Manchester’s new, true grit

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Manchester, England

If you live in Los Angeles long enough, you forget how intoxicating height can be. Here I was, 23 stories up in the coolest new hotel in northwestern England, looking across several counties and several centuries.

The bar at the glass-skinned Beetham Tower — which houses the city’s new Hilton — offers a vista as stirring in its way as the view from the Campanile in Florence, with its lavish vision of Renaissance Italy.

I was surrounded by Manchester’s most fashionable residents. Cocktails were named for Stone Roses rock songs and Man United soccer players.

Where were the belching smokestacks, the hunched-over factory workers, the dark satanic mills of this city that helped birth the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago?

They’re still here, more often in the folkloric paintings of local artist L.S. Lowry than in the city I visited in May.

By trip’s end, I would certainly see factories and the kind of Victorian redbrick warrens in which I imagine members of the Smiths, Joy Division, Buzzcocks and the Fall growing up angry. In my teenage years, these bands created in me an almost mythic sense of this city as a place of dark glamour.

Manchester, the famously gloomy working-class city memorialized by novelists and post-punk songwriters, was transformed in the late ‘80s into danceable, Day-Glo soundtracks by the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. That chapter, based around the Haçienda club, was captured in the 2002 film “24 Hour Party People,” but where has the city whose music has been so influential on indie and electronica acts gone since the movie let off in the early ‘90s?

One answer to that is unspooling right now at the Manchester International Festival, an ambitious fortnight dedicated to new work. The festival, which runs through July 15, includes a concert version of Salman Rushdie’s “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” and an opera directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and composed by Blur’s Damon Albarn.

I missed the festival by a few weeks. But it was for the past and present, and maybe the future, that I came to Manchester.

Although residents of Liverpool and Birmingham might disagree, the 2.5 million people who live in greater Manchester would argue that this is England’s second city for its restaurants, cafe life, its enormous student population and its music scene. It also has a strong gay culture, a large Chinatown, the famed Curry Mile for South Asian food and arguably the most popular “football” team in the world. And almost everything is within walking distance.

But Manchester is also a longtime creative center, as its cast of natives (or nearly so) suggests: writer Anthony Burgess, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood (actually Derbyshire, about 13 miles away) and filmmaker Mike Leigh. Young British Artist Chris Ofili grew up nearby, and Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell set novels here.

These sons and daughters might not recognize the place now. A 1996 Irish Republican Army bombing that injured more than 200 people and leveled parts of the city center led not only to new, often Modern-style construction but also pushed Manchester — always an innovative place — toward a new kind of urbanism.

The old Smiths lyric — “If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb ... that will bring us together” — takes on a new, if unintended, meaning.

Dave Haslam, historian, former Haçienda DJ and author of the invaluable “Manchester, England: The Story of the Pop Cult City,” says the place has been fired by an independent spirit since long before Happy Mondays. Because of its head start in the Industrial Revolution, its access to Lancashire farmland and its train lines and canals to Liverpool’s port, Manchester long ago became an indie city.

“Within the first decades of the nineteenth century,” Haslam writes, “the city’s merchants had worldwide contacts, with no dependency on the largesse of London. They had created their own wealth, become economically self-sufficient....

“In the era of rock & roll this would be just as crucial as in the days of cotton and coal.”

It is here that I should confess that I am an reconstructed music freak. That was part of Manchester’s allure, and I spent time hanging out with my sister Amanda and her husband, Matt, Manchester residents who also love the city’s rock history.

Every tough British city has its signature band, but the music culture here is fully formed and amazingly multidimensional. Guidebooks in gift shops here can direct you past every signpost or local reference in Smiths songs. Even the Salford Lads Club, where the inside sleeve of “The Queen Is Dead” album was shot, has remade a room into a shrine to Smiths singer Morrissey and the boys. Books on Factory Records — the city’s great post-punk label, with its stark, iconic graphic design — are easy to find.

You can walk past the Manchester Free Trade Hall, where Bob Dylan put on a legendary electric concert in 1966 and where the Sex Pistols turned English music on its axis a decade later. (The Free Trade Hall is now a Radisson hotel; condos now stand where the Haçienda, the famous “Madchester"-era club, used to be.)

But the city’s music life goes beyond typical English heritage worship.

In the funky Northern Quarter, Oldham Street is lined with independent record stores, stocked for vinyl diggers, obscurantists and obsessives. Piccadilly Records seems dedicated to nearly everything non-mainstream — freak folk, experimental electronic and more. The week I visited, the store was hosting a small photo show of an epic Joy Division gig.

Nearby, Beatin’ Rhythm sells rare 45s and has one of the best collections of American black music — plus its English cult-genre sibling, northern soul — I’ve ever seen.

The Richard Goodall Gallery, around the corner on Thomas Street, is dedicated almost entirely to rock-show posters, many of which are works of art in their own right.

They reinforce my belief that the rock poster has become a hybrid art form, like the graphic novel, that’s as vital and alive as the genres that feed it. I had just missed a show of posters for the Portland, Ore., band the Decemberists — who seem to bring out the best in artists. Still, I could have lost a day to the place.

The week I was in England, down-tempo group Groove Armada, rave revitalists Klaxons, Kinks frontman Ray Davies and Scandinavian crooner Sondre Lerche all played here. But I can see these artists in the States, so I sought out things that don’t travel as easily.

I caught the Jim Mullen Trio, a local jazz band, at the laid-back Matt and Phred’s, a dedicated jazz venue in the Northern Quarter. It was good, though not quite Village Vanguard quality.

And I saw the Hallé Orchestra perform a concert of Russian and Soviet music at Bridgewater Hall on Lower Mosley Street. The Hallé, Britain’s oldest professional orchestra, has experienced a resurgence under its current music director, Mark Elder, and now runs its own label. The concert was very good, a crisper-than-usual take.

The Royal Northern College of Music puts on chamber music shows; two of Britain’s greatest contemporary composers, Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, came up through the college.

Every shop or restaurant I entered was playing good music, whether local boys like New Order or American groups like Talking Heads. Haslam calls Manc “one of the least insular music cities in the world; it can love its local bands without being deaf to the charms of others.” It’s been open to black music for decades; blues hound John Mayall grew up listening to his father’s jazz records, and the reggae and dub label Blood and Fire was founded here.

One night, I went to the Dry Bar, once owned by Factory Records and where members of New Order and Happy Mondays used to hang out. Surrounded by men in stretchy sweaters and women dressed like Lily Allen, in fringe haircuts and ironically dowdy dresses, I saw several bands, the best of which was the Bikinis, a London group with a spirit part mod, part garage band.

But my best musical experiences were at the cafe-bars that pack the Northern Quarter. As Haslam explains, the birth of industry in Manchester made it perhaps the first place with a contemporary style of leisure — a city, as he puts it, “defined by work and hooked on pleasure.”

I was in town for two Saturdays, and Amanda, Matt and I started both of those evenings at Common, an unforgettable cafe-bar. Its walls are repainted every few months. Most recently, the live-art collective Dot the Eyes had transformed the main wall into one long, whimsical mural that recalled “urban rustic” painters such as Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen.

Here, I sipped bitters and heard DJs spin a melange of music, including L.A. funk musician Roy Ayers and the new down-tempo band the Visioneers.

We also hit the bars Odd and Trof, similar places where we caught more DJs, strange short films and a cryptic electronica duo, One Manned Mule.

Though the music and crowd were fashionable, the attitude wasn’t smug, and there was no velvet rope. This easy sociability and sense of discovery got me into music in the first place, and that’s what I keep looking for and, all too infrequently, find two decades later.

Oh, the juxtapositions

My first official act as a visitor, a few hours after arrival, was the kind of little accidental moment that makes travel worthwhile. Amanda, Matt and I walked through Exchange Square, which has been largely rebuilt since the IRA bombing, through the handsome Manchester Cathedral, and grabbed a pint at Sinclairs Oyster Bar, an 18th century building.

While we were catching up on the patio, we saw police officers chasing a young man, presumably fleeing a nearby department store, through an alley of centuries-old buildings. Still bleary-eyed from my flight and perhaps from the Samuel Smiths I was drinking, I felt as though I had walked into a scene right out of Dickens.

Rarely has criminality proved so charming. No freeway chases, no handguns — just petty crime the way it used to be.

That day, we also visited a dramatic, glass-and-steel museum of urban life that looks to the future. In the park outside, pale-skinned goths from the 15th century conservatory — in whose library Marx and Engels often met to discuss the sins of capitalism — lounged.

It’s this ability to travel through time, to move through the layers of history, that makes trips to Britain so evocative.

Often, this juxtaposition was in the very bones of the buildings. The Royal Exchange, a Victorian edifice that served as a commodities market for the cotton trade, is the kind of “iconic” building that seems to exist to be seized in an anarchist revolution. Old cotton trading signs still hang from the ceiling. The contemporary Royal Exchange Theatre is now in the hall’s center, with cafes and bars around the edges.

Throughout the trip, I saw this sort of adaptive reuse, where old exteriors had been saved and interiors had been hollowed out into airy, friendly spaces.

Still, I wanted some of that Victorian mojo. The best place to find the old, industrial Manchester, with its iron bridges, railway viaducts, picturesque brick walls and cobblestones glistening in the rain, is Castlefield, a beautifully restored section just south of the city center, so evocative of the old city that you hear Smiths songs just looking at it.

Once home to the city’s original fort, Mamucium, which the Romans built about AD 79 , it became Britain’s first urban heritage park and is now full of hip warehouse flats.

The entrance to the area is a bright little deli-cafe called Love Saves the Day, with cappuccinos and baked goods, and co-owned by a former member of the band Simply Red.

Mostly, it’s a relaxed area to walk, see a working canal that was Britain’s first and drop into gastropubs such as the Ox and Dukes 92 to nibble on fresh breads and local cheese while draining pints of Landlord or Boddingtons. The tableau is especially welcome in a city short on green space.

Next to Castlefield is the Deansgate Locks, now home to trendy bars and clubs set into a railroad archway. The neighborhood is also the setting for the Museum of Science and Industry, an enormous, family-friendly compound in an 1830s train station. The main wing includes an exhibit on the city’s history and its importance to textiles, the invention of the computer and the splitting of the atom. Don’t miss the annex with dozens of old planes.

Factory founder Tony Wilson, Mark E. Smith of the Fall, and members of New Order and Happy Mondays grew up just over the canal in Salford, which is next door to Manchester. Call it the East L.A. of Greater Manchester.

Much of it has been revived recently, and although the docklands called the Quays are now so clean as to be soulless, the two main attractions — the Lowry arts complex and the Imperial War Museum North — make it more than worth the 15-minute light-rail ride from central Manchester.

The Lowry itself seemed to have a lot to offer, with galleries as well as music performances and theater. I spent my time in the galleries, checking out an exhibit by a Northern photographer as well as one dedicated to the place’s namesake, artist L.S. Lowry, who was a revelation.

Lowry’s work, though obscure even among art enthusiasts, is a precursor to the high-low mix that speaks to today. These days, he might be considered an outsider artist, and some of his paintings, including “A Fight” and “Coming From the Mill,” both from the 1930s, could come from a contemporary graphic novel.

In fact, a highlight of the Lowry exhibit was a video for the Oasis song “The Masterplan,” in which the band members, who grew up nearby, walk through a cityscape of the artist’s paintings.

The War Museum, whose complex, shard-like steel building was designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, was something else entirely. It’s a heavy but somehow entertaining experience, and you get none of the celebratory spirit that war sometimes evokes: This is a culture that has seen clearly just how brutal war can be.

It’s sobering to walk through an exhibit that makes you a foot soldier in World War I or to stand next to a (deactivated) nuclear bomb or watch an old public service film about what to do in case of an atomic attack. Every hour, the lights go out and images of war are projected on a wall.

For me, some of the highlights were more whimsical: The museum and gift shop have an extensive collection of recruiting and propaganda posters from World Wars I and II. “Women of Britain, Come Into the Factories!”

Too prosperous to inspire punk?

For better or worse, the environment that formed the heyday of Manchester music is gone.

If punk came from anger, boredom and art schools, then Manchester was a perfect breeding ground. Today, the city may simply be too prosperous and bourgeois.

It’s easy to escape to London (about two hours by train) or to the village charms of the Peak District — England’s first national park and home to some intensely green countryside.

But I’d urge visitors eager for a fuller experience of Britain to check out Manchester and its unknown pleasures: Pop Boutique and its ‘60s clothes and retro furniture, Oklahoma’s vegetarian food and groovy gift shop, the artsy bookstore Magma, the neo-Gothic Town Hall, the just-restored medieval-style John Rylands University Library, and an outdoor market with artisanal Lancashire cheeses and smoked sausages.

In his witty and insightful “The English: A Portrait of a People,” Jeremy Paxman writes that his countrymen, despite all evidence to the contrary, continue to imagine their nation as a rural, cottage-y southern hamlet.

This view led them to overlook the charms of the industrial north, and this self-image spread to America.

For lovers of music and culture, it’s essential to get past this romantic prejudice. You’re cheating yourself if you avoid England’s grittier cities. A place like Manchester may not be for everyone, but for a certain kind of traveler, there’s no better place.