For many years, Manchester lived in the shadow of Liverpool – the epicentre of the pop world. In the 1960s, Manchester might have been able to counter the Beatles' might with the highly credible Hollies, but Freddie and the Dreamers and Herman's Hermits – both harder, better bands than their slightly twee records ever let on – were closer to the city's norm.
Slowly, however, the balance began to shift. When the Sex Pistols began their rampage, Manchester was one of the few places to give them a warm welcome. Why should this be?
A possible answer comes early in John Robb's The North Will Rise Again, when Tony Wilson quotes an A&R man as saying, "Manchester kids have the best record collections." That's only part of it, though. Instead of cataloguing those collections lovingly to the point of fetishism, Nick Hornby-style, it seems that a disproportionate number of Manchester kids ran with what they heard and formed their own bands. Of these bands, it was Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks who brought the Pistols to Manchester for their reputation-making shows at the Lesser Free Trade Hall.
Robb's book is an oral history, in which quotes from interview transcripts are arranged to tell the story with minimal intervention from the author, himself a noted north-western muso. The contradictions are immediately obvious, leaving the reader to reach a conclusion. It's a form that works well for a story that has at its centre the regional news anchor and Factory Records boss Anthony H Wilson, a man who continues to inspire myth and who, in his too-short lifetime, did very little to refute any of it. His ex-wife, Lindsay Reade, describes Wilson, charitably, as "very cinematic", and we all know the liberties that the movies take with such trifles as the truth.
The rise and fall of Factory is part of Robb's story, but, for more detail, one needs to turn to Factory: the Story of the Record Label by Mick Middles, first published in 1996 and now reissued in slightly updated form. Middles, as a fanzine writer and then as the Manchester correspondent of Sounds, was close enough to those involved to witness most of the epochal moments, but detached enough to be an amused, amusing observer of the often-absurd, always-interesting world of Wilson. The only real faults with Factory are some annoying spelling errors that reviewers of the first edition picked up but which remain uncorrected 13 years on, and an occasional tendency to place a 2009 paragraph in a sea of 1996 text without changing the tenses.
Joy Division and New Order are often depicted as dour and aloof, but both books do much to counter the image. In Robb's text, the Haçienda DJ Mike Pickering describes Joy Division as "fucking mad, up for a laugh", not qualities immediately apparent from their music. Middles backs this up with cracking stories, such as Barney Sumner baiting an unresponsive New York crowd by changing the lyrics of "Blue Monday" to "How does it feel/ to stand in front of a bunch of fucking cunts like yooooo?". Meanwhile, Peter Hook asserts that, had Ian Curtis lived for another 24 hours and made it on to the plane for the US tour, the singer would have "fucked his way across America" and abandoned all thoughts of suicide.
Much of Manchester's attitude can be traced back to that stand-off between high and low, the smoothness of Wilson and the coarseness of Hooky. For every Durutti Column, there's a Slaughter and the Dogs. For every Morrissey, there's a Noel Gallagher. On that basis, New Order's manager, Rob Gretton, is probably the quintessential Mancunian. Eloquently taciturn, and as comfortable putting Situationist art-pranks into action (Gretton named the Haçienda after reading the Situationist International Handbook, which declared that "the haçienda must be built") as he was putting the boot in to the away supporters at Maine Road.
New Order come across as quite chippy and hard done-by. They remember that Factory collapsed while owing them a lot of royalties, but appear to forget that Wilson ensured that they were paid in full when London Records bailed Factory out. If Wilson had been as evil a capitalist as is sometimes made out, the Factory story would have ended very differently.
Hook says that Gretton wouldn't have been a great manager if Joy Division/ New Order hadn't been great bands, forgetting that when Gretton first saw them, they were, at best, adequate. Gretton caught a spark and, with his inspiration and belief, they became great.
Robb's book covers the gamut of Mancunian music from 1976 to 1996, or from punk to Oasis, with aplomb. The heart of the story, however, belongs to Wilson and Factory. While obviously sharing some common ground, these books complement each other nicely, so it's not a case of either/or. On the way, we encounter the majesty of The Fall, in John Peel's words, "always the same, always different". The early Fall bassist Marc "Lard" Riley says he was at the Pistols' second Lesser Free Trade Hall show, something claimed by half of Greater Manchester in the years since. He must be telling the truth, however, otherwise why would he add the detail that he missed most of the Pistols' set because he nipped out for a bag of chips after Slaughter and the Dogs?
There's also room for Simply Red, world dominators of dubious merit, who grew, unaccountably, out of the experimental beauty of The Durutti Column and Mick Hucknall's punk band, the Frantic Elevators. Although "Holding Back the Years" began as an Elevators number, they were better known at the time for the seemingly autobiographical "Hunchback of Notre Dame", in which Hucknall sang "I'm an ugly sod, it's not my fault."
Self-awareness is a wonderful thing.
Louis Barfe's 'Where Have all the Good Times Gone?: The Rise and Fall of the Record Industry' is published by Atlantic at £9.99