Various Artists - Manchester: North Of England - A Story Of Independent Music Greater Manchester 1977-1993

by Jeff Penczak Rating:7 Release Date:2017-07-28
Manchester: North of England

The British music industry, like America, Australia, and New Zealand, et. al., has long been centred in the capital. London is where the labels, managers, studios, and press were located, so anyone who wanted to succeed eventually had to make their way down (or up) there. Eventually, little pockets or scenes would spring up in the other major cities, and this massive (i.e., 7xCD/10-hour box!) focuses on the artists who blossomed there during the decade and a half between punk and Britpop. Subtitled “A Story of Independent Music Greater Manchester 1977-1993”, a mouthful almost as unwieldy as the material encased inside, attention is obviously showered on internationally-recogniseable heroes, from Joy Division, New Order, The Fall, and Happy Mondays, to The Stone Roses, Charlatans, Buzzcocks, and Oasis. Equal representation is also generously afforded to lesser musical styles (hip-hop, techno, industrial, and other avant garde weirdies) and acts, which while commendable to offer a more complete state of the nation, so to speak, really does overwhelm the casual listener with an understandable complaint, to wit, “Who the hell are they, then?” For unless you were obsessively immersed in the Manchester scene, clearly over 100 of the 146 tracks are from one offs and/or little-to-totally unknown acts that even the locals didn’t even know existed, let alone released a single or EP. The title (and cover image) are nicked from a 30-year old cassette/LP put out by local imprint BOP Cassettes that featured then-unreleased tracks from 14 local artists (e.g. Inspirals, James, Railway Children), many of which are repeated here (although not by the same tracks). And, since arguably Manchester’s greatest gift to the music world, The Smiths are excluded, you’ll be forgiven for bailing on the rest of this review and writing the whole thing off as an expensive (£50) doorstop, a game attempt at reminding the rest of the world how Great the “Greater Manchester” indie scene was, but by no means definitive. Heck, even the previous spotlight on Manchester, the Manchester, So Much To Answer For Peel Session comp managed to include ‘Handsome Devil.’ But I digress.

So, what’s it all about then? Mick Middles does a tremendous job on the liners (a mini book in themselves), giving us all the dope on who did what, where, and when, while BBC 6 Radio’s Mark Radcliffe waxes ecstatic about the city he’s called home for the past four decades. Which is where we begin – the Lesser Free Trade Hall, 20 July 1976, Sex Pistols and opening act Buzzcocks are about to set the city on fire (figuratively speaking, of course). The latter were the first band to self-release their own music (“Spiral Scratch” EP on New Hormones) during this era, and the Manchester indie scene was on its way. Compiler John Reed has opted to kick things off with a track (‘Breakdown’) from their subsequent Time’s Up! “bootleg”, although even that’s a rather cheeky designation, as it’s since been legitimately released at least three times that I know of, including earlier this year. Let’s assume he sourced it from one of the earlier releases for historical consistency (beginning at the beginning as it were) and move on to…

Wythenshawe’s Slaughter and The Dogs, a much-loved, seminal punk band that never really took off, despite assistance from Mick Ronson and honourable tips of the dome to inspirational heroes Lou Reed and the New York Dolls via unforgettable cover versions on their lone (first generation) album. They also featured alongside the ‘cocks at the LFTH gig, so the Manc punk scene is truly off and running. (Reed and Cherry Red helpfully traverse a somewhat coherent chronological timeline, so listeners can really hear the music develop as new genres arrive in town. Each disk is also given a clever subtitle, which simplifies backtracking and makes it easier to approximate which disc contains the style (or years) you want to explore. Disk One, roughly ‘77-’80 is titled after the Slaughter track ‘Cranked Up Really High’.)

The snotty Nosebleeds (see what I did there?) were better known for who quit the band (Morrissey, Vini Reilly, Billy Duffy) than who stayed (Ed Banger), and ‘Ain’t Bin To No Music School’ is representative of their sub-Johnny Thunders/Heartbreakers noise. Reilly’s boss solo is the best thing on it, and totally out of place. I mean, guitar solos…in a punk song? Johns Cooper Clark and Jilted are up next, the former spewing convoluted, Farrenesque wordplay that initially pissed off the pissed lagerlauts before eventually selling out the London clubs (‘Psycle Sluts’ is rather Suicidish), while the Jilted one (Gordon Fellows to mum and dad)’s godawful ‘Going Steady’ demonstrates why actors should act and leave the singing to singers. Similarly, Mark Radcliffe’s She Cracked’s ‘Warren Row’ illustrates why DJs should stay in the radio studio and out of recording studios.

Buzzcocks’ original singer/songwriter Howard DeVoto resurfaced in Magazine and almost immediately challenged his ex-bandmates to top the genius of ‘Shot By Both Sides’ and ‘The Light Pours Out Of Me’. The latter features here, and I’ll be damned if Chrissie Hynde didn’t cop the riff for ‘Mystery Achievement’ right here. Most of the remainder of disc 1 contains a few interesting ideas (some seemingly out-of-place reggae from X-O-Dus and Harlem Spirit, V2’s Dollsy swagger in ‘Man In A Box’, The Distractions’ singalong, clapalong ‘Maybe It’s Love’, the goodtime oompah of the late Frank Sidebottom, er, Chris Sievey’s Weill-Brecht-inspired ‘Baiser’, hometown heroes’ Salford Jets’ ‘Manchester Boys’, a slashing revamp of Farren & The Deviants’ ‘Let’s Loot The Supermarket Again’ – a punked-up thrashing of an earlier album track that some W.K. chap used to get his party started, and the angular, Gang of Four-meets-Richard Hell & The Voidoids’ attack of Foreign Press’ ‘Downpour’), but suffers from atrocious “singing” from deservedly unknowns, mostly members/ex-members of Spherical Objects. Only seminal post-punkers Joy Division (the groundbreaking ‘She’s Lost Control’) and the original Simply Red (in their original incarnation as Frantic Elevators) will keep your finger off the eject button, although I would have preferred the latter’s original ‘Holding Back The Years’ to the nondescript and eminently forgettable ‘Voice In The Dark’.

Disc 2 (Big Noise In The Jungle) bridges the decades with most tracks covering 79-81, although the calendrical line in the sand didn’t have much of an effect on the city’s output. The Fall were soon to become John Peel’s favourite band of all time (the cacophonous ‘Rowche Rumble’ is indicative of Mark E. Smith’s rambling brain dumps which crowned him as one of punk’s first rappers), and The Durutti Column (‘Lips That Would Kiss’, Vini Reilly’s moving tribute to Joy Division vocalist Ian Curtis, who had recently committed suicide) and Chameleons (stunning debut ‘In Shreds’) are still two of Manchester’s finest acts of all time, but a good portion of the rest of the disc caters too much to also-rans, never weres, and utterly annoying experimental noiseniks like A Certain Ratio, The Hamsters, Diagram Bros, Crispy Ambulance, and Ludus. A few standouts: I still have fond memories of flailing the night away on the dancefloor to Manicured Noise’s ‘Moscow 1980’ b-side; Fast Cars’ anthemic ‘The Kids Just Wanna Dance’, Clive Gregson and Any Trouble’s Elvis Costello-dripping ‘Yesterday’s Love’, and the Freshies’ still-fun Boys soundalike, ‘I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk’.

New Order kick off Disc 3 (Love At The Haçienda) with the abbreviated 7” version of classic floor-filler ‘Temptation’. Ian Curtis’ ghost was gone and superstardom beckoned. The music world (in Manchester and everywhere else) would never be the same. All together now: “Oo-oo-oo-oo-oo…”. Disco (Dislocation Dance, Marcel King, 52nd Street, the Ants-like Passage and Biting Tongues), soul (Carmel), and jazz (the hauntingly lovely Swamp Children) follow, along with Nico’s one-off with The Invisible Girls, the icy, horror-film dirge, ‘Procession’. The grubby underground scene around New York City’s Bowery ballrooms (CBGB’s in particular) started to filter into some of the stranger Manc collectives’ sound, with Tools You Can Trust’s throbbing Suicidal gristle front and centre in their late ‘83’ debut ‘Working and Shopping’, a surprise Peelie Festive 50. Section 25 and Quando Quango mined the same field (the latter’s ‘Love Tempo’ was huge in NYC New Wave dance clubs). This was, after all, the era of The Hac and Factory Records, and both are suitably represented, making this your go-to disc if you’ve got a case of happy feet that needs your undivided attention.

To be sure, there’s still unlistenable dreck (Gods Gift, Inca Babies, Membranes, A Witness), but Life’s lovely, warm-hearted slice of nostalgia, ‘Tell Me’ is one of the box’s lost treasures, and some of the New Order copycats (Stockholm Monsters, Section 25) aren’t all that bad.

As we reach mid-decade (highlighted on Disc 4, Garage Full of Flowers, more clubs were opening (The International, The Boardwalk), attracting American guitar bands and giving the wallflowers (i.e., nondancers) something to listen to beside disco and someplace to hang out beside The Haçienda. Quirky goofballs James kick off Disc 4 with their stutterstepping ‘Chain Mail’. Not surprising, it took nearly half a decade for them to find an audience and superstardom. Cath Carroll fronted Miaow for a few flighty singles, of which the debut ‘Belle Vue’ may be the best. C86 was the buzzword, and Manchester wasn’t about to miss out. Representatives Miaow, The Bodines, and The Danny Boys deliver jingly, jangly loveliness. With Brtitpop about to explode, it’s disappointing that the lead-up music wasn’t up to snuff. Much of Disc 4 is dull jazz/funk (Yargo, Twang), antagonistic noise (Big Flame, TOT’s Faust-meets-Tom Tom Club, herky jerky ‘Kill All The Boys’), puerile lunacy (Edward Barton), annoying rap (Meat Mouth), and just plain weird goofball nonsense (Big Ed & His Rocking Rattlesnakes).

But the day is saved by the Inspiral Carpets’ “Flexi Version” of Disc 4’s title track, which only hints at the greatness to come, Man From Delmonte’s snappy, danceable singalong, ‘Drive Drive Drive, and Metro Trinity’s soulful, blue-eyed tearjerker ‘Spend My Whole Life Loving You’. Fifteen years later, the Williams Twins would hit paydirt and the charts in Doves.

By the time we reach Disc 5 (named after Happy Mondays’ seminal call to arms, ‘24 Hour Party People’), Britpop is just around the corner. But E’s, acid, and insanity were still the rule of the day, as the party scene at The Hac continued long into bleary-eyed dawn. Bradford were responsible for the best Jam soundalike ever (‘Gang Of One’) and were feted by Morrissey (who later covered their debut ‘Skin Storm’, included here), but couldn’t break out, despite a heartwarming, soulful vocalist in Ian Hodgson. As was Too Much Texas frontman Tom Hingley, and their ‘Hurry On Down’ is quite the charming jingle jangle pop tune. The band showed promise until Hingley jumped ship to join the Inspirals. Other winners include Fallover 24’s endearing ‘Pessimistic Man’, The Waltones’ charming ‘The Deepest’ (featuring future Charlatans guitarist Mark Collins), The Danny Boys offshoot, Raintree County’s tearful ‘Nice Time At The Disco’, and a couple of swell Aztec Camera-influenced soul-tinged twee pop tunes from Jean Go Solo and The Desert Wolves.

In addition to Moz’s ‘The Last of The Famous International Playboys’, we’re also treated to selections from both of The Chameleons offshoots, the rhythm section’s Sun and The Moon followed by the brilliant guitarists’ Reegs. A temporary reunion at the turn of the millennium gave us a few more albums that recaptured the original brilliance. Drummer John Lever sadly passed away earlier this year. A new whiff of smooth jazz was also encircling the clubs and Jazz Defektors’ soulful harmonies and snappy toetapping backbeats give a good indication of the scene via ‘Ooh! This Feeling’. For a harder sound verging on Techno, Chapter & The Verse’s ‘All This And Heaven, Too’ may fit the bill. If you want to just chuck the jazz altogether, A Guy Called Gerald’s techno wobble introduced house music to the Manc crowd via ‘Voodoo Ray’. As was typical for house music, it goes on too long and is too repetitive to maintain interest, but this was music to dance to, not listen to. Your mileage may vary.

Disc 6 finally gives us What The World Is Waiting For, the disc title nicked from The Stone Roses‘ contribution to the box. And Madchester, baggy trousers, and Brit Pop are off and running…or crawling as the case may be. Interestingly, just as such disparate genres as disco and punk cohabited the late 70s music scene, Britpop and rap seem to take the world by storm a decade later. So Disc 6 dips its toes into both murky waters. But not without the usual foray outside the box for such experimental noisemakers masquerading as funk brothers as the self-explanatory What? Noise, Dub Sex,

But to the matter at hand, you’ll fondly recall the psychedelic overload of The Mock Turtles, who seemed to find their way on to many of Imaginary Records tribute albums with brilliant renditions of Syd Barrett and Jimi Hendrix tunes. Didn’t hurt that were in the label’s stable!

The box if also chock full of “before they were stars” selections from numerous future record chart staples, but there are an equal number of “after they were stars” tracks from several prominent band members’ attempts to regenerate the old excitement. So in addition to the post-Chameleons projects discussed earlier, we get New Order (themselves offshoots of Joy Division) follow ups from bassist Peter Hook (Revenge) and singer Bernie Sumner’s much more successful supergroup with The Smiths’ Johnny Marr and Pet Shop Boys Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant, Electronic. ‘Getting Away With It’ is undeniably one of the best tracks to come out of Britain, let alone Manchester, and three Top 10 albums ensued before Sumner and The Pet Shop Boys returned to their former bands and Marr moved on to production and lending his guitar skills to dozens of albums from everyone from Bert Jansch, Billy Bragg and Bryan Ferry to Tom Jones, Robyn Hitchcock, and fellow Mancunians Oasis and The Charlatans.

The quality of tunes on this disc may be the best in the box, with powerful stompers from the New Fast Automatic Daffodils and psychedelic kingpins Northside (‘Shall We Take A Trip’ was another of Britpop’s seminal purpose statements, with opening lyric “L.S.D.” leaving no doubt about the title’s punny reference! The High have a special place in my musical heart, having discovered them without any fanfare after a song on the radio. Come to think of it, I think it was the unforgettable ‘Box Set Go’ (included here) off their brilliant Somewhere Soon. The album was on my Top 10 of 1990; it’s Stone Roses-meets The Byrds jangly psychedelia was on perpetual repeat during the final Summer of the 80’s. Another virtual supergroup, sporting ex-members of The Roses, Inspirals, and Buzzcocks, it was one of my biggest disappointments that they got lost in the Madchester shuffle and split after a second LP. News of their reformation 25 years later set me heart a-flutter.

As for unknown or forgotten cult bands, The Train Set deliver catchy, moody jangle guitar pop with ‘Hold On’ (another box highlight and discovery for this listener), the offputting-named Jerks are nothing but on the Inspirals-inspired ‘Waterskin’ (thankfully rescued from an obscure cassette-only release), and another understandably Inspirals-influenced band, The Rainkings deliver the goods with ‘Get Ready’ (half the band were ex-Carpets). I’m also glad I found Paris Angels’ spot-on New Order synth dance tune ‘Perfume’. The disc ends on a sour note with three rap tunes that are easy to skip, but what preceded them makes for a perfect encapsulation of the Best of Manchester and could have been released as a standalone disc.

And now we come to the end of our journey, the 90s, as represented across 18 tracks culminating in the Oasis ‘Columbia’ demo. Entitled Sons of The Stage, Disc 7 delivers the earshattering euphoria of The Charlatans’ ‘Sproston Green’, one of four singles culled from their stunning debut (and proof they weren’t a Stone Roses copy band, as suggested by the Top 10 ‘The Only One I Know’). They’re still going strong 25 years later and their latest is one of the Top 10 albums of 2017. Swirl sported the emotionally gutting vocals of ex-music journo, Tracy Godding, who, like Chrissie Hynde, suggested that all those budding musicians learned a thing or three covering all that music! ‘Giant See’ is one of the box’s brightest surprises from this sadly forgotten band that deserved better. Even an aggressively punky revamp as Bandit Queen didn’t help. Perhaps, like Birmingham’s much better Photos, the Blondie/Breeders comparisons undid any chance for success.

Many of the popular clubs were being shot down for various offenses, but that didn’t stop the kids from putting techno dance tracks in the Top 10, to with 808 State’s avant garde, experimental noisefest ‘Cubik’ bleeding ears throughout the fall of ’90. Hypnotone’s ‘Dream Beam’ was druggier and groovier, perhaps closer to house than techno, but failed to chart despite being the better song. Denise Johnson’s vocals synched it, but perhaps it was the victim of too many remixes – the kids didn’t know which version to buy. House and EDM fans might also enjoy Lionrock’s eponymous 12” from ’92, or The Chemical Brothers insane in the membrane, headache-inducing ‘Song To The Siren’ (I did not). Nor was Intastella’s gimmicky homage/ripoff of Happy Monday’s ‘Kinky Afro’ worth a second listen (although Shaun mumbled incoherently in the background, so maybe he was in on the joke). Sub Sub are one of several bands in the box set that went on to bigger and better things (in this case, Doves), but the interminable seven-minute ‘Space Face’ is too much of a KLF ripoff (down to the clichéd film dialogue drop-in – in this case, from the 2001: A Space Odyssey sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact) for me to pay them much mind, or seek out subsequent Doves material (which I understand is quite different).

Elsewhere, The Adventure Babies sound like they could be a lot of fun – if the weird, Davy Jones-inflected soft-shoe shuffle ‘Camper Van’ is any indication, and they also deserved to be more than a musical footnote (the last act signed by Factory before the label folded). Kill Laura’s ‘Murder’ is too short to pass final judgement, but their punky Popguns attack suggests great things, and I liked Robinson’s jingly jangly, swirling tribute to Judy Garland, ‘Soup’. Chameleons fans may enjoy a few spins of future Mark Burgess (and former John Lever) collaborator Yves Altana, whose Wonky Alice delivers gloomy, Gothy pop fantasies (think Depeche Mode without the synths) with ‘Caterpillars’.

So there you have it – seven discs, 10+ hours of music that traverses the highs (literally) and lows of fifteen years of indie music from “Greater Manchester”. Like Morrissey said, it does have “so much to answer for”, and perhaps Cherry Red have gilded the lily trying to be too inclusive. Not many purchasers will relisten to half this stuff and a more manageable 4-disc set would have been awesome. Still, a strong case can now be made that Manchester truly is Britain’s “second city” of music. At least, for now. I hear the Cherry higher ups are preparing a similar set focusing on the Mersey Sound. I’m already drooling…and curious how they’ll manage to fudge omissions from the Teardrops, FGTH, and the Bunnymen. laughing

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars