i want to give a picture of Dublin so complete,” James Joyce told artist Frank Budgen while working on Ulysses in Zurich, “that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth, it could be reconstructed out of my book.” In his own wonderful tome, Manchester, England, Dave Haslam makes the same claim regarding his native city and the pop music it’s produced.

So we decided to play along: without warning—and sufficient marketing beforehand to garner maximum exposure from the inkies—Manchester is crushed under the weight of Tony Wilson’s prodigious ego. Once the dust settles, the rubble and unsold Tunnelvision singles shoveled away, the rebuilding process begins. Here are 20 songs by Manchester artists one could use as a blueprint.

“Beginning” – The Durutti Column

Vini Reilly’s lucid “Beginning” serves as a wistful backdrop to Manchester’s rather modest birth. Founded in 79 AD, it was originally a wooden Roman fort named for a “breast-shaped hill” (Mamucium). Unfortunately, the ensuing millennium is one big yawn, as the fledgling settlement grows in tiny increments. Then, in the 14th century, salvation arrives in an unlikely form: Flemish weavers, who find Lancashire’s damp atmosphere conducive to their trade. Whether they were wearing “And on the sixth day God created Manchester” t-shirts and toting glow sticks is lost to history.

“Cotton Wool” – Lamb

Angus Reach, reporter for the London-based Morning Chronicle, on the great northern seats of industry: “There are swarms of mechanics and artisans in their distinguishing fustian—of factory operatives, in general undersized, sallow-looking men—and of factory girls somewhat stunted and paled, but smart and active-looking with dingy dresses and dark shawls, speckled with flakes of cotton wool, wreathed round their heads.”

With its industrial disquiet, siren-like vocals, and inviting lyrics (“Gonna wrap you up in cotton wool and save you”), Lamb’s DnB classic encapsulates those heady industrial days: Manchester’s rapid rise from a humble market town with its first fulling mill to an international textile champion dubbed Cottonopolis, roseate throngs of humanity descending upon the city’s multitude of bustling factories.


“Women Who Love Men Who Love Drugs” – Oceansize

Thomas de Quincey: Manchester’s first raver? Every Tuesday and Saturday night, the man of virtu gets high on his era’s choice narcotic, laudanum, and then shakes his ass to the Georgian tunes of his day. Thousands of sybaritic souls will later follow his lead.

De Quincey has the wherewithal to commit his blissful experiences to paper: 1822’s highly controversial Confessions Of An English Opium-Eater. “Instantaneously, and as if by magic,” de Quincey wrote, “the cloud of profoundest melancholy which rested upon my brain, like some black vapors that I have seen roll away from the summit of a mountain, drew off in one week. A latter spring had come to close up the season of my youth. My brain performed its functions as healthily as ever before.”

Uh, right. Music scribe Jon Savage later sums it up in words the medicated would better understand: “Let’s face it, Manchester is a great place to take drugs.” Which brings us to…

“24 Hour Party People” – Happy Mondays

Over the din of the busy factory machines comes the bawl of voices: laborers are demanding a shorter workweek. In 1832, Michael Sadler and Richard Oastler, advocates for the 10-hour day, attend a massive meeting at Campfield in Manchester. Fifteen years later, the Ten-Hour Act finally comes into effect. Less diligence means more decadence, and the city quickly earns its hedonistic reputation. “24 Hour Party People,” highlighted by Shaun Ryder’s off-key, everyman vocals and cut-to-the-chase lyrics, is a call-out to bacchanalia-obsessed gadabouts everywhere. Work hard, Manchester, but twist your melon and play hard, too.

“Model Worker – Magazine

“Work” – The Blue Orchids

In 1842, 22-year-old Friedrich Engels was shipped from Germany to toil in his father’s Manchester-based textile business. During his two-year stay, the co-founder of modern communism tirelessly monitored Mancunian workers and the appalling conditions they endured on a daily basis. He then compiled his observations and ruminations in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, now widely regarded as one of the most important books ever written on industrial society. “[One] can only wonder that the whole crazy fabric still hangs together,” Engels notes, commenting on factory life as a whole, with its squalid urban slums, disintegrating families, and physically debilitating work.

Taken together, “Model Worker” and “Work” present a before-and-after picture of an ordinary textile drone. With its upbeat piano and couplets (“I’m sick of working on the land / I want to work with machines and look handsome”), Magazine details a newcomer’s rosy outlook. When Howard Devoto lets out an elated whoop at the opening, one can picture him clicking his heels on the way to his first day as a cotton spinner at McConnell & Kenndey’s in Ancoats.

In “Work,” the same worker is nigh unrecognizable, worn to an aching nub by the very conditions Engels laboriously detailed. Piercing guitar mixes with billowing synths and hissing hi-hat – the cacophony of the factory forever clamoring in our laborer’s brain. The one-word chorus of “Work” is repeated over and over, Martin Bramah sounding on the brink of industrial delirium, cursing the very concept of labor.

“Movement” – The Drones

With increased profits comes increased demand for change. Throughout the 19th century, booming Manchester is a vanguard of reform, from Chartist monster meetings on Kersal Moor, to the birth of the Co-operative Movement in nearby Rochdale, to the formation of the Trades Union Congress in 1868. Naturally, civic bloodshed is a byproduct: a riot at the Royal Exchange in 1812, the Peterloo Massacre seven years later, the Plug Riots in 1842, Gallagher brother spats in a semi-detached in Burnage.

The Drones tap into that seditionary spirit in “Movement,” feral guitar thrashing punctuated by M.J. Drone’s call for revolution: “Is this a new movement? / Is this a brand new day? / Have something to say / And we’ll say it.”


“Death From Above” – Crispy Ambulance

In late 1940, the Luftwaffe finally turns its attention to the city, intent on destroying its important docks and the enormous Trafford Park, which features numerous industries devoted to the war effort. On Dec. 22, at 6:35 p.m., the Moaning Minnies wail. Using the blazing fires in Liverpool as a beacon (attacked one day prior), German planes begin dropping bombs, parachute mines, and incendiaries.

“Death From Above” captures the horrifying moments Manchester residents spent in the makeshift bomb shelters located in warehouse basements—terrified folks in the hour of their supreme trial. Comic-toting children stare upwards through the blur of tears, quivering with every crump of exploding bomb. Adults play a macabre time-waster where targets are guessed and debated. “That one had to be the Free Trade Hall.” “No, surely it was the Royal Exchange.”

The song’s tense arc features a muffle of voices, the familiar dot-dash-dot of Morse Code, then genial whistling—easily the track’s most eternal articulation, showcasing mankind’s penchant for unwavering hope, even when life is teetering on the precipice.

“Blue Monday” – New Order

In 1949, while working at the University of Manchester, Tom Kilburn and Freddie Williams unveil the world’s first stored-program computer: the Manchester Mark I. With 2,048 bits of memory, it’s barely large enough to hold those embarrassing Take That B-sides.

Or even New Order’s “Blue Monday,” a song that owes much to Kilburn and Williams’ development—a pulsing, breathing pop classic fashioned primarily from cold, artificial parts: a vocoder, an Oberheim DMX drum machine, a Moog Source synthesizer, and a homemade Powertran sequencer. Even the detached live vocals Bernard Sumner recorded occasionally sound Speak & Spell synthetic. And let’s not forget the single’s now-famous cover art, inspired by the computer disc drummer Stephen Morris used to store the song’s sequencer information.

“Munich Air Disaster, 1958” – Morrissey

Minutes after taking off from Munich-Riem Airport, a charter plane carrying Manchester United F.C. crashes, killing 23 of the 43 people on board. Eight of the famed Busby Babes perish, including wunderkind Duncan Edwards. In 2004, one-time United follower Morrissey (admittedly now more interested in watching Tony Blair get booted around the pitch rather than a football) releases a simple yet moving ballad about the crash. “We love them / We mourn for them / Unlucky boys of Red,” he keens. Thirty miles to the southwest, churlish Liverpool fans revel in having yet another United-related ditty to mock.

“Suffer Little Children” – The Smiths

No Manchester pop band committed anything to reel-to-reel as sinister and haunting as this: Ian Brady and Myra Hindley tape-recording the torture of 10-year-old Lesley Ann Downey. As the young girl screamed and begged for her mother, the Ray Conniff Singers’ rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy” played sickeningly in the background.

Downey was one of five children murdered by Brady and Hindley between 1963 and 1965. Because five of the victims were buried north of Manchester on Saddleworth Moor, the heinous crimes earned the moniker the Moors Murders; four decades later, they still elicit great anger and sorrow in the city.

Morrissey was 6 ½ when the pair was arrested and in interviews years later, revealed the deep impression the killings left upon him. Out of this came “Suffer Little Children,” a song that features the Smiths’ vocalist assuming the voices of the depraved killers, as well as the victims and their surviving families. Over Johnny Marr’s doleful guitar work, Morrissey sings his most heart-rending lyrics, actually naming several of the murdered children: “Lesley Ann, with your pretty white beads / Oh John, you’ll never be a man / And you’ll never see your home again.” He then closes the elegy with poignant finality: “You might sleep / But you will never dream.”


“Rock ’N’ Roll Star” – Oasis
“Genius” – Quando Quanqo
“The Sound of Music” – Joy Division

Still reeling from the loss of the Gibb brothers to Australia (bearded and sucky even at 10), Manchester somehow manages to rebound and officially establish itself as the world’s pop capital. Over a three-month span in 1965, a trio of acts score No. 1 hits in the States (Herman’s Hermits, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders, and Freddie & The Dreamers) and a fourth, the Hollies, nabs a top spot in the U.K.

In the ensuing decades, countless other Manchester bands will take their places in the charts and in the collective pop consciousness, tales of debauchery (“Rock ��N’ Roll Star”), urban virtuosos (“Genius”), and fame-induced perversity (“The Sound Of Music”) being spun into costume, each new star bedecked for a Manc-style coronation: pomp and circumstance in a factory palace, crowned atop a throne made of cast-iron bridge parts.

“Breaking Into Heaven” – The Stone Roses

Visiting Manchester City fans shake Old Trafford with their verses: “I’ve been casing your joint for the best years of my life / Like the look of your stuff, outta sight.”

Manchester United supporters respond in unison: “Listen up sweet child of mine / Have I got news for you / Nobody leaves this place alive / They’ll die and join the queue.”

The City crowd retorts: “Better man the barricades / I’m coming in tonight / Had a line of my dust, outta sight.”

Man City breaks into football heaven thanks to the most famous backheeled goal in English history: Denis Law’s tally in City’s 1-0 victory at Old Trafford. United is guaranteed relegation, just six seasons after winning the 1968 European Cup. Law, the Red Devil legend, walks off the pitch, hanging his head. He never plays club football again.

“Boredom” – Buzzcocks

“Manchester is a very boring place to be,” laments Paul Morley in the NME. “It has no identity, no common spirit or motive.” Countless Mancs nod their heads in agreement.

Then the summer of ’76 brings a pair of synapse-awakening Sex Pistols gigs. Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley do the organizing; other intelligentlemen with soon-to-be-famous surnames attend, showering the visitors with plaudits: Morrissey, Wilson, Hannett, Boon, Sumner, Hook, the Postman. They leave the Lesser Free Trade Hall as if presented with instructions: start a band, start a label, start something.

And Buzzcocks do, releasing the landmark DIY release Spiral Scratch EP in January of 1977. “Boredom” perfectly captures that pre-Pistols ennui, the fire-eyed Devoto sneering through couplets like, “I’m living in this movie / But it doesn’t move me.” Countless Mancs nod their heads in agreement once more.

“This Night Has Opened My Eyes” – The Smiths

From Walter Greenwood’s Love On The Dole and its revealing look at the effects of urban destitution, to the working-class soap “Coronation Street,” to the social frankness of A Taste Of Honey (alluringly captured in the Smiths’ “This Night Has Opened My Eyes” with lines such as “The dream has gone / But the baby is real”), to the pratfalls of excess depicted in 24 Hour…okay, we won’t go there. Over the years, life in grimy, gritty Manchester is brilliantly (and sometimes controversially) portrayed in both print and celluloid.


“The NWRA” – The Fall

“The NWRA” is Mark E. Smith’s psychogeographic, frightening tale of a 1980s dissident in search of revolution. Joe Totale roams Northern England, from Geordie council estates to Teesside docks, maundering with the natives, wishing destruction upon symbols of soulless redevelopment such as the Hyper Loo (officially known as Manchester Arndale, a shopping complex said to have driven Bez to his madness). Above all else, Totale desires Northern England’s violent rebirth: a region now victim of post-industrial rot, once ground zero for a revolution of a different sort, from the mill towns of Lancashire to the textile centers of Yorkshire.

Jazzy drumming, a plodding bass, and guitars that skitter along the edge explode into a riotous chorus, as Smith repeats, “The North will rise again / The North will rise again.” While other vocalists may have turned the couplet into a choleric chant, Smith sings the lines instead, bolstering the malicious conviction of his words. The North will rise again, with Smith leading the rebellious mobs—grannies on the bongos not included.

“Shall We Take A Trip” – Northside

The Second Summer of Love: Nicking letter E’s from business signs; high on club ecstasy, feeling as if you’ve won 100 million pounds in the Lotto and all your mates around you did as well; enduring “Suicide Tuesdays,” the big crash after a weekend of partying; the crusade against the Madchester scene, incriminating photographs in The Sun, parents sneering, “You should see these pictures; it looks like they’re having the time of their lives,” kids thinking, “Shit, we are!”

“Shall We Take A Trip" by Northside—it’s not a question, but an invitation, and countless go along for the journey. At Manchester clubs like the Hacienda, where the thumping drums, plodding bass, and plinking piano send the glistening and steaming masses of flesh into an enraptured trance.

Claire Leighton goes along for the trip, too—and never returns. She takes E given to her from a boyfriend, collapses at the Hacienda, and dies 36 hours later. It’s July 14, 1989. The Second Summer of Love has unofficially come to a close.

“All The Irish (Must Go To Heaven)” – bIG fLAME

At 11:16 a.m. on June 15, 1996, the largest bomb in Great Britain since World War II explodes in Manchester, destroying a large portion of the city’s commercial center. The Provisional IRA claims responsibility. Manchester eventually retaliates by building the world’s largest Marks & Spencer store on the exact site of the bomb. Shopaholics fall to their knees and rejoice; all the Irish must go to heaven indeed.


By: Ryan Foley
Published on: 2007-03-05
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