Towards the tail end of the 1970s, John Reed was a young Mod growing up in Shoreham-by-Sea on the Sussex coast. His favourite band was The Jam, but he was expanding his musical horizons in the time-honoured manner: by listening to records round at friends’ houses.
“One mate would play The Doors, another might play the Velvet Underground,” Reed tells Northern Soul. “I was always curious to hear stuff. These bands that I now have loved for many, many years, I can remember the time I first heard them. My friend Lee loved Joy Division, they were his favourite band, and I remember – and I’m not even sure Paul Weller’s got that great a voice – but I said to him, ‘Ian Curtis, he can’t sing’. And Lee turned around to me and said, ‘oh, he can sing, he just can’t sing in tune’.”
Reed laughed, but he was also intrigued, and soon enough he found himself getting into all manner of Manchester punk/post-punk, from Joy Division and New Order to Buzzcocks and Magazine. Down the subsequent decades, a deep love and encyclopedic knowledge of music has stayed with Reed. For years he worked for Record Collector magazine, and now – as well as having moved to Manchester – he’s director of catalogue at Cherry Red, one of the UK’s most distinguished record labels, known for its championing of independent music and expertly-curated reissues and compilations.
It’s in this capacity that Reed has put together Keeping Control: Independent Music From Manchester 1977-1981, a new three-CD box-set gathering together 76 tracks that should have even the keenest collector salivating. Yes, some more familiar names – The Fall, New Order, A Certain Ratio – are present and correct as they were part of the story, but so too are the less celebrated likes of The Liggers, Vibrant Thigh, Spherical Objects and 48 Chairs. It’s a smart, comprehensive look at a hugely fruitful chapter in the history of Manchester music.
The project was first conceived as a follow-up to an earlier, larger Cherry Red compilation, 2017’s Manchester: North of England. Over seven discs, that set covered the region’s music from 1977 through to 1993, and proved to be quite a success for Cherry Red.
“With that one, I got completely carried away, I guess because I live here,” Reed says. ”When it started out, it was going to be five CDs, but it ended up being seven. It was ridiculous – but it did sell well, and my boss said ‘Christ, I know I’m gonna regret it, but you fancy doing another one?’ And I said ‘well, alright, but we’ll keep this one really sane’. And I guess we have.”
What’s on the wish list?
Putting together a compilation like this is, on a basic level, about drawing up a wish list and seeing what it’s possible to get hold of in practice. For this project, an initial wish list was compiled by legendary local music fan and DJ Stephen Doyle, but there was still some way to go. “Stephen got the ball rolling,” Reed says. “These projects can take years, really – it depends on how quickly all the tracks clear – and at some point thereafter, I reconnected with Louise Alderman from Manchester Mekon. When the project sort of fell back in my lap. I thought, well, I’d like to involve Louise.”
Manchester Mekon had been a key component of the Manchester Musicians Collective, formed by like-minded souls in 1977 to pool ideas and resources while exploring some of the lesser-trodden pathways in music, with a shared house on Didsbury’s Burton Road acting as a kind of unofficial HQ. Such was their influence on the collective and their gig nights at Band on the Wall on the late 70s Manchester scene that their story could comfortably form a loose backdrop to the whole Cherry Red set. Indeed, a fanzine produced by the collective at the time, Keeping Control, lends its name to the finished compilation.
“The whole Manchester Musicians Collective thing was always at the back of my mind,” Reed says. “Having that as the thing that runs underneath this, stitching it together, it was an angle. Like a lot of these projects, you kind of have an initial spurt and then nothing as you apply to the major record companies for the bigger acts. And then you have a final furlong where, for two or three months, you’re really chipping away at the coalface to get the whole project finished off.”
The box-set comes with a lavish, detailed booklet, telling the stories of the various bands involved and the overarching story of Manchester music during the period. It also includes a full-page dedication to CP Lee, the much-missed musician and scenester who died suddenly in 2020. Tragically, Reed was in the company of Lee when that happened, meeting for a catch-up in a Levenshulme bar. “I’d got to know him quite well,” Reed says. “We used to meet for coffee and sadly he died right in front of us.”
As for dedicating the set to Lee, Reed says: “He’s older than most of the the generation of musicians that are on the compilation for the most part, but he’s on there in various guises. I think there are maybe three or four tracks he’s on or involved in. Dedicating the set to him seemed like the least we could do, really. He was quite an entertaining character, very creative, very kind, very open. He’d been involved in various aspects of the music scene right back to the 60s. It was never a dull moment with Chris. So yeah, it just felt like the right thing to do.”
CD or not CD
The finished Keeping Control set has now joined Manchester: North of England on record shop shelves – which rather begs the question, is the CD market not as dead as we’re sometimes told? The general line is that everybody streams music nowadays.
“We’re certainly not immune to that,” Reed says. “The overall trend for CD sales is certainly southwards, not northwards. We’re actually trialling three compilations that are coming out either this autumn or early next year to see if they could work as vinyl-only compilations. I don’t think vinyl spin-offs of CD compilations work. Other labels do them, but for us, I’m not sure. I think with a three CD set, the strength is that you get 75 tracks. So far it hasn’t been viable for us to do 75 tracks on a vinyl box set. But the CD comps definitely keep selling. Even the ones that haven’t done so well, they still tick over. There are very few that we haven’t re-pressed, though at the moment, with manufacturing costs going through the roof, that’s proving to be a challenge.”
It’s clear that Reed remains a besotted music fan at heart and he doesn’t hesitate for a moment to sing the praises of rare tracks on Keeping Control by The Out, Property of…, Notsensibles and Crispy Ambulance. Indeed, if the box set as a whole has a point to make, it’s that Manchester music in the punk/post-punk period was much more diverse than you might expect. Many, many bands haven’t had films or documentaries made about them, and here’s their chance for a moment in the limelight.
“I like the fact that it’s got power-pop on there, it’s got experimental stuff, it’s a real adventure, I think,” Reed says. “Back at the time, I probably only heard two or three of the tracks on this box set, if that. It’s weird isn’t it, because – and I don’t think this – but for people who don’t live here, I sense that Manchester, certainly in this era, has a reputation for being quite dour and serious – long overcoats. But a lot of that’s to do with the weather. Not everyone on Keeping Control was from council estates and rough backgrounds. Some were, some weren’t. It was a rough time, I would say, and Manchester was not a wealthy city during this period. But there’s a real sense of humour to it. Everyone says all the Scousers have got a great sense of humour, but there’s so much humour running through this, and it’s a different type. It’s drier, edgier.
“And there’s a real sense of Manchester being independent from London, just not caring about it. Not disliking it or sticking two fingers up to it, more just ‘who cares? we’ve got our own thing going on’. I suppose I’ve always been a bit ambivalent towards London, even though I grew up in its gravitational pull, so I admire cities that have that spirit. The title Keeping Control also fits with that.
“So yes, for all its little flaws and quirks, I’m happy with the set. I think it kind of works. It’s mad and it goes very deep.”
All images courtesy of Cherry Red
Keeping Control: Independent Music From Manchester 1977-1981 is available now from Cherry Red. Click here for more information.