How Manchester’s Proper Mint Culture & Dead Brilliant Music Scene Continues To Chuff The World (Or Why Manchester Completely Rocks!)

UP IN DA CLUB: Machester’s famed Haçienda club circa 1989 was a legendary live music locus in which many of the city’s post-punk finest played, including New Order, The Smiths, The Fall, Oasis, Happy Mondays and many others. (Photo by Peter J. Walsh / PYMCA / Avalon/ Getty)

By John Robb

“Manchester, so much to answer for,” once sang the former The Smiths singer and icon Morrissey. In 2024, the UK’s second-largest metropolitan area has kept on answering, the music scene has kept on booming and it is now arguably the nation’s main music city. The business may mainly be in London, yet Manchester is catching up fast with one of the UK’s biggest live promoters, SJM, based in the city centre and Manchester International Festival, promoting their huge biannual event that now has its own bricks-and-mortar base with the impressive new 7,000-capacity Aviva building. 

The late Anthony Wilson, boss of Factory Records and for decades the go-to quote machine for Manchester, may not have once said “This is Manchester, we do things differently here,” but it sounds like him and the city. He did say, “Manchester kids have the best record collections,” in a tongue-in-cheek slice of hyperbole, which caught the eclectic nature of music taste that was far less hamstrung than the capital city’s perceived cool.

Manchester was a city that was always in touch with its working-class soul and no amount of city centre booming ever really changes that and like New Orleans in the USA, this is a place where people really know how to live. A place where for decades people defied its industrial backdrop to party and make their own noise, which has now morphed into a city where music defines its soul. This is a city that went from being the world’s first industrial city that decayed post war into the world’s first post-industrial city and was then empowered by music and re-birthed in the late seventies to become the world’s first post-punk city.

In 2024, it’s booming. The cost of living has spiraled in the capital and Manchester has an extraordinary new skyline that has not hampered the live music circuit which has bucked the national trend and boomed with nearly forty venues of all sizes regularly putting on shows. From the perfect hipster scuzz of the White Hotel to Europe’s largest arena — the 23,500 capacity Co-op Live that opens this month (see page 20) — Manchester has more venues than ever, as the highly effective Night Time Economy Adviser for Greater Manchester Sacha Lord points out.

“I don’t just think it’s Manchester, we are seeing it in Liverpool too, so it’s the North West that’s bucking the trend. A lot of it comes from affordability. London’s completely out priced now, and Manchester’s benefitting from that. I also think because we were in Tier 3 during the COVID period, longer than any other city region, we came out looking for a party and we haven’t stopped!”

Oasis Original Line Up 1993
THE MORNING GLORY STORY: Oasis pictured in their native Manchester in November 1993. From left: Noel Gallagher, Paul Arthurs (aka Bonehead), Paul McGuigan, Tony McCarroll and Liam Gallagher. (Photo by James Fry / Getty Images)

The rate of change in the city is the biggest boom in its history, with a skyline that changes daily and a real sense that Manchester has become one of the major hubs not just in the UK but in Europe. A city leader was once asked when the building was going to stop by a small clutch of aggrieved locals who prefer the city to remain static.

His answer was, “Manchester? It’s never finished.”

He could have been talking about the music scene as well as the skyline.

There has been criticism that the glorious musical past casts a long shadow, but Manchester’s music scene somehow embraces its history while rushing into the future. For every new Joy Division mural or retro bar, there is another rush of new indie bands or young rappers writing their own chapters in the city’s ongoing musical narrative.

In 2024, there’re still new and huge, more Trad Manc indie acts like The Courteeners, who can sell 40,000 tickets in an hour for a hometown show whilst Blossoms have scored three number one albums. From nearby Wilmslow, The 1975 have had a clutch of top 5 albums in the USA, and there is also more indie rock from nearby Wigan with The Lathums, which has seen two number one albums.

Fast rising, there is also a cluster of bands who embrace the darker, more melancholic indie of the city’s past, like Slow Readers Club, Ist Ist and the angular shapes of LIINES or the explosive dark energy rock of Witch Fever or the melancholic electronica of Lonelady. As ever, there are many new names to check out, from the art rock of The Talking Shop, the eerie indie of Nightbus, the psychedelic melodic rush of Pastel, the post-Stone Roses euphoria of Afflecks Palace who are all part of the soundtrack of the bar and venue cluster of the Northern Quarter — the older part of town tumbling down from the side of Piccadilly station.

Modern Manchester is further diversifying in 2024 with a booming rap, drill and grime scene of which local label NQ Records is central. Run by the youthful black entrepreneur, Michael Adex it is typical of the new city’s strength through its inherent multiculturalism. Whilst acknowledging the glorious musical history of the likes of, say, New Order, NQ is looking fast forward. They already managed local white rapper Aitch into the top 5 of the album charts and helped to create his iconic status, and now they have a whole stable of acts and creatives. The new generation label has created its own base, NQ House, in two large houses knocked together in the unlikely environs of Openshaw in the city’s east side. With a recording studio, writing rooms, video facilities and creative spaces the building is teaching the next generation how to create music and media.

Another key name on the thriving rap scene is Bugzy Malone, who adds a northern grime to his sound that saw him escape a potential life of crime, soundtracking it for the charts. The next generation is now already emerging with charismatic female rapper OneDa on the cusp of greatness. She runs HERchester, a collective of 28 female and non-binary MCs like Renee Stormz in her hometown and lives and breathes the culture 24/7.  Recent arrivals like the 19-year-old Nemzzz is at the centre of a new chill rap wave and there are even newer names about to break out like Slimz and Zeddy plus a booming rap scene in the recently arrived Somalian community.

The modern Manchester music scene is all-embracing. There is no definitive sound that reflects its multicultural metropolitan area. The modern Manc megapolis is a magnet for music fans and creatives from a huge radius. It embraces all surrounding towns, and many of Manchester’s modern stars are part of this loose coalition, like Harry Styles, who grew up near the city and is part of the opened 23,500-capacity Co-op Live arena.

This boom in the city centre, which was once dying after the collapse of King Cotton, has seen up to 100,000 people now living there — far more than the 800 that lived there in the ’80s. This has seen its own tensions with the tightly packed new flats and the gleaming new towers crammed into gaps in the Victoriana of the old city, resulting in the occasional stand-off between new city dwellers and older venues like the recent drawn out affair that saw the Night and Day venue survive a couple of noise complaints after a long drawn out campaign and a city council who, despite the narrative, were keen to see Manchester thrive as a creative and entertainment space.

Sacha Lord acknowledges the complex work that needs to be done to maintain this balance.

“We need to do a better job at protecting our grassroots venues. Most people will have seen the latest arguments over Night and Day, but we need to do everything we can to protect venues like this. We are imminently opening the doors to arguably Europe’s best indoor arena, Co-op Live, but as the mega stars take to the stage, we need to remember that without these grassroot venues, nurturing the new talent, there will be no more mega stars discovered and one of the UK’s biggest exports could dry up.”

Ironically, the music culture has driven this rapid regeneration of the city. The current ever-changing skyline, now dominated by glass towers, is the fastest growing in the UK and a stark change from the post-war decay and a narrative of a broken centre, abandoned mills and decay that was partially a key player in the city becoming the second city of punk after local band Buzzcocks brought the Sex Pistols up to play two key gigs in the summer of 1976 lighting the fire for what was to come.

At those iconic gigs, members of bands as diverse as New Order, The Smiths and The Fall were inspired by the Pistol’s attitude to form bands. Anthony Wilson, already a famous face and local TV personality, was captivated by the music scene appearing all around him. His local “So It Goes” TV arts program was the first to show the Sex Pistols on UK TV and he eventually set up Factory Records releasing Joy Division and then the Happy Mondays (the only group to have a legendary zooted-out dancer named Bez) and funding the Haçienda club that all helped to spark the new self-confidence in the music scene and the city itself. The preposterous idea of having a world-class club in a then-broken city center sent an empowering message. It’s ironic that the now demolished Haçienda has been replicated across the whole city skyline — a myriad of endless steel and glass lines.

KITE Festival 2022
LEADERS OF THE NEW SCHOOL: OneDa, a contemporary rapper straight out of Manchester who also runs the Herchester collective, performing at Kidlington’s Kite Festival in June 2022. (Photo by Lorne Thomson / Getty Images)

Factory Records’ sharp aesthetic and artwork supplied by designer Peter Saville seems to play out in the city’s current style and was a key part in the surrounding music scene along with key bands like the Smiths, New Order, The Fall and the Chameleons before it became the celebrated Madchester scene of 1989 built around the Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets and the Happy Mondays and the key DJs at the Haçienda like Mike Pickering and Graeme Park who taught a city to dance. In the ’90s, with Oasis becoming the biggest homegrown UK act since The Beatles, the northern UK city was left with arguably the biggest music scene in the UK.

Since then, this creative energy has never really stopped. The huge new state-of-the-art arena is not a shock but almost expected. Manchester is unique in its ambition, and its bee symbol is a reflection of its work hard/play hard ethic. That, combined with the twin working-class passions of football and music, has defined the city that has welcomed its huge student population and its multiculturalism that is second nature as wave after wave of outsiders have become immersed in what Tony Wilson used to call a  “city of immigrants.”

Many bands and creatives move to the city to become part of its story, part of the strong local music community of the so-called Village Manchester — a big place that can feel like a small and strong community of creatives.

What was once a revolutionary city where Karl Marx researched “Das Kapital” in the appalling living conditions of the old mills, where the 1819 Peterloo massacre occurred after the workers stood up for their rights and were massacred in a cavalry charge and the suffragettes were sparked into action was also the city that birthed the Co-Operative movement. It was where Granada TV opened the first non-London regional TV franchise and was also the city that invented the computer and split the atom, which all somehow fit into the narrative.

The revolution spirit may be in the arts now in a progressive city with a progressive music-loving mayor, Andy Burnham — perhaps the greatest prime minister the UK has not had (yet). Empowered by music, the city boomed. Manchester has become a self-perpetuating myth that has become a reality.

John Robb is a native Mancunian, journalist, presenter, author and musician (The Membranes). His books include “The Stone Roses,” “Punk Rock: An Oral History,” and “The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music City 1976-1996.” His upcoming book is titled “The Art Of Darkness — The History of Goth.”