Thursday 16 March 2017

the original modern: manchester's past, present and future

and this is how it starts

confused about the direction my life is/was heading, i stumbled across the grant singer documentary, simply titled joy division. i can't remember how, or when, or where i found it, just that it changed not only the way i approach writing, but also my perception of the city that has the potential to make and break me. manchester, of course. 

armed with the knowledge of legendary city dwellers such as tony wilson, peter saville and jon savage (for reference: this review of unknown pleasures showed me what music journalism could be, and though i know i'll never write anything quite as excellent, it's always in the back of my mind every time i click on the "new post" button), i embarked on my final project for university; a magazine about the past, present and future of manchester. 

fast forward to last night, and i was standing in the packed-out museum of science and industry, listening to peter saville say these very words as part of a talk that ended too soon. this was the second time i'd seen him do a talk, the first being in a small gallery on cork street in mayfair last december, to a crowd of twenty or so people. i was in the second row, directly facing him, blinking back tears every so often in sheer disbelief that the man i'd seen in the documentary that changed everything was right in front of me, talking about his art school days and how he never picked up a library book until his third year was almost over. the image of a 21 year old saville, scared and unsure - as the rest of us soon-to-be graduates are today - embarking on the task of creating what would eventually become one of the most iconic album covers of all time gave me so much hope for my own future that my heart nearly burst. earlier in the evening, making my way into the gallery after a walk around mayfair to kill time, i saw him outside, smoking with the other co-host of the talk, SHOWstudio's lou stoppard. despite being a fan of her work, i barely even registered her slick of bright red lipstick and curtain of dark, poker straight hair. my eyes remained glued to this elusive figure all in black, oblivious to the impact he'd had on me and my own work. needless to say, i didn't approach him, simply glided past - as graceful as i could muster given how much my legs were shaking - and took a seat in the tiny room; close but not too close. 

it was odd then, that watching him speak to a packed out room of around thirty, forty, maybe even fifty people last night, he seemed so much more approachable than he did on that street last december. maybe it's because i'd seen him before, and it almost felt like watching an old friend, or maybe it was the crowd, the usual manchester set with their ian brown haircuts, fred perry polos and a peroni in hand, who would occasionally shout out terms of endearment for saville, at one point chanting his name like a rowdy united crowd. it wasn't unlike the sense of belonging i've felt at the many courteeners gigs i've been to over the years, and it felt a world away from the hushed, almost reverential silence that fell over the crowd on cork street. saville and the director of the museum, sally macdonald, discussed his influence on manchester's music scene (naturally), including the cover he created for new order's debut album movement, heavily inspired by the work of futurist fortunato depero, as well as his least favourite cover he designed - session 25's always now - and concluded with his vision for how the museum could - and should - look in the future. he also name-dropped designer and friend raf simons, who he collaborated with to subtly redesign the calvin klein logo, and boldly declared that "modern manchester stands on the shoulders of ian curtis", stating that none of manchester's post-modern creativity would have happened without curtis "giving his life" for it, and he hopes that one day someone will build a statue of him in albert square to honour his legacy (curtis, not saville, though both are worthy recipients). 

also on display at the event was a paltry display of original sketches for the cover of movement, as well as pills 'n' thrills and bellyaches by the happy mondays. fascinating though it was to see, i couldn't help feeling disappointed that it was such a small selection, given that the main attraction that night was saville's talk, and with it, his work for factory records. it reminded me of an article i'd seen on the manchester evening news website about a talk - the panel for which included smiths drummer mike joyce - that discussed the need for a museum dedicated to the rich musical history of manchester (sadly i missed it as i was at uni). the fact that this hasn't yet been created dazed and amazed me as we left the gallery - after a brief stop outside so i could hurriedly make notes about the talk - and i only hope that one day such a place is created. 

fast forward to today, and while re-reading my notes from last night in preparation for writing this post - and also figuring out how to re-purpose it for my uni magazine - my mind couldn't help but drift to a more exciting place, namely the news that the 1975's third album - working title music for cars; a somewhat lazy decision given that the band's first EP also shared this title - will be released sometime next year. the interview was published in Q magazine (who knew that was even still a thing?) and can be purchased for a somewhat extortionate fee of £4.50, or if you're a trash human like i am, can be found on tumblr under the tag "the 1975" for free, and it got me thinking about how similar they are to joy division. 

bear with me here. much like saville last night, i'm going to make a bold declaration of my own and say that the 1975 are the modern-day equivalent of joy division. not in a musical sense, as sonically, joy division take on a much more post-punk sound than the slick electro-pop styling of the 1975, who actually sound more like new order. for me, the similarities lie first of all in their approach to the music industry. both bands created their own record label (factory/dirty hit) and fund(ed) their albums entirely themselves, though the 1975's work is under license to major label polydor, a smart move that allows them to retain total creative control whilst still gaining massive publicity (BRIT award anyone?). it also means that their label is less likely to go bust, such was the fate that befell factory after they declared bankruptcy in november 1992, and hopefully peter hook's prediction that matt healy will spend their riches on god-knows-what won't come true either. 

the second similarity comes from the sense of place, or lack of, that can be found in both unknown pleasures and the 1975's second album, i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it. in the documentary mentioned earlier in this post, many of those interviewed about unknown pleasures describe it as an ambient soundtrack to the city. both bands make no reference to manchester in their lyrics, and though the 1975 came after britpop legends oasis and the stone roses, that guitar-heavy sound has never featured prominently in their discography. this allows their album to be enjoyed by people anywhere in the world, as it becomes their own soundtrack to whatever city they reside in, be it barcelona or boston. 

for the 1975, it's allowed them to escape the trap the courteeners have fallen into on their last few albums as they rely too heavily on that nostalgic 90s sound and risk losing fans who are more inclined towards pop (i.e. me). there's a reason why love will tear us apart still sounds so new in 2017, and it's because their music transcends time and place, much like the 1975's second album, which i find works whether i'm walking through the northern quarter or travelling on a packed northern line tube. for me, somebody else is their love will tear us apart, a song i firmly believe i'll still be listening to in another forty years, tears in my eyes as i remember the first time i ever heard it. 

so why manchester? 

it's a question i've been asking myself ever since i realised there's nowhere else in the world i'd rather live and work. it's that DIY attitude, the desire to make something out of nothing, to escape the grimy post-war tower blocks where ian curtis and peter hook grew up, or the boredom of middle-class suburbia that matt healy and george daniel found themselves trapped in some 13 years ago. it's the desire for authenticity, to keep alive the rich cultural history of a city that did so much for the music scene, and it's all of those reasons combined that mean i'll always be fighting back tears as i think about peter saville aged 21, embarking on the biggest and best project of his career, and of the 1975 collecting their BRIT award and getting the recognition they so rightly deserve. finally, and most importantly, it's the motivation i need to finish this degree and also make peace not just with where i came from, but where i'm going next. 

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