What happens when you mix post-industrial gloom, unemployment and the rain-sodden pulse of North-West dance music? You get Madchester, that’s what.
Let’s take a trip to 1989, a thirty-year journey in the musical TARDIS to witness a musical youth of baggy t-shirts, glow sticks and repetitive beeps. A time of pills, thrills and bellyaches.
First, let’s have a bit of context.
Britain was glum, the divisive Thatcherite government had focused on the assets of the City and a cultural shift from working-class values to avaricious capitalism. Yuppies with new-fangled mobile phones patrolled the major cities in expensive suits and floppy fringes, arguing over their phones with Hugo from Accounts about profit margins and stock portfolios. Meanwhile, in the battered former industrial heartlands of Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, the decay was evident. Derelict factories of former glories, decrepit terraced housing where the rot had set in and bored, futureless adolescents were looking for teenage kicks.
Into this bubbling cauldron of depression and repression came the most vicious heyday of football hooliganism, culminating in Heysel, Birmingham and then the tragedy by gross negligence of Hillsborough. The country was divided into the haves and the have nots. Seeing the likes of George Michael or Kylie Minogue screeching on Top of the Pops was hardly the release anyone needed.
An underground sub-culture had been stirring in London for a few years, exploded in 1988 with the first wave of ecstasy and acid house music. If you’re unfamiliar with this genre, it was pretty much a thumping beat of bleeps and blorps mixed with different tempos in a bassy stew of gurning faces. The following year, Manchester became one of the epicentres for the next wave in this psychedelic throwback.
The Hacienda nightclub had grown into an infamous venue. Opened by Factory records and partly-owned by Manchester band New Order, it specialised in giving the youth of Mancunia somewhere to hang out, admiring the break-dancing and comparing tye-dye t-shirts.
Context over, let’s get on with it.
One of the chief exponents of this new ‘scene’ were the Happy Mondays. Led by charismatic frontman Shaun Ryder and famed for the wild-limbed, wide-eyed freak dancing of maraca-shaking Mark ‘Bez’ Berry, the Mondays came to epitomise baggy and Madchester long before the media picked up on the craze. As the twenty-four hour party people were loosening their legs and big fish-little fishing to acid house, others were splicing the spirit of acid house into indie rock. The Stone Roses became a big part of this when their debut album dropped in 1989.
It was a clothes and music culture that had remained underground, before commercialism set in and ruined the image. It had stayed largely an indie movement, free from interference by the big media and record labels, with illegal raves held in warehouses and abandoned barns all over the country. How can you police a massive party of peace and love?
The scene came to its head with the Happy Mondays and their melodic tune ‘Step On’, where a Luka Modric-lookalike Ryder brought ‘you’re twisting my melon, man’ into the national language and Bez’s colourful rhythm making them big stars.
It was a scene that changed the way dance music and guitar rock, once the polar opposite to each other, could be blended together for the Ebenezer Goode, the bad and the ugly.
Following in the wake of the Hacienda and the Mondays, came the likes of Jesus Jones and the Inspiral Carpets. These bands put together the disco dance beats with prototype Britpop and swept the likes of- shudder- the awful Simply Red from the charts. Which is not such a bad thing, to be fair.
Liverpool band The Farm rode the crest of this wave and, in 1990, their album Spartacus, made the top of the UK Albums Chart after the success of their baggy-inspired hit single ‘Groovy Train’. There was also The Charlatans and their indie-cool Madchester hit ‘The Only One I Know’ which danced along at a delicious pace and needed to be played loud- like any youth culture, it irked the older generations, think “that’s not music, it’s just noise” etc.
Where did the era of baggy end? Some experts consider the Stone Roses’ famous concert at Spike Island in 1990 to be the highest-point of the culture, and then would inevitably never reach such levels again. The vibes never left us, though. If Spike Island was the “Woodstock for baggy”, then it deserves a renaissance on this, Madchester’s thirtieth birthday.
An excellent group of pictures features on the British Culture Archive blog, showing the shiny, happy people strutting their glow sticks and retro trainers to 808 State or The Shamen.
Madchester influenced the even bigger Britpop movement which got as far as Downing Street, Noel Gallagher rubbing shoulders with Tony Blair and seeing Oasis, Blur and Deep Blue Something all going to number one in the UK Singles Chart over the course of the decade. It was the baggy sense of adventure, a Manchester-infused look into the future that revolutionised the hollow and maligned sound of British rock and roll. In his book, Casuals, the author Phil Thornton devotes a chapter to the influential and underground dance music scene and it’s role in developing the terrace culture, sense of indie elitism and the soundtrack to Saturday’s at the football.
It is difficult to see how massive bands such as Kasabian or (somehow) the 1975 would have ever made it through if it weren’t the pioneering push of the anti-establishment ethos created and honed by young people in baggy t-shirts with a big smiley face on them.