Madchester bars: People are right to be wary

There’s talk of a new bar opening in Manchester dedicated to ‘Madchester’, and of course, there’s been a very mixed response to it, ranging from “Nice one, top one” to “This is the worst thing I’ve ever heard”.

The truth of the matter is that people can set up whatever business they want and we can all exercise our right to go, or not go, and that much is obvious and not in any way fun to talk about.

Martin Bryant wrote a thoughtful piece (here) saying that, while he wasn’t particularly impressed at the idea, maybe the city should be comfortable enough to just have what’s basically a museum to Manchester’s musical past, as it’s akin to stuff from the Industrial Revolution, or the Football Museum or whatever.

I do like this idea of a city being comfortable enough with the past, and having a musical museum dedicated to music from the region that’s as thorough as the football one, or the industry and technology one — but this is cut with the idea that we’re doing enough in the present. If you live in the city, you’ll know there’s loads going on — read anything from the national press, and you’ll see people from out of the ring road shoehorning in a ’90s mention every chance they get, and bars like this don’t help.

This is why a lot of people get a stomach ache every time someone dredges the whole thing up again.

Nostalgia has placed a lot of importance on this period of Manchester, even though broadly, it didn’t have the impact many say it did. Madchester didn’t rule the nation’s airwaves at the time, and there’s certainly more to the city than the small window of bands that inevitably make up Madchester revivalism.

If you look at the Madchester based nostalgia trip, you imagine there’s so many hits coming from the place. Sure, a bunch of music charted from the city, but when you look at the decade as a whole, it was pretty small-fry if you use the narrow parameters of the revivalist.

Have a look at the biggest selling records of the ’90s, and how many Madchester bands do you reckon are in there? Morrissey? New Order? ‘Fools Gold’ has to be in there right? If you count them as ‘Madchester’, then Stereo MCs are surely in there?

Nope. In the Top 20 songs of the decade, zero Manchester bands appear. I can already hear people saying that record sales and cultural significance aren’t compatible here, so let’s zoom in a bit — Madchester was at the peak of its powers around ’88 to ’90, right? Looking at the Top 100 selling songs from those years (a top hundred, rather than forty, to account for those indie records that shifted a shedload, that maybe couldn’t compete with the bigger labels etc) and we get no appearances in ’88 or ’89, and finally see some entrants in ’90s — Happy Mondays (‘Step On’), The Charlatans (‘The Only One I Know’), and New Order (a song that was basically promoted by John Barnes). Now, not to say this is the mark of failure and that they’re bad records (they’re not), but through this period, the biggest hitters from the area were actually Simply Red and Lisa Stansfield (and an appearance from The Hollies with ‘He Ain’t Heavy’, which I think recharted because it was on an advert for soup or something).

So does that mean ’90s Manchester isn’t important? Of course not. However, the thing that has much more significance and reach than a clutch of indie bands is dance/house music, which really made the city tick and of course, features very heavily in the charts from this time.

Why didn’t I include that when looking at the charts? Why should I, when Madchester revivers don’t generally include it either?

If you’ve ever found yourself in one of Manchester’s many revival nights, you’ll find the usual Manchester and Factory related bands snuggling up beside each other — Joy Division, Smiths, Roses, etc — usually played alongside classic rock like The Clash and The Doors (The Fall never quite seem to get a look in, which is a pity). The closest you’ll get to dance music is ‘Blue Monday’. You might even get the non-Manc ‘Soup Dragons’ or ‘The Farm’ being thrown in too, because why not? Madchester is often a synonym for ‘baggy’, and y’know, it’s a night out — not a lecture.

However, for those who remember Manchester in the ’90s, you couldn’t stop the likes of Ian Brown and Tim Burgess banging on about house music and hip hop records they’ve got into. Like Northern Soul before it, Madchester was a scene that was very good at importing records from overseas — of course, the ’90s was a bit different because the city decided to make some of it’s own.

And this is where the knot in the stomach comes for any suggested site for a Madchester bar — while it is pretty unfair to assume, you can bet your bucket hat that it will be a very white, very straight version of the music that Manchester was actually listening to back then.

That’s not to say all ’90s Manchester revival nights are like that — ‘Hacienda’ nights are all about the house and acid, but this doesn’t seem to be the case with this new venture.

Maybe historical accuracy isn’t a concern though, and basically, this is an exercise in giving some people what they want, right? I’d take that, if it wasn’t for a couple of things — the fact that there’s already a re-opened Factory; the fact that Dry Bar was a thing, but no-one really went to it so it closed. Clint Boon’s regular DJ slots around the city. The fact that there’s so much yellow and black Hac-hatching around the city, you might think that the Hacienda got scattered around the city when it got demolished.

No-one can hide from the fact that nostalgia is good tourist money, and of course, there’s people who want to roll back the years, be they original heads, or those that were too young to experience it first time around. Sometimes, you just want the familiar hits, we all do — however, the main problem I have is that Manchester has leaned too hard on a very specific period of hits, when it actually has a lot more to shout about on top of the ’90s achievements.

If a Manchester music bar included the imports that made the scenes what they were, maybe we’d be onto something everyone could celebrate. I’d argue that the Hacienda’s significance wasn’t necessarily the Factory connection, but rather, the innovative electronic music made by American artists, many of whom came from black and LGBTQ communities, which is almost always white/straightwashed out of the picture when talking about that period.

A quote from the MEN piece about the bar, from one of the people behind it, doesn’t do much to persuade me that this will be any different: “The demographic of the visitors to the social media speak for themselves, families have been raised listening to their parents’ music from their hazy days from the Manchester period as well as Oasis that followed.

There will also be new music played obviously as we can’t just keep banging on about the past, all Manchester music will be celebrated, like Cabbage and Blossoms, so there’s something for everyone young and old.

Of course, that’s not to say LGBTQ and Madchester aren’t compatible, and naturally, all baggy revivers are not homophobic casuals, but you can see how the mere mention of these things make swathes of the city sigh in exasperation.

It might not be fair or accurate to portray that period as laddish, white, and rockist, but that’s invariably what happens when people revisit that time. The idea of lager, swaggering, and casual homophobia is something that blights the ’90s, and that’s the worry when bringing back Madchester — if a revival bar wants to tackle that head-on, then maybe Manchester will feel more comfortable when dealing with the past.

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