May 20, 2022

The artist Jeremy Deller once gifted me a brick wrapped in newspaper. It was from a demolished factory building in Salford that had been co-founded in 1837 by the father of Friedrich Engels. Concerned that his son was mixing with too many young revolutionaries at home in Germany, Engels Senior deployed his son at the Salford factory, only for Engels Junior to discover that Salford and the adjoining city of Manchester were also hotbeds of radical politics.

Young Engels documented the condition of the working class in England primarily through his adventuring in Manchester, and the self-organisation of the working poor in the city helped shape his Communist Manifesto.

Jeremy knew I would like to add the Engels brick to another brick in my possession: one from the Haçienda nightclub, founded in May 1982 and co-owned by the record label Factory Records, and their most successful act, New Order. The club closed in June 1997 and was subsequently demolished.

Between these two bricks a remarkable story can be told, beginning with the rise of Manchester as a global industrial powerhouse trading in textiles. In the early 1870s it was one of the ten wealthiest cities on earth, but 100 years later a post-industrial malaise hit the city hard. Then, during the so-called “Madchester” music explosion in the latter half of the Eighties — when the Haçienda played a pioneering role in the birth of electronic dance music — Manchester became the most talked-about music city in the world. The International Music Summit estimates electronic dance music festivals and clubs, globally, now have an annual value of $2.5 billion.

The Haçienda is more famous now than ever, celebrated in books, documentaries and films including 24 Hour Party People (starring Steve Coogan playing Tony Wilson, the highest profile member of the Factory Records family). This month, the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Haçienda will be marked with a “rave in a car park” underneath the block of apartments built on the former site of the club.

Manchester in the early Eighties, along with so many other places — Detroit, Manhattan, Liverpool, Birmingham — suffered from rising unemployment, an exodus of its population, and a landscape of urban decay. In 1982 there was an estimated 20 million square feet of empty industrial floor space, much of it old cotton mills.

As well as a jobs crisis, Manchester had an identity crisis too. With the textile industry disappearing, what would come next? “Cottonopolis” as the city was dubbed, was being wiped off the map.

Music began to occupy and enliven the city. Derelict warehouses turned into rehearsal rooms, bedrooms into record label offices, and basements into clubs, venues, and record shops. Before the Haçienda, Factory, for a short while, hosted live music in an unloved part of the city called Hulme, but then began to release records by groups including Joy Division, then, after the death of singer Ian Curtis in May 1980, New Order.

In 1982, Factory Records and New Order took over a former yacht warehouse in order to build a venue, the Haçienda, on the edge of the city. An advert in the Manchester Evening News a few days before the Haçienda’s opening included the pledge: “To restore a sense of place”. I love the ambition of that, but local fanzine “City Fun” was sceptical; they had already dubbed it “Wilson’s folly”.

In its early years the Haçienda hosted plenty of very decent live acts (from Cabaret Voltaire to Curtis Mayfield), a reading by William Burroughs, and screenings of Kenneth Anger films. The club struggled financially in the early years, but fortunes changed when the owners poached a new general manager, Paul Mason. I was one of a small handful of resident DJs, and DJ-only club nights were prioritised over live music.

We pushed a mix of music that gave the club a point of difference, an edge. A successful club becomes truly special when it begins to draw-in devoted music fans and the sparkiest local characters, and acts as a catalyst for all manner of creative activity.

In 1988, Haçienda DJ ‘Little’ Martin Prendergast was one of four young men featured in i-D magazine who were described as examples of the big new thing: “a surreal youth cult” wearing flares and turned on to Sixties psychedelic music and contemporary Black American dance music. Manchester was also asserting its musical power through other clubs in the city and local bands including Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses. By the beginning of the Nineties, German TV crews and Japanese music journalists stalked the Haçienda dancefloor, and Newsweek in America made Manchester music a front cover story.

Ecstasy was part and parcel of a Haçienda night out in that era. This drew drug dealers into the club, and the Haçienda became lucrative turf that gangs battled over. In July 1989, Claire Leighton died after taking ecstasy in the club. A year later, the local police began to take steps to persuade local magistrates to close down the Haçienda. The club employed the celebrated QC George Carman — who the previous year had successfully defended Ken Dodd against charges of tax evasion — and the Haçienda was reprieved.

Through the Nineties, endless police and gang pressures and escalating costs led to the closure of the club. The ripples of creativity emanating from its four walls were everywhere in evidence though. Laurent Garnier launched his DJ career in the Haçienda in 1987, and it changed his life; he went back to his native France and was instrumental in nurturing club culture in Paris and beyond. In 2017 he was awarded the Légion d’honneur for his work in music.

What remains unarguable is that the ambitious aim to create a sense of place was achieved in the lifetime of the club. In the Eighties the Central Manchester Development Corporation was set up to bring investment into the city. It was a struggle, but the emerging music scene changed minds by making Manchester a place to be. From 1990 doors opened, investors were interested.

Since then, former New Order bass player Peter Hook has taken ownership of the Haçienda brand and successfully commercialised it. This summer, in addition to the car park event, the Haçienda Classical project — DJs with an orchestra playing a Haçienda-themed selection of retro hits — is on the road.

Central to the impact of the Haçienda experience was that it was unpredictable, aspiring to a leadership role in a cultural revolution, and revelling in a forward-looking music policy. But 25 years since its closure, the nostalgia-soaked Haçienda-themed nights aren’t any of those things.

Nevertheless, a sense of occasion surrounds the rave in a car park, with a classic line-up of DJs, representing various eras of the club’s lifespan. And after two years of grim Covid-related lockdowns, there’s no way anyone could begrudge younger generations some partial taste of history or older people a reminder of their happiest days.

In truth, the fortunes of the Eighties golden generation have been mixed. One of the four young men featured in i-D, Stephen Cresser, was a Haçienda “ace face” who has since been long-term homeless and a heroin addict.

The fortunes of the city are also mixed; along with the regeneration and the herds of cranes currently signalling new builds throughout the city centre, Manchester has a plethora of social problems, including poor literacy levels and horrific air pollution. The desire for self-assertion and self-expression among new generations is as strong as it ever was though.

The city’s landscape has changed again. Just like the community in Lower Manhattan that included Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, which gave life, art and energy to the area but was soon driven out by creativity-crushing property developments, so the secret places and cheap spaces of city centre Manchester are disappearing. It’s a process that’s accelerated in recent years as the Manchester city-region has attracted more than £5 billion of Chinese investment.

Perhaps I need to add to my brick collection with one that sums up the modern Manchester of high apartment blocks, acres of retail, and five-star hotels. I’ll look for a shiny brick, possibly hollow, and probably unaffordable.