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  • Writer's pictureThe Rail Holiday Maker

Manchester, so much to answer for

“I like The Smiths and Lily Allen and vintage things in warm colours like brown, orange, burnt reds and warm greens.”

So read part of my youngest daughter’s Christmas list. She had recently moved to Salford to study and it was time for me to pick her up and bring her home for the holidays. As if I needed an excuse, I figured it was also time for me to show her a few sights in and around the legendary twin musical cities of Manchester and Salford. After all, she had moved across the Pennines for an education.

What do I think of The Smiths? It’s always a tricky one. Tricky only because of the difficult enigma that is Morrissey. Whereas Johnny Marr retains an effortless cool through his middle years, some of Morrissey’s outbursts over recent times have been embarrassing, the musings of someone who now mostly lives in LA, yet feels the need to put right the perceived wrongs of the home he left behind, trying too hard to belong. And in any case Morrissey’s homeland was always some kind of outdated kitchen-sink Britishness he managed to successfully eulogise in the 1980s but which has now worn as thin as a charity shop cardy flailing about at a school disco.

Truthfully though, Morrissey has cut an irrelevant figure for me since he and Marr split and The Smiths were no more. A few gems followed, but also a long career unable to relive those past glories ignited by that rare chance meeting of an extraordinary wordsmith and a musical genius. By the time they disintegrated The Smiths themselves were on an artistic wane anyway, a cynicism creeping in, a couple of throw-away singles that didn’t meet the high watermark of their predecessors, nor the defining artwork on the record sleeves.

That said, whilst I’ve been truly disappointed with Morrissey since the late 1980s, there is no doubt that The Smiths changed my life. Those appearances on Top of the Pops that had my dad growling at the tv. Rushing home with Hatful of Hollow, a glorious compilation of their early work, resplendent with the words printed like poems on the inner sleeves. Hatful of Hollow made me ponder love, loss, teenage angst, lust and sexuality like never before (or since). A landmark in my life within gatefold sleeves.

Nowhere Fast

Where would the tour begin? Well, slap me on the patio, at Salford Lads Club of course! That historic backstreet social and community hub formed in 1903 by local philanthropists to keep gangs of lads off the streets by providing sports facilities. Now renamed Salford Lads’ & Girls’ Club, still offering community activity with the beautiful original floor still supporting the sports hall and an ever growing ‘Smiths Room’. Yes, THAT photograph taken outside the club by Stephen Wright in 1985 for the inner sleeve of ‘The Queen is Dead’ changed the playing field for Salford Lads Club. Now a staple of any music tour – as illustrated by the official tour group being shown round whilst we mooched – the photographer allowed the club to reproduce the iconic image on t-shirts for a limited period. The resulting £50,000 enabled local kids to experience an activity trip of a lifetime.

And good luck to them. The volunteers made us welcome and it is open to the general (generally Smiths-obsessed) public on Saturdays. We were given a short history of the building and facilities, taken to the Smiths Room and our volunteer said he would return in a couple of minutes. When he reappeared he heard me rattling on about everything from Friedrich Engels’ stay in Manchester to Factory Records and everything in between, so decided to gently leave us to it. We stared at the camera outside in as close to the original pose as possible, Clare taking one for the team by volunteering to be Mozzer, a less attractive proposition these days. The miserable shite. I mean Morrissey, obviously, not our Clare.

Back to the old house

Next stop Stretford. Yes, the obligatory awkward walk past Morrissey’s childhood home. Awkward because it’s not my home, it’s their home and I’m welcome no more. It’s just a house and at that it’s probably some poor unsuspecting innocent bystander’s house. Imagine being inundated with tourists knocking on the front door of your Stretford semi, expecting to be met by a bloke with pallid features, big eyebrows and quiff wittering on about his girlfriend in a coma. Easier to justify is the ‘Iron Bridge’ across the Metrolink, just down the road. One of the few decipherable local landmarks from The Smiths’ songbook, featured in ‘Still Ill’, it was under this iron bridge that Mozzer kissed and ended up with sore lips. Now covered in Smiths graffiti, some sweet, some humorous, some – frankly Mr Shankly - a bit pathetic, we located my favourite. ‘This is just a bridge’.

Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders

Now both wearing long, heavy coats we headed to south Manchester and another bridge. Not just any old bridge, this one, the Epping Walk Bridge in Hulme has graced the damp walls of umpteen zillion student flats since Kevin Cummins shot those famous pics in 1979. Snow on the ground, amidst one of the city’s (at that time) most neglected housing estates, Cummins’ distant shot of Joy Division slouching in the biting cold seems to sum up life in 1980s northern Britain. Left to rot, occasionally great art came out of this decay. Hulme is now studentland and a couple of very kind, passing Chinese students took the photos for us. They had never heard of Joy Division, nor New Order. I told them more than they probably needed to know, right down to singer Ian Curtis’s tragic suicide, before they were saved by the arrival of that same official tour group. Bloody tourists, eh! With their clickedy-click cameras, trivialising the great music of these cities by taking mock band photos in iconic spots!

I was minding my business, lifting the lead off the roof of the Holy Name Church

Through the edge of Moss Side into the heart of the university quarter is another site mentioned in Smiths lyrics. The Holy Name Church sits opposite the university and is mentioned in Vicar in a Tutu from The Queen is Dead. Not much else to say about that, so let’s take a quick detour onto Whitworth Street West and The Ritz, whose sprung dancefloor was already known to us, a seasoned gig-going family. Keeping with the theme, it was here in 1982 that The Smiths made their first live appearance supporting Blue Rondo a la Turk. Have you had enough of The Smiths yet? I know I have. How about a different Smith?

Drink the long draft, Dan, for the Hip Priest

Mine and the other Rob's tour of Prestwich in the footsteps of Mark E Smith and The Fall is now a well-trodden path. Devised for my pal as an excuse for us to meet post-lockdowns to drink beer in Mark E Smith’s favourite pubs, it is now a curated tour for the Prestwich Arts Festival. If you want to know more or to self-guide the route yourself, you can find all the information you need here

Whilst that tour concentrates on the northern suburbs that framed much of Mark E Smith’s work, there was one more band photo I wanted to locate in the centre of Manchester. Again shot by the meister Kevin Cummins, it’s taken outside what was Manchester Central Station, now the Convention Centre. Mark E Smith is wearing the ultimate anti-fashion statement argyle jumper bought from Bury Market and is surrounded by the band that recorded Live at the Witch Trails, The Fall’s first album.

On the left, drummer Karl Burns was to come and go from the line-up several times until the band imploded in a live on stage fight in New York with the drunken lead singer in 1998. Next is Marc Riley, who played multiple instruments for the band and

became such a threat to Smith that he was fired. That’s my take on it anyway. There are lots of stories…fired for dancing to The Clash….fired for punching Mark E Smith after Smith had slapped each band member for playing a mediocre gig. Riley would have seen this coming though. Smith clearly penned the derogatory tale ‘Middle Mass’ about Riley. Imagine having to go to work and play along to a song filled with snide digs about you. Riley went on to form The Creepers, releasing the single ‘Jumper Clown’ (have a bleedin’ guess who that was about!), and is now a successful and influential radio presenter. Not much is known of Yvonne Pawlett, The Fall’s short-lived keyboardist from Doncaster. On the right of the image, Martin Bramah left due to…you guessed it…tensions with the singer and went on to form The Blue Orchids with original Fall member Una Baines. Rejoining The Fall briefly in 1989 for the Extricate album, Bramah was never destined to work for long in such a dictatorial setting.

Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

On nearby Deansgate is the former Free Trade Hall, where a red plaque commemorates the Peterloo Massacre that claimed the lives of 15 peaceful Chartist protestors in 1819, a watershed moment in the history of people’s struggle for emancipation. Manchester should shout louder about its people’s history.

There is another reason for stopping here though on a music tour. The former Free Trade Hall is now the very swish 5* Radisson

Edwardian hotel. The previous large venue was the scene of the infamous ‘Judas’ taunt from the crowd in 1966 when Bob Dylan’s set switched from acoustic to electric. But it’s not the big venue I’m interested in. When I was contracting hotels for a tour operator I admit I made an appointment to be shown round this hotel, far too swish and expensive for my budget, just to see where the Lesser Free Trade Hall had been. It was here that the Sex Pistols played two infamous gigs that changed the Manchester music scene forever. In the audience were people who went on to form The Fall, Joy Division, The Buzzcocks, The Smiths (erm, and Simply Red). After looking round a cursory few rooms I asked the hotel's Sales Manager where the Lesser Free Trade Hall would have been. I really wish she had snarled, "There's no point in asking, you'll get no reply." It's now a conference break-out room.

The Frenz Experiment

They say that every third person you meet in Manchester will have been in The Fall at some stage. In fact, I’m pretty sure I played third kazoo on a Peel Session in the early 90s. In a tale of such close camaraderie and chumliness, with Mark E Smith hiring and firing on a constant basis, it seems apt to end the tour at the Friends Meeting House just off Deansgate, where the same Fall line-up sprawled out in front of Quaker banners for the photographer. Thanks to Kevin Cummins (with a nod to Stephen Wright) for imagery that helped define the music of these great cities.

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