It was broadcaster Pete Mitchell who lent me his copy when I visited his Cheshire HQ in late January to contribute to a Virgin Radio Revolutions in Music documentary celebrating The Clash (linked here). Paul’s impressive ‘history of Manchester music in 13 recordings’ had escaped my notice until that point. Needless to say, it proved a cracking read.
Within, the former Fall drummer tells the story of two renowned recording studios on his patch, Pluto and Strawberry. And his love and affinity of the music he writes about, the recording process, and an innate understanding of his subject matter come over loud and clear in an affectionately-honed tome written with a real sense of voice and carrying a far from showy, conversational style, the book as entertaining as a half-hour conversation with the man himself.
I roughly knew the story, but hadn’t given it too much thought that the major artistes from the North West of England who made the big time in the ’60s all recorded elsewhere, until Keith Hopwood and Derek Leckenby of Herman’s Hermits (Pluto) plus Eric Stewart of The Mindbenders and former WriteWyattUK interviewee and all-round songwriting genius Graham Gouldman (Strawberry) set up studios on their own patch, getting out of London.
As Paul puts it, ‘Against the prevailing wisdom, they opted to plough their hard-earned cash back into the city they loved in the form of proper recording facilities. Between them they gave Manchester a voice, and facilitated a musical revolution that would be defined by its rejection of the capital’.
Thus, we get a meticulously-researched tale of Manchester music through the prism of those two studios, inevitably incorporating portraits of 10cc, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Smiths and The Stone Roses en route, but also The Clash, who came to Pluto to record ‘Bankrobber’ in 1980. Oh yeah, plus The Manchester Children’s Choir, who sort of set the ball rolling in 1929 at the Free Trade Hall, and Lowry-loving, unlikely hit-makers Brian and Michael. Rightly so, there’s a chapter on John Peel favourites The Fall too, the cult band with whom Paul memorably served in the first half of the ’80s.
So what of the author himself? Well, he never turned away from music, his most recent stints behind a drumkit being with latest Fall offshoot, much-touted Brix & the Extricated, where bandmates include his older brother, bass player Steve Hanley, who served even longer with Mark E. Smith’s cult favourites.
As it turns out, rock’n’roll has been a part-time passion for Paul these past three decades, the father-of-three working in IT for a living. Yet a new potential career has now surfaced, an Open University degree in English leading to this first publication as an author.
If anything, I put it to him, his book seems more a word of mouth success, not least as it’s come from a smaller publisher.
“I suppose so. It’s not like it’s difficult to find, but you’re right. It’s kind of snuck out in a way. Which is okay. I wouldn’t have expected anything else. I was just delighted somebody wanted to publish it.”
Did you go with Pontefract-based publisher Route chiefly because they put out the book your brother Steve and Olivia Piekarski wrote, 2016’s The Big Midweek – Life Inside The Fall?
“Sort of, although they approached me. I was doing a degree in English and wrote an article about The Who in Detroit, where I occasionally go with work. I wanted to do more than a review, making comparisons between Manchester and Detroit. That makes it sound very grand, but It was about me, basically. I got a fairly decent mark, then approached John Robb with a view to him publishing it on his Louder than War website. And when he did, Ian from Route approached, asking if I’d considered writing anything else. And, ‘Funny you should mention that …’
“I’d wanted to write a book about Manchester studios, and not just the two in the book. There’s a few, like the one where Buzzcocks recorded their first record (Indigo Sound Studios, I’m guessing, where the ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP was recorded), then Elbow’s studio (Blueprint Studios, Salford), and Cargo in Rochdale.
“But when I got into it, researching, it seemed like too much of a tale to miss – I wanted to expand on the story of Strawberry and Pluto. That looked a perfect tale with a beginning, middle and end, and a journey. So Cargo fell by the wayside, because it didn’t fit the narrative.”
Although Cargo was where The Fall recorded early on.
“The second album (Dragnet, 1979) was recorded there … and the third, Grotesque (1980), the first I was on. It’s an interesting tale though, and I definitely think there’s a book in it, one I’d be interested to read … if not write!”
Are you working on a follow-up publication now?
“I am, but I’m not at liberty to say yet! I’m fairly near to a point where I can give it to the publisher though, see what they think of it.”
You’ve clearly known the inside of a studio, from the BBC at Maida Vale for those much-loved John Peel sessions (The Fall recorded a staggering 24 sessions for Peelie between 1978 and 2004, Paul featuring on five of them, from 1980 to 1983) to another in Reykjavik and a converted cinema in Hitchin, Herts (collectively for 1982’s Hex Enduction Hour, and onwards. Were you aware of the history of those iconic Manchester locations back in the day though?
“I wasn’t actually, and unfortunately I never got to record in Strawberry. I’d have loved to. The Fall did after my time. But we recorded Perverted By Language at Pluto. I’d be lying if I said I was aware of the history of the place though. In Steve’s book, he mentions it being owned by a couple of members of Herman’s Hermits, but I’m not so sure he knew it at the time. I don’t want to accuse him of rewriting history, but … he was rewriting history. Ha!”
You mention in the book that your stint there was just a couple of years after The Clash recorded ‘Bankrobber’ there though.
“I was aware of that, as a Clash fan, and if you look at the video, it was filmed in that studio. And it hadn’t changed much by the time we recorded there. But as a 55-year-old I’m much more impressed with Keith Hopwood’s past now than the fact The Clash recorded there, even though I wasn’t at the time. It sounds a cliché, but the story of Manchester musicians giving something back to Manchester is a massive thing for me. That’s really what the book’s about.”
It never really struck me until reading your book that The Beatles never recorded north of Watford Gap.
“That’s right. They did a bit of recording in Hamburg, but it was mainly Abbey Road, with a bit in Olympic in Barnes, and at Apple. That’s pretty much it. They talked about going to America to record, but … There was nowhere else for them to go. Even ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ was recorded in London.”
And despite the pioneering work at the Manchester studios mentioned, that was still the case in the ‘80s in some respects, wasn’t it? Despite recording their first album here, The Smiths moved on, for example.
“Yes. The same goes for the second Joy Division album. It wasn’t always a conscious decision for Manchester bands to decide to record in Manchester, but the fact remains that if it wasn’t for these people, we couldn’t have done it. And even if the people who did that didn’t realise they were doing it, I think it still made a difference.”
As far as I’m concerned, there was another key moment in the development of music in Manchester through Buzzcocks recording that debut ’Spiral Scratch’ EP in their home city and then making the covers there too. A proper punk DIY approach, inspiring Belfast’s Good Vibrations and many other indie labels to follow that business model.
“I think so. Look at the Sex Pistols and look at The Clash – they were on EMI, CBS … And while Buzzcocks later signed to a major label, that thing with the debut EP – even if it wasn’t necessarily a selfless thing they were doing – was enormous. They made it possible for others to follow in their footsteps, in the same way that they brought the Pistols up to Manchester. They didn’t get £200 and spend it on train fares to see them in London. They decided to bring them up here.”
So what happened to Paul after he left The Fall in 1985? Was that when you moved into working with computers?
“That was a couple of years after. I was in a band who did absolutely nothing, with a couple of others from Marc Riley and the Creepers. Don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them?”
Of course. I reckon he asked that with a smile on his face.
“We all decided to do it ourselves and be massive pop stars … which kind of explains while I’ve been in IT for the last 30 years!
“But I always hated that kind of ‘Smithers Jones’ thing, and 53 songs by Steve Diggle kind of sneering at people working for a living.”
Well, I’ll let Steve Diggle stand up for himself, but I know Bruce Foxton wrote ‘Smithers Jones’ about his Dad. I don’t reckon he was sneering. I think it was done from a place of love.
“Okay. I’ll take that back then. But there is a history of that, from ‘Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James’ (Manfred Mann, 1966) onwards.”
It’s interesting that Paul starts the book talking about the Manchester Children’s Choir and the success of ‘the UK’s first significant recording outside of London’, not least as 90 years on Manchester-based John Robb post-punk outfit The Membranes feature a Manchester-based choir (from the British and Irish Modern Music Institute) to great effect on their mighty new opus, What Nature Gives … Nature Takes Away.
And that 1929 recording was recorded at the Free Trade Hall, as opposed to the Lesser Free Trade Hall where the Sex Pistols, invited up to Manchester by Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley, famously played and changed lives overnight in 1976. I imagine Mark E. Smith would have played down that show’s overall importance though, I suggested.
“I’m not so sure. It definitely changed something in the air. Mark, Una (Baines), Martin (Bramah) and Tony Friel sat round doing poetry and swapping instruments before, but when they went to that gig, they felt, ‘We can do this, we can actually be a band’. The same with Pete Hook and Barney (Sumner). The leap from wanting to be a musician and being one was smaller then than it ever was before or ever after. There was just something about that moment, the demarcation less than ever between those going to see a band and those who were in the band. And that wasn’t just in Manchester. The same happened elsewhere with Siouxsie Sioux, Billy Idol, and so on, when they saw the Pistols.”
A discussion followed about pub rock before we got back on track, me bringing up the subject of Manchester’s Electric Circus gigs, initially when the Pistols played there on their ‘Anarchy in the UK’ tour, inspiring the afore-mentioned Peter Hook and many more. But Paul was still a schoolboy at that stage.
“The Electric Circus was slightly before my time. From what I can gather it wasn’t the nicest place. It was a rough area around there. But if you think about the gigs that were on there, including The Clash on the ‘White Riot’ tour. And I remember a Virgin 10” vinyl live album (Short Circuit – Live at the Electric Circus, 1978, also featuring Buzzcocks, John Cooper Clarke, The Drones, and Steel Pulse), and it was on that I first heard The Fall and Joy Division.”
You wrote a ’40 years on’ review recently, again for Louder Than War, about a Bowdon Vale Club gig in Cheshire in March 1979, with Staff 9 – your future bandmates – supporting Joy Division. Was that one of your first gigs?
“I hadn’t been to that many, but the first was Darts at the Free Trade Hall. A kind of doo wop band. Don’t know if you remember them.”
How could I forget them.
“I don’t know why I latched on to them, but I quite liked them, although I ditched them fairly quickly once I got into my brother’s music. The second gig I saw was Blondie at the Free Trade Hall, which was brilliant. By then the line between people I knew and bands was gone, because Marc Riley was in The Fall, and Steve was too fairly rapidly after that, and they were kind of mixing with Joy Division and Buzzcocks, who rehearsed at the same place. So to a callow youth, these people who I thought were absolutely amazing were within reach, if you like.”
I suppose when it came to its music scene, Manchester was in that sense a small town.
“It was! There was a real sense of a scene. Even people like Mark E. Smith, who defined themselves by not being part of that scene, could only do that because the scene was there in the first place.”
The fact that Manchester also had its co-operative music collective helping put gigs on helped too.
“It did. They put a lot of gigs on. Some of it was terrible though. There was a lot of that folks banging radiators stuff, and putting typewriters through an echo machine!”
Music doesn’t always conform to geographical limits though. A lot of the bands from my South-East roots gravitated towards London, and that was surely the case with your patch, to an extent.
“Erm, I’m not sure really. Possibly. A lot of Manchester bands don’t particularly sound Mancunian, but I think there is an atmosphere, and that whole Tony Wilson thing about Manchester. I don’t think it restricted anybody in terms of what they sounded like, but there was a definite movement from around 1978 onwards. And one of the main points of my book is that there’s a line from there right back to the ‘60s. I don’t think that gets written about enough.”
On to chapter 11, the one where you write about The Fall, centred around the Perverted By Language album. I get the feeling you were reluctant to include that, even though surely you realised it would have to be part of the story.
“Sort of. I didn’t want to write it. It was the last chapter to be written. I’ve described it as being like a Fall-shaped hole in the book. I’d written about Buzzcocks and Joy Division, The Smiths, The Stone Roses … It was Ian from Route who said I really needed something in there about The Fall. I could have been really perverse and written about the album they did at Strawberry after I left, but that seemed ridiculous, so I bit the bullet and wrote that chapter. But it was difficult after writing so much about, ‘Aren’t these people great!’ To switch it to, ‘Aren’t we great!’ didn’t seem right. But I didn’t want to say, ‘Aren’t we crap!’ either, because The Fall were an amazing band.”
You describe how, by the time of Grotesque, Mark E. Smith had been joined by ‘three schoolfriends and a younger brother’, the latter yourself.
“That’s right, and I certainly was a little brother as well.”
There’s five years between Paul and big brother Steve Hanley. Was Steve close at school with Marc Riley and Craig Scanlon?
“Marc and Steve have been mates pretty much all their lives, and I’ve known Marc as long as I’ve known Steve, really. Marc’s parents are my godparents. We kind of grew up together. Craig was in the same school year as Marc, getting to know Steve through him.”
Their original band – before Paul joined – were originally known as The Sirens, becoming Staff 9 before Marc left to join The Fall, the other two soon following, Paul joining later. Was he hearing them banging and crashing from the start?
“Definitely, and it was more luck than good fortune that I ended up playing the one instrument that none of them played.”
Did you play drums at school?
“No, I had no musical training whatsoever. I was going to learn guitar at school, but my Dad wouldn’t stump up for a guitar case. He said we’ve still got the box it came in, so he put two strings on the cardboard box. And there was no way I was carrying that to school, so I never pursued it.”
Whereas Steve was born in Dublin, Paul was born in Manchester, or to be precise, “St Mary’s, the Manchester equivalent of Londoners being born within the sound of Bow Bells. You can’t get more Manc than St Mary’s. it was just outside the city centre then, and is more or less in the city centre now.”
Were there musicians in the Hanley family before you two?
“Not really. My parents and uncles attended parties, that Irish thing, but nobody musical at all.”
It only struck me recently that Mark E. Smith was in his own sweet way as much a performance poet as John Cooper Clarke.
“He was in a way, but I don’t think he ever wrote lyrics that stood up on their own. That’s not to denigrate them. There’s a real difference between poetry and lyrics, and he always wrote lyrics. I’m not saying poetry is a higher calling, but they’re not the same thing. He was a consummate lyric writer. He was brilliant. But he wasn’t a poet, wasn’t a novelist. He was what he was. And he took lyrics to a place others hadn’t.”
One thing I read into your book was that for all Mark’s outspokenness and strong will, you were a proper band, all involved, chipping in with song ideas and so on. You really were ‘Die Gruppe’.
“Musically, yeah. He always had that where he was – sometimes to his frustration – surrounded by musicians, despite not particularly holding musicians in high regard. It was a Catch 22 situation – he always had to work with musicians but didn’t particularly think they were the people he wanted to hang around with. Until the last couple of line-ups. The line-up he had for the last 10 years was his perfect band – they loved him, and he loved them. Maybe he mellowed.”
You’d seen a bit of mellowing yourself when Brix joined the band and he fell in love with her, hadn’t you?
“Well, he wasn’t really that bad. He was always alright. He had his moments, had some mad ideas and could be unreasonable, but bands are often unreasonable. I think he got in a very dark place when Steve left, but I couldn’t say the situation was ever that bad when I was in the band.
“My relationship was with Mark was a little different. As I was a little younger, he was always my boss. He was never my friend in that sense, so I had different expectations of the relationship to what the rest had. As with that last band line-up, he told me what to do from the day I joined until the day I left, and I didn’t have a problem with that. It was a different situation from that with Martin Bramah, for instance.”
I do get the impression from what you write that you didn’t really feel you knew him that well at all.
“Yeah, but that’s not to say we weren’t friendly.”
Did you feel threatened when Karl Burns came back on board and you suddenly had this two-drummer formation. Did you think your time in the band was about to end as soon as it had started?
“No. Understandably, he got Karl in for that American tour (Paul was too young to get a working visa), and I was of the opinion that he was one of the best drummers I’d ever seen, so he was massively someone to learn from. But I didn’t have to be in a band with him to learn from him. I learned every time I watched him on stage. He was an absolutely amazing drummer. By the same token, to be given the opportunity to play alongside him was worth any amount of fear. it was an absolute joy to be part of a two-drummer line-up with Karl.”
There aren’t many bands known for that formation.
“Adam and the Ants, I suppose. And the Glitter Band, but that was double-tracked. They never really played on Gary Glitter records. I think the Grateful Dead had it for a while, but I certainly wasn’t informed by them. I did quite like Adam and the Ants, although we never really tried to emulate that tribal thing.”
There’s a nice line about Marc Riley’s exit from The Fall, where you mention the wonderfully quirky ’Jumper Clown’, the cracking number he did with The Creepers (also memorably covered by The Wedding Present), and how it made a mockery of the reason Mark gave for booting him out. You write, ‘If proof were ever needed that Mark E. Smith’s frequent assertion that ‘Riley wanted to be in a pop band’ was nonsense, then ‘Jumper Clown’ is it.’
“Yeah, it’s funny, that. Mark kind of rewrote history, and one of his big things when Marc Riley went was saying that he always wanted to play the hits and be more poppy. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. I think there was a clash of personalities and with hindsight it was probably the right time for Marc to go. But that doesn’t make me any more comfortable about the fact that I stood by and let it happen when Marc was sacked. It was a rough time (for Steve) – they’d known each other forever. It did affect the relationship briefly, but we got over it.”
There’s a lovely clip of you and Karl playing live with the band on Channel 4’s The Tube, performing ‘Smile’ and ‘2 x 4’, introduced by special guest John Peel with presenter Jools Holland in 1983. One of many career highlights, I’m guessing.
“It was, and it was an interesting process, something we’d never done before. It was a unique programme in that you got to play live. A bit like Later with Jools now, but slightly less slick. And we got to meet John Peel and Mickey Finn from T-Rex.”
Is there a record from your time with The Fall with which you are most proud?
“I think Hex Enduction Hour, which is cited quite a lot now, and I think that’s quite deserved … which sounds quite ridiculous because I’m on it. As Steve always says, I was making an album with the greatest lyric writer in the world and four of my best mates. And for it to turn out as well as it did … I’m proud of all the records I was on, except for Room to Live (1982). I can’t stand that, but that was really coloured by the atmosphere when we made it, which was poisonous. I think there was a deliberate attempt by Mark to undermine where we were, because Hex Enduction Hour had been so feted.”
Bringing the story up to date, had you kept in touch with Brix over the years?
“Not really. It was because of Steve’s book. He did this launch for it and decided we were going to play, and basically invited pretty much everybody he’d been in a band with. Craig (Scanlon) was there, Marcia (Schofield) was there, Simon (Wolstencroft) was there … It was a lovely occasion, and after that Steve and Brix got talking about doing something together. I think originally that was with Simon Rogers, but he was too busy to commit. As with these things, Steve roped me in to play drums … and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
Yep, that’s Brix and the Extricated, currently at work on their third album, with dates set up for later this year. And I make it that Paul and Steve have been in at least five bands together.
“Ooh … let’s have a think here! One … two … three … four … yeah, five.”
That’ll be Factory Star, (Tom Hingley and) The Lovers, The Fall, Brix & the Extricated, …
“We were in a band called Ark, but we don’t talk about them!”
Well, I was going to mention Staff 9. Are you going to elaborate on that?
“That was a band started by Steve when him, Karl (Burns) and Tommy (Crooks) left The Fall (together with The Creepers’ Pete Keogh). It was a bit of a disaster really. They lost Karl and Tommy and I ended up playing for them. It was good in a way, kind of cathartic for Steve, as if to say he didn’t need Mark to organise gigs or make a record. But I think it was too soon. He should have taken two years off. But anyway …”
Home for Open University graduate Paul is Timperley, ‘the home of Frank Sidebottom’, as he put it, his children having grown up fast, Paul’s daughter now a teacher and his two lads following her to the University of Sheffield for their own studies. And of his own degree, he added, “It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. A brilliant experience, that whole thing of being made to write about things you would never think to in a million years.”
And that inspired his first publication, in a sense?
“Not in a sense at all – 100 per cent! Absolutely. This made me think I was able to write.”
And there’s proof of that in Leave the Capital, for sure.
Brix and the Extricated, currently working on their third album, are set to play Manchester’s Band on the Wall on November 1st, then The Lexington in Islington, North London, on November 30th. For details head to the band’s Facebook page.