They may not be the greatest band to have ever walked the Manchester scene, but they were a good one -- a damn good one.
Sometimes it happens and no one can tell you why. A great -- nay -- an excellent band comes around and releases some stellar music, only to be forgotten in the overly-huge Bible of Rock History. This is larger than, say, the Jon Brion-lead pop outfit the Grays, or even the out-of-print Traveling Wilbury’s LPs that your parents still have around somewhere. A band that is truly lost. The Flying Machine comes to mind (the '60s Beatles-aping pop outfit that released a string of brilliant songs that were commercially ignored), or even J.Ralph (his classic Music to Mauzner By sold only 7,000 copies domestically). Unfortunately, such a fate also fell upon Manicured Noise.
Formed in 1978 by lead vocalist/guitarist Steven Walsh (though credit should be given to Owen Gavin -- the original singer who only has credit on two recorded songs) and rounded out by drummer Stephanie Nuttall, bassist Jodie Taylor, and clarinet/saxophone player Peter Bannister, the group initially played -- as described by Walsh -- "punk jazz." He continues: "We sang about spies and secret codes and saw ourselves as new puritans playing a stern, pared-down antidote to the rock ‘n’ roll romanticism that Punk had slid into." They served in supporting slots for Wire, Souixsie & the Banshees, Big in Japan, and the Human League. They even had a small hit with the 1980 song "Faith" -- a jubilant, sax-led, disco-rock thrasher of a pop song. This soon led to a small BBC session with David Jensen. They shared a rehearsal space with Joy Division… and then nothing happened. The band disintegrated and so did any memory of their music. The occasionally jam-happy music critic will remember "Faith", but not much else. With so much good music gone to the wayside, it’s here and now that such a tragedy gets set right. Here we have the first full CD of Manicured Noise music to be released… ever.
Northern Stories 1978/80 is like eavesdropping on a great big rock secret. Put some of these songs on a blank CD, and an indie-conscious friend might mistake them for early 4-track demos by modern dance-rock mavericks the Rapture. The band sounds like it's teetering on its own self-imposed identity crisis. At times, they want to be a funky pop band (the BBC-session track "Mystery Sound" is like hearing "Lovefool" with none of the polish). At other times they want to be your favorite angular-rock punk band (the early Owen Gavin-voiced number "Music B" sounds ripe for the Rapture to swipe some ideas from). And even in fleeting moments, they want to be noise-rock instrumentalists with a strong sense of atmosphere woven into their compositions (the meandering "Great White Whale"). Such indecisiveness leads to a unique tension in their music, as you hear Steven Walsh, against the most radio-friendly of riffs, unleash his punk scream vocals all Mars Volta-like, as if by sounding punk he doesn’t sound like he’s selling out. He’s never dubbed over himself, so each take sounds completely raw. This band should sound like they’re repeating the same idea over and over again, yet somehow they sidestep such a trap, and the results are electric.
Given their short recording history, rounding up all of Manicured Noise’s work is both a blessing and a curse, as having everything doesn’t necessarily mean having the best stuff -- but even with that, hearing the failures is only a further glimpse into this band’s sound. The track "Counterplan" is the only other Owen Gavin number, and it just might have been the song that got him jettisoned from the group. The other meandering noise-rock instrumental, "Soundtrack", drags on for a good portion of its 8-minutes, though it picks up halfway through, only to drop its own momentum again. Given that this was an earlier experiment, it’s fascinating to contrast that with "Great White Whale" to see what they learned and how they learned a sharp lesson about brevity. The spy themes run wildly through the album, as "The Human Fly" is the soundtrack for the punk rock James Bond to slink around dark alleys to (and on a budget, no less). Walsh doesn’t stand too highly as a lyricist, but he never sinks into out-right cliché, so it’s hard to fault him.
Few songs on this compilation may match the flat-out joy of "Faith" or the longing disco-punk of "Moscow 1980", but each song has its own unique flair, and the band stands in a sound that’s derived from some great sources, yet is still distinctly their own. They may not be the greatest band to have ever walked the Manchester scene, but they were a good one -- a damn good one. The thing that they deserve the most is just to be remembered, and after hearing this disc straight though, it’s going to be hard to forget them.