Saturday Night at the Haçienda

Once a city of dying mills, Manchester, England, has been revived by the music and nightclub industries. But has it merely traded one "dark Satanic" economy for another?

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.)

WE hit speeds of more than 110 miles per hour on the road between Sheffield and Manchester, weaving among three lanes as a light rain fell. Eddy Rhead was sober and meticulous behind the wheel. He politely flashed his high beams before passing, and downshifted smoothly on curves. His navy-blue T-shirt warned, NEW YORK CITY FIRE DEPARTMENT: KEEP 200 FEET BACK. The other cars on the motorway seemed to be stuck in molasses. Tom Wainwright sat in the front passenger seat and casually looked back at me, explaining the various door policies at local nightclubs. Wainwright was a popular disc jockey based in Manchester; Rhead was his roadie for the evening; and the rented Ford was being pushed near its operational limits to reach the next gig in time. We were headed for the Haçienda, a club as notorious in the United Kingdom as Studio 54 once was in the United States. A group of Wainwright's fans, who had watched him DJ at a Sheffield club earlier in the evening, now struggled to keep up with us. They were crammed into a small Vauxhall that fell behind, vanished for long stretches, and then suddenly reappeared in our rearview mirror. Rhead and Wainwright saw nothing unusual in the mist and the mad rush and the blur of scenery flying past us, like a video played on fast forward. This was part of the routine. It was just another Saturday night in the north of England.

On the outskirts of Manchester we passed empty lots, abandoned factories, warehouses with broken windows -- an industrial wasteland punctuated by row after row of modest brick houses. There was more life downtown, amid the faded grandeur of massive Victorian buildings. Rhead slowed down considerably to avoid pedestrians, but ran a few red lights too, hitting Whitworth Street at twelve-thirty, right on time.

About twenty or thirty people stood in front of the Haçienda, hoping to get inside. They had come from all over the north, from Blackpool and Preston, from Bradford, Leeds, and Stoke-on-Trent, some of them driving for hours just to dance here tonight. The building was low and unexceptional. It had once served as a yacht warehouse. You could hear muffled bass notes through the brick walls, a dull, thumping four-four beat. Rhead removed cases of twelve-inch singles from the trunk and handed a couple to me. This was as far as he would go. Rhead wouldn't set foot in the Haçienda. It had been his hangout for years, a "brilliant" place, the best, nothing like it, but lately everything had changed. The club had a different feeling now, a much darker one; bad things were happening inside. Rhead said good-night and got back into the car. I turned and followed Wainwright, helping him carry the discs. The crowd parted for us, a bouncer opened the door, the calm of the street fell away, and we stepped into the maelstrom of a teenage party, hot and sweaty, with people dancing, strobe lights flashing, and music so loud it seemed to have acquired a physical presence -- so loud that I could not only hear it but feel it, as though a stiff breeze were emanating from the speakers and somehow penetrating to the bone.

THE popular culture of Great Britain has long been torn between contradictory impulses, often symbolized by the rivalry between north and south, between a faith in the common people and a proud elitism, between an urban, working-class sensibility and one that cherishes tradition, rank, and the arcadian values of country life. At the moment, the north is ascendant. You can see its newfound prestige in the current mania for soccer stars, in the success of films like Trainspotting and The Full Monty. Most of all, you can hear it in the music. The stale gentility of the Thatcher era has given way to a culture that is iconoclastic, often outrageous, and fed up with the trappings of hereditary privilege. The election of Tony Blair's Labour government only confirmed a change in popular attitudes that had been mounting for years. British youth culture has been exerting a sort of influence, both at home and overseas, that the United Kingdom has not enjoyed for thirty years. Laura Ashley prints and Brideshead Revisited nostalgia are long gone. There's a craving for the shock of the new, and middle-class kids in England are once again dressing down and dropping their aitches.

Abandoned factory

During the "beat boom" of the early 1960s, Liverpool was the trendsetter, home of the Beatles' "Mersey sound." For the past decade another northern city, Manchester, which though only thirty miles from Liverpool considers itself a world apart, has led the way in music, fashion, and graphic design. Both the rise of electronic dance music and the current revival of British rock-and-roll got their start in Manchester's clubs. In the summer of 1988 the city became a latter-day Haight-Ashbury, as young people from all over England and Europe flocked to a club scene, dubbed "Madchester," whose ground zero was the dance floor at the Haçienda. An urban center once famous for its factory system became renowned for its nightlife, for the rock clubs, bars, and dance clubs opening in abandoned warehouses downtown.

Manchester's local government has encouraged this hip new image, hoping to create a postmodern, postindustrial economy based largely on entertainment. But youth culture changes rapidly; trendy scenes can vanish overnight; and the drugs and violence that doomed Haight-Ashbury's brief reign now threaten to end Manchester's. The city today has a surreal, highly charged atmosphere. Its plight says a great deal about what has happened lately in the "other" England -- the great northern industrial cities that rarely appear in British tourist brochures. Amid long-term unemployment and some of the worst urban poverty in Western Europe, the "dark Satanic" mills of Manchester deplored by Victorian social reformers are being turned into tapas bars and discos.

MANCHESTER was the world's first industrial city. The factories built here in the late eighteenth century used elaborate, innovative machines to make textiles out of the raw cotton picked by American slaves. The city became the industrial heart of the British Empire, serving as a model of economic development and inspiring whole new political philosophies. From 1760 to 1871 Manchester's population increased more than twentyfold, as laborers arrived from the rest of England and from Ireland, Scotland, Italy, and Greece. The metropolis that arose stood in total contradiction to aristocratic values and a stable rural order, as self-made men earned great fortunes and the countryside of Lancashire was blanketed with railroads, factories, and towns. Manchester seemed to embody the best and the worst of the modern age. The free-trade movement, liberal economic theory, and the worship of the free market took root in Manchester during the 1830s, amid opposition to England's Corn Laws, regulations that favored agriculture. A decade later the city produced one of the fiercest critiques of such laissez-faire capitalism. After living in Manchester and observing the poverty of its workers, Friedrich Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, a book that supplied much of the empirical basis for Marxism. As the textile mills moved to the outskirts of town, huge warehouses came to dominate the city center -- grandiose monuments to their owners' wealth, often built to resemble Renaissance palaces and surrounded by miles and miles of slums.

Manchester reached its industrial peak in the years before the First World War, eventually manufacturing automobiles, chemicals, and heavy machinery in addition to textiles. It has been in decline ever since. The rise of more-efficient competitors overseas, the effects of the Great Depression, heavy German bombing during the Second World War, and the fall of the British Empire all took their toll. Warehouses, factories, and mines throughout Lancashire shut down. Manchester became a different sort of model, a harbinger of the de-industrialization that other great cities would endure. From 1921 to 1980 Manchester's population fell from about 800,000 to about 465,000. The Thatcher years were particularly devastating for the city, as government policies favored economic development in the Tory strongholds of the south -- London, Cambridgeshire, and Surrey. During the first decade of Conservative rule 94 percent of the jobs lost in England were in the north, where state-owned industries were privatized and ruthlessly downsized. Despite its economic woes, Manchester had enjoyed nearly full employment of its male population perhaps as late as 1970. The combination of more factory closings and deep cuts in social spending left the city reeling. By April of 1982 its unemployment rate was 32 percent. The greater Manchester area (which has a population of about 2.5 million) lost almost a fifth of its manufacturing jobs during the 1980s, and more than 125,000 people moved away. The unemployment rate in some Manchester neighborhoods still exceeds 20 percent. According to Gabrielle Cox, the head of greater Manchester's Low Pay Unit, approximately half of the city's population qualifies for government housing benefits, which are a means-tested grant. Half of the city now lives in poverty.

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.)

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.

The Hacienda
The Haçienda nightclub 

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."

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.

Manchester's population loss has been partly offset since the Second World War by the arrival of immigrants from Britain's former colonies. The city now has a large Chinatown and thriving communities of Indians and West Indians. Dozens of Indian restaurants have opened along Wilmslow Road in Rusholme, forming a "curry mile" that is a popular late-night destination. After the pubs close, the curry mile gets crowded, and a familiar northern ritual unfolds. At Indian restaurants lavishly decorated in red velvet and gold leaf, drunken young Englishmen loudly insult the waiters and criticize the food. Other customers try hard to ignore the racial epithets. The waiters suffer the abuse with quiet dignity; the rowdies complain but pay their bill. Both sides of the old imperial equation leave the encounter feeling superior. A woman apologizes for her friends' behavior, the waiters resume their work, and the restaurant is calm until the next group of drunken lads finds a table.

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.

is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.


The Atlantic Monthly; October 1998; Saturday Night at the Haçienda; Volume 282, No. 4; pages 22-34.