With a population of well over 500,000, Manchester is the fifth biggest city of England. Yet the city is also one of the most tight-knit communities you will find in Britain, as the heart-warming responses of Manchester’s inhabitants after the horrific attack on an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena showed. The role music has played and still plays in Manchester soon became evident, as people who gathered at impromptu memorials started singing songs, most notably Manchester’s own Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back In Anger.” The song was later covered by no other than Coldplay at One Love Manchester, a star-studded tribute to the victims and their families, and quite probably one of the most historic events in popular music to ever occur.
Manchester’s creative community has spawned so many memorable musicians and bands. There is something about Manchester that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. While the ’60s in Manchester saw some serious musical business, mainly brought by the Hollies, the Bee Gees, Herman’s Hermits (who at that time outsold the Beatles) and their companions, the turning point for the scene was June 4, 1976. At the invitation of Buzzcocks, the Sex Pistols played a show at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, which was attended by no more than 42 people. Among them, however, were Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner of Joy Division and New Order, Morrissey (who would later form the Smiths), Mark E Smith of the Fall and Paul Morley, who would become an influential music writer. They would all outgrow their humble beginnings and become members in bands responsible for some of the best British music ever.
Inspired by those bands and the drug ecstasy, a new scene soon started to form. As the 1980s drew to a close, the Haçienda night club became the centre of creativity in Manchester. The place, which opened in May 1982 and was part of the Factory Records empire, became hugely influential. The venue played pop music with club appeal and hosted shows by the Smiths and New Order, but also gigs by a new generation of bands from Manchester who fit the crossroads of club and concert perfectly. The genre of Madchester was born. It became known for its ’60s-inspired style of psychedelica mixed with warped wah-wah basslines and jingle-jangle guitars, a sound which also has often been described as “baggy.” Doesn’t exactly sound like a sound destined for greatness, right? But, as this list hopefully proves, Madchester made for some of the most seminal records British pop history.
More an album that sparked the Madchester sound than a record that was spawned by it, New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies built a bridge from their earlier material, like previous album Movement, to a new era entirely and made New Order the most magical dance-rock hybrid of the moment. The album is full of sparks and shimmers, energetic from start to end. Synth pop acts already existed, but New Order put their synthesizers and sequencer to use in a way that had never been tried before. The album therefore turned out to be a musical battle between man and machine, as Peter Hook’s basslines, Bernard Sumner’s vocals and Stephen Morris’ drums ensured the electronic elements did not take over. That’s why, besides some of the most beautiful bangers ever written, Power, Corruption & Lies also features some brilliant ballads, that would cement New Order’s place at the creative peak of pop music and would serve an inspiration for the generation to come.
Most acts associated with Madchester soaked rock in electronic elements and inspired guitar bands in the next generation. Others did not. 808 State were a three piece formed in one of Manchester’s record stores. Nowadays, the best endorsement for 808 State’s debut album Newbuild is perhaps that the record is often cited by the likes of Autechre and Aphex Twin (who thankfully reissued the album in 1999 on his label Rephlex) as a major influence on their music. The acid house album, which was recorded with Madchester peer A Guy Called Gerald, was not an initial success but has throughout the years made its way to classic status, with essential tracks being “Narcossa” and “E Talk”. Rightfully so, because what Graham Massey, Martin Prince (who released Newbuild on his Creed label) and Gerald Simpson were doing on this album was unique, at that time especially. With minimal means, 808 State, who would later work with Björk and Bernard Sumner, made futuristic-sounding electro with maximal impact.
“Don’t be sad it’s over, be happy it happened,” The Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown told a crowd at a recent concert, hinting at the definitive break-up of the British band. We should indeed be happy The Stone Roses existed. The band was founded in 1984 and released their first track “So Young” in 1985. However, their 1988 single “Elephant Stone” would be the starting shot of the Madchester movement. A year later, it appeared on their eponymous full-length debut, on which it was surrounded by a multitude of instant classics, from shiny shoegaze song “I Wanna Be Adored” to anthem “She Bangs The Drums,” the seemingly eternal epic “I Am the Resurrection” and the even longer lovely album closer “Fools Gold.” The Stone Roses is one of those rare records that captures the times it was made in, yet sounds incredibly timeless.
Inspiral Carpets served as one of the main sources of inspiration for Oasis’ prime songwriter, Noel Gallagher. He toured with the band as a roadie before returning to lead his brother Liam Gallagher’s band to greatness of their own. It’s no wonder Noel was head over heels for the Carpets, who were formed in Oldham in 1983 and reunited in 2003 after an absence of nearly 20 years. The band, whose material was characterized by the use of organs and distorted guitars, made their debut in 1990, releasing Life as their first studio album. Indeed, few bands are marked by the 1990s like Inspiral Carpets. Not only for its instrumentalities, Life brought a breath of fresh air to a time mired in miserable indie; the poppy album with great production by the band and Nick Garside, featuring huge hits like “This Is How It Feels,” “Song for a Family” and “She Comes In the Fall,” is a proper party soundtrack.
The Charlatans’ 1990 debut Some Friendly was recorded at the Windings near Wrexham in Wales and sounds as mythical as that description would make you think. However, recording sessions were initially quite difficult. The band had been together for less than a year, had not yet performed under so much pressure and encountered a lack of songs they deemed good enough to record. They eventually had to though, with frontman Tim Burgess noting that the album featured a few tracks that “had to go on there just to make up the numbers.” The band also thought some of the songs (“White Shirt” and “Polar Bear” among them were overproduced. It didn’t stop Some Friendly from going straight to the top of the British album charts, with singles “The Only One I Know” and “Then” charting as well. The band drew on their background in mod bands, their experience with funky keyboard and Burgess star quality to create Some Friendly, which would eventually tour out to be just that, some friendly songs. Good ones, mind you.
Fronted by former Judge Happiness and older brother of British actor and comedian Steve Coogan (best known as Alan Partridge), Manchester’s Mock Turtles gained wide attention with a reissue of their B-side “Can You Dig It?” The track featured on the band’s 1990 album Turtle Soup, an album that shares its name with the 1969 release by American psychedelic rock band The Turtles. It could not replicate the success of its lead single, but deserves more attention that it initially got. The self-produced record, which was released on the Imaginary label, is a well-written album featuring catchy pop songs like “Kathy Come Home” and “And When She Smiles,” but is brought to a close by a chilled-out cover of “The Willow Song,” taken from the soundtrack of cult film The Wicker Man. Those are definitely tracks that are not at all subordinate to the outfit’s semi-hit and make Turtle Soup a record that deserves to be heard, even nearly 30 years after its release.
Happy Mondays were perhaps the band most symbolic for Madchester as a whole. At the apex of their career (arguably the high of the movement in general), the band were a perpetual party that pulsated with psychedelic grooves and hooks piling upon each other. In comparison to most Madchester bands, the Happy Mondays were menacingly modern. The band leaned on hip-hop and sampling, besides ’60s pop and psych. As more Madchester albums came out, the producers proved to be essential: Paul Oakenfeld and Steve Osborne undoubtedly put their stamp on the style and sound of this celebratory collage of sex, drugs and… well, Madchester mania.
If there is one album title that sums up the Madchester movement, it’s Screamadelica. The Primal Scream album was released in 1991 and rivalled the musical impact and importance of another big release that year, Nirvana’s Nevermind. Screamadelica single-handedly towed techno, acid house and rave into the British mainstream. Before this album, the Scottish bands were unnoticed rock revivalists who strove to recreate Stones classics. However, on Screamadelica, Bobby Gillespie & co. took rock and turned it inside out. A lot of Primal Scream’s innovation on the album can be credited to producer Andrew Weatherall, who seems responsible for the gutsy grooves that make up part of the record’s genius. Screamadelica in fact was such a step forward that Primal Scream had stumbled before it managed to get back on their feet, but by the time that happened, the immensely interesting innovations Primal Scream had proposed had been adopted by underground and mainstream musicians alike. Over 25 years after its release, Screamadelica sounds like an album tied to its time, but also like one of the most revolutionary records ever in British music.
Much of the albums released in the Madchester era could without a doubt be called famous, or at least infamous. Not Northside’s one and only album. The record was released in 1991 by Geffen (it was also backed by Factory Records), but never achieved the level of fame other albums by that label or by bands from Manchester did. Indeed, the band was less ambitious than their peers of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, and sound-wise they didn’t add much to the Madchester era. Except from a record full of good songs, that is. Single “Take 5” even turned out to be one of the last British pop songs to perform well on the American charts, before they were swallowed by grunge. “Shall We Take A Trip?” another standout, was banned from British radio for its drug references, but still made it onto the British charts. Short-lived and long forgotten, Northside disbanded in 1996, shortly after the fall of Factory and a final performance at—where else—The Haçienda.
James became superstars in the UK with their third album, 1990’s Gold Mother. The band then embarked on an acoustic American tour with Neil Young, which would prove massively influential for the Manchester band. Their record Laid turned out to be a more conscious and creative than its predecessor Seven. Part of this no doubt was due to the production work of no other than Brian Eno, whose work on U2’s The Joshua Tree probably was one of the sources of inspiration for this effort, with some of the songs, such as single Sometimes, seemingly specifically aimed at arena singalongs. In general though, Laid is a lot less dramatic, with Tim Booth singing reflective ruminations and James’ soundscapes easing into Eno’s ear for sonic space. With Laid, James proved once and for all how taking a step back can become a fantastic step forward.