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THE misery and deprivation experienced in many of the United Kingdom's urban areas have at least one positive effect: they produce interesting music. The pop charts in the UK are often dominated by performers from the inner city, from places like Manchester, Sheffield, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, and Belfast. The British talent for creating popular music is in many ways mysterious; the French, who are equally obsessed with African-American music, have long produced some of the world's worst rock-and-roll. It may be that many young people in Great Britain have felt not only a passion for African-American music -- for the jazz, rap, hip-hop, funk, electro, Detroit techno, disco, and rhythm-and-blues that are the main influences on almost all pop music today -- but also some affinity with its roots. Kids from the underclass in the United States and in the United Kingdom are often faced with similar choices. Music, crime, and professional sports seem to offer a way out, a quick means of escape from the dreariness of everyday life.
Manchester's emergence as a force in British popular music began during June and July of 1976, when the Sex Pistols played two gigs at the city's Lesser Free Trade Hall. The band's anger and onstage anarchy had an energizing effect on the local music scene. After watching the Sex Pistols, Anthony H. Wilson, a young newscaster for Granada Television and the host of a late-night pop-music show, started to manage local bands and then formed an independent record company in Manchester. He named it Factory Records, in a nod to the city's industrial past. Over the next few years the popularity of the local bands Joy Division and New Order allowed Factory Records to assume the kind of role in Manchester that Motown once played in Detroit.
Releases by Factory Records were distinguished by the strength not only of their music but also of their graphic design. Factory Records had an air of radical politics that was playful, ironic, and sometimes pretentious. At Cambridge University, Wilson had been introduced to the writings of the Situationist International, an anarchist movement, influenced by Dadaism and Surrealism, that guided the 1968 student uprisings in Paris. In 1981 Wilson and Rob Gretton, the manager of New Order, decided to open a downtown nightclub in Manchester modeled after clubs they'd recently visited in New York City -- dark, cavernous places like Danceteria and Hurrah. They found a name for their club in a Situationist text, Ivan Chtcheglov's Formulary for a New Urbanism (1953). In a somewhat obscure and absurdist tone, Chtcheglov attacked the soulless, deadening quality of modern life and envisioned a whole new kind of city, one that was freed from industrialism and "set apart for free play." Great cities of the future would abandon the production of goods and "live largely off ... controlled tourism." This utopia was within reach, and he urged, "The haçienda must be built."
"Hyperreal serves as an archive of the digital expression of the world-wide rave scene. Whether you go to parties 5 times a week or have never stayed up past 2 a.m., you should walk away with something new every time you visit."
A sociological analysis of rave culture by a student at Macalester College.
The Haçienda was one of the first British clubs to play acid-house; its
DJs Mike Pickering and Graeme Park introduced the music to large, enthusiastic
crowds. Acid-house sounded like sped-up disco fed through a computer and
liberated from any song structure. It had first emerged in the gay discos of
Chicago and New York, in palaces of hedonism like the Warehouse, the World, and
the Paradise Garage, where the new music was championed by the DJs Frankie
Knuckles and Larry Levan, among others. It was underground music, an upbeat and
exuberant sound that reached Great Britain by way of the gay community and
all-night dance clubs on the island of Ibiza. The early British raves -- illegal
parties with acid-house music -- were held in empty warehouses and at large
outdoor spaces off London's ring road, the M-25. The raves, which often boasted
huge sound systems, attracted thousands of people in defiance of the law. Disco
music had long been derided by punk and rock fans as the cheesy sound of
conformity. But disco's electronic offshoot soon became the music of teenage
rebellion, as British authorities tried to crack down on the raves, staging
raids and making arrests. Britain's tabloids warned parents about the
dangers of acid-house music: this new sound was accompanied by a new drug.
In the United States, Ecstasy (the common nickname for the synthetic drug MDMA) gained notoriety for its alleged powers as an aphrodisiac, briefly becoming popular on college campuses during the 1980s. In
Great Britain, Ecstasy became inextricably linked with acid-house and raves. The drug was sometimes described as a "psychedelic amphetamine"; it provided a speedy, dreamy sense of empathy and well-being, without hallucinations. Ecstasy and acid-house arrived in England at the same moment, and their popularity grew symbiotically, both of them seemingly uplifting, underground, and forbidden. Acid-house quickly became the soundtrack of choice for kids taking Ecstasy.
The summer of 1988, when acid-house and Ecstasy gained a foothold in Britain, was heralded as the "second summer of love." There was an outpouring of drug-fueled idealism and optimism. Manchester became a mecca for nightclubbers, and recordings by local bands such as New Order, A Guy Called Gerald, 808 State, and Happy Mondays helped to spread dance music throughout Great Britain and Western Europe. Attempts by the Conservative Party to stamp out rave culture had the opposite effect, facilitating its entry into the mainstream. The Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act of 1990, nicknamed "the acid-house bill," made it much riskier to put on raves without a license -- and thereby encouraged the opening throughout Great Britain of dance clubs that imitated the Haçienda. These licensed venues could profit from the new subculture. Before long every British city had large clubs where DJs played house, dealers sold Ecstasy, and kids danced late into the night.
PEOPLE born and raised in Manchester, known as Mancunians, tend to exhibit a distinctive outlook on life that helps them get through one hardship after another. They usually think that Manchester is the greatest city in the world -- perhaps in the history of the world. This faith took hold in a city with some of the bleakest and grayest weather in England, and it remains unshaken despite the continual exodus of family, friends, and neighbors to other places. Within a day or two of arriving in Manchester one is bound to hear that the city's women are the most beautiful in Great Britain, that the men are the toughest and most virile, that the styles on the street downtown will appear on London streets a few months later, that Liverpool is hardly worth a visit. Mancunians are also quick to disparage one another, continuing the age-old rivalries between local neighborhoods and boroughs, each with its own slightly different accent -- between Salford and Wigan, between Stockport and Bolton, and on and on. What most unites the people of greater Manchester is a belief that the inhabitants of southern England are lazy, worthless, and effete. The entrepreneurial spirit of the cotton barons has merged with the radicalism and defiance of their workers to produce a sensibility in Manchester that is cocky and chauvinistic. Indeed, Mancunians often seem more American than English.
The success of the Haçienda encouraged the opening of restaurants, bars, and clubs in other empty industrial spaces downtown. The city council soon recognized the potential value of a thriving nightlife to the local economy. Greater Manchester boasts one of the largest student populations in Europe, with twenty colleges and universities in the area. The combination of students, working-class kids, and adventurous tourists promised to supply a large customer base for downtown clubs. In 1988 the Central Manchester Development Corporation, a quasi-public agency, began to convert warehouses near the Haçienda into apartments and lofts. A neighborhood that had been completely desolate when the club opened, in 1982, subsequently attracted thousands of young, trendy inhabitants. Proposals were circulated to create a "24 Hour City," a central Manchester where the party never ended. Pat Karney, a prominent city councillor, even thought that drugs could be used as a draw. "Ecstasy, in our view, is part of a cultural package alongside music and clothes," he told City Life magazine. "This kind of entertainment economy makes a city a more exciting place to live."
On a Saturday night Manchester's bars and clubs can now house approximately 25,000 people. There are scores of them, catering to a wide variety of tastes. One of the liveliest sections of town is the "Gay Village." Eight years ago a gay bar named Manto opened in a former trade-union hall near a disused shipping canal. The area was best known at the time for its bus station, prostitutes, and overall spookiness at night, owing to a lack of streetlights. Today the neighborhood around Canal Street has perhaps the largest concentration of gay businesses in the United Kingdom, aided by investment from the Central Manchester Development Corporation. The Gay Village stages an annual Mardi Gras in August, and tens of thousands of revelers attend. The celebration recently featured a parade of floats through downtown Manchester, go-go boys and girls, flamenco dancers, a fun fair, and a special chartered "Discoloco" train, with its own dance floor, which brought drag queens up from London.
FROM the Madchester scene of the late 1980s came a band, the Stone Roses, that revived rock-and-roll in Great Britain. Aside from the Smiths, who broke up in 1987, British rock bands of the Thatcher era had been memorable mostly for their big hair. The Stone Roses incorporated some of the Haçienda's dance beats in their songs, added wah-wah guitar riffs, and created a swirling, psychedelic sound that evoked Britain's pop supremacy of the late 1960s. The band's huge success in the United Kingdom encouraged British kids to learn how to play guitar and to riffle through their parents' record collections for old albums by the Small Faces, the Beatles, Cream, and the Kinks. The new bands inspired by the Stone Roses tended to write songs with a familiar ring, adding little to sounds first heard thirty years ago -- but they infused British rock-and-roll with an energy and a passion that had long been missing. The greater Manchester area soon produced a number of popular rock bands, including Inspiral Carpets, the Charlatans UK, and the Verve. A former roadie for Inspiral Carpets, Noel Gallagher, formed Oasis in 1993 with his brother, Liam. The two had grown up in Manchester, and idolized the Stone Roses; Noel had spent many late nights at the Haçienda. The success of their band elevated rock-and-roll into the music of the British establishment -- a source of national pride applauded by both Labour and Tory politicians. Oasis borrowed lyrics and melodies from the Beatles, and last year eclipsed them in a survey by Virgin Megastores as England's all-time favorite rock band. Sales of the Manchester group's album (What's the Story) Morning Glory? are now approaching those of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, the largest-selling album in British history.
Seemingly everybody under the age of thirty in Manchester is in a band, leaving a band, about to start a band, or busy managing someone else's band. British unemployment benefits -- frequently held responsible for a lack of initiative among young people, for their aimlessness and aversion to hard work -- have actually helped to make rock music one of Great Britain's few profitable exports. British rock musicians often learn how to play their instruments while living for years on the dole. One guitarist I met in Manchester had been on the dole for more than fifteen years, while playing in a series of bands. Early in his career Mick had enjoyed a taste of success, recording a hit song, touring England with Happy Mondays as his opening act, shooting a rock video in Los Angeles. "Youthful stupidity" had ended that career phase. Now he was parking cars, distributing handbills at street fairs, and forming a "fantastic" new band, he said with typical Mancunian bluster, that would soon get him back onto the charts.
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Eric Schlosser is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.
Photographs by Aidan O'Rourke
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1998; Saturday Night at the Haçienda; Volume 282, No. 4; pages 22-34.