Manchester's working class population showed the world that trade unions can resist authority. Such solidarity and class consciousness is heard in the arrogant sneers of the Stone Roses and Oasis.
“What Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow.”
Guy Debord defined psychogeography as “the study of the…specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Encouraging citizens to bring a new awareness to their urban landscapes, Debord and his Situationist comrades sought to identify the values of these environments, whether expressed through the “soft ambience” of sound and ideas or through “hard” physical constructions. This critical apparatus—though largely subjective in nature—is both useful and applicable when one examines the distinguishing and enduring features of regional culture. As has been argued over the course of this four-part essay, the key innovators of Manchester’s rock history are those artists who—to paraphrase Debord—see their own image in the places and spaces around them.
Psychogeography has a historical component, too, as the legacy of place is passed on through time, incidents, developments, and influential players operating as stepping stones across generations, such that emerging traditions grow, morph, and transform in the process. The seeds of Manchester’s modern geography were planted in the early years of the industrial revolution, when the city provided early models of urban architecture, industry, and transportation. Its largely working class population showed the world that trade unions can resist authority when workers unite for a common cause.
Such solidarity and class consciousness were reflected in the city’s vibrant leisure outlets, also, where the music halls provided an earthy and often subversive humor befitting the gritty characters and conditions in residence. Such humor, pride, and militancy have lived on in Manchester culture, becoming staple traits of Mancunians and their representative artists. One can hear such characteristics in the arrogant vocal sneers of the Fall, the Stone Roses, and Oasis; one can hear them in the caustic satire of the Buzzcocks, Slaughter and the Dogs, and the Smiths; one can even envision them through the pictoral poetic profiles of John Cooper Clarke, Joy Division, and Elbow. In these (and other) Manchester bands, the city’s history and geography become animated, its traditions are redeployed, and its artistic reputation as a site of rock innovation and influence stands further concretized.
The previous installment of this project I profiled Joy Division and the Smiths, the two premier guiding lights of rock modernism during the post-punk period. The former’s musical explorations were as pioneering as the latter’s lyrical ones such that alternative rock reached intellectual and innovative zeniths theretofore not witnessed in contemporary rock culture.
In the process, however, these bands cast a deep but dark shadow over Manchester (and British) music, such that their introspective broodings and cul-de-sac fatalism ultimately offered few ways forward and little light at the end of their respective tunnels. Consequently, just as their serious-minded work had once served as reactions against the often simplistic (and simple-minded) formulas of three-chord (and three-word) punk, so reaction would subsequently beget reaction with the arrival of a slew of upstart Manchester acts—collectively tagged as “Madchester” bands—that arrived at the close of the '80s.
The Stone Roses / Madchester
If Joy Division and the Smiths represented an era of high modernist innovations, then the Stone Roses ushered in the age of postmodernism in British alternative rock. Inspired by the bright melodies of the Byrds and the Hollies, by the vocal harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel and the Beach Boys, and by the psychedelic guitar work-outs of Jimi Hendrix and Love, the Stone Roses were the ultimate po-mo pilferers of '60s rock. To this mélange they added the combative attitudes of the Clash and the Sex Pistols, thus establishing a '60s-sound-meets-punk-image prototype that would serve both themselves and their fellow Mancunian successors, Oasis, so effectively over the next decade.
The Stone Roses represented the return of the “rock” band, complete with extended guitar solos, traditional song structures, sloganized lyrics, and messianic stage theatrics. Such conventional rock traits had been antithetical to the experimental principles espoused by Factory Records, the label that had helped define post-punk. Its roster of artists—Joy Division, New Order, A Certain Ratio, Durutti Column—had informed the nation that Manchester was the epicenter of alternative rock innovation.
The Roses’ nostalgic and melodic indulgences were regarded by the Factory culture and its guru/owner Tony Wilson as an affront to his experimental artistic mission, while to the Roses the Factory crowd came to represent a bunch of self-important (and self-indulgent) pseudo-intellectuals who had lost the rock plot. Thus, an uneasy tension existed between the band and its city’s by-then dominant alternative rock culture. Class conflict lay in the sub-text to these conflicts, with the Roses claiming that Wilson was using his power to deny the band access to the venues and outlets of the local scene.
As a result, the band had mixed feelings about their city identity. On the one hand they resented the command and control that post-punk “students” had on the local culture, while on the other hand they wore their working class Mancunian identity as an obvious badge-of-honor. Manchester city-scapes often featured in the band’s videos and, like so many predecessors, singer Ian Brown was never shy in accent-uating his Mancunian brogue. He even once quipped that the only thing the city lacked was a beach; instead, the band’s song “Mersey Paradise” offers a substitute tribute to the river that runs through Southern Manchester.
Such a “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” attitude to the city has been common to Manchester’s rock players, John Cooper Clarke, the Fall, the Smiths, and Elbow offering similarly ambivalent sentiments in their respective overtures about the city. The Stone Roses hated the local scene so much in their infancy that they actually traveled to London to play their first major show; yet, a few years later they organized their own Woodstock-like concert in Lancashire (on Spike Island on the Mersey), where they performed for 30,000 adoring fans.
Despite their mixed feelings towards their native city, and despite drawing from largely American musical sources, the Stone Roses were still very much a Manchester band composed of distinctively Mancunian personnel. When critic David Fricke described their much-beloved eponymous debut album as “a blast of magnificent arrogance” he succinctly captured the essence of the band. A cocky Manchester swagger that proclaims “we’re second best to no-one” pervades all facets of the Stone Roses, be it their music, lyrics, image, or personality.
Seemingly a by-product of some strange geographical genetics, many vocalists that hail from Manchester share a common singing style of which the Roses’ Ian Brown’s is no exception. This vocal resides somewhere between conversational speaking and limited range singing, and it comes with an in-built nasal sneer, a nonchalant detachment, and a part proud, part ironically exaggerated regional accent. Furthermore, with song titles like “I Wanna Be Adored” and “I Am the Resurrection” (bookends on The Stone Roses ), and their second album title Second Coming (1994), one can assume that such self-aggrandizing swagger is as much a social affectation as a biological determinant of being born and bred within Manchester.
The success of the Stone Roses brought media attention to the city’s music scene and scrutiny to like-minded local bands such as the Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, and the Chameleons, all of whom were united by their creative fusions of '60s-inspired hooks, punk-inspired attitudes, and house-inspired rhythms. Soon, journalists noted how fans and followers of the new scene were coalescing into a subculture.
Mirroring the public images often eagerly projected by these bands, the so-called “Madchester” or “baggy” subculture was notable for its exaggerated parodies of '60s clothing (extra-flared trousers, brightly-colored shirts), for its drug of choice (ecstasy), and (relatedly) for its love of the kind of house dance music that many of the new bands built their rhythms around. For a few brief years it appeared that the entire city of Manchester—and much of the nation—was mad for Madchester, enthusiastically adopting its cool grooves and coolly detached (or drugged-out) demeanor.
Their legacy, though, has been considerable within British alternative rock culture, while their legend continues to grow. Consistently ranked as one of the UK’s greatest records by the nation’s press, the Stone Roses has become a sonic Bible for subsequent generations, inspiring and influencing innumerable bands, none more so than Manchester’s own Oasis.