Songs about Cities – Manchester

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I must confess I knew little of Manchester before I arrived there to study in the late 1970s. Thanks to my cricket fanatic father I was a little wary of the place. The red rose of Lancashire were the enemy of any self respecting Yorkshireman and not to be trusted. Yorkshire Vs Lancashire? Think ‘Game of Thrones’ with cricket bats.

L.S.Lowry: A Footbridge, 21 x 17 inches, 1938. For books on L.S. Lowry click here.

L.S.Lowry: A Footbridge, 21 x 17 inches, 1938. For books on L.S. Lowry click here.

For them as don’t know, cotton was the making of Manchester. It was imported through the port of Liverpool, connected by the newly navigable Mersey and Irwell rivers. The growth of the city from then on was astonishing; those seeking work found it in bleach works, textile print works, engineering workshops and foundries, all serving the booming cotton industry. It was at the center of England’s canal and then rail networks and its products were known the world over.

 “What Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow.” 
Benjamin Disraeli – British Prime Minister 1874-1880.

Manchester also gave rise to socialism and the Suffragettes, and was where Karl Marx cooked up his Communist Manifesto. Manchester was the original industrial city, in its day the largest centre of manufacturing in the world. It is not the kind of past that a city easily forgets, and the footprints of industry are still very clear in the city today.

Our Gracie: Best of. Click on photo for more.

Our Gracie: Best of. Click on photo for more.

A history of Manchester’s music starts with Sally Winch. She was a young Lancashire lass working as a waitress who believes her sweetheart had died in the Great War. The film that told her story was a smash, and not just up north, where the actress in the lead role was a star already. This film made Gracie Fields the most popular entertainer in Britain and brought the northern working accents into the cinemas across the country. You can see it here

Another northerner who made it big was George Formby, with a neat line in saucy songs gave everyone hope and happiness, in times of great depression and made him the undisputed king o’ the muck heap.

George Formby – The Emperor of Lancashire

George, in projecting his usual cheery spirit and goodwill proved it was possible for people to be simultaneously loyal to town, county, nation and empire – something that made both George and Gracie the toast of the troops during wartime.

Ewan McCall – Dirty Old Town

If George Formby made soldiers yearn for home, there were also songs, plays and films reflecting those who wanted to leave. There were a stream of grim-faced movies on the subject – Hobson’s Choice, A Taste of Honey, A Kind of Loving, The Family Way, Spring and Port Wine.

Dirty Old Town was McCall’s bittersweet love/hate song about his childhood in Salford. McCall’s wife Peggy Seeger later would hold that perhaps McCall in writing the song was speaking of improving Salford for its inhabitants rather than simply trashing the place, as the lyrics imply. In spite of Ewan’s lonely lyrical descriptions the song proceeds merrily on its way with a bounding clarinet and a backing vocal from wife Peggy Seeger creating an interesting juxtaposition of mood.

“I’m going to make me a good sharp axe, 
Shining steel tempered in the fire,
Will chop you down like an old dead tree.”

Graham Nash – Cold Rain

Graham Nash : Wild Tales – A Rock & Roll Life. Click on image for more.

Ex Hollie Graham Nash wrote Cold Rain on a plane back to the USA after a typical wet and gray visit to his family in Manchester, the city he grew up in. A superstar on the US as a member of Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Graham had grown up in the back-to-backs of Salford and had long swapped the cold rain of Manchester for the warm rain of Hawaii.

“It was miserable and people were all huddled up, probably because of the weather, but it felt deeper than that to me. It felt that they weren’t happy with their lives, and then I began to realise just how lucky I had been and started to think how fortunate I was that my mother and father encouraged me to get into music.” Graham Nash

Brian and Michael: Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats And Dogs

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life. Click on image for more.

The industrial past of the city was painted very effectively by Brian and Michael, two jobbing musicians around town. The song’s a tribute to the artist L.S. Lowry who had died a few years earlier and has a deeply nostaglic vibe.

It includes kids choirs (singing a burst of The Big Ship Sails on the Alley-Alley-O, a song inspired by the Manchester Ship Canal) and brass bands. It could have been corny, and probably is, but even today it feels far more connected to the city than anything of those swinging 60s bands (Herman’s Hermits, Freddie and the Dreamers, The Mindbenders) dreamed up.

John Cooper Clarke – Beasley Street

In the late 1970s The good Dr. Clarke was generally to be found dodging pint glasses at punk shows and rattling off acapella poems like a racing commentator. When he stopped talking long enough to hook up with the city’s most astute producer (Martin Hannett) he would emerge blinking out into Jackson’s Row – for a pint in the Old Nags Head no doubt – as a potential pop star.

His poem Beasley Street was a sarcastically brutal in memoriam to those old Salford streets that were now rapidly degenerating. These were the days when Margaret Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister and the economic decline that devaluation had created. The bard of Salford emerged fully formed with this biting social commentary.

Buzzcocks – Boredom

Manchester first got my attention as a spotty punk rocker with this strident minimalistic satirical punk rock. Running through it like a lightning rod is a guitar solo that consists of just two notes. Played 66 times.

Music historians talk about the influence of the Sex Pistols, who proved that anyone could be in a band. Boredom – and the EP that it came from Spiral Scratch – proved that anyone could release a record. Singer Howard Devoto recalled that it took three hours to record and another two for mixing, and was produced and was manufactured by way of 500 quid loaned from friends and family.

Buzzcocks, together with The Fall, John Cooper Clarke and Joy Division turned my head so much that there was only one place to finish my studies. Manchester it was, and Boredom it certainly wasn’t.

B’dum B’dum…

Freshies – I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Check-out Desk

The record store that played a large part in helping The Buzzcocks ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP reach the wider public was a the Virgin Megastore at the bottom of Market Street. You remember. Where Dolcis Shoes is now.

I don’t remember the girl on the checkout desk particularly – but Chris Seivey, later better known as Frank Sidebottom – certainly did.

Harlem Spirit – Dem A Suss (in the Moss)

For a multi-cultural city, Manchester’s reggae bands never really broke through to the mainstream, but for a second or two it looked like Harlem Spirit had it sussed. Kids in Moss Side, the subject of this defiantly anti-police number, had endured a decade of ‘God’s Copper’ James Anderton’s vigorous enforcement of the suss laws (“a course of suspicious conduct”) stopping and searching all the time. Dem A Suss was the soundtrack to the Moss Side riots of 1981 and a welcome sign of defiance from out Princess Road way.

Carmel – More More More

Carmel makes the list by virtue of having such a fine Manchester video. Carmel, with Jim and Jerry were a fine live act, covering soul ballads, gospel, blues and jazz. The French particularly loved the band, where Carmel McCourt was dubbed the new Edith Piaf. In later years Carmel obliged her Euro audience with a  fine album of Piaf covers.

The Smiths – Headmaster Ritual

Morrissey really had it in for school.

“No schoolteacher at St.Winifred’s will smile, and there is no joy to be found between the volcano of resentment offered by Mother Peter, a bearded nun who beats children from dawn to dusk, and Mr. Callahan, eaten up by a resentment that he couldn’t control”
Morrissey – Autobiography

By Morrissey Autobiography (1st Edition) . Click on image for more.

More than any of the hip young bands in the 1980s The Smiths were wilfully northern, with carefully curated record sleeves featuring local legends Terrence Stamp, Rita Tushingham ( captured in a still from her gritty kitchen sink film A Taste Of Honey), Viv ‘Spend Spend Spend’ Nicholson and Billie Whitelaw. A particularly powerful song from the time was Suffer Little Children, which concerned the child victims of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, also known as the Moors Murderers.

Hardly a Smiths song goes by without some kind of Manchester bon mot to ponder. “What do I get for my trouble and pain, just a rented room in Whalley Range” he swoons at one point.

I had a wonderful time in my rented room in Whalley Range, mate…

Doves – Kingdom of Rust

Doves wrote more than a few smart songs about Manchester –  Northenden and M62 Song being just a couple – but once again the video has it.

Kingdom of Rust takes us up beyond Alderley Edge and on into the moors in a rusty old banger. This song is about the passing of someone close, and is a great example of Doves’ melancholy landscape:  the driving rain, the snow fluries on the hills…

Gomez – Whippin’ Piccadilly

Being from just across the Pennines I know the short train trip from Manchester Piccadilly station through  to Yorkshire very well indeed. The band Gomez – who met over at Sheffield University at the far end of the line – saw it from another perspective, possibly with the help of some psychedlics.

James – Sit Down

Speaking of students… To my eternal shame I had the opportunity to help Tim Booth (for he is James) on his way to superstar status in my days as a Social Secretary in Manchester. He was forever passing tapes on to me which would probably be worth a fortune these days. “Gizza gig…” “I’ll think about it…”

Charlatans – North Country Boy

The Manchester scene in the 80s and 90s gave us no end of fantastic bands and musicians.  The FAll, Joy Division, The Chameleons, New Order, Oasis, Verve, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, A Guy Called Gerald, 808 State all could have made the cut for this list.

But the band that was a particular favourite was The Charlatans. Their Melting Pot collection was never far from my Sony Walkman in days that I spent rather too much time on trains, buses and underground platforms. Charlatans always seemed to throw some northern sunshine on the world.

“What are you sad about
Everyday you make the sun come out
Even in the pouring rain
I’ll come to see you
And I’ll save you…


It’s been a while since I spent any serious time in the city. Time and distance seem to have kept me from visiting some of my oldest and dearest friends. Late night listens to Vini Reilly’s Durutti Column and Darren Gough’s Badly Drawn Boy keep me in touch spiritually though.

To complete this list I must draw your attention to a more contemporary Manc troubadour who still hasn’t really shown up on the American radar yet. Yes I know. No Elbow, Sad Cafe or Elkie Brooks. Next time, eh?

Danny Mahon – Salford Skyline

Back in Manchester Danny Mahon’s been building up a nice reputation thanks to supporting tours with Beady Eye and the Charlatans and a great set of gritty tunes. Some wag said that he’s protest singer for the ‘Shameless Generation’, favouring colourful narrative focused on life’s more sobering concerns –  such as making it home in one piece from a night on the beevys. Kind of a Frank Turner for scallies. Love it.

Catch more of Danny Mahon on Soundcloud, well before he shows up on your iTunes.


A painting of a football match by LS Lowry has been bought for a record £1.9m by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA). The players’ union bought the 1953 picture, Going To The Match, for £1,926,500 at Sotheby’s auction house in London.


Andy Royston is a designer, artist and photoblogger based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is one of the world’s best known mobile photographers and his work has been exhibited across the UK and Europe. He is the winner of the 2014 Mobile Photography Awards ‘Nature and Wildlife’ Award. Veteran of the London 1980s music scene, where he designed record sleeves for all kinds of rock stars and indie heroes he is a bottomless pit of musical trivia. Still looking for the next big thing he’ll be dropping into JAQUO.COM to write an irregular column on the musicians he’s most excited about.

Author: Jackie Jackson

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