I’ve always loved trivia and odd facts. While not entirely useful, it has made me a formidable opponent in games like Trivial Pursuit and even “Jeopardy!”. There are some glaring holes in my bank of useless knowledge though, and music made after 1960 is one of those areas that I know very little about. As I do for most things, I blame my parents for being too cheap in the mid-1980s to subscribe to the full cable package and therefore leaving me without access to MTV. Without that all-important channel, I was left out of many of the musical trends of the 1980s, which in turn left me not really caring about whatever modern music is currently popular. In the 1990s I tried to make up for lost time, but even today I’m at a loss when it comes time to identify song titles, bands or musician’s names. I do know some though, especially from my all-time favorite musical genre – mid-1990s British alternative – which I admit may be a little narrow but, once you start looking into it you’ll realize just how amazing a decade the 90s were for British music. That was one of many reasons why I was so excited to finally visit Manchester which, as you may or may not know, has been quietly at the center of rock and roll history time and time again, but particularly in the punk and alternative music categories. To best experience not only the history of music in Manchester, but to get a broader understanding of the city as a whole, I spent the afternoon with one of the true experts in all things Mancurian, John Consterdine and his Manchester Taxi Tours.
Manchester Black Cab Tours
Needless to say, John did not always intend to become one of Manchester’s top tour guides. It started innocently enough, reading more about the city’s history while waiting for fares in his cab. A few years ago, in the light of a changing marketplace thanks to Uber and other ride-sharing apps, he changed his business model and turned his black cab into one of Manchester’s best tours. I first experienced a black cab tour in Belfast, which has made these low-key ways of getting to know a new city famous. It’s the same concept really, someone who isn’t only local but also understands the nuances of the city perhaps better than anyone else, shares what they love most with both tourists and local residents alike. It’s a wonderful way to experience a new place, and the Manchester Taxi Tour was the ideal introduction to the city. While John does have some pre-set themes, he much prefers to chat with new clients, see what their interests are and then tailor the tour to them. I was one of three curious visitors in the cab that day, which thankfully meant we experienced a little bit of everything, including Manchester’s rock and roll roots.
Rock and Roll Royalty
Cities rarely set out to become influential, it just sort of happens and that was certainly the case for Manchester during the 1980s and 90s. Even before those hectic decades though, music and popular artists were a common sight in the city, probably thanks to Manchester’s large university system. College students leads to bars which leads to music which leads to new artists trying out their songs in out-of-the-way venues. The result was arguably one of the most influential music scenes in the last few decades and the creation of what was dubbed Madchester. Joy Division/New Order, the Smiths, Oasis and many more influential bands are all products of the Manchester music scene, and many city sights have been featured in lyrics and even on album covers. Much of this dynamic punk and alternative music scene was centered around one place, The Haçienda night club.
Co-owned by a member of New Order, the controversial nightclub not only hosted acts like The Smiths and Madonna, but also gave rise to the entire acid house and rave music phenomena. Sadly, this evolution in electronica was fueled by rampant drug use within the club itself that, ultimately, led to the closure of The Haçienda in 1997. For hardcore music fans though, the legacy of the club has made Manchester a pilgrimage site, but it’s not the only spot in town with a musical legacy. Throughout the course of the afternoon, interspersed between more typical historical stops, John shared hidden or long forgotten spots that are important to music fans, from simple apartments to iconic sights, like the Salford Lads’ Club. Although I’m certainly not as knowledgeable about musical history as others, it was an incredible way to spend the day and the ideal opportunity to learn more about some bands I truly love.
Everything Else Mancurian
My request to John was to not only share the history of Manchester, but his favorite spots as well and he certainly didn’t disappoint. Like many people, before visiting I had certain misconceptions about Manchester. Also like other visitors, those outdated concepts were quickly dispelled when I discovered a vibrant and exciting city that’s far removed from its past. While Manchester may have been the world’s first industrialized city, and that legacy is certainly honored, it’s just that, in the past. Today Manchester is lively and colorful and changing in any number of exciting ways. We stopped along the canals to admire not only the views but the passing boats and even spent time in nearby Salford, which is one of the region’s hot new up and coming communities. What I enjoyed most though was just chatting with John. Sure, I always am eager to capture a new photo, but learning from someone who knows and loves their city is truly priceless. John taught me a lot about Manchester, but probably not in the ways he thinks. Facts and dates are soon forgotten, but how one feels is always with us, even years after visiting a new city. I’ve written before that Manchester isn’t what I expected, but I say that about most new cities I visit to be honest. Manchester was different though. I admit that it wasn’t #1 on my list of places in England I’d like to see, but I now understand that to be my failing and not Manchester’s. Like so many other spots around the world, a legion of passionate and creative people are working very hard to reimagine their community, and in Manchester that has led to a visitor experience unlike what it was even a few years ago. Sure, the iconic sights – John Rylands Library, the Victoria Baths and Ordsall Hall – are all there and still fun places to visit. But the city has so much more to offer now, amazing cuisine, quirky neighborhoods and kind people, this is the Manchester of the 21st century and I’m excited to see how it further develops as it writes the next chapter in its long and definitely colorful history.