Madchester: the resurrection
Manchester's new Haçienda has opened. Benjamin Halligan attends and finds much more than the ghosts of Tony Wilson and Happy Mondays
Friday 12 February 2010
The received wisdom is that clubbers don't age well, but in Manchester this weekend it was more a case of "bring out your dad" than "bring out your dead", for the much-anticipated, sold-out-in-10-minutes, celeb-heavy grand opening of the FAC251 nightclub.
It's that "251" that's generating the buzz. FAC51 was the Factory Records catalogue number for the Haçienda, Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson's legendary nightclub: the venue, which opened in 1982, was synonymous with acid house and rave, hosted career-defining performances by The Smiths and The Stone Roses, and was proclaimed to be the most famous nightclub in the world by Newsweek magazine, only to close in 1997. Gruff Rob Gretton, the former manager of Joy Division and New Order, died in 1999. Wilson, "Mr Manchester", died in 2007, before he could achieve his ambition of becoming the city's mayor. At that point, the Haçienda seemed destined to live on only in the collective memory and the upmarket Haçienda Apartments that now occupy the spot.
FAC251 holds out the promise of the high times starting again. We could quibble about the Factory Records brand and lineage, and the Factory branding of Manchester's music culture, and Manchester itself, but purists will just have to accept that "the Factory club" is already in the lingo when it comes to Northern scenesters' planning a night out in 2010. After all, it's not just the framed portrait of a youthful Wilson keeping a watchful eye over the club entrance that links this new Factory project to the halcyon Haçienda days of late-1980s "Madchester", and the paradigm-shifting post-punk music scene of the years before. Peter Hook, who is the brains and the star DJ behind FAC251, needs little introduction. From his days with Joy Division and New Order and – now – beyond, the ubiquitous, perma-tanned "Hooky" has been a key figure in the story of how Manchester beatified the beat without losing the post-industrial zeitgeist. More pragmatically, New Order effectively funded the Haçienda up to the point when Happy Mondays finally broke Factory Records for good. Hook's colourful memoir of this period, The Haçienda: How Not to Run a Club, was published last year.
Locking FAC251 firmly into this legendary narrative was a gig by Hook's new group, The Light, on Friday night, and a specially recorded and freely distributed single. "Tokyo Joe", from Hook's Man Ray, establishes the ambience: bass-driven rhythm and cross-faded synths – danceable, lose-yourself, long and pounding. Fans of Primal Scream's seminal albums Screamadelica and XTRMNTR, or even those who wondered whether something was lost when Pulp took Sheffield's musical heritage on a detour of jangly indie rather than The Human League's shimmering electropop, will feel like they've come back home. Nor was Hooky the only notable amongst us. Happy Mondays' Shaun Ryder and Rowetta, The Stone Roses' Mani, and the godfather of excess, Howard Marks himself, provided the entertainment; post-punk archaeologist Michael Goddard hit the floor on Saturday night; and the weekend featured sets from The Whip, Freebass, May68 and LoneLady. White Lies and Twisted Wheel gigs scheduled for later in February were sold out before the club even formally opened.
FAC251 was designed by Ben Kelly, the designer of the original Haçienda, and exists in the building that was formerly the Factory Records head office. The club is beautifully and sympathetically rendered, encased within the genuinely distressed brickwork of its factory shell, which is left entirely intact. The regeneration of Manchester city centre since the early 1990s has been along just such lines, too; a melding of the old and the new, preserving the character while reinvigorating the inner body. Even Wilson's detractors, only a portion of whom were dramatised in the battered hagiography of Michael Winterbottom's film 24 Hour Party People, would admit as much. Bar, perhaps, The Fall's Mark E Smith, who snarled at "mediocre pseuds" and "red-tie bastards" in the 1994 track "City Dweller". Post-MySpace musos: Hook promises the club will showcase new bands. The rest of us: dress warmly, as the queues to get in are horrendous.
On the first of its three floors, neons hit the crumbling stone and cement, creating a 1980s vibe – and 1980s discs are clearly going to be no stranger to FAC251's turntables. They're not unfamiliar to the crowd, too – discerning hipsters and long-term Manc ravers, along with raucous teenage moppets looking for this week's New Thing. On all floors of FAC251, joyous Manchester sounds – both baggy and anthemic, Britpoppy and Morrissey-esque – are interspaced with a judicious mining of the dance grooves of Primal Scream, The Stone Roses and New Order. Even dour Joy Division works as a red light to those piling on to the dance floor. In this environment, some of the utterly déclassé tracks that are aired (Simple Minds, for example) are readily recalibrated as great, hands-in-the-air pogo-alongs. And in this environment, we see that taboo-busting phenomenon of intergenerational dancing: a rare sight, outside of weddings. What's important is the music. FAC251 is the embodiment and continuum of the cultural heritage promoted by Mancunians as much as Manchester City Council; it's for the musically literate of all stripes and ages. The crowds love it; the sense of history doesn't weigh down on their ability to bust out some serious moves. And when you're in, you're fully in: there's no chill-out zone, DJ booths place the DJ nose-to-sweaty-nose with dancers, and the VIP Area is deliciously dangerous for bleary celebs, with its sunken tables, cushioned floor and lack of lighting. On the dance floor, the heat was ridiculous, the sound seriously loud, and the low ceilings ensure that the lighting rig fires straight at you. This is the clubbing experience borne of inner-city dereliction, underground clubs and squatted warehouses rather than corporate disco.
There was a lot of love in the crowd. Some would have peered into the murk of the video footage on display, of the raves of 20-plus years ago, hoping to spot an E'd-up younger version of themselves. Even the prospect of an incoming Conservative administration is tempered, ever so slightly, by the existence of such a haven. Pop and dance music went through several golden ages under the hostile Thatcher and Major governments; the respectability of "Cool Britannia" and a Gallagher glad-handing with Blair was the death knoll of the kind of outsider, anti-Establishment music that inspired Gretton and Wilson, Curtis and Hook, and Morrissey and Marr in the first place. So get in while you can. It may well be that it's an institution in the (re)making.
Benjamin Halligan is the Director of the School of Media, Music and Performance, University of Salford
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