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Manchester's new, true grit

The gloomy, angry Manchester that spawned rock icons is now a vibrant indie scene of cafes and culture -- and its musical heart still beats on.

July 01, 2007|Scott Timberg | 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 Hacienda 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 Hacienda 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.

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