I recorded this interview with CP Lee on Friday the 28th of July 2006 and the recording has been available on my aidan.co.uk site ever since. For some time, I’d been planning to do an improved version with better sound quality and with a transcript.
And then on the 25th of July, 2020 came the terrible news about Chris so I decided to move ahead and complete this improved version and here it is. It’s presented using my ‘talking book’ or ‘visual podcast’ style or it could be described as Audio Visual Magazine style. Words and images are presented side by side on screen. Most of the photographs are by me. A few are from public domain sources.
Please check the subtitles for foreign language translations, and also please like the video and subscribe to the channel.
Published by Aidan O’Rourke | Sunday the 2nd of August, 2020
Told you I was missing, but I wasn’t lost
and I was walking through streets in the cold and frost of Manchester.
Looking for the place that I used to know
and then I saw some people and it started to snow on Manchester.
Manchester Anthem by James Herring
What is it about Manchester that makes it such a pre-eminent city of music?
Well that’s the question that’s bothered musicologists for quite some time. It is a city that seems to be uniquely placed in the history of popular music, because it repeatedly jumps in feet-first into great music, great scenes, and on an international level. And we can look at places like Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol, we see groups come from there, but it’s never as consistent as it has been from Manchester. And I think that that’s because Manchester, if you look very closely, you can see the tracer bullets being fired throughout history.
There’s always been a tremendous musicians’ infrastructure here in Manchester that’s enabled the different movements or genres or waves of music to happen and to continue and carry on so that one builds on the other. And we can look right back into the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Mancunians demanded and devoured music at an incredible rate.
We’ve got the birth of the Hallé Orchestra, one of the great international classical orchestras. It’s here in 1855, but you go back in 1780 the Gentleman’s Concerts is the beginning of the Hallé. They would get audiences of two and a half, sometimes five thousand people wanting to hear the latest classical music, which if you think about it is very punk. This stuff, it wasn’t classical then it was contemporary but they wanted to hear it.
Also mixed in with that you’ve got the Jewish elements, you’ve got Celtic elements, you’ve got folk elements, all of them pouring into the city, devouringpeople at an astonishing rate, but also producing culture at an astonishing rate. So if you look at say The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson, he writes at length about the creation of working class culture, and music was an essential part of that. It’s not particularly radicalised or political. It’s there as a release mechanism, it’s there as a carriage system to take you away for an evening into a transport of delight.
So by the 20th century, we’ve got the dance bands, we’ve got working-class unemployed jazz bands, groups of people playing kazoos, wearing costumes, trying to outdo each other. They’d go to a football pitch or a recreation ground, then you’d get different jazz bands. Each street would have one, neighbourhoods would have them, cities would have one and by the 1930s they’d have competitions against each other. Who were the best marching jazz bands?
By the 1950s, because of the Second World War we’ve got Burtonwood Aerodrome, Burtonwood American base, which is 25 miles away Manchester and it means that every weekend we get an influx of American musicians who are based there coming into Manchester, also going into Liverpool at the same time, and feeding into the groups that exist, principally, at that time, jazz bands. And the jazz bands were not your kind of Acker Bilk trad, these were modernists, these were people who were influenced by Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, and they wanted authentic black American players if they could get them, but they’d settle for white ones if they had the chops.
A great interest began in Manchester to trace jazz back to its roots and those roots come from folk blues, from whatever. And this led to an interest in people like Muddy Waters, Chicago R&B. So that at the end of the 1950’s, you’ve got a lot of groups who’ve come up watching the emerging rock and roll scene on television or at the cinema. They’ve come through skiffle, so they’ve got instruments, they can play them, but the music that’s being developed is beat music, which essentially a kind of white English version of R&B. But it’s music with a beat, it’s music for dancing to.
And we get by 1964, we can find over 200 beat clubs in the Greater Manchester area. Some have come, some have gone, some are there for the whole period, but it’s an astonishing amount of beat clubs.
Now this mirrors what’s going on in Liverpool at the same time with what is known as Merseybeat, again the word ‘
beat’ races up there. But we get this strange separation. At one time both scenes were mutually symbiotic. It’s only 30 miles away (along) the East Lancs Road. In the early 60s groups from each city would be passing one another on the East Lancs, waving to one another, playing each other’s gigs, going backwards and forwards. People like Epstein, the promoters at Wooler at the Cavern, Danny Petacchi in Manchester, the Abadi brothers would book bands from Liverpool, Manchester, as I say, mutually symbiotic.
But then came The Beatles and The Beatles, for better or for worse, kind of destroyed that amicable relationship, because internationally, people only saw Liverpool and the Mersey poets, the Mersey scene, the Mersey beats, or whatever and Manchester, kind of, became the poor neighbour in musicological terms, so that even though Herman and the Hermit’s, (Herman’s Hermits) who were the second biggest selling English group in America after the Beatles, were from Manchester, if you asked an American, they would say that they were from Liverpool, because they thought there was only Liverpool.
Manchester began to emerge from under that shadow I would say with 10cc at the end of the 1960s, early 1970s, because they brought a studio to Stockport, and this is a major studio, and I think a very under-sung achievement. They put Manchester, Stockport on the map in terms of… “Oh yeah!”, I mean, people came from America to record there. Fascinating place.
So the next wave is created by the musicians themselves. It was in 1972 because there were so few gigs because, not a lot of people know this, Manchester is the only city that I’ve come across that had an Act of Parliament passed to stop beat clubs. They were so, I don’t know, morally outraged at the beat clubs that the 1965 Corporation Act which came into force oddly enough on the first of January in 1966, was designed specifically to stop beat clubs and crush teenage rebellion. Not that it was particularly rebellious, but there you go.
So there were very very few venues for musicians. And when I started playing in the mid-60s, I could play every night of the week in the Greater Manchester area. By 1970 you were lucky if there was one gig a week. So in 1972 Victor Brocks organised a meeting at the Bierkeller off Piccadilly and the Music Force was founded, which was a musician’s cooperative. And it was a socialist organisation which was going to be, and indeed was musicians taking control of their own destinies.
Now that meant that they had an office where they would ring up, create venues, force venues into taking Mancunian groups. They would provide the transport if it was needed, they rent out PAs, they’d do the posters. Now, all this infrastructure, they even had a newspaper called Hot Flash, a music paper, all of this infrastructure was in place when Howard Trafford, who becomes Howard Devoto, turns up in 1976 at the Music Force offices asking where he might put on the Sex Pistols. And they direct him to the Lesser Free Trade Hall and the rest, as they say, is history. Because we then get with Buzzcocks and Spiral Scratch, which set a template for the punk DIY ethos.
This is the first kind of internationally recognised Manchester music scene, which by 1983 we can lump in The Smiths, the Haçienda has opened, by 1988 we’ve got the whole Madchester scene, by 1996 we’ve got the international recognition of Oasis, by 2000 we’ve got Badly Drawn Boy, we’ve had M People, and it continues to roll. It goes on and on and on.
Manchester is a place that musicians now gravitate to. It’s a place which produces again and again consistently good acts which are capable of breaking it on an international scale.
I can’t remember who actually said this so my apologies, but it’s impossible to talk about Manchester without talking about music and it’s impossible to talk about music without talking about Manchester. I think it’s Haslam.
So it’s not just the fact that we have lots of different nationalities and it’s a place where people come to live, migrate, the point you’re making is also that there is an infrastructure there, going back a long time, that laid the foundation to organising bands and organising music and performances, that that’s also an important reason, which I wasn’t aware of.
I think that it’s definitely my take on it, that infrastructure has always enabled musicians to operate to their maximum ability. It encourages them and it doesn’t necessarily facilitate them in getting a van. I mean, nowadays we’ve got the Manchester Musicians Online, which is a kind of self-help agency. North West Arts are now very interested in… Why are all these musicians in Manchester? They’re also… North West Arts now interested in facilitating recording studios and that kind of thing, which I suppose is good.
We’ve got the Manchester District Music Archive, which I’m one of the trustees of. Even Urbis is very supportive of local musicians and the local music scene, in terms of looking at the graphic design, the posters, album covers, t-shirts, wellington boots. But, no, for me it was the I would argue it’s the fact that there was always an infrastructure there. The cultural influences, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of that, it’s fascinating. Yes, the Irish and the Jews have a lot to answer for.
And maybe something in the water, who was it said that there was something in the water?
Peter Hook said to me, he thought that it was definitely something in the water, when I put the question to him, and we both decided that we would agree on that, which would have been a much shorter answer for you.
What about the American influence and the Northern Soul thing. First of all, maybe you could explain what Northern Soul is. You recently did an excellent BBC radio programme about Northern Soul but for people who don’t know what it is, what is Northern Soul and why was it so popular in Manchester in the north of England?
Um, gosh, that’s like asking what is it about Manchester that makes musicians? Northern Soul is a genre, it’s a musical genre and it applies specifically to a kind of urban Black, urban American dance music that’s still being produced today, but over the sixties let’s say. So a grotesque example would be Tamla, though I know that that’s anathema to most Northern Soul… People would understand that. Black dance music, good good poppy, catchy dance music.
The phrase Northern Soul was originated by writer and promoter and all round genius Dave Godin in an article in 1971, where he’d come to Manchester and seen what was happening at the Twisted Wheel, and said “If this has to have a name, let’s call it Northern Soul” because Mancunian DJs had chosen a specific avenue of Black American music that was very popular in the North West of England.
Now it goes back to 1845 when the first blackface minstrel troupe, the Christy Minstrels appeared in Manchester. Now this might sound quite bizarre but it began a fascination with Black American music. The Blackface Minstrels were playing an approximation of black American music. That strangely enough filtered into Irish traditional music in the shape of the banjo and the bones. They saw them in Dublin and within 10 years people were playing banjos in pubs in Dublin and Galway and what have you, and the bones, which are free, if you’ve killed a cow. So the people in Manchester developed it, they loved it. They couldn’t get enough of this kind of entertainment and they came back again and again throughout the 19th century.
Now in the middle of the 19th century the American Civil War was a period of a great hardship in the North West of England. We’ve survived on cotton and cotton couldn’t get through, because the Union fleets were blockading the Southern ports. Now the cotton workers of the Greater Manchester area were starving, but they marched in their thousands to support President Lincoln for the emancipation of slaves, even if it meant that they would starve.
So it there had always been this very very close affinity between… or a recognition of African Americans and the struggle for freedom, for equality, which carries through into an appreciation of the music, up to a point in the mid 20th century where it becomes almost obsessive.
I think because there was a kind of a recognition or an empathy, a feeling that if you were a white working class kid in the great Industrial North, you in your own way were oppressed and you could look towards Black American music either providing you with a voice, in terms of Blues, or an articulation of your plight, or as a point of release. Within Northern Soul dance music it’s a release. It’s an effective system for carrying you out of your physical body for three minute bursts. As long as the song lasts, you’re dancing and you’re away.
And it also, to go out in another direction, there’s a kind of exclusivity with Northern Soul where people, I think, felt that they were onto something that nobody else was aware of, and that forms a very very tight bond with all the other people who had gathered there with you. So it’s very tribal and I think in the North, whether we’ve been one generation in Manchester or twenty generations, we are very tribal about being Mancunians.
What other influences do you think or connections are between America and Manchester? You mentioned about the cotton industry and how much of an effect…?
Well the River Mersey finishes, it flows down the Pennines and it finishes in New York. So you’ve got that direct straight line across the Atlantic, and will leapfrog over Liverpool. I mean Liverpool must have been so fed up when the Manchester Ship Canal said “Well, we’ll just bring the cotton to Manchester up this big river.”
Do you know it was supposed to end in Didsbury? The original Ship Canal Company had their first meeting at Fletcher Moss and the guy lived there, and he envisaged it being like on his doorstep, so you just step onto the ship and go to America whenever he wanted to. So it would have carried on through Northenden up to Didsbury Village, which… Imagine what it would have been like!
The affinities with America, that direct line, emigration, immigration, a two-way street. Lots and lots of business was with America, particularly Cottonopolis, which we’ve already talked about. Entertainment, musicians, Stan Laurel is from here, Charlie Chaplin was in the seven Lancashire Lads clog dancing troupe, before going with Fred Karno to America.
So the Mancunian Film Studios existed in the 1920s doing silents and then gave up when sound came along. But a guy called Burt Tracy who was from Droylsden had gone to Hollywood with Stan Laurel and had worked for Mack Sennett came back to Manchester and Laurel and Hardy were coming to visit at the Midland Hotel, and he said to Johnny Blakeley from Mancunian film company: “Oh, come along and meet the lads”. And they got there and Stan Laurel said “Well why aren’t you making films any more,” and he said “Wow, it’s too expensive,” and he said, “Well just hire a studio.” So they did and they made the first George Formby movie, which is a massive hit.
All because Laurel and Hardy came to Manchester and Burt Tracy knew them, Mancunian knew them, and we get the birth of the proper Mancunian Film Company, which feeds into Granada Television and the BBC in a direct bloodline in the same way that music is feeding in, in that Steve… I can’t remember his second name… sadly he’s been dead for a long time, if you look at the logo for Band On The Wall, there’s a man with glasses and a little beard and a beret, and that was Steve who revitalised the Band on the Wall in the 1970s.
Now in the thirties he’d been in the schoolboy jazz team in Ancoats, the Little Rascals jazz band and they played at the Cotton Club in Harlem. So he’d gone from Ancoats to Harlem, as a kind of novelty act, played there, came back obsessed with jazz and we get that whole thing in the 1950s, which feeds back into a desire to discover the roots of jazz, which takes them to see people like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, who were all regular performers in Manchester. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, all these people loved playing in Manchester, and they also they used to say things like it reminded of America, probably just being nice. But Alexis Korner who’s one of the founders of the British Blues had a flat in Manchester because he played up here so much because kids wanted R&B, they wanted Blues.
Elton John when he was in Steampacket with Rod Stewart said that the greatest place on the planet to play in terms of audience reaction was The Twisted Wheel. If they liked you, that was it, you were made, you were back there every other week and you know, people had permanent residencies then, and Spencer Davis, Steampacket etcetera.
People like Neville who’s in one of my books about Bob Dylan, the first book I wrote, Like the Night, Neville worked at ABC television in Didsbury and every penny he had went on collecting Blues records. And he couldn’t believe it one night when Spencer Davis said:
“Oh, we need somewhere to stay for the night.”
He said: “You can stay at my ’ouse,”
and he lived in a council house in Wythenshawe with his mum. He took Spencer Davis group back. And he had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and they just sat in his front room all night and played Blues for him.
And you hear stories about kids in back-to-back terraced houses in the 1970s with lino on the floor paying fifty quid for a single because they’re that obsessed with the ownership, of that authenticity, of that belonging.
I’m out of the loop in a way now, but I don’t know if there’s still quite that same obsession with the authenticity and how House music pans out into Black dance music. Is Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez a black New York DJ or a white New York DJ? I wouldn’t know. But for years and years and years the white working-class kids in the north west of England were very very obsessive and very very possessive about Blues music because they had an affinity for it and they had a recognition of it.
I think I understand a bit more now actually from what you’ve been saying about why it is that Manchester has just got this magic, what I call magic about it, in terms of music. But you’ve really just scratched the surface. You’ve written… how many books have you written on music?
Specifically I’ve written, had published three books, one on Bob Dylan’s films, which we’ll forget about, even though it’s very good, but the first one is about Bob Dylan playing at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966, which is a very pivotal moment for music generally.
What’s the book called?
That’s called Like the Night and in a sense it was the pivotal moment of the documentary last year, the Scorsese documentary, the ‘Judas’ shout, and it’s one of the great climactic moments in music history.
Now the most important book relevant to this is Shake Rattle and Rain, which is a history of popular music in Manchester from 1955 to 95, and if I only have the wherewithal, I would write Shake Rattle and Rain 2, which would be the history of popular music 1855 to 1995, because I just keep discovering more and more about it all the time, and how they all interlink.
And just as a little aside, tell me about a few of the famous musicians that you’ve interviewed, maybe Manchester ones, maybe other ones.
Well, met or interviewed in my time, I met Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townsend, it’s very hard to remember … Everybody! Because I was a professional musician for years and years.
And the name of the band that you played in?
Well, the first band was Greasy Bear then the next band was The Albertos or Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias, and we played our way around Europe and did the obligatory bit of America.
But in terms of interviews for the book, I got hold of as many people as I possibly could. So Peter Hook, Clint Boon, Pete Farrow, an old beat group member, yes he is old, so he’s an old beat group member.
Basically anybody I could get hold of. Bruce Mitchell, who’s been playing since 1955 and is still playing with the Durutti Column, Vini Reilly, Ed Banger, Howard Devoto, Pete Shelley, but then also other people like Richard Boon, who is essential to the history of Manchester music. He ran New Hormones, which was Buzzcocks’ management company, but they also facilitated Linda Sterling and John Savage. At the moment I’m compiling a list of people who are to do with Manchester music. Not musicians per se, because they get neglected.
And many of them are still around
But most people wouldn’t know they were.
And yet they’re enormously influential.
Very very influential.
Can you give me an example of one of these influential people that you would see around?
Um, well, if you were in Stoke Newington, you’d see Richard. In Manchester you generally can find…
Tosh. Now what would we say about Tosh? I mean, the founder of Rabid Records, he was a jazz saxophonist in the 1950s. In the 1960s played with Victor Brock’s Blues Train. He’d also played with John Mayall, was a founder member of Music Force in 1972, founded Rabid Records in 1977, has been creating a massive kind of digital video archive of Manchester musicians, which we don’t currently know the whereabouts of! He’s misplaced it, but he was trying to interview every single musician he could get hold of. So there have been people trying to chronicle it and hold it together. That’s now being carried out by the (Manchester) District Archive, Music Archive.
That’s what I also wanted to ask you about, because if people are interested in finding out more about Manchester music in general, where can they find the information?
It’s on our website, which is just undergoing reconstruction, but if you do a Google for Manchester District Music Archive, you’ll find it. And it’s being relaunched at the end of September in an interactive way.
So what we want people to do, is… it’s a bit like Wikipedia, in that you can access the information we have and you can add your own information to it. And we don’t just want Jeff Davis, who played bass guitar in the Rattlesnakes, or The Denton Boomerangs, we want people who went to gigs who would say: “Yeah I used to go to Rafters and I thought it was fantastic, and I can remember Rob Gretton deejaying,” or what have you?
So we want the memories, because music can’t exist without the audience and we want their reaction just as much as we want the input from musicians. So this is the new website, which is launched at the end of this coming September, will be the springboard, it’ll be kind of virtual museum which is the springboard towards us hopefully opening up the actual physical premises.
Okay, well that was a fascinating little session there, scratching the surface…
…of a fascinating subject so thank you very much.
Thank you very much!
In 2006 I interviewed film and music historian C P Lee at his home in Manchester. On the occasion of his retirement on 30 January 2015 I am re-publishing the interview.
Why is Manchester so pre-eminent as a city of music? Is it the weather, the geography or or some other unknown factor? CP Lee provides some very interesting insights.
CP Lee has done extensive research on the development of music-making in Manchester, and is the author of the book ‘Shake Rattle and Rain’, a history of music in Manchester from 1955 to 1995. He has also written two books about Bob Dylan. For 23 years, he was a lecturer at Salford University, and is co-founder of the band ‘Alberto & Lost Trios Paranoias’.
It was very interesting to discover that the history of music in Manchester goes back to the 18th century, and that the reason for its success in recent decades is not some intangible magic in the air, but something much more basic, something that most people may not have thought about.
Chris talks about the echoes and interplay between America and Manchester, and why Northern Soul became such a phenomenon here during the sixties. He did an excellent documentary on Radio 4 about Northern Soul. He mentions clubs, bands, singers, personalities, and also talks about the Manchester and District Music Archive, which he is helping to organise, and of which I am a co-trustee (since 2014)
CP Lee also helps to keep alive the memory of comedy actor Frank Randle and the Mancunian Film Company. More on his official website where you can buy books and lots more items.
The introductory music is a short section from the song ‘Manchester Anthem’ written and sung by James Herring. Listen to the full version of Manchester Anthem on Jay Herring’s Myspace page.