[6 August 2009]
“What Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow. “
John Cooper Clarke / Punk Poetry
“I’ve got the largest collection of broken glasses in Britain,” John Cooper Clarke once noted in reference to his role as Daniel in the lion’s dens of the early punk movement. The role of the poet is rarely perceived as a dangerous one, but these hostile environments were—in some respects—as responsible as personal artistic choices for Clarke crafting his work in the way that he did and then ultimately delivering it in the style that he did. For him, quick wit in performance and quick delivery of content were as much survival strategies as aesthetic devices.
The “bard of Salford” is indeed a prime Mancunian candidate. On hearing Clarke’s voice intonate, memory reflexes immediately transport you through a history of Manchester humor that connects The Royle Family to Coronation Street to Herman’s Hermits and back to the Music Hall comedians of the industrial 19th century. Verging on caricature, Clarke’s voice, vernacular, and down-to-earth imagery combine to form his expressive humor of social observation.
Reading the words to “Beasley Street” (1980) we recognize a painterly portrait of urban squalor; hearing Clarke speak these words connects us and them directly to the industrial North of England and to the sardonic heart of Manchester humor. “The rats have all got rickets / They spit through broken teeth / The name of the game is not cricket / Caught out on Beasley Street,” deadpans Clarke in weary monotone. Here, personification, obtuse metaphor, and social class commentary are integrated to succinctly “catch” the fated decay of his city.
Yet there is gallows humor, too: we envision the rats as the dominant residents, and the word “cricket” here operates with a double meaning, suggesting that the game of hope and opportunity is over but that such reality is just “not cricket”, a common catchphrase in upper class parlance to pronounce that something is unwarranted. Set against an evocative Eno-esque musical mélange of keyboard-driven atmospheric sounds and shuffling rhythms (provided by The Invisible Girls, featuring such Manchester punk dignitaries as Pete Shelley and Martin Hannett), “Beasley Street” is transformed into a contemporary version of Dylan’s “Desolation Row”, a panorama of imagistic words and music that surveys with desperate humor the modern urban condition.
The Faber Book of Political Verse recognized Clarke’s contributions to the art of poetry by including “Evidently Chicken Town” (complete with its keyword “fucking” used 82 times over its 50 lines length) alongside Dante and Milton, while his hometown University of Salford commissioned him to write a tribute poem to the 19th century Manchester artist L.S. Lowry. (Source: The Independent 7 January 1989, posted on John Cooper Clarke.com) Despite such occasional institutional accommodations, though, Clarke remains the same marginal and modestly down-to-earth figure he was when he used to dodge the flying glasses and abuse emanating from punk stages in 1977. Yet for all his relative obscurity and lack of broad recognition today, his legacy lingers and it is a far-reaching one.
Clarke may not have invented the marriage between poetry and music, but his punk style within that combination sparked a post-punk poetry scene that included Attila the Stockbroker and Seething Wells, as well as more minor players like Swift Nick, Kool Knotes, Phil Jupitus, and Craig Charles. Thanks to Clarke and his peers, punk-influenced performance poetry now thrives on both sides of the Atlantic, as open mics and poetry slams draw new generations of writers with combative tones, satirical perspectives, and rock-inspired rhythms in their lines.
Within music culture Clarke’s influence also continues to inspire, his regional and regionalist consciousness apparent in northern humorist rock bands ranging from Manchester’s The Fall to Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys. Like Clarke, The Fall’s Mark E. Smith surrealistically captures the grotesque architecture of Lancashire’s working class wastelands, while the Monkeys’ Alex Turner has inherited the wide-eyed observational wit of his mentor, incorporating it into his own detailed portraits of urban Yorkshire life, similarly reveling in what Paul Morley once called Clarke’s “exquisite sense of the trivial.”
Joy Division / Post-Punk
Joy Division never wrote any songs explicitly about Manchester, yet their music captures what critic Simon Reynolds calls the city’s “traumatized urban landscape” as vividly as any other band has. Moreover, as much as they reflected the harsh industrial hangover of the city at the close of the ‘70s, the band’s appeal to listeners then and now speaks to their ability to make the local universal and the timely timeless. One of the more innovative and evocative bands to come out of post-punk Britain, Joy Division’s spatial sound-scapes and foreboding atmospherics still linger today in the darker recesses of modern independent rock music.
Like John Cooper Clarke, Joy Division emerged from rough, working class Salford during the height of the nation’s punk explosion. Two members of the band, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, had been among the handful of attendees at the Sex Pistols’ legendary show at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in June, 1976. As with many of the other 40 people present, this performance inspired them to go home and start up their own band.
The initial manifestations of Joy Division—briefly as Stiff Kittens and then as Warsaw—were impressive but indistinct, the style and sound largely following the punk template that had been codified by locals like The Buzzcocks and Slaughter and the Dogs and nationals like the Pistols. However, even early on there were signs that Warsaw were more than just another run-of-the-mill punk band. Their guitar sound harbored a stark metallic sheen, while Ian Curtis’ vocals, even then, had a marked desperation, that harrowing quality that separated the singer’s voice from the angry sneering of his snide peers.
The lyrics, too, were beyond punk’s usual socio-political remonstrations and protestations; they spoke of personal pressure, crisis, failure, futility; they were abstract yet clear, specific yet universal. Just as their name ,Warsaw, evoked in one’s mind images of post-war devastation, concrete desolation, and urban austerity, so Curtis’ lyrics offered signifiers of existential angst set against a backdrop of gray skies and bleak landscapes; in other words, an imaginary Manchester of the consciousness.
The transition from Warsaw to Joy Division was more than one of name only. In the hands of local producer Martin Hannett, the band’s new batch of slower, less frenetic songs took on a new tone, too, one which would define the band thereafter. Whereas Warsaw had embraced the wall-of-sound production qualities of classic punk, Hannett dissected the instruments from one another, stripping the sound down to its primary features then puncturing spaces in the wall.
The guitar, now an angular shading device rather than a rhythmic backbone, left room for the bass to step up as the central melodic pulse, while the drums provided mechanistic rhythms and points of punctuation rather than a conventional steady backbeat. Reassembled to accentuate emptiness and isolated moods, the instrumental jigsaw was completed with the overlay of Curtis’ sad-to-urgent croon. Hannett’s final treatment of across-the-board reverb gave the songs a common cavernous aura. Visions of post-industrial Manchester appeared to be sewn into the tapestry of this sound-scape: monotone machines, Victorian decrepitude, high-rise squalor, rain-pounded streets, dead souls.
Such sonic portraits of place and time were further underscored by the accompanying videos for the 1980 singles “Atmosphere” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, which drew from such desolate and urban imagery. In addition, their label, Factory Records, as their name suggests, played to the distinctions of the city’s industrial heritage. And as much as the label contributed to the band’s Manchester character, so the band did likewise for the label.
Subsequent Factory acts—A Certain Ratio, Durutti Column, Section 25—were also notable for their solemn, doom-laden sounds, and for their parallel purposes of documenting private pain and public malaise. Like Devo and Pere Ubu had done for Ohio’s industrial cities of Cleveland and Akron, and Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DVA had done for industrial Sheffield, the post-punk bands of Factory Records offered sonic and lyrical testaments to Manchester’s post-industrial plight at the close of the ‘70s.
Morrissey of The Smiths
The Personal is Political
As noted earlier, Manchester bands have proven that the more locally evocative their music, the more that music has filtered into other future music slipstreams and pathways. Joy Division is no exception; indeed, perhaps more than any other Manchester band, their influence has far transcended the commercial popularity of the band in their playing days.
After the suicide of Ian Curtis in 1980, Joy Division’s most immediate legacy arrived in New Order, a band consisting of the remaining members. Their chart-friendly experiments in alternative electro-pop throughout the next decade provided another, separate chapter of innovation and inspiration in relation to rock developments. Elsewhere, the Joy Division effect can be perceived in many other bands and genres.
Goth, which took off in the early ‘80s, drew from the dark and gloomy sounds, impulsive rhythms, and deep Teutonic vocals of Joy Division. Successful rock bands like U2 and The Cure have also openly paid homage to Joy Division; indeed, the latter spent much of the early eighties copying the Mancunians’ every move, even as they transitioned into more electronic manifestations as New Order.
Today, Joy Division’s Kafka-esque musings and mechanistic song constructions are still evident in reverent revivalists like Interpol and Bloc Party, as well as in some recent Manchester acts like the Doves and Longview.
Three recent films show that what was once called “the cult with no name” continues into new generations. Both the documentary Joy Division and the bio-pic Control were released in 2007, while 24 Hour Party People (2002) covered the larger history of Factory Records, while dramatizing Joy Division as the company’s defining, centerpiece act. These filmic tributes offer concrete evidence of the growing legacy of Manchester’s most intriguing and original post-punk band.
But perhaps U2’s Bono captured their larger impact most poignantly when he commented recently in the band’s autobiography, U2 by U2, “It would be harder to find a darker place in music than Joy Division. Their name, their lyrics and their singer were as big a black cloud as you could find in the sky. And yet I sensed the pursuit of God, or light, or reason…a reason to be. With Joy Division, you felt from this singer that beauty was truth and truth was beauty, and theirs was a search for both.”
The Smiths / Indie Rock
There is just one Manchester band that has a greater posthumous popularity and influential legacy than Joy Division and that is The Smiths. Despite their common depictions of the darker sides of life, The Smiths—unlike Joy Division—invariably tempered their sad tales with a literate wit that, although not softening the blows of the woes, at least broadened the palette of emotions for receptive listeners. And if Joy Division’s music offered a sonic documentary reflecting the dour conditions of modern Manchester, The Smiths addressed those conditions lyrically, often simultaneously fleeing into a nostalgic enclave of the past for self-reflection, yearned-for innocence, and unsatisfactory solace.
Whereas Joy Division’s cold existential abstractions had their literary equivalents in the works of Franz Kafka, The Smiths revived the incisive social observations of Oscar Wilde. Gifted with Wilde’s subversive strain of humor, lead singer Morrissey satirized self and society with equal measures of mordant wit, highlighting the despairs and disappointments of early eighties British life with both eloquence and elegance.
Like Ian Curtis, Morrissey often assumed a first-person narrative address but spoke of personal circumstances in ways that echoed through Manchester and northern culture, as well as through the nation at large. Indeed, the appeal of both artists beyond Britain’s shores—both then and since—reflects how their localized scrutinies were also universal in appeal and application.
While Joy Division evoked architectural and city-scape portraits of their surroundings, The Smiths painted social pictures populated by people in crisis, unable to escape their loneliness, misery, and alienation, except through the futility of the imagination. “Miserable Lie” (1984) tells a Manchester tale of everyday poverty, where struggle and ambition bring no reward and love is fated for failure. “What do we get for our trouble and pain but a rented room in Whalley Range?” Morrissey queries wearily, referring to a dead-end section of his city as the last-stop destination.
“Rusholme Ruffians” (1985) takes us to another section of the city, and to the fair, where ubiquitous violence and inevitable loneliness are the realities that dampen what should be adolescent joy and excitement. Manchester’s violence is not only limited to the arenas of ruffians and hooligans, either, for Morrissey sees an endemic geo-social condition of sadism within the city’s institutional systems.
He looks back to the cruelties of school in “Headmaster Ritual” (1985), declaring that “Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools / Spineless bastards all”. An even more sinister portrait has Morrissey delving back to the infamous Moors murders in “Suffer Little Children” (1984), where the singer appears to align the incident with a violent streak inherent to the city itself when he bemoans, “Oh Manchester, so much to answer for.”
For Morrissey, as for Ian Curtis, Manchester serves as a metaphor for the modern condition, one where harsh environments suffocate hope, and geography imposes upon culture and psychology. Yet, despite the sour notes, Manchester is seen as neither exceptional nor as an aberration in relation to the larger national circumstance.
Morrissey’s indictments of southern England, symbolized in his characterizations of mainstream pop groups, industry executives, and politicians, are even more caustic than his local reflections. The South represents the greed, consumerism, and cut-throat cruelties that Morrissey associates with the period’s so-called Thatcherism and its figurehead spokesperson, Margaret Thatcher herself.
His distaste for the-then Prime Minister, for her indifference to suffering and lack of concern for the poor and outcast, is apparent both in songs by and interviews with The Smiths throughout the ‘80s. In one noteworthy early interview, Morrissey suggested that “the only thing that can possibly save England is Margaret Thatcher’s assassin,” while in a later song, “Margaret on the Guillotine” (from his solo album Viva Hate!), he asks longingly, “When will you die?”
Such over-the-top declamations were amusing in their extremism, but they also played to a northern constituency that rarely voted for the Conservative Party, particularly not for Thatcher’s brand of it. And if Thatcher was The Smiths’ symbol of money-grubbing capitalism and a divide-and-rule politics that favored the rich and demonized (or ignored) the poor, Thatcherite bands like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet were her equivalent symbols within national music culture.
Indeed, the name The Smiths, with its connotations of the average common folk, struck a pointed contrast to the pretensions and pomposity implicit in contemporaries like Depeche Mode and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. And as these “new romantic” clothes-horse acts dressed up in flamboyant costumes and sang about holidays in Rio, Morrissey parodied their glam-bitious affectations by wearing cheap national health glasses, a hearing aid, and gladioli in his jeans back pockets.
Strangeways, Here We Come, The Smiths declared in the title of their parting album in 1987, vowing to head straight for Manchester’s local women’s prison. It is this theme of imprisonment, of inescapable fate, that has so resonated with like-feeling fans over the years.
Post-Smiths fans populate all corners of indie rock and emo cultures today, though many are unaware that the rock roots of their subcultures/genres and the artistic roots of their feelings and interests reside in this Manchester band from the ‘80s. Smiths “types” today, as before, relate to a clear-eyed honesty in addressing often teary-eyed topics; they relate to the courage to confess and to articulate emotions with candor, precision, perception, and poetry.
No band in the history of rock has expanded the vocabulary of the pop song further than The Smiths, and no band has used humor with such moving purpose and to such incisive effect. Without that literate wit, with its sarcastic bite, wry self-deprecation, and tempering relief, The Smiths’ despondent songs of death, misery, rejection, and loneliness would be too much for many to bear. As it is, though, The Smiths currently stand as their nation’s most beloved rock band, and, more significantly, as its most articulate, intelligent, and humorous practitioners of the art form.