On May 25, 2017, three days after the Manchester Arena bombing, there was an extraordinary moment in nearby St Ann’s Square when the crowd gathering to mourn the victims broke into a spontaneous rendition of Oasis’ Don’t Look Back in Anger. “One of the most moving moments of my life, that,” says CP Lee. “It was the idea that the Manchester spirit coalesced itself into singing a song by a Manchester group.”
At the time, Lee was at work on a compilation CD of Manchester music with Ace Records, co-curated by Ace’s Ady Croesdell. Lee had suggested various possible titles, among them Manchester Hip Canal, Dead Good and Manchester: It’s Not London. Now, though, there could be no debate. “That had a very profound effect of both of us putting it together,” admits Lee. The compilation, which has just been released, would be named Manchester: A City United in Music.
It’s a glorious 2-CD swagger through 55 years’ worth of songs, spanning from Ewan MacColl and John Mayall to Oasis and Johnny Marr. Essentially, it’s an aural incarnation of Lee’s seminal 2002 book Shake Rattle & Rain, which told the whole story of Manchester music from 1955 onwards. The compilation does the same, except you can listen to it.
The spark for the project was first lit around five years ago when Croesdell contacted Lee in his capacity as an expert in the Manchester scene. Lee says: “Ady sent me his first ideas and then I added mine to it and that went backwards and forwards for a few years really. Eventually we got a kind of shortlist. We were still whittling it down about four months ago, so it’s been a long time coming and I’m quite relieved that it’s finally emerged. I think the elephant has several years in gestation as a calf. Well, this is been a bit like giving birth to an elephant.”
As well as including all the big hitters you’d expect – The Hollies, 10cc, Buzzcocks, The Fall, Joy Division, The Stone Roses – Manchester: A City United in Music also finds room for the less celebrated likes of The Toggery Five, The Measles, The Salford Jets and Smack, whose 1980 single Edward Fox is an unhinged highlight. For the purposes of their selection criteria, Manchester was defined as the ten boroughs of Greater Manchester, enabling the inclusion of, for instance, Leigh’s Georgie Fame, Salford’s John Cooper Clarke and Timperley’s Stackwaddy. In terms of which song to choose from which act, the idea, Lee says, “was to try not to do the absolutely expected. In the second part of the set we’ve thrown a couple of curve-balls. In the first part I think a lot of stuff will be unknown to a larger audience so it will be fresh and new and exciting. People don’t know these things because a lot of that material hasn’t been re-released. Plus, a lot of these bands didn’t do albums so there’s only a few singles that you can work with.”
One key idea was that the set should start out way before the punk period that’s often presented as chapter one in the story.
“We knew we wanted to cover the beat groups, because as an older member of the Manchester music community happily involved with both sides of the divide which we count as 1977, it was always annoying that people didn’t realise that in the mid 60s the second biggest selling group in America after The Beatles was Herman’s Hermits. Freddie and the Dreamers were massively popular in America too. Then you’ve got massive amount of beat groups, all unsung heroes of the counter cultural resolution. It’s been nice to fill some of those gaps with Barclay James Harvest, 10cc, Greasy Bear and so on. It was balancing it out, rectifying the misconception about Manchester music that it all happened after the Sex Pistols played the Lesser Free Trade Hall. Now, that gig never would have happened if it hadn’t been for Music Force, which was a socialist music co-operative that enabled people to put gigs on, provide PAs, print posters, drive vans and do this, that and the other.”
Lee knows whereof he speaks. He is an esteemed veteran of the Manchester music scene, having started playing clubs during the 60s folk boom. His career is a whole tale of its own, taking in writing a hit stage show for the Royal Court and a Granada TV sketch series plus associations with Tony Wilson, Roger Eagle and Martin Hannett – but suffice to say, he knows the scene because he was usually there. Not without reason, three of his bands feature on the compilation – aforementioned late 60s country folk-rockers Greasy Bear (“so people can hear what Didsbury’s answer to The Grateful Dead actually sounded like”), 70s anarcho-comedy troupe Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias, and electro-pop oddballs Gerry and the Holograms. And if you reckon the latter’s eponymous track sounds awfully like a dead-eyed Blue Monday send-up, well, just consider that it was recorded four years before the New Order song.
Many of the selections on the collection have personal associations for Lee. “St Louis Union charted with a cover of The Beatles’ Girl, but we’ve got them here doing East Side Story just to be different. I remember seeing the name St Louis Union scrawled on a wall at school and wondering ‘who the hell is St Louis Union?’. They were the ultimate mod band. They wore the clothes, they had the attitude. If they weren’t working you could find them every Saturday at the Cona coffee bar on Tib Lane opposite Manchester Town Hall. You hung out at the Cona to see what people were wearing and downstairs there was a little cellar where impromptu jams would take place. It was right by the offices of CND, they had some rickety garret upstairs. So, it was a very hip and very cool to hang out there, a remarkable place.”
Another notable inclusion is Crawling Up a Hill, the 1964 single debut of John Mayall and the Blues Breakers. “John Mayall was a massive inspiration to that whole Manchester beat scene,” Lee says. “He did what you had to do in the 60s which was leave Manchester, but he left behind a legacy that said ‘just get up and play it’, which is very similar to what punk did about 15 years later.”
Come 1967, Lee fell for a song played on John Peel’s pirate radio show, namely The Purple Gang’s Granny Takes a Trip, not knowing that the band hailed from nearby Stockport.
“I first heard it on Peel’s Perfumed Garden and rushed out and bought it. It was absolutely brilliant, and it was almost immediately banned [due to the supposed drug-taking implications of the title] so it never got airplay other than on pirate radio. It was a treasured part of my record collection and I didn’t know they were from down the road. Even weirder was that they weren’t a pop group, they were a jug band, which was very esoteric. The only jug bands we knew were dead black men from the 1920s. Again, there’s that idea of a voyage of discovery upon the ocean of music, sighting little islands where strange genres and sub-genres could be seen performing their exotic ritual dances and music.”
Due to rights issues, certain bands don’t make a showing, an obvious casualty being The Smiths. “It’s what everybody says – ‘how come you’ve left so and so off?’ – but licensing is a minefield. With The Smiths, to keep it Mancunian, I would have picked Rusholme Ruffians, but it’s not on there for that reason.”
Very much included though is I’m in Love with the Girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk by The Freshies, a rare appearance for the original version before Virgin got its knickers in a twist and the brand name was removed (not that a bit of publicity did any harm – legend has it that the check-out girl in question was actually a slapdash worker on the brink of being sacked before the song put her in the spotlight).
The Freshies were a vehicle for the talents of Chris Sievey, who later went on to create Frank Sidebottom and whose life will be celebrated shortly in the forthcoming documentary Being Frank. “That’s the remarkable resilience of the independent artiste,” Lee says. “Chris would write the song, do the arrangement, produce the record – or cassette tape, or whatever. Probably he would have chiselled it on stone if he’d had to. Then he did the album cover, then did all the promo, then sent them all out by hand and would very often turn up with a copy for you. Indefatigable independence that can be likened just to beating your head against a brick wall repeatedly because he never quite got there, he didn’t have a hit. A lot of these bands were so nearly on the cusp of making it and a lot did. It’s not a celebration of failure. It’s a celebration of the resilience of the Mancunian spirit and that spirit manifest in music.”
Indeed, Lee feels that spirit runs through the entire collection.
“I do see a thread and I see a bloodline. There are accounts by visitors to Victorian Manchester talking about the cacophony of sound, of an Italian hurdy gurdy player on a street corner, the clatter of horse’s hooves, iron-rimmed wheels on the carriages, people singing Irish ballads in pubs and drumming on the tables, blind fiddle players, German oompah bands – every kind of music imaginable on somewhere like Oldham Street and Nelson Street or Oxford Road. There were the Manchester Gentleman’s Concerts where you’d pay a membership subscription to watch a classical ensemble perform at a pub on Market Street, before they got serious about what they were playing around 1800 and metamorphosed into The Hallé. We’ve got records of the Collegiate Church paying pipers in the 14th century to play Lancashire long pipes. We’ve got Ranters singing Anabaptist revolutionary hymns at Angel Meadows in the 17th Century on the burial pit that’s now the O2 Arena. It’s just fascinating, the history of Manchester music.”
Lee is not wrong, and now Manchester: A City United in Music stands as a captivating historical document you can sing and play air guitar to.
Manchester: A City United in Music is available now from Ace Records