In the ’70s, England had two great punk cities. Most across the planet thought London was the world’s only punk capital, completely ignoring the music and culture’s beginnings in New York City, mostly due to the Sex Pistols’ outsized reputation and influence. But if London was English Punk City No. 1, Manchester definitely came in a close second.
One of Great Britain’s foremost industrial cities, Manchester had produced some of the shiniest pop acts of the ’60s, including the Hollies and Herman’s Hermits. Post-glam yobs Slaughter And The Dogs already revved up the bovver rock tradition to Ramonic tempos back in 1975. Then Bolton Institute of Technology students Howard Trafford and Peter McNeish had their Damascene moment when seeing a February 1976 Sex Pistols gig. Overnight, they became Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley, naming their putative punk group after a phrase in a TV review in London’s Time Out magazine: “Get a buzz, cock.”
The duo’s new band were supposed to open the Pistols gig they’d booked at the Lesser Free Trade Hall for June 4, 1976. But without a complete rhythm section, it fell to Slaughter And The Dogs to open. Meanwhile, seemingly everyone in the audience formed a band: Noted New York Dolls obsessive Steven Morrissey, back when he had a full name; the entirety of Joy Division; and significant chunks of the Fall. Attendee Martin Hannett recorded every great Manchester band eventually. TV presenter Tony Wilson released a number of their records on his Factory label.
Though many of Manchester’s early punk forces were as crude and thuggish as they came, Buzzcocks’ more cerebral nature eventually overrode everything. Their balancing act of total aggression and delicate artfulness came to mark all Manc punk. The city had its own take on fashion, graphics and business that eventually folded into the early ’80s indie scene. You don’t get the post-Joy Division New Order, the Smiths or the Stone Roses without the crew who overran local heavy-metal venue the Electric Circus after the Pistols’ Anarchy tour date there in 1976. We begin our tale with the local act who opened the show.
Best heard on: Singles Going Steady
The shadow Buzzcocks cast over Pennines punk’s as total as it’s undeniable. With Devoto fronting, grafting the arch lyric poetry of “Boredom” and “Breakdown” atop Shelley’s sawn-off guitar action, they were as brutal as the Pistols while as camp and literary as Roxy Music. With Shelley in the driver’s seat, composing such deathless classics of burnt romanticism as “What Do I Get?” and “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?),” the raw six-string aggression and locomotive drumming took on the pop craftsmanship of ’60s forebears the Hollies. Their art-school/mod fashion sense and in-house designer Martin Garrett’s clean, ultra-modern graphic sense became as influential as the band’s clipped, melodic belligerence.
Slaughter And The Dogs
Best heard on: Do It Dog Style
For all Buzzcocks’ deserved supremacy, Slaughter And The Dogs got there first. Four teenage Bowie fans from Manchester’s ultra-working class housing estate Wythenshawe, they bastardized their name from his Diamond Dogs album and his guitarist Mick Ronson’s solo record, Slaughter On 10th Avenue. Stuffing packets of high-octane sulfate up Ronson’s most bone-crunching riffs’ nostrils, they were the ultimate punk-as-bonehead-raunch band, presaging the proletarian-stomp era of Sham 69 and Cockney Rejects by a good two years. Football glam bashers like “Cranked Up Really High” and “Where Have All The Boot Boys Gone” still pack a catchy wallop that resonates to this day.
Formed by Slaughter And The Dogs roadie Eddie Garrity, who became Nosebleeds’ lead vocalist Ed Banger, this bunch straddled the chasm dividing Slaughter’s droog-rock and Buzzcocks’ artfulness. Having future Durutti Column leader Vini Reilly on guitar helped. As a classically trained pianist, Reilly surely snickered his way through their instant anthem “Ain’t Bin To No Music School,” especially the introductory proto-sample of some symphonic classical piece Your Punk Professor has yet to identify. While channeling crazed Stooges guitarist James Williamson, he brought a sharp musicality to the rampaging anti-music anthem. Both Morrissey and future Cult guitarist Billy Duffy eventually passed through.
Best heard on: 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong (39 Golden Greats)
The world’s deadliest cult act, the Fall rivaled Pere Ubu as Earth’s longest-lived art-punk outfit. They formed in 1976 and lasted until leader Mark E. Smith’s death three years back. Fanatics insist all 32 of their studio albums, plus the endless live albums, are wonderful, displaying a constant evolution and refinement. Only a fanatic could tell. They certainly made a distinctive racket that could be quite fun and baffling at once, all scratchy guitars, inspired amateurism, pounding motorik rhythms and Smith—the sole constant in the band’s history. His caustic absurdist poetry and distinctive vocal style are instantly recognizable.
Best heard on: Touch And Go: Anthology 02.78 – 06.81
Devoto planned to leave rock ’n’ roll behind upon his exit from Buzzcocks after the release of debut EP, Spiral Scratch, one of the earliest independent punk records. Little did he know upon his return to academia, he’d encounter a genius guitarist, John McGeoch. After falling into writing songs with McGeoch, Magazine soon followed. At times a refinement of Buzzcocks’ artful melodic punk, other times highly art-damaged pop, there was a tension in the muscular rhythm section driven by Barry Adamson, McGeoch’s guitar heroics, Dave Formula’s abstract expressionist keyboards and Devoto—the most unnerving frontman not named John Lydon.
Best heard on: Substance
The band who came to define post-punk better than anyone began as a Pistols-damaged punk outfit, albeit one who’d read their share of William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard books. Meeting producer Hannett’s fertile sonic imagination, the band suddenly indulged in a driving, minimalist repetition. Peter Hook played lead bass as hairy as his jaw, drummer Stephen Morris pounded out motorik beats and Bernard Sumner’s guitar roared while rarely indulging power chords. And Ian Curtis demonstrated he was practiced at the art of falling apart beautifully. Joy Division were poetic devils and devilish angels who lived all too briefly.
John Cooper Clarke
Best heard on: Où est la maison de fromage?
He’s best known for “Evidently Chickentown,” the Motörhead speed burst of profanity that closed a season 6 episode of The Sopranos. But the “Backcombed Bard of Salford” gained his first fame decrying his rapid-fire “punk poetry” opening for bands like Buzzcocks. Looking like a praying mantis trick-or-treating as 1966 Bob Dylan, John Cooper Clarke spewed his working-class angst, trash culture obsessions and absurdist humor at a pace fit for pogoing. He made records grafting his tightly crafted verse to burbling post-punk. Now he’s part of the English literary canon, an influence on everything from contemporary British comedy to the Arctic Monkeys.
Best heard on: The Albums
A number of punk acts who sound pretty killer now got accused of being bandwagon jumpers in the ’70s. One could make the case for branding the Drones thusly, considering they’d begun as pub rockers Rockslide who went full pogo when their “Roller Coaster” 45 tanked. As such, they fully tipped over to what punk historian Clinton Heylin termed the “fuck art, let’s rock” brigade, best represented locally by Slaughter And The Dogs. But such snot-bombs as “Lookalikes” and “Persecution Complex” tear ass through the Cheshire Plain like the bastard children of Iggy and the Stooges—dole queue rock Raw Power outtakes.
Best heard on: True Love Stories
Our next two entrants actually enacted punk parodies so well done, they worked. Prior to becoming a beloved British comic actor with a musical bent, Graham Fellows was a Manchester Polytechnic drama student who’d written “Jilted John,” a song about a hapless, bitter teenager’s rage at losing girlfriend Julie to a “moron” named Gordon. Set to a gloriously dumb two-chord riff and produced to perfection by Hannett, it became a freak No. 4 U.K. hit. For a significant period, Fellows remained in character as Jilted John on TV and onstage, urging audiences to snarl along that “Gordon is a moron.”
Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias
Snuff Rock live, Side One:
Best heard on: Snuff Rock EP
Formed in 1973, Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias were a rock satire outfit so merciless and accurate, it was easy to mistake their caricatures for the real thing. Take Sleak (aka Snuff Rock), their 1977 stage musical skewering punk. Inspired by Snuff, a 1976 American splatter film marketed as if it were a real snuff film, the play told the tale of Norman Sleak, a punk-rock singer rising to the top of the charts by threatening to kill himself onstage. The original score EP on Stiff Records was so dead-on in its tongue-in-cheek approximations of the Pistols (“Gobbing On Life”), Damned (“Kill”), Clash (“Snuffin’ Like That”) and the reggae/punk crossover (“Snuffin’ In A Babylon”), few could tell it was comedy.
Best heard on: The Best Of?
They began in Blackpool, 40 miles north of Manchester, and didn’t relocate until 1983, about the time Morrissey and Johnny Marr sat in each other’s bedrooms plotting to rule the world. But the Membranes’ insane acid racket was of such a piece with other Mancunian post-punk outfits of the time that they are the perfect bookend for this chapter. They centered around future rock journalist John Robb’s ultra-distorted bass, Coofy Sid’s battering ram drums and Mark Tilton’s steroid-enhanced take on classic Manchester scratchy guitarwork. Membranes music had range, from the near-proto-indie of “Man From Moscow” to the bombastic caterwaul of “Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder.” If anything, the Membranes were the perfect Manchester band.