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Stuff the Superstars

by Paul Hanley

I turned 15 in 1979. I had a drum kit, I know that. I was becoming seriously obsessed with music, I know that too. Apart from that the details are a bit vague, if I’m honest. School was as soul-destroying as ever, the endless dismal days of double chemistry only lightened by the opportunity to play ‘Another Music in a Different Kitchen’ on Fr. Green’s dansette at lunch time. I also had a job in a butcher’s shop on Saturdays, as I recall, but that’s about it.

Regarding Saturday 28th July 1979, however, I can be quite precise as to my whereabouts. I was at Belle Vue’s celebrated (!) Mayflower, or rather The Fun House, a new wave club which occasionally squatted on the premises in much the same way as The Factory holed up in the Russell Club.


It was a memorable day, for a number of reasons.


For one, my brother’s band was one of the many scheduled to play that night, which meant I got in for free. Secondly, me and my mate Pete, who lived up the road in Openshaw, made our own way there, on foot. The quaintly named Belle Vue was at least as rough then as it is now, probably more. Hyde Road was as schizophrenic as it’s literary namesake, the last few visitors to the  amusement park giving way to all manner of cut-purses and ne’er-do-wells as the watery daylight surrendered to the grimy darkness (which never seemed to be far way in late seventies Manchester). We walked, because that’s what you did then. The days of parents dropping you and picking you up after the gig (which I’m afraid I’m guilty of with my 15 year old) were a lifetime and a seismic cultural shift away. Luckily we made it unscathed, physically if not mentally.


The gig was billed as ‘Stuff the Superstars’- a kind of indoor festival, which featured most of the Manchester bands of note (Buzzcocks weren’t there, of course – they’d signed to UA by then and were probably in London eating Lobster and chips and quaffing champagne).


 Nominally top of the bill were The Distractions, who I’d previously seen supporting The Fall at Kelly’s, a tiny venue in Manchester, and who were earmarked (if only by City Fun) as the next big thing, though of course they never were. We (naturally) were ostensibly there to see The Fall, although Joy Division were also a major attraction. They’d also made significant headway since I’d seen them earlier (at Bowdon Vale youth club) and they were on the verge of next big thingdom themselves.


City Fun Fanzine was definitely Manchester’s magazine-du-jour (if magazine is the right word).  Sold at virtually every gig (as well as Virgin and Piccadilly records) it occupied a hallowed status among the concert goers of Manchester. It wasn’t a bad read either. Admittedly it was as humourless as The Passage playing at a Funeral, but in its defence, they were humourless times. Bands these days are so desperate to convey their wit and sense of fun you tend to forget that in 1979 most bands (or certainly most Manchester bands) were primarily anxious to convey their solemnity. The Joy Division of the NME and the Joy Division in the café next to Davidson’s rehearsal room were two very different beasts, believe me.    

City Fun were also the organisers of ‘Stuff the Superstars’, which would explain how the appalling Glass Animals (featuring writers Andy Zero, Cath Carroll and Liz Naylor) were so far up the bill (and the fact that they weren’t booted off stage after one song.) 


One of the first bands we saw were the ever-brilliant Hamsters. Who said Manchester bands were humourless? (Well I did, I know, but there has to be exceptions) ‘Friday Night at the Chinese Chip shop’; ‘Ole Spain’; ‘I’m a C**t’ – I could sing them now. If I ever get to curate Meltdown (and surely it can’t be long) they’ll be first on my list.      


Next band were Armed Force, featuring the ubiquitous Muppet on vocals. He was at every gig you ever went to, in those days. (I often wonder what he did with his leather jacket with ‘Adam & the Ants’ lovingly rendered across the back. When ‘Prince Charming’ came out it must have broken his heart.)  I remember he had Leopard Skin hair, but I couldn’t tell you what they sounded like if you put a gun to my head. Punky, I’d guess.


Also on the bill that day (surprisingly low down) were The Frantic Elevators, forever known (in my house at least) as Mick Hucknall’s proper band. He had a decent set of pipes even then, though in those days he sounded more like Jon Anderson of Yes than Curtis Mayfield.  ‘Feel Like the Hunchback of Notre Dame’ – that was their big one, simultaneously more witty, poignant and catchy than anything Simply Red ever did (except possibly ‘Holding Back the Years’, but then that was an Elevators song as well).

 Joy Division were next on the bill. There were two things which really stuck in my mind about their set. One, inevitably, was Ian Curtis’ dancing, which, cliché though it is, really was a sight to behold. It didn’t seem linked to normal dancing, i.e. based on enjoyment of music or getting into the rhythm, at all. He just looked like some unseen force was making him do it. A man possessed, and simultaneously as exciting and disturbing as that sounds.

Being a drummer, the other thing that stuck in my mind was Steve Morris’ ‘Syn-Drum’™, which he could make go KCHKCK! and BO! (but not at the same time). This was obviously the future of drumming. All it needed was the ability to make 20 or 30 other interesting sounds and it would have really caught on. Funnily enough, the BO! sound can be heard on lots of records of the time, like ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’ or ‘It Feels Like I’m In Love’ but I don’t remember the KCHKCK noise (which sounded like someone hitting corrugated iron with a screwdriver) appearing anywhere but ‘She’s Lost Control’. SLC was always 10 times better live than either of the recorded versions. In fact, their whole set that night was a lot rockier and aggressive than their albums would suggest, almost Heavy Metal at times. Barney’s guitar in particular was noticeably diminished by Martin Hannett’s production. In any case they were astonishing, much better than the next time I saw them, supporting Buzzcocks at the Apollo. On that occasion their set was cut to about 20 minutes, presumably for fear they would upstage the headliners. Heart-breakingly, then, ‘Stuff The Superstars’ must have been about as good as Joy Division ever got, as they didn’t have long left.   


They were followed by Ludus, most notable (at least to me) for featuring Linder, who designed the sleeve for ‘Orgasm Addict’. I’d seen them before (and hated them), so presumably I declined to stand through another performance, as I have no recollection of their set at all.


Next up were The Liggers. (Think a punk 3 Degrees, none of whom could sing particularly well. In fact, they were Bananarama, before Bananarama were). They were rather good, before their time, if anything, though their choice of associates left a little to be desired. It all kicked off back stage when Craig Scanlon, the newly installed Fall guitarist, in an outrageous display of arrogance, rested his arm on one of the Liggers guitar cases. He was rewarded for this disgraceful behaviour with a flying head butt from a Neolithic skinhead (One of The Liggers liggers?) After apologies had been proffered (Craig apologised for hitting the guy’s forehead with the bridge of his nose, and for getting blood on him, and the skinhead guy apologised for being a bit forward) Mark Smith sought to pour oil on troubled waters by tripping up the aggressive cave dweller as he walked past, then denying all knowledge, despite the baldy guy threatening to rip his face off. I was seriously impressed with Mr. Smith’s bravery, if not his common sense. I was also struck how the whole band had stuck together to deal with this unprovoked attack on one of their own. That’s how bands behave, I thought. This is the life for me, then.


Shortly after this The Fall took the stage.  The preceding events must have fired them up, as this was as good a performance as this line-up ever presented, complete with Mike Leigh’s legendary rendering of  ‘A Figure Walks’ standing up, new single 'Rowche Rumble’ in all its ragged glory and ‘In My Area’ featuring those bloody awful rototoms. It was also Yvonne Pawlett’s last gig, according to my sources. The transformation from Witch Trial’s drilled and musicianly supergroup to the strange and quirky odd balls we all know and love was complete. Mark E. Smith, at least in those days, was as fascinating a figure to watch on stage as Ian C. had been earlier, stalking the stage, glaring angrily into the middle distance and doing that funny dance he used to do. His between-numbers patter in those days was also as entertaining as the songs.  What an absolute joy it was to watch The Fall in 1979. Someday all bands will be like this. 


The Distractions could only ever be a footnote, after that, though it’s a shame their lovingly-crafted pop vignettes never reached a bigger audience. The big problem was they never looked like the part, the singer and drummer especially (respectively the wrong side of 34” waist and 34 years old. It’s a tough gig this pop malarkey.) They had a male guitarist and a female bass player who wore matching outfits, I remember. They should have formed a duo, they looked great. Interesting side-note -  Legend has it that there was once a cash crisis at Island Records and a last minute meeting was called to decide whether to drop The Distractions or U2.  (They went with Distractions, by the way)


The ticket /flyer will tell you there were other bands on that night, Elti Fits, for instance, but I must confess I have no recollection. (At least I remember their existence, which is more than can be said of The 5 Skinners.) I must have also missed John the Postman, though I suspect he may have done Louie Louie. 


The evening (from the walk to the venue onwards) was imbued with the kind of tension and unease that you don’t get at gigs these days (or at least I don’t). The venue was filthy in the way that only Manchester clubs in 1979 could be. The sound was muddy, and to describe the organisation as amateurish is to be over generous.  One of the best gigs I ever attended, in summation. The Mayflower no longer exists, of course. The last gig I ever saw there was ‘Nik Turners Inner City Unit’. On that occasion me, Steve, Marc and Craig, and Bob and Moey from The Hamsters were the entire audience. Shame there’s nowhere to put the blue plaque.