Manchester: Northern music stars shine again

Baggy may be long gone, but Manchester is as musically fertile as ever
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The Independent Culture

It may not impose itself on the music scene as it did in the Eighties and Nineties, but today's movers and shakers seem to prefer Manchester that way.

At the height of the Madchester boom, The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays rubbed shoulders on Top Of The Pops while tourists flocked to its seminal nightclub The Hacienda in a dry run of what became Cool Britannia. The bubble popped as young bands such as Paris Angels and World Of Twist were snapped up by major labels and encouraged to release albums before they were ready.

Meanwhile, gangs dominated the city's nightlife, turning its open-minded venues into places of mistrust and fear. Since then, the title of the UK's most creative city has passed to Liverpool, then Sheffield, but now Manchester is rediscovering the values that made it so vital in the first place.

While the early Nineties were typified by a particular sound, baggy, now there is a plethora of artists with their own idiosyncrasies. There are the experimental leanings of Working For A Nuclear Free City and the heavy post-punk vibe of The Longcut. Through it all there remains a keen ear for a pop melody, highlighted best by Jim Noir.

This solo artist came to fame with the album Tower Of Love, chockfull of tunes such as "Eanie Meany", used as an ad soundtrack during this summer's World Cup. A Badly Drawn Boy with a sunnier disposition, Noir was raised in Manchester and admits his home city shaped his musical course.

"There was only The Stone Roses that had an impact on the way I learnt because they were such a supergroup. I was more into the dancey side of Manchester - 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald."

He first dabbled in electronica, but an encounter with The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds encouraged a change in direction, with his fate sealed when he signed to newfound imprint My Dad. This was an off-shoot of Twisted Nerve, the label that launched Badly Drawn Boy's career, and gave Noir the independence he needed, even since the album was licensed to Atlantic.

"I've always been into being totally in control. If anybody comes back and tells me to remix or remaster something, I'll tell them where to go."

Noir's early dance-orientated moves remind us of the once close ties between house and guitar music that made the city's output so vital. One of the first outlets for house music in the UK was the Haçienda, financed by New Order, though even before that Manchester was at the centre of the dance/rock crossover.

808 State and M People may not rule the charts anymore, but a variety of acts have absorbed a dancefloor influence, notably dance rockers Polytechnic and dapper electropop maven Riton. Martin Moscrop, guitarist for Manc mainstays A Certain Ratio, set up Heart & Soul Recordings in 2004. He now looks after Salford-raised and, admittedly, Sheffield-based pop dandy Kings Have Long Arms, aka Adrian Flanagan, who releases his debut album I Rock Eye Pop this month.

Another dance-orientated label, Grand Central, may be defunct, but only seems to have encouraged a set of splinter organisations.

Grand Central gave us Rae & Christian, Riton and Only Child. One label refugee is Andy Turner now making gorgeous downbeat creations under the name of Aim.

Still living in his hometown of Barrow-In-Furness, Turner's musical career has always revolved around Manchester, so it was natural he should base his own label ATIC in the city, on which he is set to release his most sumptuous record to date, Flight 602.

"I've been going there ever since I was old enough to get on a train. A lot of us hung around the Fat City record shop and Grand Central grew from there. I was into indie, but the common denominator was hip-hop.

"Getting encouragement from someone that wanted to put out our music really spurred us on. I left Grand Central because I wanted to take charge of every detail. There was a lad in Manchester I trusted to manage the label and Fat City are very supportive, but also to see it's made in Manchester, the reputation precedes it."

Local record companies are an important part of the scene's fabric, so we should also mention electronica stable Melodic, profiled in a previous edition of this magazine, and Akoustik Anarkhy, who expect big things next year from their marvellous, edgy guitar band Autokat. Such organisations have been important to Manchester since Buzzcocks independently put out their debut EP "Spiral Scratch", a pioneering case of DIY recording, before the Factory imprint brought us Joy Division, New Order and the Mondays.

Label founder Tony Wilson now concentrates his energies on the annual In The City music conference. Wilson blames "dance snobs" for destroying the city's creativity by dividing their music from more traditional groups, but believes the city is a perfect location for the ITC band showcase.

"Rock'n'roll is the story of small towns - Memphis, Liverpool - and Manchester is part of that," he attests.

Wilson is as excited as ever about new music, and with good reason. You might not be able to package the Manchester scene for a colour supplement, but the city's artists are happy to go their own way.