Introduction to Leave The Capital by Paul Hanley
On 24th June 1929, 250 excited children from all ends of Manchester didn’t go to school. Instead they packed their lunches in bread wrappers, kissed their mums goodbye, boarded buses and trams, and travelled into the city. Later that day, the Free Trade Hall, a grand Italianate civic hall built on the site of the infamous Peterloo Massacre, would witness a significant milestone in the history of Manchester music.
The Manchester Children’s Choir was a diverse ensemble gathered from 52 of the city’s elementary schools – it was assumed that grammar school children would be too busy with their studies to commit to the necessary practise. They had given many concerts and performances since their formation four years previously, but on this day they were shepherded together to make a musical recording with the Hallé Orchestra under the direction of the wonderfully named Sir Hamilton Harty.
The Hallé was a well-respected, professional body who had been making classical music accessible to Mancunians since 1858. Having their music recorded was a challenging experience for the otherwise jaded players of the orchestra, and most unusual – they didn’t release a record of their own until years later. So this must have been a daunting prospect indeed for the school children. After all, practically no one made records, certainly not working-class Mancunian kids. Records were made by dinner-jacketed dance bands in America or London, two distant places many of them would never see. Before they entered the Free Trade Hall, the children could never have dreamed that they would record music that would touch people’s hearts the world over.
The song the Manchester Children’s Choir gifted to posterity wasn’t particularly appropriate, as it happens. Purcell’s ‘Nymphs And Shepherds’ was a slushy 200-year-old ballad about the joys of rural living, but it didn’t matter. The combined voices of urban Manchester’s offspring were so seductive that the record went on to sell a million copies. It was released by Columbia Records and was the UK’s first significant recording outside of the capital. The whole episode was so delightfully Mancunian it was later the subject of a musical by Morrissey’s favourite, the much-missed Victoria Wood.
The Free Trade Hall witnessed another milestone in music history when Bob Dylan’s legendary move to electric guitar was captured for posterity in 1966. But it would be a full forty years after ‘Nymphs And Shepherds’ before anything else of significance was professionally committed to tape in Manchester.
The city wasn’t alone in this of course. The Beatles managed to record an album’s worth of songs in Hamburg as early as 1961, but didn’t enter a professional recording studio north of Watford Gap in the whole of their career. ‘Penny Lane’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, even The Pacemakers’ ‘Ferry Cross The Mersey’ – all beautiful evocations of Liverpool life, all committed to tape in London. In fact, all of the North West bands that made it big in the early sixties recorded in London, there was simply nowhere else it could be done.
In the eyes of the world, the various bands of the Liverpool and Manchester beat boom were often lumped together, but the perennial rivalry that exists between those two fine cities meant it wasn’t long before inter-city comparisons were made. After all, said rivalry has been a key driving force of every other cultural and technological phenomenon in the two cities since the industrial revolution. At its best this reciprocal chest-pounding has spurred the cities to such dazzling creativity as the Manchester Ship Canal, while at its worst it’s spawned hideous football chants that exploit the most tragic of human suffering.
After the dust settled on the ‘British invasion’ of the sixties, attempts to weigh up which city had the most impact on the world have been inevitably skewed by the peerless influence of The Beatles. Mancunian music fans will argue that, the Fab Four aside, the rest of Liverpool’s beat groups weren’t quite as accomplished as the best Manchester had to offer. This argument obviously gets little traction on Merseyside; for North West residents such discussions will inevitably be coloured by which end of the East Lancs Road they live at.
It’s much easier to quantify the effect this musical explosion had on the musical heritage of the cities themselves. If it is measured in terms of the financial and artistic riches the beat boom gave back to the city that birthed it, Manchester wins hands down. Because, significantly, it was four Mancunian musicians who first became alive to the possibility of recording away from the capital. With absolutely no guarantee of success, they opted to plough their hard-earned cash back into the city they loved in the form of proper recording facilities. In this they differed from most of their contemporaries – Mancs and Scousers alike. Despite waxing lyrical about the places they loved, most invested in nothing more than a one-way ticket to Euston and barely stopped to shake the dust from their brand-new Chelsea boots on the way.
By sheer force of will, Eric Stewart of The Mindbenders and songwriter extraordinaire Graham Gouldman created Strawberry Studios: Keith Hopwood and Derek Leckenby of Herman’s Hermits crafted Pluto. Between them they paved the way for a dynasty that would be defined by its rejection of the capital. By providing facilities which could be accessed by cash-strapped Mancunians without the wherewithal to decamp to London, it was the studio owners of Manchester who facilitated a musical revolution. A revolution that once again began at the Free Trade Hall.
This is the story of how records were made in Manchester, back when studios mattered. This is the story of music that couldn’t have been made anywhere else but Manchester.*
*For the purposes of this book, unless otherwise specified, the designation ‘Manchester’ refers to Greater Manchester, which covers the city and its outlying districts. Thus Stockport is ‘in’ Manchester, despite being a town in its own right. This means, of course, that Salford is in Manchester too, a delineation which has been the root of some disquiet amongst Salfordians over the years. But, with apologies to my friends in the west, the distinction between Manchester and Salford begins to fade by the time you get to Warrington, and means practically nothing to the rest of the world. Even some of what we now think of as Manchester city centre is technically in Salford, and any attempts to distinguish between the two in terms of musical history quickly becomes an exercise in nit-picking. So ‘Manchester’ it is.