[11 June 2009]
“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.
Image from Herman’s Hermits Greatest Hits album cover
Herman’s Hermits / Post-Music Hall
Although one can never underestimate the significance and influence on rock of such seminal genres as blues, swing, and country, the institutions of the Music Hall (in the UK) and Vaudeville (in the US) are often overlooked as precipitant forerunners. In the industrial North of England the Music Halls particularly flourished, offering comedy and communal songs that served to bind, empower, and raise the spirits of the working class.
A once-dominant source of entertainment in the Manchester area, Music Hall music and humor continued to linger on into the 20th century, morphing into new forms and arenas. Lancastrian George Formby emerged from this tradition. His ukulele-driven comedic songs brought him super-stardom on film screens and stages in Britain, while establishing musical aesthetics that the nation would inherit into its subsequent home-grown popular music.
By the time the Brit-beat invaders were unleashed in the early ‘60s, Formby’s patented cheeky humor and quirky tunes were coursing through the creative veins of new generations of young Brits. Nowhere was this influence more apparent that in Herman’s Hermits, Manchester’s first major rock phenomenon.
Fellow Lancastrians The Beatles were similarly influenced by Music Hall humor (e.g., “Your Mother Should Know”, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”), but their primary inspirations—as with other major Brit-beat bands The Rolling Stones, The Animals, and The Yardbirds—came from across the Atlantic, from ‘50s rebel-rockers like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Gene Vincent, and/or from the raw bluesmen who preceded them.
Herman’s Hermits, conversely, were the most obviously English of the invaders, and their sound and character bore the hallmarks of traditional Northern Music Hall fare. Their manager and producer Mickie Most encouraged the band to avoid the R&B inclinations of their peers and to embrace a simple pop sound that would accentuate the boys’ English (Mancunian) accents through sing-along, vocal-highlighted songs.
Despite having already acted as a regular character on the famous Manchester soap opera Coronation Street, Peter Noone was only 15-years-old when he took the vocal reins for the Hermits. No stranger to the spotlight, Noone’s irrepressible comedic stage presence and exaggerated Mancunian accent elicited Music Hall era nostalgia for English audiences, while being just plain cute to American youths who could not get enough of the new Brit-beat exports.
Playing adroitly to character, Herman’s Hermits brought the sound and personality of Manchester to American shores, scoring consecutive number one hits on the US charts in 1965 with “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” and “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am”. The latter was a revision of an old Music Hall standard that dated back to 1911, and Noone needed little encouragement from Mickie Most when tattooing his regional identity to the recording by deliberately exaggerating his accent in mock-homage.
Herman’s Hermits’ time at the top would prove to be short-lived, though they earned the distinction of actually outselling The Beatles during 1965. More significantly, they established a distinct Manchester pop sound and identity that were soon picked up and developed by fellow locals Freddie and The Dreamers (who stressed the comedic side of the post-Music Hall school) and The Hollies (whose own melodic and harmonic songs over the next decade became equally influential in rock history).
The Bee Gees / Disco Pop
Despite actually being born on the Isle of Man (closer to Liverpool), enjoying their initial musical success in Australia, then, later, their greatest commercial success in Los Angeles, the distinct voices of the Gibb brothers were honed and given the stamp of Mancs during the boys’ formative years living in the Chorlton-Cum-Hardy area of Manchester. Hence, though many might prefer I do otherwise, I hereby claim the Bee Gees as a Manchester band.
The Bee Gees’ 40-plus years in the recording industry saw them enjoy top-flight success in separate eras, playing two wholly different genres of music. And though their late ‘60s soft rock period brought them international success and some flattering comparisons to The Beatles, it was their mid-to-late ‘70s disco triumph that gave the band their distinction and ultimate legacy.
If not for the pop-flavored tunes, sweet vocal harmonies, and camp Mancunian accents that have always carried their songs, the Bee Gees would probably have been just another pop or disco group. However, by harnessing both of these genres simultaneously—thanks to their own upbringing in the midst of the Brit-beat scene, as well as the influence of soul producer Arif Mardin who introduced disco rhythms to their writing—the Gibb brothers were able to craft a fusion of forces that shook up the music world and continues to have seismic after-effects to this day.
With songs like “Jive Talkin’” (1975) “Nights on Broadway” (1975), and “Tragedy” (1979), the Bee Gees gave disco the melodic qualities it so often lacked (and for which it was so often criticized for so often lacking). Some would even argue—perhaps negatively—that their idiosyncratic additions made them single-handedly responsible for extending the disco genre way past its sell-by date.
Whatever the merits of disco, however, the Bee Gees’ contributions to it can now be seen to have had far longer-lasting influence than have those from so many other now-forgotten purveyors of the form. Pop disco or disco pop is today an indie rock staple, a camp exercise in nostalgia and post-ironic humor. Barry Gibb’s patented falsetto trills can be heard used by any number of contemporary electroclash acts (e.g., Fischerspooner, Har Mar Superstar, Ladytron), while pop acts like the Scissor Sisters and provocateurs like Peaches have used the Bee Gees as a reference point in their wry deconstructions of gender and sexual identities.
Within the Manchester scene, too, the incantatory dance grooves of Bee Gees disco pop could be heard echoing through the city’s Hacienda club and beyond during the late ‘80s, as Madchester bands from New Order to the Happy Mondays reinvented those cocaine rhythms for the ecstacy generation.
10cc / Art Pop
As the sonic adventurers of late ‘60s rock (The Beatles, Beach Boys) passed the baton to the high art aspirants of art rock (ELP, Yes, Mike Oldfield), Manchester’s 10cc located themselves as the art rockers taking the road less traveled. Rather than crafting the kind of symphonic epics pursued by their more pretentious peers, 10cc employed their technical and studio expertise in order to deconstruct rock formulas, bringing a tongue-in-cheek humor to the notoriously humorless art rock genre.
Their incongruous instincts vis-a-vis art rock trends ushered in an art pop subgenre that shifted an emphasis of interest from the album to the single, yet their audacious market-oriented gestures also endeared them to those rock critics who had grown weary of the self-indulgence and pomposity that so pervaded rock music in the early ‘70s.
Formed from two already established songwriting teams, Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman accounted for the “pop” side of the creative equation while Kevin Godley and Lol Creme brought the “art” quotient. All multi-instrumentalists, singers, writers, and producers, from their pool of eclectic talents emerged a body of songs that greatly impacted British music throughout the seventies.
Prior to the band’s emergence, though, these childhood friends cut their musical teeth as studio operatives, writing songs, producing, and performing on many of the faceless bubblegum songs that ruled the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in the late ‘60s. This experience would serve them well in cultivating their pop songwriting skills, while it also brought in the necessary funds for them to later construct Strawberry Studios in Manchester, the first major recording studio in the UK to be located outside of London.
This development would prove to be pivotal in the history of Manchester music, as the city then had a place where its local bands could stay and record; the national trend to that point had been for provincial artists to leave their native towns and relocate to London by necessity, thus stripping outlying regions of their local talent and indigenous scenes.
While the 10cc boys used Strawberry Studios to record such local notables as Herman’s Hermits and Wayne Fontana, they also used the space to work on their own burgeoning material. Kevin Godley has spoken of their “all for one and one for all” attitude and “very northern work ethic” as the principles that enabled the band to develop as both top-tier producers and ultimately as internationally acclaimed songwriters and artists.
Their art pop experiments were impudent from the start, as the band released a series of early singles that wittily tampered with the very genre formulas they had been accustomed to recording with other acts. “Donna” (1972) was a Zappa-esque parody of doo-wop pop, complete with ball-squeezing falsetto vocals juxtaposed against basement-deep vocal interjections—all singing overstated puppy love lyrics; the song reached number two on the UK charts. The follow-up, “Rubber Bullets” (1973), was Ween-like in its display of vocal caricatures, here all contributing to the telling of a jailhouse rocker of a tall-tale; this song brought the band their first British number one hit.
The rest, as they say, is history, as the band proceeded to oscillate between various musical forms, switching with ease from such ironic arty mini-operas as “Une Nuit A Paris” (1975) to mainstream pop hits like “I’m Not in Love” (1975) and “I’m Mandy, Fly Me” (1976). Through it all, the band’s omnipresent humor kept them and their listeners grounded while their songwriting ambitions soared. And though the band and the hits died a slow death entering the ‘80s, the Godley and Creme team continued successfully into the MTV era, representing Manchester as one of the premier video making teams of the early video age.
The Buzzcocks / Pop Punk
Besides inventing pop punk, punk’s most enduring manifestation, and besides releasing the first independent punk record (with the Spiral Scratch E.P. on their New Hormones label), The Buzzcocks’ greatest legacy to the city of Manchester—and to the history of British rock—may be that they were responsible for bringing the Sex Pistols to first play in Manchester in June 1976. There, at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, the Pistols performed to a mere 42 people; however, amongst them were TV presenter (and, later, Factory Records founder) Tony Wilson, producer Martin Hannett, and future members of Joy Division, The Smiths, and The Fall—essentially the central figures that would go on to establish Manchester as one of the world’s most influential and innovative rock cities.
Alongside Slaughter & the Dogs, Ed Banger & the Nosebleeds, and John Cooper Clarke, The Buzzcocks spearheaded a nascent Manchester punk scene that followed in the scorched paths of London trailblazers like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Damned. Unlike their compatriots to the South, though, The Buzzcocks were unbeholden to the trends, expectations, and attitudes that can often limit bands operating within big city scenes.
Whereas punk proper often sought to bludgeon all melody into submission with instrumental assaults and screaming vocals, and to eschew the conventions of “love” lyrics by replacing the personal with the political, clearly The Buzzcocks—detached 160 miles from London’s nerve-center—did not receive the punk manifesto memo.
Through a series of singles released between 1977 and 1980, The Buzzcocks brought new definitions to the meaning of punk, exploding its assumptions and opening up the genre to new possibilities. Yet, with their omnipresent “buzz”-saw rhythm guitars, minimalist songs structures, and sometimes cynical perspectives, the band still retained key primary traits that identified them within the broader punk tent.
However, though early titles like “Boredom” (1977) and “Orgasm Addict” (1977) suggested that The Buzzcocks were initially content to follow in the footsteps of their punk peers, subsequent songs like “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” (1978), “Love You More” (1978), and “Promises” (1978) saw the band break starkly from the then-established punk lyrical template. Furthermore, Pete Shelley’s high-pitched melodic singing, delivered with a quivering Mancunian camp inflection, was far from the “straight” macho belligerence of his punk peers, while the band’s distinguishing “oh-oh” plaintive backing wails and sing-along hooks brought a distinct pop sensibility inside of punk’s sanctuary of pop negations.
As the first punk wave subsided at the end of the ‘70s—and with it The Buzzcocks themselves—their pop-driven approach to punk not only continued but developed in unforeseen directions and places. A brief survey of California punk since the early eighties reveals The Buzzcocks’ pop punk style to be alive and thriving; indeed, the story of punk in the Green Day era is notably one that recognizes the sound and sensibility of The Buzzcocks as being just as—if not more – influential than that of their more heralded peers, the Sex Pistols and The Clash.