The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper, serving Greater Manchester

Manchester’s lost musical heritage

Some of Manchester’s most significant venues have been turned into supermarkets and flats, writes Chloe Glover

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How well do you know where you live? You probably know the shops, the best takeaway (and which late night kebab place to avoid) and more likely than not, your local pub. You know the best way into the town centre, the local amenities and there’s a good chance you’ll know some if not all of your neighbours; whether that’s out of choice or due to the thin walls. But when you stand outside on the street and look up at the places you know, how well do you know their history?

Living in Victoria Park for the last year our local shop on Anson Road, Venus supermarket, has been famous to my housemates and myself for its incredible baklava counter, turkish delight and whole aisle devoted to pickled vegetables (and deservedly so!). So when I stumbled upon Longsight’s Manchester history page I was not expecting to find photos and recollections of the very same building 80 years ago in its past life as Birchfields Skating Palace.

A quick google search later and this now already historic building was revealed to also have been more well-renowned as International One, an epicentre of Manchester’s 1980s music scene, host to bands like Husker Du, Inca Babies, Simply Red and REM as well as the base of The Stone Roses. That a building of such historical importance, not just for Manchester’s local history but to recent British musical history has had its past literally plastered over and hidden away only for those lucky enough to remember its legacy to revive its from time to time and share it with a wider audience is an all too saddening reminder of the reality of Manchester City Council’s attitude when it comes to honouring its musical heritage.

As much as the image of Manchester as a city proud of its musical clout prevails and is countlessly regurgitated in its official tourism drives, the council itself has a much more dismissive day-to-day relationship with the city’s musical history. Whilst its long-standing plaque scheme honours Manchester’s notable people, events and buildings none pay homage to the places where scenes were born, raised and nurtured. The International Nightclub is of course not the only, or even most famous musical building to have been snubbed by the Council. The Hacienda, a locus of the acid house and rave music scenes that inspired the cult film 24 Hour Party People was demolished in 2002 to make way for a luxury apartment block, despite attempts by groups such as the OK Cafe to highlight the threat to the building’s future and reclaim it for the community.

This story of demolition is by no means an anomalous conclusion to landmark venues in Manchester. The existence of the infamous Kitchen squat club in Barry Crescent in Hulme which formed part of the thriving counter culture scene there, where John Robb believes it felt like “every band in the city had done time there” can only be traced through the memories of its attendees.

In the cases of the Hacienda and The Kitchen it is perhaps very easy to see why the Council have never been too keen to commemorate sites that during their heyday occupied a large amount of time in the minds of authority figures. The untold quantities of not so legal substances that helped keep the parties going well into the next day (at least) and their dislike of locations that were inevitably going to be difficult, if not impossible to police, makes it unsurprising that they were all too keen to bury their fiery pasts in unmarked graves. Yet it does not fully explain the Council’s apathy towards revered venues that attracted less notoriety whilst they were open. The plot of land which was home to the former Russell club (AKA PSV and home to the Factory club night) on Royce Road in Hulme is now host to a generic brick flat cube, a now sadly ubiquitous sight in an area which has been purged of much of its meaningful infrastructure.

The Twisted Wheel, a veteran Northern Soul club that emerged out of the Left Wing Cafe helped pioneer the scene in the early 1960s is the latest iconic music venue to feel the icy indifference of the Council planners. Last week they approved the destruction of the 6 Whitworth Street building which the club made its home, after moving from premises on Brazennove Street, to make way for the building of a Motel One chain budget hotel. Attracting fans from across the UK every weekend during the years it was open and a strong following when the building re-opened as Legends, hosts of the successful alternative gay clubbing night, Bollox, the building’s cultural significance sadly seems no match for the Council’s finance-capital oriented preoccupation.

Even the Lesser Free Trade Hall, the legendary location of purportedly the most influential concert of all time that a good many more people than the 40 capacity allows claim to have witnessed first-hand, including Mark E Smith, Morrisey and the members of the Buzzcocks has been given no formal recognition by the Council. Today it too is occupied by a hotel chain magnate, though as a listed building it has survived the council’s profit-driven chopping block.

This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list (and probably couldn’t be having not lived in the area long enough to know the full extent of the ‘musical shadows’ I’m walking in). It’s overlooked the Electric Circus, only open for a year or so but host to many early punk bands such asThe Clash, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Rezillos, Warsaw (later Joy Division), Buzzcocks, Penetration alongside John cooper clarke whose last night has been immortalised on a 10 inch colour vinyl recording. It doesn’t mention Rafters on Oxford Street or The Mayflower in Gorton that operated within the same era, the Gallery on Peter Street, the mostly reggae ‘The Osbourne’ on Oldham Road or even the Free Trade Hall proper that was home for one night to the likes of Lou Reed and Captain Beefheart.

What it does show is that the extent of Manchester City Council’s disregard for our musical inheritance leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to representing the interests and honouring the memories and accomplishments of its residents, the very people who elected its members into power. Its eagerness to turn venerated institutions over into private hands in return for financial gain over a sense of responsibility to respect all aspects of local culture, not just the more traditional and canonised types is explicit and seemingly remorseless. Fortunately, the people of the city themselves are ensuring that this integral part of Manchester’s history is not forgotten. Whole websites, exhibitions and community initiatives are constantly being generated to try engage residents both old and new with their home-town’s musical legacies and provide a lasting memorial long beyond the disengenous actions of the council. Have a look at the links below, keep your eyes peeled and keep wondering: do you really know the story behind the places you thought you knew so well?

Thanks to Michael Herbert Exhulme, Manchester District Music Archive, Culture Word and Manchester History for their invaluable insights.

  • http://www.gtrmcr.co.uk Nick Baker

    Great article. The naivity with which Manchester sweeps away its ‘cultural capital’ is astonishing at times.

  • DF

    The author of this piece can not write very well. I do hope they weren’t paid.