Manchester – Nightclubs & the City (The Times, August 2001)


I’m standing amidst abandoned industrial buildings and rundown streets in Ancoats, a half mile from Manchester city centre, watching a queue build up outside Sankey’s Soap nightclub. The nightclub is part of Beehive Mill, built a hundred and seventy years ago to house the biggest steam-powered cotton looms in the world. Ancoats was then a bustling district with a booming population of factory workers and mill hands, at the centre of the world textile trade, making a key contribution to the wealth of the British Empire. It’s an era that has long since crumbled away.

In the new urban economy hopes we’re told that leisure and pleasure will replace the jobs and the wealth of the old manufacturing industries. Cities like Manchester and Sheffield have new art galleries and shopping malls, but a significant role in re-energising the North of England has been played by dance music and nightlife.

Clubs like ‘Cream’ and the Hacienda, tapping into local traditions of working hard and playing hard, have played a pioneering role in urban regeneration. A credible nightlife can have all kinds of knock-on effects on then local economy. In 1990 when the Hacienda was at the height of its success, the number of students applying to study in Manchester doubled. ‘Cream’ had a similar effect in Liverpool five years later.

Back in the 1970’s, the community-sustaining mass jobs in steel, engineering, shipbuilding, and textiles were disappearing forever. Punk had opened doors, though, and the rise of great post-punk bands like Joy Division, Buzzcocks and the Fall had given the city a lift, as Factory Records supremo Tony Wilson remembers; ‘Punk sparked off the music scene in Manchester. Music was the first sign of the regeneration of the North; musical achievement, even before the Hacienda, gave us the self-confidence.”

Cities like Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, and Sheffield were further marginalised by Margaret Thatcher, as communities came under sustained pressure through the 1980’s. Into the mid-1980’s Manchester city centre at night all but deserted. There was music activity – some good live gigs in battered concert buildings, a dedicated soul scene – but it was piecemeal and hidden; you could feel it in the air but you couldn’t see it on the streets. This began to change in the late 1980’s. I was involved at the Hacienda, DJ-ing, and witnessed the beginnings of a rave new world.

In this era the focus for youth culture shifted away from rock bands and live music to techno and other computer-aided dance music, played by DJ’s in clubs, raves, and warehouse parties. The Hacienda was a major focus for this activity but word soon spread, other clubs opened, record labels captured the spirit of the times – especially Warp in Sheffield – and a slew of bands associated with the nascent scene – including Happy Mondays, and the Stone Roses – had chart success.

Clubbers in the North of England threw themselves into this music revolution, and ecstasy replaced lager as the drug of choice. On the strobe-lit dance floors, the music and the atmosphere released a collective spirit, created a sense of community, an antidote to the view that there’s no such thing as society. The day-glo dance scene dispelled the grim stereotype of life in the North, that cobbled street cliche of lifetimes spent whippet breeding and listening to George Formby.

It was as if a new Manchester was being born, one that seemed to require a name change; hence the city was dubbed Madchester.

The Hacienda was the first of many dance clubs across the North of England, from ‘Shindig’ in Newcastle, through Gatecasher in Sheffield, to ‘Cream’ in Liverpool which became valuable public spaces, and brought unity back into the community.

More concrete contributions were also made. Clubs like the Hacienda and Sankey’s Soap took advantage of low rates available for using derelict industrial buildings in inhospitable areas of the city, and acted as pioneers. Back in 1990 the leader of Manchester City Council Graham Stringer (now an MP serving in the Whip’s Office) declared that the Hacienda ‘was making a significant contribution to active use of the city centre core.’

Further regeneration of the fabric of Manchester in the early 1990’s occurred in the area around Canal Street, the centre of the old vice district, a gloomy canalside environment which was transformed by the arrival of Manto in 1991. Glass-fronted, out and proud, Manto was a more stylish gay venue than any other in the country. Its success encouraged the refurbishment of the whole area; the high gloss buildings which became familiar to a wider audience through the gay Manchester TV series’ Queer as Folk’ .

Following the dance music revolution, other cities began enjoying a nightlife boom. Last year Code opened in Birmingham, built in an old Bird’s custard factory, but the Birmingham club which broke the mould was Miss Moneypenny’s. There’s much to justify the claim of Miss Moneypenny’s founder Jim Ryan; ‘In our own way we’ve put our city on the map.’

Clubs in Leeds like ‘Back to Basics’, ‘Vague’, and ‘Hard Times’ helped bring confidence and glamour back to Leeds but also provide evidence of the way nightlife can stimulate a host of ancillary activities; the club boom pre-empted the retail revival of Leeds. Likewise in Liverpool, likewise, local stores like Wade Smith benefitted from the demand from the dressed-up club crowd created by ‘Cream’.

‘Cream’ is probably the most positive influence youth culture has made on Liverpool since the Beatles, although it’s not the only club to have brought good times back to Liverpool; others include the gay club Garlands (who also organise occasional boat-trips under the flawless title ‘Fairies Across the Mersey’).

‘Cream’ is now one of the premier club brands in the world, with an international reputation (having recently hosted club nights in Japan, Argentina, Reykjavic, Ireland, Ayia Napa, and Ibiza). As cultural ambassadors for Liverpool, though, their role has been controversial; ‘Cream’ have not always had great success weakening the link between drug use and club culture.

The pioneering clubs have recently also faced other challenges, notably the relaxation of licensing laws. In Manchester this has had the effect of encouraging bland corporate drinking sheds which have stifled Manchester’s claims to be a cutting-edge clubbing city.

Attempts to build a solid business infrastructure around the successful clubs have also struggled against a draining of talent towards London. Despite the ideas and innovation in the regions, London remains the business and media centre for music.

Regeneration has been a stumble not a rush. Leisure and pleasure have become big business in the Northern cities but seem unlikely to solve all the problems – the poverty, the gun culture, the inertia – but it’s undeniable that club culture has helped to re-define the great Northern cities.

The Hacienda has taken its place as one of the great venues in music history, up there with the Cavern and Studio 54, and features in the forthcoming film about Factory Records and the Madchester years ‘Twenty Four Hour Party People’, directed by Michael Winterbottom, and released early next year. The club itself has been demolished to make way for a new development, but Wilson isn’t sentimental; “I’m proud that the Hacienda is being turned into flats, because city centre living is coming to the cities of the North and Manchester’s leading the way”

As well as memories of great nights out, the legacy of the rave era is magnified civic pride, and the regeneration of some of most rundown parts of the Northern cities. In Liverpool, an arts quarter has developed around ‘Cream’. Not just on the site of the Hacienda, but throughout Manchester city centre loft apartments are appearing in areas first colonised only by clubbers.

Finally, after seven years, Sankey’s Soap has been joined by new initiatives in Ancoats. The canal has been cleaned up, and across the road from the Sankey’s queue, an old warehouse building has just been bought by a developer for £1.5m.

The queue begins to filter slowly through the big loading bay doors, the crowd eager to hear the guest DJ, New York’s David Morales. Ancoats is still part of a web of world cities but tonight it’s music being imported not textiles. Around me, dance fans not mill hands, and the sounds of twisted melodies and bouncing basslines, not the bang and clatter of steam-powered looms and heavy machinery. I grab a guest pass and go through cobbled courtyard surrounded by thick brown brick walls and high chimneys and into the club, already full, all eyes on the DJ and the dancefloor.