Travel Story Gritty city an oasis of music legends

A live show at Band on the Wall.
Picture: William Ellis
Photo of Steve McKenna

Soak up Manchester's soul-stirring vibes on a guided walking tour.

It’s a touch after midnight on Saturday and Band on The Wall, one of Manchester’s most cherished live music hubs, is grooving to the funky, soulful sounds of The Filthy Six. 

This engaging London act is headlining a show helmed by Craig Charles, the Liverpudlian actor-cum-DJ of Red Dwarf and Coronation Street fame, and it’s one of the sold-out highlights of the Manchester Jazz Festival, which is held across the city each July and August, attracting performers from around the globe. 

As Nick Etwell, Filthy Six’s trumpet-blowing frontman, stirs the mostly Mancunian crowd, I cast my eye around this intimate, dimly lit venue, whose name harks back to when it was the George and Dragon pub and the landlord installed a stage high up a wall for musicians to play on. 

Last orders at the George were called in 1974, but it reopened the following year, under new ownership, as Band on The Wall, and it’s continued to play a starring role in the city’s rich musical heritage. The Buzzcocks and Joy Division — two of the most influential bands to hail from Greater Manchester — riffed here in the late 70s, while Tony Wilson, the legendary late Mancunian music impresario and boss of Factory Records, would talent-spot at a venue situated on the city centre’s gritty northern fringes.

The next day, a little bleary eyed and fuzzy headed, I plunge deeper into Manchester’s music trail on a walking tour with guide Sue McCarthy, who starts by revealing that the first chart-topping hit to emerge from Manchester was I’m into Something Good by Herman’s Hermits. 

Released in 1965, it was a hummably upbeat song for a city then slipping into the economic doldrums, its once-mighty cotton industry in sharp decline. 

But as we tread past vintage vinyl stores and mosaics featuring iconic Mancunian musicians, and bars that host live bands most nights, McCarthy says it was during the depressions of the 70s and 80s that the city’s music scene really took off.

The next day, a little bleary eyed and fuzzy headed, I plunge deeper into Manchester’s music trail on a walking tour with guide Sue McCarthy, who starts by revealing that the first chart-topping hit to emerge from Manchester was I’m into Something Good by Herman’s Hermits. 

Released in 1965, it was a hummably upbeat song for a city then slipping into the economic doldrums, its once-mighty cotton industry in sharp decline. 

But as we tread past vintage vinyl stores and mosaics featuring iconic Mancunian musicians, and bars that host live bands most nights, McCarthy says it was during the depressions of the 70s and 80s that the city’s music scene really took off.

Following in the footsteps of the Hollies and the Bee Gees — who grew up in Manchester — were Joy Division and The Smiths, with their angst-filled lyrics, and, later, the acid-house Madchester era, when the likes of Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses came of age in a fusion of rock, dance and rave. 

“Mani (Gary Mounfield) from the Stone Roses said he was grateful to Margaret Thatcher (British prime minister from 1979-1990) for putting him out of a job. It gave him more time to make music,” says McCarthy, who takes us to the site of the old Twisted Wheel club, the epicentre of Northern Soul, which thrived here in the late 60s, inspired by black American soul.

We pass the offices where 90s boy band Take That were formed, and pause by the old Free Trade Hall. Now the fancy Radisson Blue Edwardian hotel, this grandiose landmark hosted two infamous gigs; a 1966 one where Bob Dylan was called “Judas!” by an irate fan for “selling out” his folk roots and playing an electric guitar; and a barnstorming 1976 punk gig by the Sex Pistols.

“It’s been called the gig that changed the world. It certainly changed Manchester music, inspiring the next generation of musicians,” McCarthy says. “Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner (of Joy Division, later New Order) were there. Tony Wilson was, too, and described the experience as ‘nothing short of an epiphany’.” 

After skirting Bridgewater Hall, Manchester’s haven of classical music, we shuffle by a canal in the shadow of the Hacienda apartments, constructed over the ruins of the Hacienda, a famously hedonistic club founded by Wilson in 1982. 

A stencilled image of “Mr Manchester”, as Wilson was known, appears on the apartment’s brick walls beside the acts who performed here until its closure in 1997: New Order, The Smiths, Boy George and Madonna. Noel and Liam Gallagher — the forever- feuding brothers of Mancunian rockers Oasis — went raving at the Hacienda, and celebrated the launch of their debut album, Definitely Maybe, here. 

We finish the tour across the road by Tony Wilson Place, a square fronting HOME, Manchester’s glossy new arts and cultural centre. We’d love to hear more, but McCarthy must dash. She has, she says, a festival to go to. 

Fact File

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Steve McKenna was a guest of Visit Manchester

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