The Violent Birth of Manchester’s Vibrant Punk Scene.
Above Photo: The writer, Frank Owen with two Manchester Punks, Denise Owen and Joan (© Kevin Cummins)
I recently read a fascinating article about the birth of Punk in Manchester by writer Frank Owen. Many of his observations about the dismal social and economic worlds of pre-Punk Manchester mirror my own experiences in nearby Liverpool, as chronicled in my ‘70s – ‘80s Punk and New Wave Memoir, Bombed Out!
In Manchester, a club called The Ranch functioned much the same as Eric’s in Liverpool in providing a meeting place and unique music culture that directly led to the forming of many of Manchester’s most famous Punk and New Wave bands.
I have edited an extract of Frank Owen’s article below and put a link to the full article at the end, adding some extra photos for illustration. The full article is well worth a read; it’s one of the best articles on Punk that I’ve ever read.
Booze, Blood and Noise: The Violent Roots of Manchester Punk
By Frank Owen
“Growing up working class in 1970s Manchester felt like living in a city that history had left behind. With constant labor strikes, weekly factory closings and ever-lengthening unemployment lines, the one-time Victorian boom town made rich by the mass production of textiles had come to resemble a disposable industrial appliance that someone had thrown out with the trash.
Slum clearance had turned large swathes of the city into an eerie lunar landscape, where the only buildings left standing were a handful of pubs and churches. Traveling to school by bus every day, I would peer through the window and watch in bewilderment as construction workers bulldozed shabby-but-stable row house communities and slowly replaced them with monstrous A Clockwork Orange-style housing projects that soon became incubators for the social ills they were supposed to cure. The fear that our modest home would be next to fall to the wrecking ball—as well as the fear that my dad, who could barely read or write, would lose his job printing cereal boxes in a local factory—dominated the conversation at my family’s dinner table. Times were so tough, we seriously considered emigrating to Australia.
Add in the atmosphere of purposeless violence that permeated the social life of the city, where a casual remark in a club could end with a trip to the hospital, and it’s no wonder that “grim” was the adjective best used to describe Manchester in those days. I distinctly recall checking the soccer scores before I went out on a Saturday night so as to gauge the level of mayhem to expect from the spew-flecked beer monsters waiting at the bus station.
But something was about to happen that would allow Manchester to reclaim its place in the history books, something that spoke to the self-sufficiency and creativity of the people who lived there, something epoch-making that would not only change the city but the face of modern music. And it all began with a concert by a then-obscure London rock group on the 4th June, 1976 in an upstairs room of a classical music concert hall that was better known as the home of the world-famous Halle Orchestra.
The Sex Pistols’ Manchester debut at the Lesser Free Trade Hall is one of the most mythologized gigs in rock history. Widely regarded as the genesis of the Manchester punk scene, the actual event—at which the Pistols hammered through a set that included covers of the Monkees’ ‘Stepping Stone’ and the Stooges’ ‘No Fun’ was a relatively low-key affair, certainly not the world-shattering event it was subsequently portrayed as, especially compared to previous raucous shows by the punk rock pioneers who had a reputation for getting into fights with the audience.
The concert’s mythic status rests less on the Pistols’ performance that night and more on the fifty people who ponied up the equivalent of a dollar admission price: the writers, entrepreneurs and musicians who subsequently became famous. Among them were Buzzcocks’ founders Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley, who organized the event and met their bass player Steve Diggle there after Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren introduced them. Two boozy buddies, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner, were also on hand to witness the performance. Duly impressed, Hook went out the next day to buy a bass guitar and set about forming a band with Sumner that would become Joy Division.
Also present was a local teenage wallflower named Steven Patrick Morrissey, the future Pope of Mope, who thought that the Pistols were a poor imitation of his beloved New York Dolls and wrote a letter to the British music weekly New Musical Express after the gig. “I’d love to see the Pistols make it,” he wrote. “Maybe then they can afford some clothes that don’t look like they’ve been slept in.”
An encore performance by the Sex Pistols at the same venue six weeks later attracted local newscaster Tony Wilson, who would go on to co-found Factory Records; Mark E. Smith, soon-to-be of the Fall; and a shy young man named Ian Curtis [later the singer in Joy Division] who was accompanied by his wife Deborah. Curtis had yet to meet Sumner and Hook but Deborah Curtis later described the effect the gig had on her husband: “It re-affirmed Ian’s belief that anybody could become a rock star.”
Despite the meager turnout, the two Lesser Free Trade Hall gigs created a buzz in the city which only intensified after Tony Wilson booked them to make their television debut on his early evening experimental pop show, So It Goes, where the group performed “Anarchy in the UK” four months before the song was released as a single. Now there was maybe ten, twenty times as many people who attended the Lesser Free Trade Hall shows talking about this revolutionary rock band who were more into chaos than music.
The look of the Sex Pistols—what Vivienne Westwood, who designed the band’s clothes, called “confrontation fashion”—particularly fascinated Manchester’s large contingent of David Bowie and Roxy Music fans.
The boys who dressed like Thin White Duke-era Bowie or, like myself, Bryan Ferry during his GI Joe phase, and the girls who modeled themselves on the pencil-skirted vamp from the cover of Roxy Music’s second album For Your Pleasure, would soon be spiking up their hair and ripping up their clothes, spray painting “Hate and War” on the back of their jackets. Bowie’s message to his fans that they were their own self-creation found a natural fit with punk’s DIY spirit.
By December, when the Sex Pistols played a third gig at a dilapidated and foul-smelling former bingo hall known as the Electric Circus, on a bill that also included Buzzcocks, the Clash and the Heartbreakers, the pocket-sized community that had formed after the Lesser Free Trade Hall concerts had morphed into a fledgling scene.
“Punk had started to hit the press hard,” says Denise Shaw, one of the original Manchester punks, referencing the profanity-laced interview that British TV host Bill Grundy conducted with the Sex Pistols that catapulted them to tabloid infamy. “The place was packed due to massive amount of publicity the Pistols had been getting.”
If the Sex Pistols kick-started the Manchester scene, Buzzcocks embodied it. Formed when singer Howard Devoto and guitarist Pete Shelley met at Bolton Technical College, the duo not only introduced the Pistols to Manchester when they booked them to play the Lesser Free Trade Hall, but the group they formed in the wake of the Pistols’ performances probably influenced more kids in Manchester to become punks than the Pistols did.
Buzzcocks borrowed 500 pounds (about a thousand dollars) from Pete Shelley’s father and recorded Spiral Scratch, a four-song EP which they released themselves, a revolutionary idea back then, and the template for all the indie music labels that followed. The EP was a triumph of compact lo-fi minimalism. The best-known track “Boredom” featured a trebly two-note guitar solo (the same two notes repeated sixty-six times) and lyrics that declared punk was over before it had hardly begun: “You know the scene is very hum-drum.” If the Pistols convinced their fans that anybody could be a rock star, Buzzcocks showed that anybody could make a record.
A month after the release of Spiral Scratch, Howard Devoto left the group and Pete Shelley took over singing duties, steering Buzzcocks in a more romantic pop-punk direction. Sensing early on the musical straightjacket that three-chord punk was already becoming, Devoto formed a new band called Magazine, which as the name suggested, was a much slicker outfit that drew on influences as diverse as Sly and the Family Stone, Captain Beefheart and film music composer John Barry.
Another Manchester band was the Fall, who perfectly illustrated the characteristic literary bent that set Manchester apart from other punk scenes in the rest of the country. They began as a group of pissed-off working class teenagers who were destined to become factory fodder, but instead congregated in singer Mark E Smith’s attic to protest the limits of proletarian existence by eating mushrooms and writing poetry. Fierce autodidacts, they initially called themselves the Outsiders after the Albert Camus novel L’Etranger, but they quickly changed their name to the Fall, after another Camus novel (La Chute), when they realized their original name had already been taken by another band.
The Fall took their inspiration from the streets they grew up on, singing about the Trafford Park Industrial Estate (“Industrial Estate”), the local bingo hall (“Bingo Masters Breakout”) and Perry Boys (“City Hobgoblins”), turning the withering sarcastic wit and stubborn bloody-mindedness so typical of Mancunians into a type of fractured social surrealism.
And then there was Warsaw, so-named in honor of the bleak instrumental “Warszawa” on David Bowie’s Low album after the group rejected Pete Shelley’s suggestion they call themselves Stiff Kittens. Warsaw featured Hooky on bass, Barney on guitar and Ian as the singer. The band were heavily indebted to Berlin-era Bowie and Iggy Pop, particularly Pop’s album The Idiot. Morrissey caught an early concert by Warsaw, and just as with the Pistols, he was unimpressed, writing in a local fanzine: “They offer little originality with Ian Curtis’ onstage antics resembling one Iggy Pop.”
Despite their later image as gloomy existentialists, in person the trio were ordinary working class guys who liked to laugh, drink beer and engage in the occasional fist fight. ……………….
It would be remiss not to mention one final band that hung out at the Ranch, a group called the Worst that are today largely forgotten but in their time represented the true amateur spirit of punk distilled to its very essence. The nucleus of the band was a pair of car mechanics, Ian Hodge and Alan Deaves, who rarely bathed and whose dirt-encrusted faces left you with the distinct impression that they lived down a coal mine. When not sniffing glue, they ate handfuls of mushrooms from a Maxwell House coffee can they carried around with them. Ian sported condoms as ear rings and Alan liked to wear a black leather gimp mask with “RAPIST” scrawled across the forehead in big white letters.
Even by the lax standards of the time, they were terrible musicians (hence the name) and only had two songs, “Pass The Vaseline” and “Fast Breeder.” While the band never recorded, the handful of gigs they played left an indelible mark on anybody who ever saw them perform. Local music critic Paul Morley proclaimed, “They make the Clash seem like Rush.””
Read the excellent, full article at: https://medium.com/cuepoint/booze-blood-and-noise-the-violent-roots-of-manchester-punk-af8092bcaac3
Frank Owen is the author of Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture.