Is the British pop-music scene driven by fads rather than fresh sounds?
It seemed that way this summer, as highly touted bands such as Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, which made their reputations playing the all-night Manchester dance parties known as "raves," attempted to translate their United Kingdom success into a full-fledged invasion of the States.
London's weekly music papers Melody Maker and New Musical Express rhapsodized over the bands' singles and covered just about every performance as if it were breaking news. One New Musical Express editor, Danny Kelly, called the Manchester sound "the most important music since punk." The relentless praise was enough to prod even the international edition of Newsweek into action: Its July 23 cover story "Madchester" breathlessly trumpeted a new golden age of British pop.
Such enthusiasm was not to be found on this side of the Atlantic, however. Critics who attended dates on Happy Mondays' much-ballyhooed second American tour in July reported that the group "didn't translate" musically.
One U.S. recording industry executive said England's talent pool had gone dry: "Artist development has slowed to a halt in the U.K.," said Irving Azoff, president of Giant Records, at July's New Music Seminar in New York. Referring to scouting reports, he hinted that the scene might not merit further investigation, and added, "More listeners seem to be saying, 'If you don't feed our heads, we're going to stop tapping our toes pretty soon.' "
As with previous musical "invasions," the Manchester boom owes much to Britain's trend-obsessed youth - and insatiable music press. The scene has been blown out of proportion, its bands hailed as messiahs by journalists eager to lay claim to the next phenomenon.
What really was happening in Manchester was exciting enough: fans turning out by the thousands to catch the leading bands or any of a number of up-and- coming attractions. In this industrial town, music remains one of the few ways to avoid a dead-end factory job, or, if you're stuck in one, to forget about it.
Groups from the area have slowly begun to penetrate U.S. consciousness - Stone Roses reached the top of alternative-music charts with "Fool's Gold" last year. But it's too soon to know if the leading Manchester bands - the Roses, Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets, whose U.S. debut was released by Elektra last week - are Frankie Goes to Hollywood meteors, or the first examples of a bold regional style that will take over the world the way the Beatles and the Mersey Beat did.
"The British music press likes to do that every so often, find these little scenes that they think they discover," said Anthony Boggiano, manager of Inspiral Carpets and its Cow Records label. "By the time they started writing about these (Manchester) bands, they were already releasing singles and playing to 1,000 or 2,000 people a night. They had already been proven, in a sense, and were capable of drawing a crowd."
Boggiano, who this year counseled Inspiral Carpets to turn down the British Broadcasting Corp.'s request to do an animated series based on the irreverently retro group, acknowledges that constant exposure in the United Kingdom helped the Carpets develop a loyal fan base, essential in the cutthroat British pop market. But to make too much of their popularity at home could be fatal overseas.
"The hype got over (to America) before the bands got over there," Boggiano said from his office in Manchester. Boggiano says he worries that the Carpets' eponymous debut, an anthology of singles and tracks from British EPs, is likely to suffer from too much preliminary publicity. "People in the U.S. are naturally very distrustful of all that attention. What's more, there's no way a band can live up to those expectations."
The current Manchester bands have plenty of company in pop history books.
England's early rock days of the '60s saw the Tottingham Sound, represented
by the squeaky clean, mushy Dave Clark Five. In addition to the Beatles,
exponents of the Liverpool scene included the Searchers, Gerry and the
Pacemakers and Cilla Black. Birmingham boasted such acts as Spencer Davis and the Moody Blues. And the light and polite pop of the Hollies, Freddie and the Dreamers, and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders put Manchester on the map.
During the punk period that began in 1977 and the years that followed, Manchester's Buzzcocks, the Smiths and Joy Division (and its successor, New Order) shared a dour, mopey world view and a penchant for provocation. Punk in Manchester was more than a fashion statement; it was a political stance. As guitarist Johnny Marr of the Smiths told one reporter, "Everybody took it seriously. The punks were singing songs about being unemployed, and in Manchester that really meant something."
Like their musical forebears, Manchester's current bands come from working- class backgrounds and share an affection for '60s psychedelia, modern dance music and Northern Soul (Simply Red is a leading exporter of this Manchester oddity, based on American soul from Memphis to Motown).
In this northwest England port city 35 miles east of Liverpool, music and dancing represent the '60s ideal of shared experience. Tom Hingley, 22, lead vocalist for Inspiral Carpets, says Manchester audiences and musicians are receptive to any number of different sounds.
"None of (the region's) bands considered themselves definitive Manchester bands," Hingley said. "We helped the scene by adding some humor to it, and the scene helped us by giving us a shot outside of our home town. But we don't depend on that - the bands rise and fall by the music."
The Manchester craze started at the Hacienda, a club opened in 1982 by Factory Records president Tony Wilson, who was responsible for signing New Order. Offering high-energy dance music including acid house and (occasionally) live bands, the club became the site of all-night raves - dances fueled by the drug Ecstasy, an amphetamine variant.
"If there is any idea at all (behind the raves)," Wilson told Newsweek, ''it is about community and collective strength. There is democracy in dancing."
As they became more popular, the raves spawned a look: bell-bottom pants and baggy shirts of primary colors. They also required more bands to keep the crowds in constant motion. The parties, which have spread throughout Europe, became a proving ground of sorts, a place where bands could test their ability to enchant - and, more important, hold - a crowd.
Most Manchester bands have a danceable, though hardly bubbly, sound that combines the repetition of house music with the smeared guitar-and-organ strains of '60s psychedelia and the cold calculation of techno-pop. Like the physical surroundings, Manchester's music is bleak, dank, industrial. Yet it's also obsessed with a joyous release of tension, and a belief in the power of the dance floor as at least a temporary antidepressant.
There are important differences among the bands. Happy Mondays uses drum machines to reinforce downcast, mechanistic themes; its recent single "Kinky Afro" finds the band paraphrasing LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade" as a chorus.
Stone Roses concentrates less on dance-pop, more on folk. A Roses sound- alike, the Charlatans UK, brings weighty introspection to its music. And the instrumental outfit 808 State creates mood pieces that contain floating melodies and driving, trance-inducing rhythms.
Inspiral Carpets, perhaps the most musically sophisticated of the bunch, engages in outright '60s revivalism on "Move," "Weakness" and other selections from the U.S. debut. Sometimes this retrospection is in the margin; other times - when, say, the band goes unashamedly for a Doors sound - it is impossible to miss.
There is even a second wave of Manchester bands, largely a result of corporate attempts to jump on the bandwagon. After Stone Roses became huge in England, one major record company, Phonogram, sent six representatives to Manchester with orders not to return until they had signed a band. The result: a crop of bands such as James and Adamski that are mildly interesting but make the kind of derivative music that needs the hype of a "scene" if it's going to sell.
When the record companies "couldn't get the bands that had been active for years and were ready, they signed anything," said Inspiral Carpet's Boggiano.
Boggiano believes that saturation coverage in the British music trades contributed to the labels' feeding frenzy, and Stuart Bailey, who edits the album-review section of New Musical Express, concurs.
"The press didn't create it, but probably helped keep things moving," said Bailey. "It's like the Mersey Beat - at the end of the day it's only the Beatles we remember; everything else is an ephemeral thing."
Bailey says comprehensive coverage of the Manchester scene has been good for business. "Readership was down through most of the '80s and suddenly it's up again," he said. "We really got caught up in the moody, self-indulgent- artist pose that was part of the '80s, and this is a breath of fresh air."
This page last updated 08 Jun 98
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