Album Rescue Series: ‘Chicken Rhythms’ Northside

Manchester is regarded as the UK’s second city after London, despite the unsubstantiated counter claims from Birmingham, and is one of the world’s greatest industrial cities. The city is famous for driving the industrial revolution, cotton production, a 36 mile (58km) long ship canal, TV broadcasting, art, music and even providing the world with the standardisation for screws via the Whitworth Thread standard in 1841. Despite all of these great inventions and innovations, Manchester is usually known throughout the world for its two football teams Manchester United and Manchester City.

I am pretty lucky. Since the mid 1980s I have travelled the world extensively with my backstage rock ‘n’ roll career and everywhere I go I see people who have never been to Manchester wearing football shirts of these two teams/brands. A quick search on the Internet lists over fifty active football teams in the Greater Manchester area. The problem with this style of binary reductionism is that great teams that are neither United nor City are not represented. I am not a football fan or expert by any stretch of the imagination but I’d hazard a guess that there are some great games being played by teams like Bury Football Club or Bolton Wanderers.

This is the major problem with Northside’s 1991 release Chicken Rhythms on Factory Records (FAC310). Northside are in effect Accrington Stanley to The Stone Roses’ Manchester City or The Happy Mondays’ Manchester United and as such do not attract the attention they so well deserved. In the music scene, this scene became known as Madchester; there were so many bands present during this period that it was fairly obvious that some would fall between the cracks. I am absolutely sure the same thing happens in any great musical movement; think the San Francisco Sound of the late 1960s early 1970s and the two major players of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, but what about Stoneground? Don’t worry, Stoneground’s 1971 eponymous album is going to feature in Album Rescue Series volume II.

Manchester, and its new sound Madchester, was the dominant sound in British popular music during the late ’80s and early ’90s and I almost missed it. From 1985 onwards I spent very little time in my home country (the UK) as I was travelling the world as a live sound engineer with a host of well-known international acts. Luckily for me I had a day off in Manchester during a world tour with New York alternate jazz rappers De La Soul and so I was able to hook up with my old mate Gary ‘Mani’ Mountfield. I’d met Mani a few years earlier when he was on the stage crew at various Manchester venues ‘humping’ band’s equipment. We were only 20 days apart in age and we took an instant liking to each other. As I’d spent so much time away from the UK with my touring activities, I had no idea that Mani had joined the band The Stones Roses as their bass player, in fact, I had no idea that he could even play bass. On this occasion I hooked up with Mani and we found ourselves in an old knackered ‘borrowed’ car heading to the town of Failsworth, famous for the production of felt hats in the 1850s, to purchase marijuana [1]. It was during this 3.7mile (6km) trip, that Mani gave me the details of the new Manchester music scene that I didn’t even know existed; it was known as Madchester. Once we arrived in Failsworth, our hosts sold us dope at a greatly inflated price (due mainly to Mani’s recently found celebrity status) and then proceeded to smoke it with us. It was at this point that I first heard the album that is the subject of this album rescue: Northside’s Chicken Rhythms. Presumably, the album name comes from the use of funky, chicken-scratch guitars, which the band weaves into its abstract, aloof, slightly quirky brand of alternative psyche pop/rock?

A major album issue is that Northside were late arrivals to the Madchester party with their debut album release in 1991. The Happy Mondays had their first album out in 1987, The Stone Roses in 1989, Inspiral Carpets in 1990 and even fake Madchester band, The Charlatans, had released an album in 1990. The genesis of Northside came in 1990; it occurred in the North Manchester districts of Blackley and Moston by Manchester United fan Warren ‘Dermo’ Dermody (vocals) and Manchester City fan Cliff Orgier (bass). Soon joined by Michael ‘Upo’ Upton (guitar) and Paul ‘Wal’ Walsh (drums); the band was complete. The formation of Northside is the classic story of Thatcher battered austere Northern Britain: young people indulging in hedonism in hard times. The band’s formation dovetails perfectly with the introduction of the new recreational drug of Ecstasy that was sweeping the country. Up until the late 1980s, Saturday afternoons were a time of football violence. All this changed with the introduction of ‘E’ and Acid House. I am pretty sure that the Thatcher government of the time did not release that it was the introduction of cheap Ecstasy into working class areas that stopped football hooliganism dead in its tracks rather than their out of touch laws.

This new regional musical movement of Madchester was a heady fusion of Acid House dance rhythms and melodic pop distinguished by its loping beats, psychedelic flourishes, and hooky choruses. Song structures were familiar, the arrangements and attitude were modern, and even the retro-pop jangling guitars, swirling organs, and sharp pop sense, functioned as postmodern collages. There were two different binary approaches to constructing these collages, as evidenced by Mani’s band, The Stone Roses, on one side and the Happy Mondays on the other. The Stone Roses were a traditional guitar-pop band, and their songs were straight-ahead pop tunes, bolstered by infectious beats; it was modernised classic 1960s pop music. The other approach was the one adopted by the Happy Mondays who cut and pasted samples like rappers, taking choruses from the likes of the Beatles and LaBelle and putting them into a context of dark psychedelic dance. Despite their different approaches, both bands shared a love for Acid House music and culture, Ecstasy and their hometown of Manchester. As the name would suggest, this music was very geographically specific. It was the British press that labelled this style of music Madchester after a Happy Mondays song. It was also termed as “baggy” by the popular press, after the baggy loose fitting clothing worn by the bands and fans, in particular bell-bottomed jeans, tie-dyed or fluorescent coloured oversized sweatshirts all finished off with a fishing hat. This style of clothing mirrored the music e.g. the mix of 60s psychedelic rock with 70s funk but all within the context of late 80s Acid House. The clothing was rooted in leisure (hence the fishing hat) and was designed to be loose and easy to dance in, by makers such as Manchester’s legendary Joe Bloggs. Northside sat in the liminal space between these two schools of creativity though they did lean heavily to the Stone Roses style of production.

As Factory Records had so much talent at its disposal, and because of the sheer volume of material it was releasing, there were going to be casualties. Some albums were bound to slide by without making a dent. All Factory Records releases had a unique identification number including Tony Wilson’s coffin (FAC501). Chicken Rhythms was number FAC310 and that’s a lot of releases by a small cash strapped regional record company. Not for the first time in an Album Rescue do we see a superb piece of music slide into obscurity because of poor marketing. Factory Records had lots of previous form in this department. Tony Wilson and his colleagues at Factory Records always aimed at the stars but continually only just managed to hit the moon. As a creative entity, Factory Records was world class and iconic, but as a business it was a financial disaster: an abject lesson in how NOT to operate a creative business.

It’s also possible that as a Factory Records act you needed the patronage of its head Tony Wilson, or as he liked to call himself later on in life, “Anthony H. Wilson”. Without Tony’s direct supervision, his favorites included e.g. Joy Division/New Order, Happy Mondays, Durutti Column and A Certain Ratio, you didn’t get the attention you deserved. As Wilson often pointed out “I went to fucking Cambridge University you know?” he favored the bands that displayed a high level of political intellectualism and/or high art. Northside failed in both departments and this was to their detriment. Factory Record’s artists are known for some of the most iconic cover art in the history of popular music e.g. Joy Divisions Unknown Pleasure. Peter Saville, Factory Records’ in house style guru, art director and designer was not involved with Chicken Rhythms. Instead the cover was farmed out to the second division graphic design company Central Station. The cover was an insipid, uninspired, weak collage of old birthday cards reformed as an apple. The only way to describe this album cover is appalling; it worked against the material contained on the audio recording held within. This is akin to packaging a tasty morsel of delicious food in a wrapper with a picture of dog shit on it. The old adage “never judge a book by its cover” should ring true, and this cover sucked and it definitely contributed to Chicken Rhythms disappearing into relative obscurity. Factory Records even managed to botch up the barcode on the album so that any sales recorded in a chart return shop didn’t register.

Northside deserve to be celebrated because they took some chances and dared to dream. One has to admire their desire to strive for some form of originality. The Lightening Seeds’ lead man, Ian Broudie, who obviously had compassion for the band and their music, expertly handled production on the album. Recorded at the residential Rockfield Studios in rural Wales the change of scenery was beneficial and provided them with some much needed fresh air. Stand out songs from the album are the infectious ‘Take 5’ with the “64-46 BMW” refrain directly lifted from reggae superstar Yellowman’s Nobody Move, the silly ‘Funky Munky’ and the anthem ‘Shall We Take A Trip’. Broudie and Northside form the perfect creative premier division team to produce a wonderfully dynamic album of space, place and bass. Though the material is delivered through a lens of happy up-tempo pop, the lyrics are somber and essentially about hoping to hope in what were desperate times. These were very hard times in Britain with the end of Thatcherism still five long years away.

Through this album, Northside articulated the anxious postindustrial panic of working class youth that was sweeping the country. Mindless hedonism was portrayed as the new culture of a disenfranchised youth. Northside were a band that came along with an album that struck a cord, celebrating that era for the youth of the day. Album tracks such as ‘Shall We Take A Trip’, ‘A Change Is On Its Way’ and ‘Who’s To Blame?’ are all wonderfully optimistic. Though ‘Shall We Take A Trip’ proved to be a problematic track and single, it was immediately banned by most radio stations because of its obvious drug reference. However, it resonated with kids because of these obvious drug references. Most youngsters experiment with and/or are intrigued by drugs to some extent, it is all part of growing up. The lyrics take their inspiration from Lennon’s ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and LSD. The chorus line of “answers come in dreams”, clearly spell out the initials A.C.I.D. This track is full of double entendre and was possibly a nod to Lennon’s great lyrical genius, wordplay and warped way of thinking?

Damage was also inflicted to this album by what was missed off of it. Out of the Rockfield recording session were the tracks ‘Moody Place’, ‘Tour De World’ and ‘Rising Star’ all superb tracks but not collated onto the album for various reasons. ‘Moody Place’ has got one of the best bass lines ever right up there with Public Image Ltd.’s track ‘Public Image’. It’s a great song and the subject matter is about hope and trying to stay strong when it seems everyone around you is slowly going down. The lyrics are mostly about hoping for hope in desperate times, which was a common theme in the late 80s and early 90s. Most of the blame can surely be firmly placed with Factory Records for not fully understanding how the curating of this album’s material would affect sales? Imagine what this album could have achieved had it been released with a more sympathetic record company, one that could have afforded a marketing campaign and some decent cover artwork?

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As mentioned earlier, Northside came to the party very late, in fact, they arrived when the party was virtually over. Factory Records was overstretched financially and mismanaged operationally. Tony Wilson was now more interested in investing in his own legacy rather than facilitating decent music. Also the zeitgeist had shifted over night, it’s a moving target at the best of times. The year 1991 saw a shift in what was seen as cool both sub-culturally and geographically. It’s ironic that just as the economic hard times of North West of England were abating the music upped and left. The two star teams of the Madchester scene, The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays, had become fat and lazy with success and were more interested in recreational drug use then making music. To be precisely correct their profession was now drug use interspersed with occasional recreational music making.

Into the North West British void came the sound of North West America; grunge. This new musical genre de-emphasized appearance, drug use and polished technique in favor of raw, angry, passionate songs that articulated the pessimism and anxiety of its young angry audience. Lyrics were no longer hedonistic and forward-looking but pessimistic and angry. The look was no longer baggy Joe Bloggs casuals with glow sticks and Acid House smiley faces rather it was opportunity shop, make-do and mend austere attire. All optimism and hedonism was stopped dead in its tracks, as was Northside’s career. Instantly the world’s music press’s front covers had pictures of Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden and other Seattle area grunge bands. No longer was this about hedonism in hard times it was about self-enforced austerity in good times. Northside’s Chicken Rhythms caught and reflected the fragile moribund zeitgeist of Madchester, though this album is long since deleted it remains a valuable artifact of political and social history. If you can lay your hands on a copy then it’s well worth listening to this forgotten Madchester gem.

[1] Please note that I no longer condone the recreational use of marijuana though I do understand and fully support the use of medically prescribed marijuana.

The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. ‘Chicken Rhythms’ Northside is authored by Tim Dalton. (Follow Tim on Twitter @Touringtim)

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