Books: A roundabout route from the Hacienda to Oasis

Manchester, England by Dave Haslam Fourth Estate, pounds 12.99, 319pp; D J Taylor studies the geography of pop culture's holy city in the north
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The Independent Culture
"OH MANCHESTER", Morrissey diffidently intoned in one of the eeriest songs ever to come out of that city (The Smiths' "Suffer The Little Children"), "so much to answer for". Like its near-neighbour Liverpool, one of the things that Manchester has been responsible for is a series of essays in pop sociology, in which a laudable desire to link popular art to deeper tides of politics and history is laid low by sheer over-excitement. In fact, Manchester, England - half the memoir of a one-time Hacienda club DJ, half an intensely particularised social history - turns out mostly to be an ornament of the genre. Even so, it needs approaching with a certain amount of care.

For all the eclecticism of its historical and literary reference, Dave Haslam's study is essentially a history of Mancunian popular entertainment in the past couple of centuries. It moves through Victorian theatreland to the early 20th-century variety circuit, making spirited use of period fiction such as Walter Greenwood's Salford-based "slum" novel, Love on the Dole (1933). Continuity, inevitably, is all, whether in the fascination with narcotics - pioneered by Thomas De Quincey - the local obsession with violence (cue interesting data on Victorian street gangs) or the city's more fundamental role as a conduit for immigrant cultures, from the 19th-century Irish diaspora to the postwar West Indian influx.

When did Manchester go pop? Haslam's eye for historical relativism has him boldly conflating "Chart hits and Chartism". Oddly enough, one of the godfathers of the Manchester scene turns out to be Jimmy Savile. An enterprising DJ on a local club circuit whose establishments maintained a rigorous dress code (sideburns could be shaved off at the door), Savile had an entrepreneurial pizzazz that helped hook the city up to the Sixties beat boom.

Punk, arriving ten years later after the Sex Pistols made two fondly recalled visits to the Free Trade Hall, had a similarly galvanic effect - both in the influential Seventies and Eighties acts (Buzzcocks, Joy Division, New Order, The Fall, The Smiths) and the longer-term stimulus on later Manc heroes such as Happy Mondays and the Gallagher brothers.

Haslam's eyewitness approach to this compound of high spirits, low company, drugs and some of the greatest moments in English pop has mixed results. Wholly absorbing on the experience of working for a redoubt of Anthony H Wilson's Factory organisation (whose bankruptcy still seems wonderfully symbolic), Haslam occasionally seems a shade too close to the ebb and flow of musical styles - certainly too close to explain their significance to a neutral reader still struggling to work out what is meant by "Drum 'n' Bass".

"The roots of rave are knotty and confused" he writes at one point. "Just as later the class of 1990 took a diversion from the indie route and got turned on to house music via Primal Scream remixes and Happy Mondays, so..." Indeed.

The author's stylistic flourishes - all clanging puns and loudly advertised wordplay - are just about bearable. The same cannot be said of the reductiveness that attends any discussion of Manchester as a social microcosm. To write (of the club violence of the early Nineties) that "what was being played out... seemed like the chaotic result of attitudes that had prevailed for the best part of a decade, trickling down from a government that prized the individual above community" is simply glib.

As much of this book successfully demonstrates, the roots of social change - and musical styles - are sometimes more complex than this. For the most part, its value lies more in the clumps of incidental detail (Haslam is particularly good on antique survivals like Northern Soul) than the thought of a larger picture brought plausibly into view.