The Hacienda: The Centre of Madchester

With the announcement of Peter Hook’s new 768-page book Substance: Inside New Order, which will chart the career of his legendary band New Order, we take the opportunity to look back at a time when they owned the infamous Hacienda nightclub that was right at the centre of the ‘Madchester’ scene…

Manchester is an industrial city, in the north of England, which built itself up out of barren wastelands. It became a prime manufacturer of vehicles, chemicals, heavy machinery and textiles before European competition and World War II brought it crumbling back down to its knees. What was once barren wasteland became so once more, as previously thriving factories, warehouses and businesses all shut down in a great mass of de-industrialisation.

The Margaret Thatcher-era only went to further compound this problem as Eric Scholler pointed out in his article Saturday Night at the Hacienda. “The combination of more factory closings and deep cuts in social spending left the city reeling. By April of 1982, its unemployment rate was at 32 percent.”

Manchester had become a neglected city, as abandoned factories became the norm. Great rows of small red-bricked houses were left vacated while there were smashed out windows at every turn and boarded up establishments became blank canvasses for graffiti.

However, music in England had always acted as an escape route for its people. It offered a way out of those dark and repressed cities for the artists, while it also provided comfort or excitement for those who were left behind. It was witnessed with the Beatles two decades earlier, then again in the 1970s with the punk rock movement.

The Sex Pistols incendiary gigs in Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall are the stuff of legend now and back then it certainly had an inspiring effect on some of the city’s youth. Tony Wilson, a local broadcaster, was supposedly at one of the Sex Pistol’s two gigs in June 1976. As the story goes, the experience pushed him into later forming his own independent record company.

It was named Factory Records and its popularity grew over the resulting years and spawned massive local bands such as Joy Division and New Order. These bands in turn then allowed Wilson and Factory Records to, “assume the kind of role in Manchester that Motown once played in Detroit.” Along with the records released on the label, perhaps the greatest influence Factory Records had on Manchester was its involvement with the infamous nightclub The Hacienda. Hook, bassist for Joy Division and New Order, recently described why the band joined forces with Factory Records and decided to purchase the warehouse in the first place.

“The club came into being because we had nowhere to go in our own city. Our manager had this idea that people like us should have somewhere where it was safe for us to do our own thing,” he said.

The nightclub then can be seen as a product of a disenfranchised youth culture. A viable and liberating escape route out of the oppression and misery that had consumed the city over the years.

New Order had been greatly influenced during their time touring by nightclubs in New York. They enlisted the help of designer Ben Kelly when they got back home, who immediately set about creating the nightclub they envisioned. The large dance floor was surrounded by parking meter bollards, while yellow and black poles were situated right in the middle of it. There were also windows – 12 of them to be exact. There were barely any toilets or sound systems to speak of though. But that didn’t matter. The Hacienda opened in May of 1982 and went on to be largely overlooked and underused for close to five years. During this time it racked up ridiculous debts and put huge financial strain on both the band and Factory Records in the process.

There are varying accounts about when The Hacienda and its accompanying movement first began. Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays declared, “The summer of 1987 is when things really changed.” However, Sarah Champion, a former NME writer, remembered how a Stone Roses gig seemed to be the start of a massive change in Manchester. “I think ‘Madchester’ was born the night the Stone Roses played a benefit gig at International 2 in May 1988. Something was in the water that month. Acid house had hit The Haçienda,” she said.

While the exact point in time that it all began is debatable, what is beyond doubt is its power and meaning once it all kicked off. There were suddenly massive influxes of people as they all came to be a part of a new scene later labelled ‘Madchester’. “Something big was happening. We really felt that we were the centre of the universe,” Champion continued.

A new genre of music, acid house, began to dominate in the club’s. The Hacienda was often leading the way on this front in England. It seemed the great big empty warehouse had been biding its time all along, waiting for the right music and the right scene to fill it up.

Acid house originated out of the Chicago house scene in the mid 1980’s. It was signified by its deep basslines and use of the Roland TB-303 electronic synthesizer, which gave it its distinctive ‘squelchy’ sound. Disco music had long since been derided by the youth, but it was this electronic offshoot that soundtracked their collective clubbing years.

At this time the relatively unknown drug ecstasy also began to infiltrate itself into nightclubs. In fact, it did so to such an extent that acid house music and ecstasy are still inextricably linked all these years later.

“The drug was sometimes described as a ‘psychedelic amphetamine.’ It provided a speedy, dreamy sense of empathy and well-being, without the hallucinations. Ecstasy and acid-house arrived in England at the same moment, and their popularity grew symbiotically,” Scholler wrote.

Dave Haslam, resident Mancunian DJ during the meteoric rise of The Hacienda, described the scene as a, “chaotic, accidental, spontaneous burst of madness. A real adventure.”

The “adventure” lasted for years as people descended on the city of Manchester to be a part of this mass cultural event. Drug use was rife but the sense that things were changing, after the oppressive control exerted by the conservative government, could not be denied. “No one controlled it though, which meant that gangsters and corporate cowboys saw an opportunity,” Haslam admitted.

The scene bore witness to a second “summer of love” and countless nights to remember. But as its popularity grew, so too did the crime rates. Stories of rival gangs shooting it out for control over the club were splashed all over the press and eventually it became so synonymous with crime that many people simply stopped going. The initial idealism, excitement and optimism had descended under a dark cloud.

The Stone Roses gig at Spike Island is often considered as the pinnacle of the era. The tip of the mountain where the only way to go after it was down. Eventually, they folded, as did The Hacienda in 1997.

There is now a misconception though that ‘Madchester’ was simply the result of a crossover between indie rock and dance music, along with the introduction of ecstasy; however, the truth is a little different to that.

“‘Madchester’ was more of a phrase than a phase for me. A phrase that flowed out of Factory Records. It was a somewhat cynical attempt to market The Haçienda and Happy Mondays,” broadcaster Terry Chrisitan noted.

Indeed, the ‘Madchester’ scene now tends to get stereotyped as one massive drug-fuelled party that ended in a fit of violence, but there was something more to it before it all fell away. For a brief moment in time during the early days, when New Order and The Stone Roses graced the stage and “one love” reigned, it felt like anything was possible. There was a decisiveness to the way people acted suddenly.

Andy Barker from local band 808 State remembered this when he said, “There was an amazing creative energy in Manchester at the time. People just invented their own jobs. There was DJ’s, graphic designers and clothes labels. Everyone decided to just have a go. And for once there was no one telling you that you couldn’t. ‘I’m gonna open a car wash.’ ‘Nice one, go for it, mate.’”

As a BBC report recently stated, “Manchester’s Hacienda nightclub has gone down in history as the epicentre of ecstatic youth culture in the 80s and 90s.” But what became of the city once bands like The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays broke up and the afterglow of the rush dimmed?

The lasting impact of those few summers can actually still be felt almost 30 years later. Classic albums such as Primal Scream’s Screamadelica came directly out of the scene, along with a renewed sense of optimism that remained around Manchester. Journalist Miranda Sawyer declared last year that, “the reputation that ‘Madchester’ gave Manchester – that of a joyful, creative, sociable place of opportunity – has never left the city.”

The Hacienda may no longer be there and lots of people may have moved on, but the memory of a moment in time when Manchester was right at the centre of the entire world has evidently never been forgotten.

Image: Peter J Walsh