ontemporaries of Wire, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Pop Group (all of whom they opened for) as well as Joy Division, Magazine, the Human League, and so on, Manicured Noise started up when Steve Walsh (guitar and, except for two early tracks, lead vocals) moved to Manchester. As he puts it in the liner notes:
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... A killer all girl disco rhythm section, a Coltrane jazz man on sax and an arty London punk refugee, described by Paul Morley as ‘ludicrously sober,’ we tended to wear black polo-necks a lot, suffered from nerves and rarely smiled on stage.Despite Walsh’s rather dour description, though, they differ from a band like Joy Division (who they used to rehearse next door to) in terms of the direction of their compulsion—where Joy Division tried to get out of life, Manicured Noise grasped for it. On a track like “Freetime,” which resembles nothing so much as a collision in spirit between Talking Heads’ “Air” and This Heat’s “Health and Efficiency,” Walsh sounds nearly as gripped by forces beyond his control as Ian Curtis did, but he’s got more in common with the Stoics than Schopenhauer. And the music follows suit. The band isn’t outright anhedonic so much as deeply suspicious, like all puritans, of what the masses consider to be pleasurable. Walsh is always warning us about various dangers or singing perversely twitchy odes to things he doesn’t actually believe in or care about (as on “Payday”), but almost against his will he serves to remind the listener of the human desire to persist and flourish in the face of crap life, crap jobs, crap government, and crap art.
Stephanie Nuttall and Jody Taylor definitely provide the lifeblood and pulse for much of the material here, especially the first half of the compilation, which includes both of the band’s singles for Pre Records as well as a session for the BBC. Walsh’s ratcheting guitar and Byrne-inflected vocals, and Peter Bannister’s ever-present saxophone merge with the rhythm section seamlessly. From the open drum splashes of “Metronome,” Manicured Noise’s sound is identifiably of its time and place but curiously vital and immediately compelling. Northern Stories does lose some steam in the second half as earlier, mostly instrumental material predominates (including a cover of Lalo Schifrin’s “The Human Fly” and a dub of his “Great White Whale”) and proves to be danker and less distinctive than what the band would go on to do. But when there’s so little material available, even the lesser tracks the band made are valuable, and highlights like “Infraudibles” and “Counterplan” (both with original singer Owen Gavin) argue strongly for the completist approach the compilation takes.
Manicured Noise are more interesting than just another forgotten band who broke up before they had a chance at getting bigger. The best songs here suggest that if they’d released enough material to get wider exposure they’d now be feted as much as, say, Josef K. Walsh may sing “I’m not the center of what goes on / I’m not important anymore” on “Long March,” “It all adds up to nothing” on “Faith” and “This room’s not me / I’m not the room / Things go on / Things still go on the same without me” on “Metronome,” but all of these sentiments are presented as forms of freedom. Near the end of the latter song Walsh yelps “Stop! Watch me!” before letting out a surprisingly joyous “Aiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai!” as the saxophone squawks and the rhythm sections hold things down. They may not have felt very comfortable onstage, but as a cautiously vitalist response to the more self-destructive currents of post-punk Manicured Noise are/were invaluable, and a hell of a lot of fun to boot.