Review of the Queer Noise exhibition, Pump House Museum, Manchester

Queer Noise is an exhibition at Manchester’s Pump House Museum about the development of the LGBT+ club and music scene mainly from the seventies and eighties. It’s just a small exhibition but it is very concentrated and presents a wealth of fascinating photos, artifacts, articles, posters as well as audio and video recordings.

One of the themes is the crossover between the mid-70s punk scene and what we now call LGBT. In those days members of that community remained mostly hidden. There were just a few places in Manchester city centre where they could be amongst themselves and enjoy a night out without the fear of ‘queer bashing’ or worse.

One of those places was the Ranch, a tiny basement club on Dale St set up by the prominent Manchester drag artist Foo Foo Lamarr. I went to the Ranch around 1977. A friend of mine was fascinated with the unbelievable costumes and make-up the girls were wearing and he took me along to see them. There I was confronted with punk rock in all its defiant and often nihilistic energy. This was a club where the motto was ‘anything goes’ but there was also an air of violence. Going up the stairs I to the exit, I was punched in the face. I think it might have been outsiders drawn into the club to witness the spectacle and indulge in a bit of ‘bashing’.

The Ranch is featured in the exhibition, and there is a remarkable photo of members of the Buzzcocks staggering out the front entrance. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the photographer, in fact I wasn’t taking photos at that time. If I had been I might have a prime collection today, but now is not the time for regrets! There some excellent black and white prints by Linder Sterling, Kevin Cummins and Dave Kendrick, Jon Shard and Al Baker.

The exhibition is also about artifacts and I should mention that it is based on a collection of items from the Manchester Digital Music Archive, of which I’m a trustee, though I had no involvement in putting together the exhibition. That honour goes to fellow MDMA person Abigail Ward, who has tirelessly worked to document all aspects of Manchester’s music scene, presented in the MDMArchive.co.uk website.

The exhibition takes up a small footprint as part of the exhibits on the second floor but is packed with interesting material. I love to hear recordings of people and I listened to a fascinating description of the club scene by a speaker who came over from Ireland. In her very appealing Irish accent, she talked about the pub on Princess Street, the Union, later known as the New Union and other venues where people from the LGBT community gathered.

I was also interested to hear an interview with Pete Shelley, whom I interviewed myself at the Russell Club in 1979. Sadly I lost my notes, scribbled on paper and my interview was never published. My lack of success of documenting those times is one of the reasons why I appreciate exhibitions like this.

When you’re off out for a wild night on the town, most people don’t bother to bring a pen and notepaper to jot down the venues they go to, the people they meet, the music they listen to and the antics they get up to, though today’s technology can record what is happening and may be valued in the future as a record of present times.

My memories of the seventies are mostly a haze, though a few key events stand out in my mind including my visits to the chaotic Ranch club.

Reading the articles, watching the video footage, interspersed with snippets of music, I felt a sense of nostalgia and wanting to go back. We can’t go back but at least we can build a picture of what it was like in a time when there were very different attitudes and social conventions to today. The advances made by the LGBT community in asserting their identity and rights has led to the much more relaxed and tolerant atmosphere we have today and perhaps take for granted.

Queer Noise gives us a great insight into different times, but I understand that it’s just a pilot for what could be a much bigger and more comprehensive exhibition. I can’t wait to see it.

The Manchester Digital Music Archive was extensively redesigned and modernised in 2017, making it device-responsive and vastly improving its functionality and visual appeal. It contains an astonishing collection of artifacts related to popular music in the Manchester area. The screenshot on the right shows just a part of the Queer Noise online exhibition. Some of these items are on display at the Queer Noise exhibition at the Pump House Museum. Click on the image to go to the Queer Noise online exhibition.

Screenshot Queer Noise exhibition 2017