Off Piste - Is it really so strange?

A young Nick Hillman chose Manchester less for the university’s eminent historians than for the city’s glorious music scene - and despite the latter’s loathing for his Conservative heroine

September 27, 2012

At a recent seminar on the student experience, there were raised eyebrows when I admitted to picking my university not on the quality of its education but on the quality of the local music scene.

The “Madchester” or “baggy” phenomenon was at its height when I filled in my Ucca form in 1989. So my decision to apply to read history at the University of Manchester had more to do with the Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses and the Inspiral Carpets than it did with those great historians associated with the institution, including A.J.P. Taylor, Ian Kershaw and Frank O’Gorman. The Hacienda nightclub had more appeal than the lecture halls; the Cellar nightclub, where some of the band James had met, held more mystique than the university library. The ever-rising demand for places suggested, moreover, that many others felt the same. In the words of Noel Coward, “strange how potent cheap music is”.

An even bigger draw than those Madchester bands was an earlier group: The Smiths. Their songs are peppered with Mancunian references and could never be associated with anywhere else. The thief who spotted a Vicar in a Tutu was pinching lead from the Holy Name Church, which is in the heart of the university area. My hall of residence abutted the part of Manchester referred to in the song Rusholme Ruffians. Friends of mine lodged in Whalley Range (as in Miserable Lie).

It turned out that I was right to be guided by the music, because years of university expansion funded by cuts in the unit of resource had left the pop stars more accessible than the top academics. During my freshers’ week I saw the Buzzcocks play the inaugural concert in the new Manchester Academy, whereas I was never lucky enough to be taught by O’Gorman, who was the only one of that triumvirate of famous historians still in Manchester when I got there. I did have other fantastic teachers of course (including Kevin Passmore and John Wilson), although learning was stymied by the sheer size of our lectures and seminars. The Buzzcocks gig was a touch surreal, for the ageing punks in attendance streamed out before the encore - presumably to relieve their babysitters at home. Instead of the audience shouting for more, the band returned to the stage to implore them not to leave, before playing Oh Shit.

The Buzzcocks have a good claim to be the grandfathers of Manchester’s contemporary music scene, for they invited the Sex Pistols to play in the city, which they did at the Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June 1976. It was arguably one of the most important concerts of all time; there is even an entire book devoted to it called I Swear I Was There: The Gig that Changed the World. Fewer than 100 people turned up, but many of Manchester’s most famous sons claim to have found inspiration there - including Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, Morrissey of The Smiths, Mark E. Smith of the Fall and Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook of Joy Division and then New Order. Times have changed since: today Johnny Rotten appears on Question Time and there is a modern conference hotel behind the old facade of the Free Trade Hall.

Music helps recall past events, and no doubt many people look back on their education through the crackly soundtrack of the era. The album Thunder and Consolation by New Model Army (then known to schoolboys as “Chunder and Constipation”) still reminds me of my A levels. My undergraduate thesis was written while listening to Suede’s eponymous debut album on repeat. Bizarrely, the Tragically Hip - who were huge in their native Canada but never so in the UK - will forever remind me of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, as I bunked off lectures to watch the live TV coverage in the Hop and Grape bar (now the Academy 3) where I also saw the band play a free concert.

My cohort’s first year at university coincided with the introduction of student maintenance loans. They were the Thatcher government’s attempt to arrest the long decline in higher education funding, and the Iron Lady’s last great domestic reform. The loans began just a few weeks before her fall in November 1990 and the controversy they created helps to explain why I was the only person that The Mancunion student newspaper could find to say that her resignation was regrettable. Our student union reps meanwhile distributed free alcohol to all comers.

As a child of Thatcher, one of my earliest pieces of academic research looked at her impact on popular culture. It is often forgotten that, at any given moment, some pop stars supported her or her party. In 1977, a New Musical Express cover story quoted Paul Weller of The Jam saying “All this change- the-world thing is becoming a bit too trendy. I realise that we’re not going to change anything unless it’s on a nationwide scale”, with writer Steve Clarke going on to say that Weller had said he would vote Conservative at the next election.

Just before the 1987 election, Gary Numan was more forthright, telling the NME, “I will vote Tory because I consider that they are the most likely to a) create real jobs, b) properly defend the country, c) protect the NHS and d) improve the quality of education”. Nine years later, Geri Halliwell told The Spectator: “We Spice Girls are true Thatcherites. Thatcher was the first Spice Girl, the pioneer of our ideology - Girl Power.”

But such views were rare in the music business, and supporting Thatcher was deemed to be commercial suicide. Miles Copeland, the manager of The Police, said: “There is no group in England who can come out and say, ‘I support the Conservative Party’, because immediately the press would lambaste them and they’d be written off as class traitors.” Weller later attributed his pro-Tory statement to a desire to annoy right-on punk heroes The Clash, and he would go on to help lead the pro-Labour Red Wedge collective before the 1987 election. There were eventually so many anti-Thatcher songs that she is the only prime minister ever to be the focus of a musical subgenre.

A number of songs called on Thatcher to leave office. The most famous was The Beat’s Stand Down Margaret, which later enjoyed a second lease of life as Stand Down Tony. Another common theme was the Falklands conflict. One song on the war by anarchist punks Crass, How Does it Feel to be the Mother of a Thousand Dead, was described by Conservative MP Tim Eggar as “the most vicious, scurrilous and obscene record that has ever been produced”. But Thatcher herself was unbowed. When asked by the magazine Smash Hits what she thought of pop stars “who can’t wait to get you out of Number 10”, she replied, “Can’t they? Ha ha ha!…it’s nice they know your name”.

Her biographers tend to ignore not only Thatcher’s impact on music, but also her impact on the music industry. The small independent record companies that have provided the foundations for most music trends from the 1980s onwards, including Madchester, were exactly the sort of small businesses that Thatcherism aimed to support.

By the time I graduated in 1993, the baggy scene was succumbing to Britpop but new music still flowed thickly through Manchester’s veins. In that year, local boy band Take That had their first number one single and Oasis signed their first record deal. Some might say that there are less rich musical pickings for a new student in Manchester today. It is true that the Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses and the Inspiral Carpets have all reformed and the Charlatans have never really gone away, but local favourites such as Oasis and Simply Red have split up and Take That do not, after all, appear to be back for good. The Hacienda name is now applied to a complex of flats, although only a few of the residents actually live on the site of the club.

Strikingly, however, the late 1980s music scene remains a major draw more than a generation later. Manchester’s latest prospectus features comments from both Ian Brown of the Stone Roses (“Manchester’s got everything except a beach”) and Dave Haslam, a well-known Hacienda DJ, and mentions a host of “Mancunian legends”, including the Stone Roses (again), Oasis and The Smiths. Perhaps today’s students attend nostalgic club nights to celebrate the Second Summer of Love (1988-89) just as enthusiastically as we attended ones celebrating the original Summer of Love (1967) of our parents’ generation.

After graduating, I moved to Cambridge and hosted a show on Cambridge University Radio. It had a somewhat limited audience (only two colleges got any reception), but we nonetheless devoted a show to the differences between being a student in Manchester and a student in Cambridge. The unsurprising conclusion was that the non-academic aspects of the student experience were unbeatable up north but the surroundings were more conducive to academic study further south.

There is less musical heritage in Cambridge than Manchester, but Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd grew up there. He went to a local boys’ grammar school and then the Cambridge School of Art, now part of Anglia Ruskin University, and returned to the city after retiring from the band. In 1974, the producer of Barrett’s last musical output was John Leckie, who went on to be the mastermind behind the Stone Roses’ landmark first album.

I also discovered that Cambridge boasted more excellent live music venues for its size than Manchester. There was the Boat Race, a small pub and live music venue, which Oasis played just before they made it big - and I still regret turning down a last-minute invitation to the gig. There was the Corn Exchange, where I saw Suede play at their best to the fantastic accompaniment of some bespoke films by Derek Jarman. There was the Junction, where I saw the under-rated EMF play a blistering set - it then stood alone in a rather soulless part of the city, but a revamped Junction is now at the heart of the lively Cambridge Leisure Park.

Another notable venue is Midsummer Common, where the Strawberry Fair takes place. Along with the annual Cambridge Folk Festival, the fair reflects the vibrant musical and civic life of the city. My attempt to form a coalition with the anarchists protesting about the cancellation of the 2010 Strawberry Fair was one of the least successful moments in my bid to become Cambridge’s MP at the last election. They doubted the motives of a suit-wearing Tory while I avoided pointing out that I had attended the fair before some of them were born.

These days, I tend to go back to Manchester mainly for Conservative Party conferences. They are held biennially at the city’s Central Convention Complex, which in its previous guise - the GMEX Centre - was home to many historic pop concerts. To me, if not to everyone else, the noises from the stage sound just as sweet today.

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