The Rats’ Tales: The extraordinary life stories of Manchester buskers, The Piccadilly Rats
If you’ve ever meandered past the corner of Lever Street and Piccadilly Gardens in the heart of Manchester, you’ve probably witnessed the unabated joy that is beloved busking collective, The Piccadilly Rats. Comprised of musicians, backing dancers, and backed by a faithful band of supporters, the Rats have been entertaining visitors to the city centre for the best part of a decade.
For men who choose to spend their days on a rain-soaked corner, they have all led fascinating lives. Bassist Heath Dean’s struggle with addiction while he was living in the United States ended with an attempt to flee to Mexico with $5,000 in cash, only to be mugged just after crossing the border. Meanwhile, the band’s former dancer, Ray Toddington, fought polio as a child which left him with a lifelong limp. He was also a friend of infamous London gangsters, the Kray twins, and served seven years in Broadmoor for the manslaughter of a 16-year-old boy in Middleton in 1963.
Not all of the band’s stories are this sombre, though. One of their favourite stories is their well-documented appearance on the TV show, Judge Rinder. The Rats had been voted out of a battle of the bands competition back in 2012 after dancer Tommy Piggot mistakenly put his mankini on back to front, leaving so little to the imagination that the audience, overcome with laughter, couldn’t hear the band’s performance. As a result, they were expelled from the contest. While Toddington did not get the resolution he was hoping for, the episode has lived on in the memories of many Mancunians.
For singer Garry Stanley, his love affair with music began some time ago, long before the before the Madchester days of Wonderwall and Fool’s Gold.
“I’ve always been interested in music,” Stanley recalls. “I’m 63 now, so my greatest decade was the 60s. I grew up in Harpurhey, but I was brought up on The Beatles, The Mindbenders, The Searchers, and Gerry and the Pacemakers. Mum bought me a guitar when I was about six, a little blue plastic thing, but I never really bothered with it. I picked up the guitar again when I was about 20, and joined a punk band, but we never amounted to much. We only knew three chords anyway.”
As he got older, Stanley still harboured a passion for performing. He decided to take his talents to the streets of Manchester and started busking at weekends.
“The first time I did busking, I nearly didn’t do it. I set all the gear up, and I just couldn’t sing, nothing would come out. So, I started packing my stuff up, then I thought no, sod it, I’m doing one song at least. So I started singing the first bit of Rave On by Buddy Holly, and one guy came past. He didn’t even look at me, he just nonchalantly threw 10p onto my guitar case and, even though he didn’t really acknowledge me much, it gave me the confidence to carry on.”
He adds: “I’ve always been shy, so when the others joined that was a blessing in disguise for me. With all the madness of a rat on the drums and Tommy and Ray dancing, it took the attention off me.”
In true anarchic Rats fashion, the crew came together via a succession of chance meetings and happy accidents.
Stanley recalls: “It all started when my daughter wanted a drum kit for Christmas, which we bought, but she never bothered with it. So I was left with these few drums and a hi-hat. Then I got talking to this busker, Heath, and I told him about the drum kit, and he said he could play, so he joined me on drums. At first, he was worried about busking in case it affected his benefits, so we went and bought two rats’ heads so nobody could see who we were. But I couldn’t sing through it, so that’s why the drummer’s the only one wearing one now.
“Then, one day I saw a big crowd gathered as I was walking through town and it turned out they were watching Ray dancing. He was just on his own with his little beatbox, but he had this massive crowd behind him, and I thought I’ve got to try and talk to him. Next minute, he’s in the group too.”
He continues: “Then Tommy came along. We were playing and he was stood at the side. After every song he got a little bit nearer until, before I knew it, he was stood at the side of me, dancing. So he joined us by accident really.”
In the eight years since that auspicious meeting of minds, the Rats have been delighting locals and tourists with their happy-go-lucky covers of Manchester’s most well-known musical exports. Their persuasive charm has even won them notable recognition.
“We got rained off one day, so I was sat at home with nothing to do. So, as a joke, I put on Twitter ‘The Piccadilly Rats will be playing Parklife this year’ and then didn’t think anything of it.
“But [Parklife festival founder and Manchester nightlife mogul] Sacha Lord saw it, so he got in touch and offered us a spot on the main stage. I couldn’t believe it. I was absolutely gobsmacked. We had everything laid on for us backstage, too – full English breakfast in the morning, free beer all day, it was brilliant. The backstage bit was better than being on the stage.”
Tales such as these feature throughout the pages of the band’s recent biography, written by Martin Green with a foreword by venerated Manchester DJ, Clint Boon. After the Rats performed at several events hosted by Green’s charity, the Riff Raff Society, he suggested the idea of documenting theirr lives on the fringes of society.
But, as Green recalls, the process of writing the novel wasn’t always straightforward.
“Trying to pin them down was ridiculous, so I had to attack each one individually. I started with Garry who’s very intelligent but also very dysfunctional. His stories hopped around so much, from being a child to being on the telly to being in a comedy series but all out of order.
“He used to be the guy that stands with the Pizza Hut sign at the end of Market Street, so I’d take a deckchair, put my dictaphone on and just chat to him and by the time I’d get home two hours later, my stomach muscles would be creased from laughing. But trying to string them together into his life story was a challenge. When I did and I took it back to him, he said ‘I didn’t even know my own life story, and I’ve just read it’.”
Green adds: “I went to Heath second and his story was totally unexpected. A lot of the band faced abuse as children, but I don’t think Heath had ever told his story before. So, the first interview I went to see him for was in a café in Moston, but I didn’t know he was coming off heroin. I bought him his breakfast and he put a tiny bit in his mouth and then bolted off to the toilet and I could hear him retching for about 20 minutes. But he has really come out the other side now and seeing how far he’s come is quite emotional.”
For Stanley, the process of being interviewed for the book was also an intimate experience.
“I lost my father when I was six-years-old and so going back to things like that was difficult. But there are some happy parts in there too, thank god.”
This book also serves as an homage to the band’s enigmatic dancer Ray, who passed away in 2019 after a collision with a tram in the city centre. For Stanley, his friend’s death turned his world upside down.
“It devastated me,” he says. “I’d known him for eight years and he’d become one of my best mates. He’d come to my house two or three nights a week, he got to know my family as well and they loved him too. We’d go busking on a Saturday and then he’d come back to mine for his tea and we’d sit and watch The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent together.
“He’d been at my house the day he died actually. He was going to play a gig at The Millstone, so he left early to make sure he got a good seat. I phoned him up about nine o’clock to ask how he’d gotten on, but it was his son that answered. He said, ‘my dad’s had an accident and he might not make it until tomorrow’. I went to see him as soon as I could, and he died about six days later.
“I tried to be matter-of-fact about it at first, but it did end up making me really ill. My drinking spiralled out of control, and I ended up in a psychiatric unit for a month. They managed to get me well though, and now I’ve not had a drink in two years. So, I’m not going back to the beer. I’ve got so many happy memories of him, but I still miss him really terribly, even to this day.”
The pandemic forced the Rats to unplug their instruments for almost two years meaning that a melancholy silence has fallen over their once merry corner of Piccadilly Gardens. However, with many memories still to make, fans will be pleased to hear that they have no intention of going anywhere
“I’ve not been doing too well in myself,” says Stanley. “I’ve had depression and anxiety, so that’s why I’ve not been out because I’m just trying to get myself sorted at the minute. But hopefully, I’ll be back one day in the not-too-distant future.”
Main image: Piccadilly Rats. Image by Martin Green.
All images courtesy of Martin Green.
Fans can ride out the wait for return of The Rats by delving further into the band’s lives through the pages of Martin Green’s book, The Rats’ Tales: The Official Biography – The Extraordinary Life Stories of the Piccadilly Rats, which you can purchase on Amazon.
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Spotted in Manchester's Northern Quarter. (photo by RM) pic.twitter.com/FcFSbbvtZ9