Manchester: Back to No Future


ManchesterManchester: Looking for the Light through the Pouring Rain, by Kevin Cummins, is a book of photographs of Manchester’s music scene over the last thirty years, with weighty prose by the likes of Paul Morley and Stuart Maconie, participants and witnesses all.  It was published in autumn 2009 in London by Faber.

The photos are evocative and the prose holds up.   Paul Morley’s forthcoming book about Tony Wilson looks promising, on this evidence.

The buildings and even some of the streets are gone now, and since Manchester culture exists no more, the people are the landmarks: Manchester: Looking for the Light through the Pouring Rain reconstructs what they saw and experienced through anecdotes and cloudy memories that are more reliable than a historian’s database.

Paul (“I swear I was there”) Morley knows that, and his fine contribution shows the scaffolding of memory in the process of reconstruction with the confidence of honesty: “I wonder if these memories of a Morrissey-like figure appearing at the same gigs as me, watching from afar, learning how to speak, are made up because surely I must remember this creature. . .” (18).  And, “There is a world that probably never existed where Steven Morrissey noticed the developing status of The Fall. . .” (35).

Paul Morley conjures fine ironic refrains — a nice running gag about Morrissey taking notes — throughout his generous, 32-page slice of the cake, acknowledging how Manchester’s music scene has so many strands that the story could start from any number of places and dates: the beginning is the artificial selection of historians, but since the story has to start somewhere, try the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976 . . . or a May afternoon in a Stretford tenement in 1982 . . . or, fuck it, the Peterloo massacre of 1819 . . . or, “The story can be written based around what The Fall got up to over the next few decades. . .” (35).

In all these variable embarkations, in his collages of incidental inspirations, in paragraphs like branches of a family tree, Morley gets across how rich the talent was in poorhouse Manchester, how no one person and no single band had the monopoly: the rise and fall of many enduring and fly-by-night personalities and bands charted movements, creative waves that buoyed the next initiative.  This is a book about communities.

It is psychogeography by the back door.  Psychogeography was a situationist idea — those Marxist-leaning situationists of the 1950s and ’60s favored by Tony Wilson.  Originally it meant noticing how urban environments shaped behavior, defined communities, exposing the ideology of capitalism working on the masses.  Eventually psychogeography came to mean — like everything else since the 1980s — something neutral: it now means mapping your knowledge of a city by walking its streets.  Manchester: Looking for the Light through the Pouring Rain maps the past in photographs and reminiscences, and Kevin Cummins’ camera will take you back even if, like me, you stayed in most nights.

There are transcribed interviews with Johnny Marr and Peter Hook and, beautifully anarchically, Mark E. Smith.  The last, poignant word is given in an afterword by Tony Wilson that he was all set to write, except he had to go back in hospital — so instead we read a transcribed phone message from Tony Wilson to Kevin Cummins promising to write the afterword just as soon as he gets out of hospital, and a footnote that he died three days later.

Before that, John Harris, who used to write about music for NME and now writes about politics for The Guardian, points out an uneasy irony.  Tony Wilson’s initiatives helped to release the potential of many individuals whose stories are told in this book.  And in the end, in venues like the Midland Hotel and projects like “In the City,” where Tony Wilson courted the money people to come to Manchester and buy into upcoming bands and invest in the city, corporate initiatives ravaged the city of its heritage.  The kind of Mancunians who made the music of this book have been priced out of their own city.  Wilson himself was a product of the 1970s, and there’s no place for that kind of catalyst in the New Manchester that he helped to create.

Tony Wilson was wise to the paradox — he just didn’t know what to do about it.  I remember his book launch of 24 Hour Party People, in 2001, when he repeated the trite and untrue cliché that 1970s’ Manchester was dead on its feet, always a prelude to singing the praises of those musical initiatives that revamped the city — who were, like Wilson, products of the seventies.  Even Tony Wilson had to concede, with a sweep of his arm across a corporate window view of Deansgate, “Of course, now it’s become all this. . . ,” but the pragmatist moved on.  The bookshop we were in was a sign of the times, where corporate convergence is the cultural pattern of all business, all retailers, all politics: Waterstones Waterstones Waterstones Waterstones Waterstones.

Movements outlast the generation that starts them: they make waves.  Without hippies and the underground-made-mainstream in the 1960s, a radical Manchester music scene in the 1970s wouldn’t have been on the cards, and without the Beat initiatives of the 1950s there wouldn’t be hippies.  Thatcher’s initiatives, after a decade that stamped out anything left-wing and obliterated protest, will live on after her death just as surely.  Misery is still being born and potential is stillborn from the conceptions of the ’80s.

So when a new generation has nothing to say and nothing to do but make money, when nothing makes an impression but corporate size and clout, the next generation starts from that deficit and has no idea how to see differently — no nounce about how to create an alternative in anything: music, literature, drama, film, anything.

There are photographs in here of Tony Wilson looking mother-hen proud of his bands against Manchester backdrops.  Tony Wilson had the hopeful notion that new music movements surface every thirteen years.  But cultural waves are more than a numbers game: some political nurturing and at least an underground continuity is necessary to keep the torch aflame before it’s passed on.

In the last section of Manchester: Looking for the Light through the Pouring Rain, John Harris documents the rise and fall of Oasis.  He understands that their fall is made certain by financial success, by their profligate celebrity London lifestyle, at a time when the spoils of success go to one rather than many: all part of the corporate, convergent culture.  It’s implicit that the Gallaghers had only five years worth of talent in the tank anyway.

But Harris lets Oasis and Cool Britannia off the hook.  Like the trained Guardian writer he is, there is a pulse, but no fight in his lukewarm prose, no stomach to call a spade a spade.

So let’s spell it out with the kind of honesty that Paul Morley didn’t flinch from at the start of this book.

Oasis breaks from Mancunian music history: from their beginnings to the pigswill future where there are no pearls, only swine, it’s not about communities and movements anymore.

The blasted anthems of Oasis, catchy but cranked up to cover the cracks in the voice, the lyrics, and the musicianship, hyped beyond merit as if constant repetition of the Best-the-Best-the-Best will make it so, with all that bullshitting about the battle of the bands, and all that glad-handing with Tony Blair, all that co-opted, flag-waving Cool Britannia that pimped the Spice Girls all the way to aninterview lauding Margaret Thatcher as the goddess of “girl power,” all of it, all the way to war, all the way to no difference whatsoever between political candidates, all this was the start of corporate fascism and monolithic logos of the like that reduced The Hacienda from a club where people came together to a property developer’s exclusive facade, the spin-doctored shafting of truth, community, and rebellion.

Punk is a logo in Selfridges now, where Shop Till You Drop is the general idea, and no one questions why they are working through the daylight of their lives while their best years are being repossessed.

Another renaissance is not on the way, in Manchester or anywhere else in Debtors Britannia.  We’re right back to a punk message of “No Future” in the Lesser Free Trade Hall — only now there is no one to shout about it, and the Free Trade Hall is a hotel for flush visitors.

Gary McMahon is the author of Camp in Literature (McFarland, 2006) and Kurt Vonnegut and the Centrifugal Force of Fate (McFarland, 2009).

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