Nightlife in Manchester has much mutated since the heyday of acid house. But as parties move towards the city outskirts, DJs and promoters are sensing a return to the DIY spirit rave was founded upon.
Down by Strangeways prison sits Downtex Mill, home to Hidden nightclub since 2015. Downtex isn’t one of Manchester’s grand, nineteenth-century brick buildings haunted by forgotten industries, but a modern box sat in an unloved and undeveloped part of town.
But at venues like Hidden, young promoters and DJs have helped create the kind of vibe the city hasn’t seen since its acid house heyday.It’s here in the backstreets of Manchester and Salford – where so much of this culture originally began amid youth disenfranchisement and mass unemployment – that venues like Hidden,
The White Hotel and Partisan are offering not just the sound or look of the early UK house scene, but are recapturing some of the original spirit too. Wide-ranging music policies, inclusive crowds and a DIY spirit all sit in the same lineage which originally created a scene which embraced new forms of music and experience.
Graham Massey of UK pioneers 808 State was in that first wave of rave and is clear about the importance that class, economics and Manchester’s cultural mix had. “The proof that it’s not money that gives you taste was a strong idea growing up.
The broad data input you get in a British city, it plays out really well in Manchester.” On the original generation of UK house and rave music, Massey says, “We curated our own music world by picking up on the cultural diversity that surrounded us.
All this was synthesised into the open tolerant atmosphere of the rave era; 808 State records often sound like Fela Kuti meets the Bee Gees produced by RD Burman.”
When the original scenes ended in the early ‘90s, however, it resulted in a dance culture that was initially more muted and scattered, but then which ultimately blossomed in the late ‘90’s into the more high-profile but homogeneous world of superclubs and mega-festivals.
As long-term Electric Chair boss Luke Unabomber observes, after acid house faded, “Something about the dance floor changed. Over time it became this multi-million pound business and everything became more segregated. It became assimilated into the mainstream and it didn’t have that rebelliousness or that togetherness.
In the late ‘80s there was a real sense of belonging.”While many of Manchester’s newer clubs tended to consolidate near the city centre, there were still some lifelines to the past which tried to carry on this underground legacy. Electric Chair, which began life in 1995, was a spit and sawdust night that melded musical genres and had a come as you are approach to its attendees
– all that was needed was a good attitude. Likewise, Homoelectric, the Chair’s LGBTQ+ counterpart, began in 1998 and continues to this day. There were plenty of other enclaves like Herbal Tea Party and Bugged Out, but the original acid house impulse had now cracked into too many shards to be one movement.
Over the past few years, however, the economics of austerity and of city-centre redevelopment have closed down many of the surviving underground venues like Sankey’s Soap, the Music Box (Electric Chair) and Legends (Homoelectric). A new rash of clubs in alternative spaces, all out of the eye line of councils and developers, have emerged.
It takes a long-time observer like Luke to appreciate just how similar this transition is to the one which led to acid house: “These new clubs are reflective of what I think is going to happen in places like Cheetham Hill.
When people don’t want to be in the city centre they go to these twilight clubs where there’s a real return to that feeling. There’s a lot more love and warmth. There’s something going on.”
Anton Stevens of Hidden believes that Manchester’s history is one of the reasons for this new scene’s revival: “I think Manchester’s industrial past, leaving disused warehouses within a city occupied by the working class who share the same need to escape or feel a release, has created the need for venues like ours.
This is like our home and we want others to feel that way too. A few years ago the options were limited, but venues like The White Hotel, Partisan and Hidden are the places people go to experience something different.” Long-running parties like Homoelectric have found homes alongside new nights like High Hoops and Meat Free, which focus explicitly on that utopian impulse towards inclusivity.
For one of Homoelectric’s resident DJs, Gina Breeze, Manchester’s current nightlife boom is thriving because of this very diversity. “I think the majority of people here are open-minded and there are loads of creative free-spirits. This, combined with music being the heart of the city, makes for the best clubbing experience.” It’s a mix in which she sees the roots of the past continuing to touch the present.
“Things have kind of gone back to basics, with loads of nights branching out from the less obvious big clubs, and on to the outskirts to the more stripped back, warehouse style raves. I guess it’s almost like it’s come full circle, just that the raves are legal now.”In addition to veterans like Gina and Luke there are also younger figures like Black Eyes who are assembling their own non-heritage options from the bones of the last thirty years.
When he’s not releasing deep, acid tracks that wouldn’t sound out of place in an early Mr. Fingers set, he runs Lost Control at The White Hotel, a place he praises for being “a venue where the owner and staff actually care about the music curation.
A lot of thought goes into making the party-goers have an alternative bit of fun compared to the stricter policies of the city.” This fits his own DIY ethos: “I originally started Lost Control because there weren’t any parties in Manchester which took my fancy after a few greats nights like Kindergarten and Naive Melody disappeared. So, I took the idea of ‘if you want to see someone play here, do it yourself’.”
The current music policies showcase a range of genres, acid house and hardcore continue to exert a fascination, too. Over the last few years, post-rave records featuring hardcore’s signature breakbeats and screaming mentasms have been released by everyone from Lone to Jamie xx.
On Manchester’s dance floors too there’s this same channeling of energy from people like Black Eyes who also presents an NTS radio show which “draws on the annals of acid house”. Gina Breeze admits, “I’m definitely conscious of this and tend to play quite a bit of acid house in my sets. Some of my productions have also leaned towards an acid sound. I’m a fan of breakbeat too, Objekt, Yak,
Pangaea – I enjoy dropping this type of track.”Club culture and dance music in Manchester feels as rich in 2019 as at any point since the 1980s. There’s no single cause, just a confluence of factors; from a history of industry and abandoned spaces to the music heritage of a diverse, creative place.
But there have also been similar pressures created by comparably harsh economic situations at the end of the 1980s and now, all of which has resulted in people looking for opportunity in non-mainstream spaces. Regardless of what Manchester has given to these nights though, what they’re giving back is a sense of renewed possibility and community amongst those choosing to make something for themselves again. The spirit of acid house lives on.