Right Place, Wrong Time

Cheap Thrills

Disambiguation warning : This is not about the American Indie Rock Band The Dodos but their precursors, a band from Manchester, UK.

Manchester. 1981

Working in the city centre was a dour affair. I had just returned to the cavernous corridors of the Town Hall after being exiled to Moston (part of the north Manchester suburbs) for 12 months. It seemed to be grimmer than I remembered after the leafy greenery of the north side of the city.

It was a city in transition.

I worked in the Housing Department, dealing with what was called “Miscellaneous Properties”, the thousands of homes the Council had acquired over the years as part of municipalisation. My job involved regular trips to Moss Side, via Hulme, to check on the property around the Great Western Street area. Travelling through Hulme was always an interesting experience.

Hulme was something else, it was truly the architects/planners dream gone haywire. I remember it being built around the mid 70s, it wasn’t going to last the 60 year life expected of modern developments  By the turn of the eighties family units had fled from “The Crescents” which dominated the landscape. It was somewhere between ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘Mad Max’ , a dystopian neo-brutalist edge of city centre zone that was home and playground to students. drop-outs and alternative types of all persuasions. Several years later the council would launch a task force to attempt to resolve multiple problems, and decades later, when I has crossed the Irwell to work in the other city, the Crescents would be demolished to be replaced by modern redevelopment.

But at the time Hulme was wild , dangerous and fun , Hulme had The Dodos.

Hulme had cheap accommodation and a sea of possibilities, Hulme had a recording studio, where the  tracks for The Dodos album, which are about to be released for the first time, were recorded. It was called ‘ Out of the Blue’ and set up by an enterprising soul, take a bow Adam Lesser, then a four-track, before it moved to the more salubrious surroundings of Ancoats.

The Dodos were formed when the singer (Ian Moss) approached the guitar player (Graham Ellis) in Rafters , at the time Manchester’s pre eminent venue. They had both recently left well established bands , the Hamsters , and Elti Fits. They fixed up a rehearsal to take place in the cellar of the War on Want offices on Oxford Road for the following week. The guitarist brought along a drummer and a trumpeter (Matthew), songs were ripped from the ether and it was decided to debut the band that very night when the rehearsal space was opened, to those in the know, as ‘ The White Noise Club’. The bass player from The Fall (Steve Hanley) stood in that night and the band played a hardly ground breaking set, by the next week the Dodos had their own bass player (Tim Oliver) , who provided the magic ingredient , an appreciation of space to let the rhythm breath, that made the band stand apart from their contemporaries , The trumpeter departed and the singer brought in a keyboard player , a female non-musician seemed just the random element the band needed.

The band lasted twelve months recording three sessions in the aforementioned “Out of the Blue” , played live on a regular basis constantly striving to stretch their parameters.
They were in truth a band out of kilter with their contemporaries in northern England. In in New York at the same time a scene dubbed ‘ no wave’ flourished , The Dodos were making music remarkably similar a transatlantic journey away. Clearly a case of ‘ Right Time , Wrong Place’ as Kurt Vonnegut Jnr expressed in such a bitter sweet fashion and so succinctly in ‘ So it goes!’.

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So, a city in transition with a music scene in transition. The heady punk excitement of 1976 to 1980 was fading away.

Time for something new, exciting, different. The Dodos tried to do something different probably 18 months before they should have done.

In the wider music world things were changing as well, but not quite fast enough.

Manchester and the surrounding boroughs lacked focus at the time. The Hacienda was a year away, Wigan Casino had closed, Buzzcocks and Magazine had both split. The overall feeling was depressing, nationally punk had spluttered out from a populist movement into a second phase of leather clad copyists who were altogether more harder (more metal leaning) and violent. There was post-punk, but it was disparate, there was no youth movement to latch onto.

The venue dichotomy was clear across the city centre Rafters, Fagins, The Gallery, The Beach Club, did the local and underground stuff, but in the outskirts/suburbs it was a different matter The Apollo hugged the mainstream for dear life, and the Universities took on the mantle of the music in between. The Factory in Hulme was closed, Pips hadn’t risked bands for a few years, too much trouble, the Mayflower had the Exploited and all those other “studs and leather” punkers , Rafters ruled the roost as a regular gig and hangout , The Dodo’s played it a couple of times. Manchester Poly had bands , as did Devilles , but from a cultural point of view the Beach Club, on Shudehill, run by New Hormones was the most interesting place.  The Cyprus Tavern was another place that had pretty much forsaken live music by then.

As for local “stars” Joy Division had moved into New Order land and were struggling to make an early impact.  The Fall had stripped themselves down to a spidery jangling alley of their own making, and spent a lot the year in Germany and the US. Slates was a remarkable release but very much a bridge to the monster that was to follow in 1982. Blue Orchids had a new line-up. The Distractions slowly started to unravel when Steve Perrin left.

Nationally the last vestiges of phase one punk were moving slowly into something more pop (Adam and the Ants, Toyah), or shifting into anarcho territory or getting considerably darker (Crass, Discharge,The Exploited, Anti-Pasti). A new pop sensibility was emerging via jamaican music (UB40, Madness) or pop electronica (Depeche Mode).

In Manchester a sign of things to come were the early stirrings of James and Happy Mondays

From Ian Moss’s viewpoint the best bands were the Fall , the Glass Animals , the Passage and “bits and bobs” by A Certain Ratio , he was belatedly developing a taste for northern soul and going to a few all nighters . In the mainstream the two tone stuff seemed the most obvious street music. Ian remembers Madness doing Grey Day on TOTP as The Dodos finished one recording session. The music that fed the Dodos wasn’t local, it was from Was Not Was, Grace Jones, Smokey Robinson, Earth Wind and Fire we played James Brown and Funkadelic. Exceptions that year came in the form of guitar bands The Birthday Party and The Gun Club, being the most notable.

The No Wave scene was sort of finding it’s way into the Manchester psyche via James White and the Blacks, the Bush Tetras; the Speed Trials compilation was on the cusp between punk and the new approach, and the Mutant Disco compilation album with Material merging jazz and funk, with a hard jazz edge, was a break through. There was an undercurrent of soul/funk rumbling in the basement bars of the city, Colin Thorpe’s Disjunct were a fine example of what was possible.

The Dodos seem to have captured that zeitgeist.

New Order would of course absorb that whole dance thing two years later and make a name for themselves. It is clear listening to the new collection of Dodos material, to be released on German Shepherd Records in May, that the band were breaking new ground. No synths, no arpeggiators etc, just guitar, bass, organ and drums. You can listen for yourself when the complete recordings are released on May 13th but i’ll tempt your interest with a sample track to be going on with. Raw, ground-breaking and marvellous. An exciting mix of Moss’s punk aesthetic with jagged post-punk guitar and funk rhythms and bass lines.

This is raw Manchester music, never before heard except by a select few, and masterfully reproduced by Tim Oliver for a new audience.

Thanks to Ian Moss and Tim Oliver for background information to this article.

 

 

 

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