- Interview by
- Chandler Dandridge
For only forty-five square miles of dampened land in North West England, Manchester has made an impressive mark. When a young Friedrich Engels was sent to Manchester to help run his family’s firm, the city gave him and his writing partner Karl Marx a unique window into the nascent industrial revolution. Manchester is widely known as the “world’s first industrial city,” but it was also home to many other firsts: the birthplace of women’s suffrage, the home of the first free public library, and the site of what was likely the first meeting of a general union representing workers in different industries.
When journalist Andy Spinoza arrived in 1979 to attend the University of Manchester, England’s first civic university, he stepped into a bleak postindustrial landscape. The city had lost one-quarter of its manufacturing jobs between 1966 and 1975. After university, Spinoza stayed in the city and spent the subsequent decades working as a journalist on the municipal and cultural beats, witnessing firsthand the transformation of postindustrial Manchester into a globalized metropolis sometimes dubbed Manc-hattan.
Spinoza’s new book Manchester Unspun: Pop, Property and Power in the Original Modern City documents this transformation and the subcultures that were made and unmade along the way. Amid the economic despair, Manchester gave rise to Joy Division, the Smiths, New Order, Happy Mondays, and more. A central figure in the Manchester scene was Factory Records owner Tony Wilson, a free-spirited quasi-Marxist and informal minister of culture whose nightclub the Haçienda became a symbol of the city, as well as an international destination in the late 1980s.
Manchester’s working-class history and present provided the backdrop to the music scene. For instance, Wilson was inspired to form Factory Records — and childhood friends Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook to form Joy Division with Ian Curtis — after attending a Sex Pistols concert in 1976 at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. The hall was built on the site of the Peterloo Massacre, which occurred during what was arguably industrial capitalism’s first working-class socialist mass action. Other attendees at the 1976 concert who would go on to form influential Manchester bands included Mark E. Smith of the Fall and a seventeen-year-old Steven Patrick Morrissey of the Smiths.
Spinoza spoke with Jacobin contributor Chandler Dandridge about how the music culture of Manchester both arose from the realities of postindustrial working-class life and became the catalyst for capital to reinvest in the city decades after its abandonment.
Engels wrote about “the filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness” of Manchester in 1845. In your book you describe very similar conditions when you arrived in 1979 as a university student. There is some irony to this because these were very different cities. What happened to Manchester in the intervening time?
Its growth was explosive. The historian Asa Briggs called Manchester “the shock city of the 19th century.” As the world’s first industrial city it pulled in people from all across North West England and beyond, including Irish immigrants, and became a manufacturing center of not only textiles but other heavy industries, too.
So as Manchester grew explosively, the conditions for workers remained hellish. It was written about by novelists like Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, who found these divisions of rich and poor stark — striking at the heart of people’s conscience. Manchester has always been a city that stands for ideas as well as for just being a place. German socialists in the nineteenth century coined this phrase Manchesterthum, which was their description of a rampaging commercial mentality that was let loose in Manchester.
By the 1970s, Manchester had made vast improvements in living conditions compared to Victorian Manchester, when rapid technological change threw up new districts with no social safety net. A hundred years of urban development had led to large numbers of public housing estates of reasonable standard. However, when my book begins in 1979, the dereliction of the physical structures and the public realm of the once grand central area had a visual punch — it was like a high Gothic drama, an empire going to ruins. The city had long ceased to be King Cotton, as cheaper labor in textile work elsewhere led to capital flight across the world.
And so you arrived in Manchester the same time as Margaret Thatcher moved into 10 Downing Street.
A few months apart, but the same year. When I arrived in 1979, it was clear that Manchester, the leading city of the north of England, was full of second-class citizens who did not deserve the same level of investment, funding, care, and attention that you could see in London and the south of England.
Do you think that part of the reason for that attitude from London was Manchester’s status as a working-class or perhaps even an immigrant city?
It was ideological, because the Conservative government that won in May 1979 was an adherent to the Milton Friedman monetarist philosophy of free markets dominating government thinking. And with England being the first industrial nation, it stands to reason that Manchester’s industries were always going to be overtaken by foreign competitors. There’s a very good case to be made that the factory owners did not invest properly and innovate. So in other words coal, steel, engineering, and all kinds of manufacturing became inefficient. But instead of government support to help them, they were just left to fail. And that was a brutal policy that had the political side benefit of weakening the union base, which always supported Labour.
So Thatcherism was an attack on the northern cities, which were almost all controlled by Labour councils. Liverpool famously went down a very confrontational route under a government led by the Trotskyist group Militant Tendency, which led to calamity. And after lots of confrontations with the government in which Manchester came off worse, and especially after the election of May 1987, the leader of the council in Manchester wrote to the Conservative government saying, “You know, we want to work with you now.” Manchester basically did a U-turn and gave in, and then ushered in a more business-friendly approach. The Labour leaders were asking themselves, “Where were investment and jobs going to come from?” It wasn’t going to come from so-called welfarism — it was going to come from the private sector.
A major figure in your book and in the transformation of Manchester is Tony Wilson. Can you introduce Tony Wilson to an American audience?
Tony Wilson was a regional star, in that he was on the television giving us the news every night. One way Americans might understand him is as a kind of countercultural Walter Cronkite. But Wilson’s side hustle was starting up a record label, and then he got into live music promotion. He was driven by his intellectual interests, which included socialism, International Situationism, and the Marxist take on Catholicism. . . .
Yeah. All of these intellectual interests drove Wilson to stay in Manchester and not become the nationally known figure on television that his career path was leading him down. He was a Mancunian chauvinist, in that he thought the city was the greatest and most important city in the world, given that it was the place where humans stopped working on the land and started working in factories. And he was dismayed, bereft really, at the way the world and particularly London treated this significant metropolis with disdain and contempt.
Wilson’s record company, Factory Records, had a radical way of doing business. Can you talk about the Factory Records philosophy that would, in turn, influence the Haçienda?
It was Wilson’s politics that directly influenced Factory’s philosophy, which was “art for art’s sake.” But the company also had to have a business model. And that business model was designed to disrupt the conventional record business model of the big advance, then the earn-back, and the usually eye-watering proportion of royalties that the company took from artists. There is reputedly this napkin written in Wilson’s blood that was kept in the Factory safe, pledging the label’s fair financial and legal commitments to its artists.
So Factory Records and the artists split the royalties fifty-fifty. And the artists owned all the rights. When you go back to the 1980s and the Prince “slave” protest and the publishing issues around George Michael’s work, there were these arguments over artists not owning their own master tapes, which was always enshrined in standard record industry contracts. So Wilson tried to translate his political ideas into everyday business. He saw Factory as an innovator and disruptor.
And with Factory’s share of profits from Joy Division it set up the Haçienda in 1982. What is the Haçienda? Why is a nightclub so important to the history of Manchester?
I think if I tried to do anything with this book it was to rescue the Haçienda from the cartoonish stereotypes that people may have in their heads. When people say, “Oh, it’s just a nightclub, just a load of people larking around on drugs,” I prefer to concentrate on Wilson’s descriptions and pronouncements at the time. On the Haçienda membership form it said “Intention: to restore a sense of place.” So this was an exercise in civic rebuilding. It was the only nightclub and music venue I know of that was ever founded on an idea: of making a city great again. Its creation was a statement of civic pride. The name “Haçienda” is taken from a 1953 Situationist International text that is all about the ideal city. It was, perhaps, absurdly pretentious to be opening what Wilson called “a lab experiment in popular culture” and expect it to revive a city. But I like to think that I’ve provided lots of evidence that those influences and those links led to Manchester’s current revival.
The Haçienda went through three main phases. The first one was the phase from 1982 to 1988, when it was underused. It was started as “a cathedral for popular culture,” as Wilson described it, but during that first phase it only attracted a tiny congregation. It was built for 1,500 people and described as a postindustrial fantasy because of its remarkable use of icons and images culled from Manchester’s historical past. So you’ve got gantries and girders, motorway reflector lights called cat’s eyes around the dance floor, emergency stripes, bollards around the dance floor. People said it was like a spaceship had landed.
If the form of it was stunning, its function was what we call “a pig in a poke.” It’s kind of neither one thing nor the other. It was a live music venue but was also designed to be a nightclub that was inspired by clubs in New York. So it was this muddle. And it didn’t really work as either a club at the time, or a gig venue, because the layout of the space was odd — bands played on a stage along the side, rather than at one end, theater-style — and the sound was notoriously terrible, often likened to a public address system at a railway station.
What happened during the second phase in ’88 and ’89 was that dance music happened. Technology made a different kind of music and changed the sound from the guitar music that everyone in America knows from maybe the Smiths and moved toward the sound that New Order had experimented with: drum machine–made music, sampling technology, etc. And that lit a match in the potential audience of the Haçienda, and the place ultimately did become that cathedral. It became a place of worshiping the DJ high up in their booth above the dance floor. And there were 1,500, two thousand people there on any given night. It was like the gods of pop culture had smiled on the Haçienda. It became a place that Wilson could never have imagined it to be, because he was actually a guitar music fan. He didn’t even recognize this kind of dance music culture emerging in his own club. But when he did, he was incredibly happy and took as much credit for it as possible.
And during the third phase in ’91–’92 it became a carnival of crime. Because while some people were having the night of their lives, the use of ecstasy, which fueled the scene, made it a fought-over territory of gangs, drug deals gone wrong, violence, gunshots, stabbings. In any other city in the world the officialdom would have shut it down. And the police did want to, and the magistrates wanted to take the license away. But the city council and the MP wrote to the police and the magistrates saying, “We need this place open, it’s important to the emerging economy of culture and tourism.” Like I say, anywhere else it would have been closed down overnight. And I think that signaled that the authorities had seen that the Haçienda had given Manchester something that other cities didn’t have.
For better or worse, they succeeded in restoring that sense of place.
In the book I’ve got this anecdote from the leader in the ’80s, Graham Stringer, who said that business delegations would come from all over Europe. He’d take them round the town hall, show them the statues and the history, and they’d say, “That’s very nice, but when can we go to the Haçienda, please?” The music culture was giving Manchester this special sauce that other cities in the brutal world of city competition for profile or investment didn’t have. It made Manchester interesting to interesting people. And you’ve got a leadership that understands this and naturally exploits it. I’m not saying these officials were down with the kids. They weren’t. They weren’t groovy types trying to be Bill Clinton with a saxophone, you know. But they understood the attention that homegrown, authentic youth culture was giving Manchester all around the world.
The mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham was recently at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, where he said that Manchester is “the music capital of the world.” What does he mean by that? Has the countercultural spirit of the music of the 1980s been sustained into this new city?
Let’s answer it this way. There is over £600 million worth of new arts and entertainment facilities being opened this year. A £385 million arena, Co-op Live, next to Manchester City’s football ground. Then there’s Factory International, which is the ironic ending of the book, because this 5,000-capacity venue for cutting-edge culture is costing £211 million — £100 million pounds of which has been given by the Conservative government. And I make the point that it would have been impossible for anyone to forecast that such a gang of countercultural revolutionaries would have given rise to the name of a cutting-edge — I was going to call it elitist but, a cutting-edge — art center called Factory International. In fact, when the Conservatives’ George Osborne gave his first slug of money when he was chancellor of the exchequer, £78 million, he praised Factory in the House of Commons. So I think the ironies are very, very striking there.
In the book you mention David Cameron, a figure synonymous with austerity, expressing his love of the Smiths’ depiction of working-class Manchester. Then Osborne, like you say, praised Factory in the House of Commons. And there’s Republican-congressman-turned-television-presenter Joe Scarborough, who said that he “grew up listening to the sound of Manchester.” Do you think Wilson’s emphasis on culture over a more traditional political approach have made his and the Factory’s legacy more vulnerable to co-optation?
That’s a very good question and a very deep question. Even though Manchester, in the public mind anyway, is not quite as radical as Liverpool, it was still a traditional Labour heartland and seen certainly by London and the South East as a citadel of socialism. The music that came out of Manchester was what one critic called “the landscape of the mind,” so very much about personal, emotional liberation, rather than a kind of protest and placard politics. If you listen to the Fall or Joy Division, the landscapes they conjure up are more psychological than political. It was a cultural expression that veered away from any obvious sloganeering. But, I would argue, it was still a political response because culture is political.
So in other words, the music that those bands made was a response to their lives, which, as I said before, involved a kind of second-class citizenship compared to what many in the rest of the country were experiencing. And so did that give Factory an apolitical image that made it easier for George Osborne to throw money at Manchester? It’s an interesting concept. . . . certainly, if the city’s music had all been about “smash the Tories,” he might have found that a hard circle to square.
You write in the book how with the Fall, for instance, their lyrics do not explicitly express the “collective tradition of organization and protest” in Manchester, but they are nevertheless quintessentially Mancunian. It could not have come from anywhere but this city steeped in that tradition. Like you’re saying, these things can’t be reduced to placards or slogans. It’s more nuanced than that.
I think it’s deeper. Manchester’s music has, with exceptions, generally been more subtle, and that has given it a power sustained down the decades. Last year an editorial in the Times of London declared that Joy Division’s national cultural impact ranked as high as that of classical composers Benjamin Britten and Gustav Holst. Football fans have reworked the lyrics of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” into a match-day chant. So the Manchester music culture lives on, universal and somehow timeless, in ways that say, the Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” does not — which we view now as an amazing seismic moment, but as something of a period piece, the perfect protest for its time, but a time that has passed.
There were bands all over England in the punk and post-punk era that were throwing out slogans in their music. They haven’t really lasted. And if they have, they’re kind of curio pieces. Let’s make an exception for the Clash, who were the absolute peak of punk protest. The Clash stand the test of time. Not many others do.
Forgive my American ignorance. Were the Clash from London?
Absolutely. Very London art school. But I think the art of Manchester has retained a much longer lasting power because of a kind of slow-motion epiphany. When Wilson said in 2007, “I don’t see this as the story of a rock group. I see this as a story of a city. The revolution that Joy Division started has resulted in this modern city,” I was one of those who raised their eyebrow and thought, “Really?” But he was ahead of us, as usual. He had worked it out. And I believe the book proves his thesis, by providing the evidence of the chain reaction that group set off, in terms of working relationships in the city, its growing profile, and individual projects and schemes that started what is now a property development hot spot.
With Joy Division’s royalties, the Factory owners could have gone off to be tax exiles somewhere. Often in Manchester, people go to the Isle of Man, which is fifty miles off the coast, or build a mansion in Cheshire not far away. But no, they put that money into the Haçienda and they grew Factory Records. First the Haçienda gave a kiss of life to a dying city center and encouraged others to come in when no one else did or would. And the Factory ethos, the sound, the images, the attitude had a charisma that attracted people from around the world. And that to me laid the foundations of what is, ironically, now a global property hot spot. And this building boom that we’re seeing— which, even if you put the most benign interpretation on it — is still pricing out a lot of people who would ordinarily have been able to afford to live in Manchester and who can’t anymore.