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Death to Trad Rock

John Robb on writing books and a moment of insanity in Manchester's music scene

Published on October 15th 2009.


Death to Trad Rock

God knows why but I write books.

It's really hard work. Like doing your homework forever. A year of intense Macbook bashing. A year of transcribing. A year of editing. But when you finish, it’s a great feeling. When the first box of books arrives in the post, it's quite special.

The scene didn’t have a name and it was so smartass that it wouldn’t even call itself a scene.

For some reason, this year I’ve written two. Both at the same time.

The first was The North Will Rise Again – an oral history of Manchester music which came out in the summer and detailed the city's music culture in quotes from 150 of the main players. It has sold really well, thank fuck.

My latest, out this month, is Death to Trad Rock; an account of the 50 or so bands involved in the Eighties post-punk underground. An intense scene of noisenik bands that existed outside the music machine and created their own defiant scene – with one of the central cities being Manchester. It was home to groups like the Membranes, Big Flame, A Witness, Marc Riley and the Creepers and Bogshed, who were all based in or near the city. Venues like the Boardwalk were key stopping off points for many of the bands.

The mid-Eighties underground scene was an intense story of anti-Thatcherism, punk ethics and Do It Yourself music and fanzine culture, with the miners strike being the big political backdrop.

‘Faster! Louder! Harder!’ we feverishly typed in our fanzines as we goaded the bands along. For here was a collection of bands who were in love with discordant riffing and the thrill of noise combined with guttural, rough-hewn melody.

For a brief flicker of time, something really wild was going on in the UK. As Thatcher turned the screw and the charts filled up with the most boring pop music ever made, the underground, quite literally, went mad.

This loose collection of bands never considered themselves a scene but were affiliated by the same gig circuit, playing the same bills, and fired by the same breathless fanzine support and the same packed venues. Venues where callow youths were linked together on a long and strange trip. This was a trip that could be intensely political or weirdly psychedelic. It could be warped pop or discordant freak-out. It could be obtuse or wildly catchy.

The bands generally played loud, dissonant noise rock with a stripped down punk energy and quirky anti-rock songs. Many of them came out of the tail end of punk, growing up with wild-eyed expectations of what it meant and recreating it with a sense of DIY and adventure.

This was a time when a vibrant underground linked together by fanzines and late night radio-play created its own alternative. A time when alternative and independent meant what they said. When 'independent music' meant it was independent and not just a cosy marketing term for major labels to sell watered-down jangly guitar pop.

This was a time when music was bent out of shape.

Most of the bands had a dirty bass sound, shrapnel guitars and surreal lyrics. Many of them played benefit gigs for the miners strike. Then again, some of them did none of these things but somehow still seemed to fit in.

The scene didn’t have a name and it was so smartass that it wouldn’t even call itself a scene.

This was a loose confederation of noisenik bands, reacting against the bland conformity of the mid-Eighties and driven by a kind of noise that served to drown out the soporific drone of the ‘loadsamoney’ culture with sharp and angular songs.

Some of the bands went on to mainstream success, some of them faded away, and some of them have become seminal influences.

Writing the book put me back in a very different place; a place where people still believed that music could change the world. This was a generation who had grown though punk and believed in all its promises. Gloriously naïve and fervently angry, the scene of bands in Death to Trad Rock were the last explosion of underground culture in British music, and the book details their moment of insanity.

Death to Trad Rock (Cherry Red Books, £14.99) by John Robb is out now.

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Colonol BeefheartOctober 15th 2009.

great times, great bands...

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