Hedonism and homelessness, Madchester and masculinity

The North’s rockstar-scally-addicts aren’t romantic heroes – they’re examples of commodification in action.

Steve Hanson Maureen Ward
9 March 2018
mark e smith.jpg

Image: Mark E Smith of the Fall at Camp Bestival, Lulworth Castle. David Jensen/EMPICS/PA Images

1988: Men on the street smoking weed, drinking and talking. Crazy guys.

2018: Men on the street smoking spice, drinking and talking. Men with mental health problems.

Mark E. Smith died recently. His legend was partly built on his drink and drug use. Experimenting with hallucinogenics, magic mushrooms and LSD, he then moved to speed and booze as punk arrived. Shaun Ryder moved through everything, heroin, crack. All of this has been celebrated as part of the Manchester mythscape.

Note how different it sounds to simply say that Mark E. Smith was an alcoholic and Shaun Ryder was a drug addict.

The dominant, structuring myth that obscures such a stark reading is that of Romanticism, from the Death of Chatterton - appropriately decorating the cover of editions of De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater - to The Joy Division and Ian Curtis as the ultimate trope of doomed young genius. Keats and others are here, hovering above, patron saints, signs of death in life and life in death, pale, beautiful, talented, much too much so for this profane earth…

If leisure is the distorted afterimage of work, in the gym, in DIY, in consumer culture, then the current situation of the homeless on Manchester's streets is a distorted afterimage of Manchester hedonism in the 1990s. Seen one way, 'Madchester' is nothing but a premonition of the city after the crash of 2008, the big economic comedown, after which public funding is sliced and mental health services close. The rock'n'roll rollercoaster mirrors the adrenal release and crash of capitalist processes.

This is not to say that the homeless are victims of their own actions, not at all, they are the victims of a system wired to punitively push them out, Universal Credit sanctions for instance, and an utterly failed attempt to put in place a post-industrial economy. 

The waster, the scally, the loveable rogue?

Sadly, the everyday clichéd myths of working class life often contain exactly that reading, that the homeless have ‘only themselves to blame’. In Manchester, we have the cartoonish trope of the 'cheeky chappie', the cute, loveable rogue, two fingers up in defiance on one hand, can of lager in the other, hedonism as resistance. We have Ian Brown, perhaps the more considered prototype, then Liam and Noel.

This figure folds into the renegade scally, daytime leisurewear signifying an 'always off' philosophy. It may not exactly be the Situationist ‘Ne Travaillez Jamais’, ('Never Work'), but it is not far off. In many ways, these people are the last truly resistant class in Britain. But they are the victims of mass derision, officially scripted into benefits porn television and typecast as stupid. They are the scapegoats of an entire nation. The endless needling of the working class is felt like a psychic stab.

Yet the blurring boundary between the celebrated rebel and the loathed waster persists in Manchester. The reality is that the mythologized scally is a mile away from the scally of the street or the estate. Mancunians have long joined forces with troublemakers and anti-intellectual scrappers. Tony Wilson, Morrissey, John Cooper Clarke, Vinnie Riley, Ian Brown, Steve Coogan, even Noel Gallagher, were all too clever, too pretentious for the self-proclaimed 'real Mancunian', but too regional and snarky for the establishment proper.

These men were often suspicious and antagonistic of each other, but also sometimes protective of the other. Mark E. Smith, ever the curmudgeon, was a Jekyll and Hyde nightmare, both sides fighting for supremacy, the worse half gradually taking centre stage over the decades.

Students came to Manchester in their thousands because they loved Joy Division, The Smiths, The Fall, The Roses, the footy, whichever infamy was currently doing the rounds. Mancunians represent first hand, home grown exoticism, the epitome of unadulterated 'authentic man' in his wild and natural state. A latter day native, l'enfant sauvage, a little dangerous close up, but tameable with the right handling.

See the junky dance

In the end, all Mancunians seem doomed to become performing monkeys, playing for laughs.

They make hilarious and lucrative court jesters for those set on clubs or recording empires. It's commodification in action. For every maverick or dead idol that couldn't be saved from themselves, there's a handler, a stringpuller, a profiteer. It rarely ends well in Manchester for the actual hellraiser. Only the biographer, record label, publishers and more to the point property owners win.

But of course it isn't just in Manchester. All over the country, from the 1960s to now, you can see the junky dance. The public fascination with The Libertines was as ill and dysfunctional as Pete Doherty. Oh how we applaud Keith Richards exactly as much as we love to hate estate junkies robbing laptops from suburban front rooms. We love these dysfunctional lads - Amy Winehouse being the female exception who proves the rule.

The face of “evil”, as Burroughs said, is the face of total need, but if that face is pretty and entertains us with tales of vicarious hedonism we can stomach it. If it's wrapped in cool clothes and captured by great photography then all the better.

Last month Liam Gallagher popped up in the Guardian. He recalled the notorious fight in Germany, during which 80 police were called to stop a brawl that reduced a hotel ground floor to 'matchwood'. Liam also has a theory that his front teeth were pulled out by the German police. There's an exceptionalism detectable in this journalism, that what is cool for Liam Gallagher would be unacceptable if it had been carried out by football fans. This exceptionalism goes right down to the assertion that Liam has is ‘sporting the kind of feather-cut hairstyle that would – and indeed does – look ridiculous on anyone who isn’t Liam Gallagher.’

The Northern boy’s club

This Manchester is defiantly laddish, brutalised and therefore brutal, a legacy of the notorious scuttlers, the prototype street gangs whose violence haunted Victorian Manchester and had to be frequently subdued by the police. 

This tension was present right at the start of the Manchester renaissance. A frequently misinterpreted fact is that Bernard Manning compered the opening night of The Hacienda. He harangued and ridiculed the audience. A notoriously foul mouthed, racist, sexist and determined public enemy of the new alternative.

This was postmodern irony engineered by the ever-subversive Tony Wilson, but a little too early for the earnest raincoat brigade. Only Wilson and a few fellow-travellers were in on the joke. It was a rude reminder to bookish outsiders that for every Burroughs reading, for every Nico sighting, there was still a blokish riposte. This might be a fresh new club, but it was still a boy's club, and a northern boy's club at that.

But the spectre of Bernard Manning serves us well in the post-Northern Powerhouse era. Whenever the braying middle classes get too much, charging £3.50 for a coffee, waxing lyrical about how much opportunity there is to make Manchester a more 'world-class' city than 'the indigenous' could ever manage, we can think of Bernard. He was the return of the repressed. The layer of the city its gentrification tries to entomb with new Farrow & Ball surfaces.  

But Manning was vile, unrecuperable. So was Mark E. Smith in his worst moments, a monster under the stairs, a terrifying story told to middle class children as a warning. 

This situation must be turned inside-out. An attempt must be made, however futile, to place the real on the outside of representation, and Frank from 'Shameless' on the inside of creative fiction. This is not to say that there is no veracity to representations such as Frank - you can walk into Manchester right now and find him - but his being writ large whitewashes - literally - a fuller, more nuanced picture. White male Manchester is still the default myth, again with exceptions that prove the rule such as Maxine Peake.

The Manchester Musical Map of artists 'born, raised or formed in Greater Manchester, UK' was unveiled recently and then largely scorned across social media. It is a whitened history. It includes the 'globalism' of the Bee Gees and Davy Jones of the Monkees, but not the global-local of the Children of Zeus in the present, or the Suns of Arqa in the past. There is no mention of the Ruthless Rap Assassins, MC Buzz B or Barry Adamson, and a list of others as long as your arm. It is also very male, the critically acclaimed LoneLady, IAMDBB and Layfullstop are conspicuous by absence.

Freedom vs laissez faire

These working-class cultures have much longer roots. E.P. Thompson explained in The Making of the English Working Class how, during the 1770s, Oldham's population at least doubled. The economy changed, the early power looms drew agricultural labourers and skilled migrant workers into the large weaving workshops of the area, the early factories:

'In consequence, the wages of the best men steadily rose until by the 1830s and 1840s they belonged to a privileged elite. In 1845, at Messrs. Hibbert and Platt's (Oldham), the premier textile machinery works in Britain, employing close on 2,000 workers, wages of 30s. and upwards were paid to good men. The engineers (a Methodist workman complained) spent freely, gambled on horses and dogs, trained whippets, and had flesh meat "twice or thrice a day"'.

Machine culture created money, and then swagger and culture: Remember this when you next watch a Hacienda video clip of people out of it dancing to Detroit techno. Yet after this point, an increase in the numbers of skilled workers began to cause wage repression, and the rapid changes stirred up political dissent. Here are the origins of all the swagger and sorrow in the shock city, the meme of the triumphant little man and the meme of the Chaplin poor.

But the politics behind it all is telling. Thompson explained that Oldham check-weavers tried to secure legal restrictions to apprenticeships, yet the Assize Judge over-ruled the attempt, saying that if apprenticeships were to be enforced, the 'liberty of trade' which gave Manchester its wealth would be threatened. These battles would flare up periodically over the next century, a bitter lock-out in 1851 centred around Hibbert and Platt's in Oldham. (303-4)

This is an example of protectionism versus laissez faire, free market capitalism. These questions, albeit in radically different forms, have recently been forced to the surface of western politics again. It is encoded in the Corbynist desire for a strong regulatory state and the Tory dream of laissez faire.

The model of capitalism and production founded in and around Manchester has moved to the new industrial cities of the Pearl River Delta in China, among other places. After the 1770s, there would be no going back, despite the romantic yearning which followed the changes around like a mournful ghost, whimpering for a lost rural idyll, which probably never existed.

We can see this in excessively cosy views of the industrial past today. In 1981, Charlie Meecham explored and photographed the Oldham Road, one of Manchester’s arteries, for an exhibition and book. He returned to the area sporadically afterwards, and then presented a body of work made during a more intensive revisit in 2011.

It is interesting to note that one of Charlie's rural images ended up on the sleeve of 'Atmosphere' by the Joy Division, who were often hailed as the authentic voice of post-industrial alienation, during the period when Charlie was first exploring the Oldham Road.

Fantasy and sacrificial lambs

Yet we can also see a kind of romanticism in the massive psychological and cultural over-investment in lead singer Ian Curtis's death, which sometimes borders on necrophilia. There is a similarity here I think, to the way that residents of the late 18th and early 19th century invested in religious practices to survive a harsh and ultimately precarious present.

But here, in Manchester now, there are the straight up fantasists too. What we might call the ‘northern bullshitter’. The character from Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights, opening his tent to find Robert De Niro pitched across from him. But they are not fictions. A guy I went to school with claimed he played football with the Happy Mondays and Red Hot Chilli Peppers outside the Apollo in Ardwick. Another was a Britart fantasist, who claimed he climbed into a factory with Damien Hirst, where he saw the boxes of pharmaceuticals he would later copy. This is a northern phenomenon, not just a Manchester one. In Bradford recently as I caught up with a friend in a pub, a man stuck his head round the door and claimed that his father invented the television on Buttershaw Estate, in 1974.

Abject = bullshit. It’s an equation. Constricted lives mean recourse to fantasy, to a psychological escape where an escape from the abject economic and geographical conditions of class are not possible. Consequently there’s what we might call the brotherly love former pill-head fantasist. The seething well of aggression operating through a rhetoric of MDMA inspired togetherness.

We know Frank from Shameless is a character, audiences are clever enough to retain distance. Similarly, we don't assume that a tradition of rock stars who take heroin instantly means that whole swathes of youth will become hopeless addicts overnight. They are replacement Jesus figures. The Stone Roses song ‘I Am The Resurrection’ really wasn’t far-fetched.

This is not a moral or moralizing argument, but it is an argument that cultural clichés be dropped – they are blinkers – so that we can see all the different Manchesters that were there all along.

Manchester Evening News reporter Jennifer Williams’s latest news roundup is titled ‘from heroin to heroines’, the latter a reference to the suffragette anniversary.

Sadly, in Manchester we are not quite there yet.

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