Music from Manchester. England? Yeah, England.

The album cover for The Sound of the Smiths.

Back in the early nineties, while employed at a tiny news service in Chicago, I met a hip, happening college student named Tom who worked part-time there. I wrote entertainment copy for various outlets, and Tom was voice talent for prerecorded programming that the company supplied to the old touch-four phone services that existed before cell phones with web access arrived. As an entertainment writer then, and a media blogger now, I’m always asking people what kinds of movies, music, or TV shows they like. There’s just too much media out there to have direct experience with all of it myself, so I think it’s important to “keep an ear to the ground,” as they used to say, to find out what’s getting people excited. Of course, I end up with more passionate recommendations than I can ever check out, but when I hear the same one mentioned over and over again I know there must be something to it.

Anyway, getting back to Tom in Chicago, I once asked him what kind of music he liked. He said he loved The Smiths/Johnny Marr/Morrissey, The Stone Roses, New Order and, well… just about anything coming out of Manchester. Manchester, England, I asked? Yeah, he said, Manchester is where it’s at! Manchester is the center of the musical universe! Everything that’s good right now is from Manchester. Really, I asked incredulously, Manchester? Dude, I can’t believe you don’t already know that. OK, I admit, that comment stung a little, as I truly try to stay in the know.

No, that’s not quite true. It stung a lot. Enough so, that I immediately held an impromptu poll. Is anyone aware that Manchester is the center of the musical universe, I asked? The responses varied. England, one asked? I thought Minneapolis was the hot scene, said another. It’s Seattle, claimed another (how right he would soon be proved). How about Athens, Georgia? still another offered. Manchester? Sure, I knew that, said the secretary. You did, I asked? How? Tom told me, she said. Figures, I answered. As a result of my quick (and very unscientific) poll, I wasn’t ready to accept Tom’s assertion about Manchester. I did, however, allow him to make his case in greater depth, but he failed to convince me. I think the problem was that I just wasn’t familiar with any of the bands he was talking about, which made it all but impossible to take him at his word – despite the fact that his word was typically solid.

Just a few years later, I became a fan of such bands as Oasis, The Verve, and James (who I once saw on the campus of the University of Illinois-Chicago). Strangely enough, all of those bands came from Manchester. Perhaps there’d been something to Tom’s claim, after all. I had moved on from that job long before, however, and I never had a chance to rehash the subject with him. After that, I didn’t think much more about it. That is, not until several more years had passed. At a family gathering a while back, my Dad told us that his mother’s family had come to Wisconsin from Manchester, England. It’s actually not surprising that this had never come up before. His mother died when he was a toddler and has no real memories of her. The information that he was relaying to us at that point had come from some documents in a box that had been passed down to him by relatives.

Suddenly, I had a Manchester connection! I was now proud of the fact that the city in the northwest of England had produced so many notable rock artists. Not just that, but Manchester is a major urban metropolis with a rich history. To that end, here are a quick few factoids about the city:

  1. Manchester was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, one of the most important developments (good or bad, depending on your personal viewpoint) in the history of mankind;
  2. Although Manchester is commonly referred to as “The Second City of England” (for its influence, culture, and economics), in terms of population, it’s actually only the eighth largest city in the United Kingdom, though the metropolitan area now ranks as the UK’s second largest urban region, having moved past the Birmingham metro in the recently-released 2011 census; and
  3. Manchester is home to two English Premier League (that’s football over there, soccer here) teams: Manchester United – which is to the English Premier League what the New York Yankees are to Major League Baseball, and Manchester City – which is to Manchester United what the New York Mets are to the Yanks.

Long before the eighties came and passed, Manchester had already been put on the musical map. The city supplied two of the biggest bands in the initial wave of the British Invasion: Herman’s Hermits and The Hollies, but also Freddie and the Dreamers, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, The Mindbenders, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, and The Monkees’ Davy Jones). In the seventies, 10cc enjoyed success both in Britain and abroad. A key band in the mid-seventies punk movement was The Buzzcocks, though they never found much favor in the United States.

Manchester started becoming a musical scene, rather than a supplier of bands for London, with Joy Division, a post-punk band whose lead singer, Ian Curtis, tragically committed suicide on the eve of their first scheduled U.S. tour. Fortunately for Curtis’ band mates, they were able to regroup, transform their sound to synth pop, change their name to New Order, and become an international sensation as an electronic/dance band.

From that point, a number of Manchester acts came on the scene mining the same or similar sonic territory: Level 42, Lisa Stansfield, James, The Smiths, Simply Red, When in Rome, and Swing Out Sister. Many of those would soon be lumped into the category of new wave bands, pop-inflected, synthesizer-heavy, club-ready dance bands. At the center of the “Madchester” era of the latter half of the eighties was Happy Mondays, a rave/house music band who helped introduce “the big beat,” the heavier dance thump that is the underlying sound of every pop queen working today. The drug-induced implosion of Happy Mondays in 1992 effectively ended the Madchester scene.

Running concurrently with the Madchester scene was a new musical strain that mimicked the British guitar pop of the sixties and seventies. That strain would be characterized simply as alternative in the United States, but in England it was more specifically known as Britpop. It exploded in the UK with Manchester’s The Stone Roses at its head. They were followed by fellow Mancunian bands The Verve, and slightly later by the act that became the biggest Britpop band of all: Oasis. Britpop remained a popular international subgenre of alternative into the late nineties. Since then, Manchester has receded from the musical limelight, but perhaps my co-worker Tom was right after all. For a while, at least, a lot of great, innovative music came out of Manchester.