In the first of a regular celebration of the world’s most significant musical metropolises, we’re hitting the north… And before you split hairs, yes we know Salford is technically a separate city, but just deal with it, ok?
Ewan MacColl, “Dirty Old Town” (1949)
Salford-born folk legend Ewan McColl originally wrote this track in 1949 for the play Landscape with Chimneys, and its evocation of the city’s Lowry-esque vista of gasworks, canals, docks and factories is at once both a love song (to Salford itself, as well as the girl kissed “by the factory wall”) and – as is perhaps fitting for the city where Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto – a condemnation of the capitalist system that created such grimy conditions. The ragged romance of the ballad was most beautifully captured by the Pogues in 1985, on their second LP Rum, Sodomy & the Lash.
Joy Division, “Atmosphere” (1980)
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” may have become Joy Division’s lasting anthem for doomed youth, but it is on this track that the full majesty of the band shines through most strongly. Long, low keyboard chords and a hypnotic bass-and-drum line lead us like a procession through the verses, Ian Curtis never sounding more haunting as he implores us “don’t walk away”, before it all breaks down – or rather up, so it feels – into a shimmering cascade of synths and strings that cannot fail to send shivers down your spine. Originally released as a France-only single just two months before Curtis’ suicide in March 1980, a remastered 1988 version came with an unashamedly elegiac video by Anton Corbijn, reinforcing the feeling that the band unintentionally wrote their own requiem.
Happy Mondays, “Wrote for Luck” (1988)
The lead single from the Mondays’ second album Bummed is a zeitgeist-capturing classic, perfectly catching the moment rock and dance music collided. Legend has it that it was the band’s attempt to write a song that could be played at the Hacienda – and if the rhythm section owes a debt to the infectious grooves of the emerging house music scene, the mesmerizing repetition of the layered guitars are also irresistibly danceable. On top of it all Shaun Ryder sings/yells couplets of street poetry that may or may not make any sense but doesn’t matter either way. Later remixes by Vince Clarke and Paul Oakenfold reinforced the dance/rock crossover and came with a video shot at Legends nightclub the morning after a sleepless night at the Hacienda… and shows just how perfectly the band fulfilled their ambitions for the song.
Buzzcocks, “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” (1978)
Pete Shelley’s lovelorn masterpiece is as soulful as it is scratchy, fuzzed up guitars jumping between minor and major chords (with a bonus killer riff thrown in for good measure) with Shelley himself plaintively capturing the confusion and pain of unrequited adolescent longing. Allegedly written in the back of a van while waiting for his bandmates outside a post office, the chorus was inspired by a line in Guys and Dolls – and if that doesn’t seem terribly punk, then at the same time, it does, somehow, seem very Buzzcocks.
The Smiths, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” (1986)
We’re hampered by our insistence on only including one song from each artist here, but if you had to pick a single Smiths track, this surely is it. As perfect a melding between Johnny Marr’s melodic genius – incorporating soaring strings and even a flute – and Morrissey’s poetic brilliance, this captures both men in their absolute pomp. As a relatively rare love song in their oeuvre, the inherent optimism of the closing refrain is tempered in typical style by the avowal that “to die by your side” would be the ultimate expression of the singer’s happiness. Originally recorded for the band’s third album The Queen is Dead, it was not released as a single until five years after their acrimonious 1987 split, but despite its lack of radio play became an instant favorite with devotees. Marr later declared: “When we first played it, I thought it was the best song I’d ever heard… someone told me that if you listen with the volume really, really up you can hear me shout ‘That was amazing!’ right at the end.”
A Guy Called Gerald, “Voodoo Ray” (1988)
Often described as Britain’s first acid house record, Gerald Simpson’s 1988 dance anthem sounds as fresh today as it did when he first sneaked out of recording sessions with 808 State to record it using their “borrowed” equipment. A driving beat that one critic described as sounding “like it was recorded by banging on metal pipes” is held in counterpoint by a skittering 303 bassline, and the “ooh ooh ooh” vocal wail of Nicola Collier… as well as chopped up samples from comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Rather wonderfully, the original title was supposed to be “Voodoo Rage”, but Simpson’s budget gear didn’t have enough memory to record the whole sample. Only 500 copies were originally pressed, but after being championed by Hacienda DJs, the resulting single went on to spend 18 weeks in the UK charts.
Simply Red, “Holding Back the Years” (1985)
Say what you like about Mick Hucknall (and plenty of people do), but his musical credentials are impeccable. As one of the few dozen people at the Sex Pistols’ 1976 Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall gig (others including Morrissey, half of Joy Division, Mark E. Smith, etc) he first fronted the Buzzcocks-like jangly punk outfit the Frantic Elevators, before forming Simply Red and giving free rein to his more soulful instincts. “Holding Back the Years” was Simply Red’s third single, but had started life as a Frantic Elevators song, and although written when he was just 17, shows an astonishing lyrical and musical maturity – so much so that on its release many assumed it was a cover of a lost 60s soul classic. Listen without prejudice, and marvel.
Oasis, “Cigarettes and Alcohol” (1994)
It’s all too easy to forget now, but in 1994 Oasis were genuinely the most exciting rock ‘n’ roll band on the planet. Noel’s driving guitar rhythms and Liam’s in-yer-face, Johnny Rotten-reborn vocal style were married to a swagger and self-belief that could only have come from Manchester… and never more so than on this, the fourth and final single from debut LP Definitely Maybe. Yes, they had bigger chart hits and sure, they wrote more resonating, longer-lasting singalongs, but from the opening threat of that ripped-off Bolan guitar riff to Liam’s sneered nihilistic assertion that the fags and booze are finally “something worth living for”, no other Oasis song so perfectly captures the attitude and menace that made the boys from Burnage so vital and compelling.
Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Marrakesh Express” (1969)
Well obviously only one third of Crosby, Stills and Nash was from Manchester, but that one member also happened to be the guy who wrote arguably their best song – and he wrote it while still living in Salford. Originally composed for the Hollies, Graham Nash’s bandmates rejected "Marrakesh Express" as not being commercial enough… so after the break-up of that band and Nash’s subsequent 1968 groovy Laurel Canyon spiritual awakening, he duly ran it past new buddies David Crosby and Stephen Stills – and one of the defining songs of the era blossomed into life. And just in case you’re still not convinced of its Manc credentials, Nash once recounted how the lyrics were inspired by a train ride across Morocco in which he rejected his seat in the first class carriage to slum it with the locals… because his initial fellow passengers were “ladies with blue hair” that he dismissed as “completely f***ing boring”. ‘Ave it, Graham lad.
The Verve, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” (1997)
The Wigan band’s finest moment was also their most contentious. Built around a sample from a 1965 orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time”, it’s a soaring powerhouse of a song, simultaneously swaggering with self-confidence and imbued with a heart-wide-open fragility: “Well I’ve never prayed but tonight I’m on my knees, yeah” indeed. Reaching Number 2 in the British charts and picking up a Grammy nomination, it nevertheless initially netted writer Richard Ashcroft just $1,000, after a bitter legal battle ruled that the sample was prominent enough for the song to be attributed as a Jagger/Richards composition. Ashcroft himself sarcastically declared that if that were the case then “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was “the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years,” adding “Someone stole God-knows-how-many million dollars off me and they’ve still got it.”
808 State, “Pacific State” (1989)
For a brief and glorious period in late 1989, November in Manchester felt like August in Ibiza. 808 State had grown out of a record shop in the city center and named after the (now legendary) Roland TR-808 drum machine, and in 1987 set about creating a distinctly northern flavor of acid house – most prominently at the Hacienda nightclub. “Pacific State” – or, if you prefer, simply “Pacific”, or “Pacific 707”, or “Pacific 202”… 808 State founding member Graham Massey claiming there to be “about 42” different versions of the song – first appeared on their 1989 “mini album” Quadrastate, but after being picked up by Radio 1, catapulted the band, and acid house, into the British charts, spending 11 weeks in the top 40 and peaking at Number 10. A typically insistent acid groove is at once tempered and elevated by a sax riff that instantly evokes long, lazy sunsets, cocktails on the beach, nights spent under tropical stars… about as far from the Hacienda’s drab corner of Whitworth Street West as you could imagine, in fact. Which, for the thousands of turned-on kids dancing in the club at the time, only made it all the more beautiful.
The Fall, “Theme From Sparta FC” (2004)
Only picking one Mark E. Smith song is almost as ridiculous an enterprise as only choosing one Morrissey/Marr composition, so this critic is going to say what the hell and simply go for his favorite. “Theme From Sparta FC” has everything that made the Fall great – angular, off-kilter guitars, an urgent rhythm section, working class smart-arse lyricism and a delivery from Mark E. Smith that is at once exhilarating and threatening in equal measure. Written nearly three decades after Smith first formed the Fall, it nonetheless still fizzes with all the menace and malevolence of anything he wrote in 1976 – and its depiction of football hooligans (“English Chelsea fan this is your last game…”) is possibly even more terrifying than being caught up in an awayday ruckus itself. Come on have a bet, we live on blood.
Magazine, “Shot by Both Sides” (1978)
Former Buzzcocks’ founding member Howard Devoto only lasted one EP with that band before splitting to form Magazine… but he took with him a chord progression and bunch of lyrics that would become one of the most important songs of the emerging new wave scene. Urgent and angry and built around a guitar riff that goes beyond punk and into something altogether eerier, the dislocation is heightened by Devoto’s unique vocal style – and frantic, paranoid-tinged lyrics that paint a picture of a darkness that can only be guessed at: “I wormed my way to the heart of the crowd, I was shocked to find what was allowed”. If it’s all deeply unsettling, it’s also – as one might expect of a song partly written by Pete Shelley – incredibly catchy… and remains an influence on a million spiky indie bands to this day.
The Stone Roses, “Fools Gold” (1989)
Released six months after their debut album (and in the same month as 808 State’s “Pacific State” and a few weeks before the Happy Monday’s “Hallelujah”), “Fools Gold” not only became the Stone Roses’ biggest chart success, but also defined a high point for the scene they were so instrumental in creating. It is one of those rare moments in pop history that captures every member of the band performing at the very top of their game: Reni channeling James Brown’s funky drummer with an added off-kilter time signature, Mani pure hypnotic filth on the bass, John Squire’s wah-wah guitar flashing in and around the groove before (in the extended mix) exploding into full-on phaser wig-out at the end… and winding through it all, Ian Brown’s vocal – simultaneously blissed-out and threatening, stoned and hyper-aware, warning “I don’t need you to tell me what’s going down”. As a funked-up progression from the sunshine-soaked sixties jangle of the preceding LP it’s astonishing; darker Led-Zep vibes would follow, but for nine minutes and 53 seconds in late 1989, this is perfect.
10CC, “I’m Not in Love” (1975)
Stockport’s most famous musical sons (sorry, Blossoms) had a stellar career in the 1970s, racking up five consecutive top 10 albums and 12 top 40 singles – but it is the second of their three number 1 singles that stands out. Although “I’m Not in Love” seems superficially to be little more than a sweet, typically polished love song, it nevertheless represents a revolution in recording technique and composition. Working from Strawberry Studios, the complex 10CC created in their home town and that just four years later would be used by Joy Division to record Unknown Pleasures, the band spent three weeks meticulously building up a vocal wall of sound, with Graham Gouldman, Kevin Godley and Lol Creme each singing a single phrase 16 times for each note on the chromatic scale, before looping the whole thing through 12 separate channels and playing them all back simultaneously. The effect – when combined with sparse instrumentation and the simple, affecting lyric (Eric Stewart’s attempt to convince his wife that he did, in fact, love her) – still remains spine-tingling five decades later.
Paris Angels, “Perfume” (1990)
You either love this sparkling Madchester gem or you’ve never heard of it… but if you’re in the latter camp, we can guarantee that a single click below will put you firmly in the former. One of a myriad of loved-up rock-dance genre-mashing bands that sprang into existence in the city in the late 80s, Paris Angels were adored by all who heard them – unfortunately, however, those listeners were mostly confined to the north west of England. “Perfume” is both their greatest moment and arguably one of the standout songs of that whole era. A zipping, shimmering acid beat suggests things are going firmly the way of house music, before a massive drum and Byrdsian jangled guitar lick sends things spinning in a whole other direction. Throw dueling boy-girl vocals and euphoric synth rises into the mix, and the whole thing becomes a glorious mash-up of everything all at once – and is as pure arms-in-the-air dance music as indie rock has ever got.
James, “Laid” (1993)
The third of the Madchester “Big Three”, James lacked the attitude and edge of their rivals, but made up for it with a folky ear for melody and lyrical perceptiveness that, while it didn’t make them exactly cool, did make them beloved… and shifted an awful lot of t-shirts along the way. “Sit Down” (released in 1989) was the song that catapulted them into stars of the indie scene, but it was four years later and “Laid” that saw them cross over into the mainstream – thanks in no small part to its use in American Pie. The irresistibly catchy melody combined with strumalonga acoustic guitars and a drum that builds to a shameless climax roughly once every 20 seconds or so means that once it’s in your head it’s sticking there – and there’s just enough sly subversion in the lyrics to still feel a little like a victory for the indie kids to hear it on mainstream daytime radio.
A Certain Ratio, “Do the Du” (1979)
The band that Tony Wilson declared would be “the new Sex Pistols” may not have quite achieved that status in terms of record sales, but ACR’s peculiar brand of post-industrial indie-funk-jazz-afrobeat-disco has been enormously influential on many more successful bands – most notably Talking Heads, with whom they toured in 1979. That same year A Certain Ratio recorded “Do the Du” (firstly for a Peel session, then as the opening track on debut album The Graveyard and the Ballroom). With a bass and drum pattern straight outta Studio 54, scratchy guitars bridging the gap between punk and pre-C86 indie, and a vocal that owes more than a little to Factory labelmate Ian Curtis, it’s a rollocking, infectious, genre-blending, brilliant mess that sounds as revolutionary today as it did 44 years ago.
The Durutti Column, “Sketch for Summer” (1980)
One of Factory Records’ first signings, the Durutti Column – named in typical Factory style after an anarchist militia unit in the Spanish Civil War – is essentially the baby of guitarist and musical polymath Vini Reilly. “Sketch for Summer” is the opening track on debut album The Return of the Durutti Column (famous for being packaged in sandpaper, so as to scratch whichever LPs might be placed next to it) and marked the arrival of a kind of sound not only unlike anything else in the Factory catalog, but unlike anything else being made by pretty much any other band in the world. Chiming, minor-harmonic guitars wash over and around the listener, with birdsong and “atmospherics” courtesy of producer Martin Hannett adding to the sense of a bucolic paradise – if it all feels like a lazy afternoon in a Cotswold garden in May, the fact it was recorded in Rochdale and released in January, only adds to the magic.
New Order, “Blue Monday” (1983)
Yeah, yeah, it’s obvious, but that doesn’t mean it’s not right. Despite its national treasure status (and distressingly frequent use in adverts for chocolate bars, broadband providers, games consoles, and perhaps most egregiously, Sunkist) New Order’s 1983 opus remains a masterpiece of songwriting, technological innovation, imagination and sheer bloody-mindedness. From the hypnotic, stuttering kick drum opening (either the result of a faulty drum machine or a blatant rip off of Donna Summer’s “Our Love”, depending on whether you prefer the legend or the truth) to the layered banks of synths and sequencers and via a bass riff lifted from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it’s a masterclass in using what you’ve got to create something so much more than the sum of its parts… and holds a very strong case for having invented modern British dance music. The song is all the more extraordinary coming from the same musicians who just four years earlier had recorded Unknown Pleasures while still learning to play their instruments.