‘Manchester – A City United In Music’ reviewed

❉ A neat, often illuminating collection of Manchester songs from every big modern era and scene, writes Andy Murray.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the story of Manchester music has been told enough times already, thanks very much. After all, how many other cities have had their music scene depicted in several feature films of late? But the story that tends to be told is the same old orthodoxy, namely that – altogether now – when the Sex Pistols came to play the Lesser Free Trade Hall in the summer of 1976 they lit a creative torch which is burning still. That overlooks many a fascinating chapter, though – Roger Eagle’s club nights, Strawberry Studios, Music Force, Rabid Records – and this new 2CD collection from the mighty Ace Records is a necessary and welcome corrective which aims to tell a fuller, richer version of the same tale.

It starts out back in 1956 with Dirty Old Town by Ewan MacColl with Peggy Seeger, the town in question being Salford – MacColl’s spawning ground, and allowable according to the criteria here as one of the ten boroughs of Greater Manchester. The region was a hotbed of activity during the folk and blues explosions, and the selections here, such as John Mayall’s antsy, amphetamined take on Crawling Up a Hill or the brassy oomph of Elkie Brooks’ Nothing Left to Do But Cry, illustrate that point amply.

And if the mid 60s beat groups here such as Whirlwinds and the Toggery Five share some serious DNA with their Scouse neighbours – well, the Mersey does start off in Stockport, y’know. Besides, the best of these tracks – anyone for Wayne Fontana’s Game of Love? – can more than hold its own against the Liverpool lot. Let’s not forget that the Hollies, Herman’s Hermits and Freddie & the Dreamers were big news on both sides of the Atlantic.

There are plenty of surprises along the way. Who knew that The Purple Gang, of 1967’s delightful, BBC-banned Granny Takes a Trip fame, were a Macclesfield jug band? It’s a highlight here, as is its near-contemporary, Greasy Bear’s Geordie, a cherishable folk-country-rock take on an original Child ballad. It’s certainly of its time, but in the very best possible way.

It’s also one of a cheeky three tracks here which involved the album’s co-compiler, Manchester music legend CP Lee. By 1979 Lee was winning the approval of Frank Zappa with Gerry and the Holograms, an electro-pop experiment which many have observed prefigures New Order’s Blue Monday in a big way. It’s included for you to decide, and either way, it’s a curious hoot.

Before it hits the big punk watershed, the compilation fits in Barclay James Harvest’s Mockingbird, 10cc’s Life is a Minestrone and Sweet Sensation’s Mr Cool, each one evoking a very different moment in the 70s music scene.

It’s a different world over on the second CD, when Buzzcocks, Jilted John and Slaughter & the Dogs burst forth. The truth is, this part of the history is much more familiar, and certain inclusions here – Joy Division, The Fall, New Order – are inevitable, and while the actual tracks are well selected, it lacks the first CD’s shock of the unexpected. That said, it still delivers some corking moments. The Salford Jets’ Who You Looking At? has all the force and snarky attitude of The Lovely Eggs, while Smack’s marvellous Edward Fox takes a magazine interview with the esteemed, plummy actor and turns it into an driving, loopy yob chant. Again, both are stand-outs.

Later tracks – The Stone Roses’ I Wanna Be Adored, Happy Mondays’ Kinky Afro, Oasis’ Rock n Roll Star– are perhaps necessary rather than unpredictable, and to put it mildly the inclusion of Simply Red and M People won’t be to all tastes. Then again, they do prevent the whole thing from becoming an all-out indie-fest. On that note, licensing issues prevented the use of a Smiths or Morrissey track, so by way of redress the track-listing takes a penultimate detour to Johnny Marr’s sprightly, ever-so-Smithsy 2013 single New Town Velocity.

Yes, there’s the odd striking omission (what’s your favourite? Mine’s World of Twist). But to be fair, across two CDs A City United in Music isn’t looking to be exhaustively comprehensive. Instead it succeeds in assembling a neat, often illuminating collection of Manchester songs from every big modern era and scene, evoking everything from blues clubs and Mod-crammed coffee bars to punk dives and the Hacienda dancefloor. It’s a true trip, a journey which stays in the exact same place. Fittingly, every song along the way is touched by a spirit of energy, lyricism, enthusiasm and invention. A sheer love of music, basically – Manchester style.

❉ ‘Manchester – A City United In Music’ (CDTOP2 1534) is released by Ace Records on 25 January 2019, RRP £17.75.

❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to Big Issue North. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.

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