Mention Liverpool and most people can think of a well known song about it: Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields, Liverpool Lou, The Leaving of Liverpool. Mention its neighbour, and great rival, Manchester, and it is not so easy. From the Hollies and Mindbenders through 10cc, the Buzzcocks, Joy Division, the Smiths, Happy Mondays, Oasis, Manchester has produced plenty of musical artists but songs about the place itself have not sunk into popular consciousness in the way of other large cities. Even Stockport,6 miles away and part of the Greater Manchester conurbation, had a dedicated ode, by Frankie Vaughan: ‘I’ve travelled up and down this country, from the Pennines to Land End, but if you ask my favourite place of all, the answer isn’t hard to comprehend .I’m going back to Stockport.' (Though the song came out in 1983, unfortunately the town still came 12th in a 2004 list of the UK’s Crap Towns).
A musical comparison with Liverpool is interesting. There has been a strong streak of sentimentality in many of its best known songs –from Gerry and the Pacemaker’s Ferry Cross the Mersey (‘We don’t care what your name is boy, we’ll never send you away’), to the Mighty Wah’s Heart as Big as Liverpool (‘Lay me down by water cool, heart as big as the city, heart as big as Liverpool’) to Ringo Starr’s Liverpool 8 (‘Destiny was calling, I just couldn’t stick around, Liverpool I left you but I never let you down’). Actually, 30 years or so before that last song there had been a much more perceptive sketch of the Liverpool 8 district (Toxteth) by the under-rated Liverpool group, the Real Thing, in their 4 from 8 album that included Liverpool 8, Stanhope Street and Children of the Ghetto. (‘Children of the ghetto, running wild and free in a concrete jungle, filled with misery’). However ,the point is that this perspective on Liverpool’s history was not one that fitted easily with the romanticised picture more commonly painted by songs and, perhaps not unconnected, the album didn’t sell well. Though Children of the Ghetto has been covered since by Philip Bailey and Mary J Blige, its Liverpool origins are rarely mentioned.
Though only 30 miles away, Manchester has always been distinctly different. One of the few musical pairings was an odd 1966 song, Manchester et Liverpool, by a French singer Marie Laforet. The original has a set of poignant lyrics of seeking a lost love amongst the streets of Manchester and Liverpool : “Manchester is a sad mood, Liverpool is crying over the sea, I do not know if I exist” (Relevant to this column, she also commented that ‘Manchester is in the rain’). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuLV_LHY7mk
The English cover version, by a group called Pinky and the Fellas, had more prosaic lyrics - ‘’Manchester and Liverpool, so noisy, busy and so typical, millions there with hopes and cares’ – and a plodding intro that sounded like the theme tune from Steptoe and Son. It was, however, No 1 in Japan, possibly on the mention of Liverpool in the title. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQDl6FXuqKk
It is hard to imagine a song called The Leaving of Manchester or Manchester Lullaby. Instead, songs about the place have largely been pretty dismal, leaving an image of gloom and grey, stuck somewhere round the time depicted in the Life on Mars TV series. A number of things contributed to this. The rain and leaden skies; the slate grey of many of the buildings; the tower blocks and motorway flyovers; the large housing estates; the dark history of the Moors above Manchester. Whatever the reason, the St Etienne touch of summer light on London is hard to find. The Smith’s back catalogue has several grim pieces about the town, including Rusholme Ruffians and their song about the Moors murders, Suffer Little Children, with the lines, ‘Oh Manchester, so much to answer for’. Or there was Mersey Paradise by the Stone Roses: ‘I want to be where the drownings are’. Or Northenden by the Doves: ‘The kids are deranged, they love guns and kidnap’
Then there is the rain. Statistics show that in reality Manchester is not the UK's rainiest city but perceptions are hard to shift. The song here, Manchester by Beautiful South from 2006, plays directly to that image. With the Housemartins and Beautiful South, Paul Heaton has often written dark, jagged and bitter lyrics but with an upbeat melody. Manchester is not one of his more biting analyses-basically it rains all over Manchester. However, his usual neat turn of phrase-‘the sun strolls into town like a long lost king’- the joint vocals with Alison Wheeler and infuriatingly catchy tune turn the whole thing into a little celebration, albeit a bittersweet one and probably not one the Manchester Tourist Board want to hear.
When I lived in North Lancashire, Manchester didn’t seem particularly gloomy. Actually, it seemed like the exciting big city, rather like Tracey Thorn viewed London from Hatfield in Oxford Street. It used to be said of Liverpool that you only had to walk down a street and you would bump into someone who used to be in a pop group. Something of that ilk did happen in Manchester, on a train from Lancaster when the person sitting across the carriage table turned out to have once been in a Manchester group, the Dolphins, with future Hollies Tony Hicks and Bernie Calvert. However ,it did really seem quite rainy there. Driving out of the town once was the only time in my life that the rain was so hard that the windscreen wipers fell off.
The song has echoes of a poem by Adrian Mitchell , Watch Your Step-I’m Drenched - ' In Manchester there are a thousand puddles.....In Manchester there lives the King of Puddles’. A bit of poetic licence where fact and fancy become indistinguishable
Link to song
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