Sunday, 2 September 2012

The End of [Manchester Music] History in 1992

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama's The End of History was published, arguing that with the collapse of communism three years earlier, human history had essentially reached its end goal (which was liberal democracy). Events would still occur (notably the 11th September 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York) but none of these would radically change the direction of history and politics - Fukuyama's thesis remained the same. The idea that history has a beginning and an end was not new - the philosopher GWF Hegel apparently claimed that history had ended with Napoleon's victory in the Battle of Jena in 1806 (an idea which must have been challenged by the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830).

   When charting the rise and fall of Manchester music, it's easy to find a beginning - the choice is between the Sex Pistols first gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976 or Buzzcocks' release of Spiral Scratch in January 1977 (both of which are interlinked). In theory it would be possible to go all the way back to the Hollies but it's easy to see how this is essentially a different kind of music/youth culture. From punk onwards, Manchester was at the forefront with Joy Division, The Fall, New Order, The Smiths, The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses. Which brings us to Fukuyama's idea of an endpoint - the point after which great music might still be produced but it doesn't change the overall direction of travel, a "post-music" stage if you like.

   The big question is whether to include Oasis in a history of Manchester Music. My original intention was to write a history of the years 1976 to 1996 with the IRA bomb of June 1996, almost exactly 20 years after the first Sex Pistols gig. Divided into five equal parts (four-year periods 1976-1980, 1980-1984, 1984-1988, 1988-1992 and 1992-1996) it fitted the NME's list of their top 100 tracks, in which five of the top ten were by Manchester bands: Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart (1980), New Order's Blue Monday (1983), The Smiths' There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (1986), The Stone Roses' She Bangs the Drums (1989) and Oasis' Wonderwall (1995).

   The case for including Oasis based on popularity is strong. 1994's Definitely Maybe was the fastest-selling debut album at the time it was released. 1995's (What's the Story) Morning Glory? is the fourth best-selling album ever in the UK. But if popularity is taken into consideration, why not focus more on Take That or Simply Red? What began with the Sex Pistols in 1976 and Buzzcocks in 1977 had already finished by the time Oasis arrived. Oasis were like Baudrillard's Simulacrum, a constructed reality cobbled together from what had come before. The classic example is the description of Liam Gallagher as a cross between John Lennon and John Lydon. The Stone Roses may not have been particularly original but Oasis took lack of originality to a new level. As if to make up for this, they went to great lengths to emphasis their support for struggling Manchester City as a sign of authenticity - which itself was a sign that music was now little more than a soundtrack for football in the Premier League era.

   If Oasis are post-music, then where did the history of Manchester music end? 1989 was a strong year, with the release The Stone Roses' debut album. 1990 was also strong, with the release of The Happy Mondays' third album (considered the peak of their career). In 1991, there was also a lot going on: 808 State released In Yer Face, The Mock Turtles released Can You Dig It, James re-released Sit Down.   In 1992, Manchester music was in decline - something often contrasted with the emergence of the Seattle grunge scene (and perhaps best captured in the UK with Nirvana's 1992 headline slot at Reading Festival).

   In this context of decline, the rise of Take That is significant. Created by a former casting agent from the Royal Exchange (who went on to become the owner of three bars in the Gay Village), Take That are rightly considered a Manchester band (even though Robbie Williams is from Stoke-on-Trent and Gary Barlow is from Frodsham, near Runcorn). Their breakthrough came towards the end of 1992, with the release of three singles: It Only Takes A Minute in June, A Million Love Songs in October, Could It Be Magic in November. Whilst their previous singles had barely broken into the top 40, these three all made the top ten, and over the next four years they would notch up eight number ones as they become arguably the biggest British band since The Beatles.

   If the emergence of Take That represented an endpoint for Manchester music, this isn't to say that Manchester bands didn't produce any decent music afterwards. The Stone Roses' Love Spreads (1994), The Charlatans' Tellin' Stories (1997), Ian Brown's F.E.A.R. (2001) and Elbow's Grounds for Divorce (2008) are just some of the great tracks from the post-music period that spring to mind. But none of these artists changed the direction of music in as significant a way as the bands associated with post-punk/new wave, early indie or acid house. Neither can we say that the emergence of Take That was such a bad thing. Arguably the band's success did as much as anything to promote the regeneration of Manchester.

   1992 may have represented the end of the Manchester music "grand narrative" but it was also an exciting time for the city. Phase 1 of the Metrolink light-rail network opened between Bury, Victoria, Piccadilly and Altrincham. An unlikely bid for the 2000 Olympics was gaining momentum and generating a spirit of confidence. The Gay Village was growing in popularity. The first season of the Premier League got underway, with Manchester United signing Eric Cantona in November to add to an already strong (though underachieveing) side. Even in the political arena, the recently re-elected Conservative government found themselves in trouble in September when they were forced to remove the pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. This was potentially good for Manchester as a Labour stronghold (unlike rivals Birmingham and London).

   The relationship between the end of Manchester music and the city's subsequent regeneration is one of the themes in  Owen Hatherley's Manchester chapter in his Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. For him, the regeneration signalled the death of the music scene but I think there's a strong argument that Manchester music had already run its course before the regeneration began (if only slightly before). If late-92 Take That did represent the endpoint, then what's interesting is the almost-seamless transition between Manchester as a music city and Manchester as a football city (which isn't to say that football wasn't a major factor pre-93 and music post-92).

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