“What Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow.”
A Homage to a History of Rock Innovations
The above long-standing local proverb, though coined in acknowledgment of Manchester’s 19th century industrial innovations, is just as applicable when considering the city’s contributions to rock music culture over the last half century. Boasting a plethora of bands whose creative imaginations have invariably left legacies of influence beyond, one could argue that—pound-for-pound—Manchester has a legitimate claim to being hailed as the world’s greatest rock city.
Though it may not have produced the quantity of acts that New York, Los Angeles, and London might claim, Manchester’s quality, as manifested in its key artists and their genre explorations, speaks volumes and resonates voluminously. So, as the world’s eyes once again turn to the mighty Manchester United Football Club as it (once again) tramples its competitors (besides Barcelona!) underfoot, it is surely time to hail the city’s other great cultural contributors—its rock musicians—and to recognize them, too, for their national, European, and world prowess.
Although too eclectic in styles and genres to be defined by a singular sound or defining principle, Manchester music, over time, has exhibited some recurring features that suggest certain commonalities and regional distinctions. The city’s emergence as the world’s premier industrial city in the early part of the 19th century has molded much of what has subsequently become Manchester’s culture and character. Its spirit of dissent and defiance is rooted in the rise of organized labor during these times; indeed, Manchester was home to Friedrich Engels while he wrote The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844.
The class pride fostered by the workers in the cotton mills and factories has remained and solidified, such that today elitism is still scorned upon and down-to-earth vernacular and home-grown accents continue to be privileged as the authentic expressions of the people. Thus, whereas many British rockers (e.g., Rolling Stones, U2) Americanize their vocal enunciation for broader appeal, you will rarely hear a Manchester band that does not celebrate—or even exaggerate—its Mancunian brogue. Such local pride has long been a tenet of Manchester music, and the fact that so few of its bands flee the city for the bright lights of London while so many reference their locales in song titles and lyrics further underscores this trait.
Another recurrent feature of Manchester music has been a sense of humor that has likewise defined the larger city’s recognized personality. This wit—irreverent, rude, raw, sarcastic, subversive—again has its roots in the consolidation of the working class bloc during the industrial revolution. Serving to provide a relief escape from the long working hours and urban squalor were the Music Halls, which offered satirical songs and skits that spoke to these hardships while they also often commented upon the exploitations of the ruling classes.
Music Hall entertainment invariably offered comfort as well as identity satiation for the proletariat, though via songs and routines that often laid bare their impoverished conditions and duly poured scorn on the exploiters responsible for such a fate, it also sometimes incited rage and insurrection in audiences. Such edgy humor has since seeped into the pores of modern Manchester culture, as illustrated through groundbreaking local TV shows like Coronation Street and The Royle Family, as well as across a musical tradition that connects such disparate regional performers as George Formby, Herman’s Hermits, John Cooper Clarke, The Fall, and The Smiths.
Despite its insular pride and antagonism to outsiders, and despite its paucity of the kinds of resources afforded London, New York, and L.A., Manchester music has managed to transcend its own often self-imposed limitations. Ironically, the more it has played to its own regional identity the more its music has reached far-and-beyond. Manchester’s key rock artists reveal to us a history of innovations that has inspired many and been imitated by many more, such that today their genre legacies can be heard (as Mancunian Liam Gallagher once boasted) “all around the world” and in the often unlikeliest of places.