Manchester has a rich, diverse musical heritage – and every right to be fiercely proud of it. But you wouldn’t envy the man who tries to tell the entire story. This new exhibition tackles that challenge, avoiding the pitfalls in a smart, intuitive, roundabout sort of way.

It’s the work of Manchester District Music Archive, a group of local music enthusiasts who know their stuff, and who recognize a cheeky acronym when they see one. First established ten years ago to lobby for a permanent museum devoted to Manchester music-making, they elected to change tack and create an online archive instead. Anyone can contribute to it by submitting their own scans of gig posters, photos, ticket stubs and other artefacts. Over the years it’s become a fascinating, sprawling repository of music memorabilia from every era. It’s completely subjective and personal, and all the better for it. After all, who’s to decide which parts of the Manchester music story are more important than others? Who knows which bits really matter, and which bits don’t deserve a look-in?

This exhibition attempts to recreate that idiosyncratic online approach within a gallery space, and with great success, too. Individual ‘co-curators’ – regular MDMArchive contributors, or esteemed guests – have each assembled their own scrapbook-style section within the gallery, with their treasured private belongings either framed on the walls or displayed in cabinets. In this way, they can share their memories, passions, influences: whatever it is about music in Manchester that matters most to them.

The different sections are not ordered chronologically, they just have their own ebb and flow. So Graham Massey’s collection of space-age exotica album covers butt up against Mike Harding’s vintage flyers from 60s folk clubs, or priceless private photos of Bob Dylan’s legendary Free Trade Hall show in May 1966, taken by schoolboy Mark Makin. Stacks of cassette bootlegs of gigs by Factory acts nestle up to a handwritten letter by a young Paul Morley, then contributing to local fanzines under the pseudonym ‘Modest Young’. Across the way, a collection of posters and photographs belonging to Joyce Rawlings, who met her future husband ‘Mac’ Magonegall Lacey in the Ritz in late 1961, just before he became resident DJ at the celebrated city centre Oasis club.

Troublefunk (credit Alison Bell)Let’s face it, an exhaustive, objective history of the Manchester music scene down the decades would be i) a truly Herculean task and ii) a bit dull. This shines a light on some lesser-known nooks and crannies, but always from the viewpoint of an enthusiast or a participant: often they’re both at the same time. Putting a human face to each facet of the story anchors the whole enterprise and prevents it from getting bland or pretentious (One particular human face deserves a special mention here: that of DJ and promoter Roger Eagle, seen peeking from photographs of Blues legends at his club, The Twisted Wheel, taken by young fan Brian Smith. Eagle never gave a name to the particular brand of stomping Motown-style pop that he popularised at the Wheel, but in time it was christened ‘Northern Soul ‘ – without which, you might have visited a website with a completely different name today).

This ‘scrapbook’ approach is deceptively simple. Evidently it’s the result of much careful planning and many canny decisions, and it makes for an inspiring, thought-provoking collection. You can’t fail to grin like an eejit when you find your own favourite era covered. There’s a pleasing simplicity in the style of presentation, with text panels mostly kept to a minimum so that the artefacts can hog the limelight. Perhaps it might have benefited from more variety, though: the frames and cabinets threaten to become a bit one-note, when some video footage, say, would have been most welcome. And considering it’s all about music, the only music on offer is an exhibition ‘soundtrack’ on a single pair of headphones. But that’s probably down to budget and the restrictions of the space rather than any lack of imagination.

Where Defining Me excels, though, is by managing to tap into the key driving force of the Manchester music scene down the decades: it’s home-made. The exhibition, like the music itself, is organic, driven by friendship, by people, and by a shared love of music. Away from the glare of the industry – read, London – interesting things get the chance to happen. The co-curators here are not really ‘industry players’; they’re just music fans at heart, even if some of them have gone on to contribute their tuppence-worth to the story themselves. It’s worth noting that, within the array of personal collections here, the late, lamented Tony Wilson crops up throughout the show more than any other figure. One of the architects of the modern Manchester music scene, if not modern Manchester full-stop, Wilson built his career on that same passion for music, rather than (cough) shrewd business decisions.

So go and immerse yourself in your own particular fond memories, whether they be of smoky parties in Hulme Crescents, discount ‘cut-out’ records from Yanks Records, or glam rock gigs at the Manchester Hardrock (now, poignantly, the site of Stretford B&Q). There’s room for them all here.

Oh – and apparently culture minister Ed Vaizey has given it the thumbs-up. But please don’t let that put you off.


Review by Andy Murray

Main image by Brian Smith (Roger Eagle and Millie at the Twisted Wheel, 1964)


Blues ticket - credit Brian SmithWhat: Defining Me: Musical Adventures in Manchester

Where: The Lowry: Promenade Gallery, Pier 8, Salford Quays

When: February 23, 2013

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