions of the other.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.