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3 November 2022

The male, pale Haçienda myth

A new BBC documentary cements the dull cult of nostalgia around Manchester’s acid house scene and neglects the black and gay cultures at its heart.

By Fergal Kinney

On Bonfire Night in 1982, the British photographer and performance artist Linder Sterling – known simply as Linder – walked onto the stage at Manchester’s Haçienda club wearing a dress made entirely out of meat. The audience recoiled as blood dripped from the entrails, sourced from a local Chinese restaurant. Linder was making a statement in protest against the club projecting pornography on the venue walls, something its male management team – led by the fascinating, flawed Tony Wilson – thought terribly outré and edgy. This was a coordinated attack: other women left red-dyed tampons on bar tables. When Lady Gaga made headlines for her meat dress at the 2010 MTV Awards, it was widely credited as indebted to Linder’s 1982 action.

Forty years later – to the night – BBC Two broadcasts The Haçienda: The Club That Shook Britain. You don’t hear about Linder’s meat moment in the film, but then why would you? No venue in UK dance history has been mythologised as much as the Haçienda, which shut down in 1997. There is a glut of documentaries, biographies, articles, exhibitions and podcasts that memorialise the club. This BBC documentary, produced and directed by Matt Drury, promises to “captivate a generation who were there and inspire a generation who wished they’d been”. Instead, it is the last word on a boring cult of nostalgia, presented here at its laziest and most discredited.

The film is a brisk safari through the main bullet points of the Haçienda story – early shows by the Smiths, the birth of acid house and indie dance, an influx of guns, and then the end. It often feels like a documentary that is unsure what it’s meant to be documenting, and frequently detours into the headline moments from the careers of Joy Division and New Order (whose success bankrolled the club). Any attempts at social history are undermined by the fact that speaking time is directly proportionate to celebrity. This means that the reflections of venue staff are brief compared to the windy braggadocio of the city’s heritage alpha males, such as Noel Gallagher, Shaun Ryder and Peter Hook.

[See also: What Sidney Poitier stood for]

Central to popular mythology of the Haçienda – and this film – is the proposition that the club birthed the acid house phenomena that would reach its apex in the summer of 1989. Yet recent years have seen a firm rejection of that argument. Jeremy Deller’s film Everybody in the Place – which was broadcast on BBC Four in 2019 – used surprising archive footage to tell a powerful story about acid house as a bottom-up DIY practice borne out of a backlash to police repression during the Thatcher era. In 2021, Rough Trade Books’ Parties for the People anthology (to which I contributed an essay) used diverse voices and new research to evidence Blackburn’s party scene as Britain’s largest, earliest and most innovative. But The Haçienda doesn’t acknowledge those arguments, instead doubling down on a narrative of acid house spreading outwards from the Haçienda towards a grateful nation.

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When the film does fumble for points about diversity, they land as self-justifying afterthoughts on behalf of the filmmakers. The Manchester rapper and producer, Annif Akinola, articulates a basic explanation of house music’s black roots, but this feels tokenistic given that black life was central to the Haçienda story. In the north of England, black people had been making, broadcasting and dancing to house music from the mid-1980s onwards. Multiple histories attest to black dancers from the north’s jazz-funk and electro scenes making up more than half of the Haçienda’s dancefloor during the 1980s, reflected in the roster of Factory Records, which included 52nd Street and A Certain Ratio. Neither appear here. This whitewashing, and foregrounding of a white indie audience, is infuriating when dynamite moments of black British creativity, such as jungle or grime, remain without the retrospective telly treatment afforded to house on a frequent basis.

The film does celebrate the Haçienda’s relationship to queer life, suggesting that the club’s Flesh night – launched in 1991 – helped kickstart gay nightlife in the city centre. The reality is more complex. Sure, Wilson revelled in the subversion of naming the venue’s downstairs bar after Anthony Blunt – the Gay Traitor bar – and hosting a 1982 reading by William Burroughs (a landmark, surely? Not in this film). In the 1980s, though, gay business owners on Canal Street were targeted and harassed by Greater Manchester Police under the leadership of James Anderton, “God’s copper”, who publicly advocated the recriminalisation of homosexuality. It is their backs on whom Manchester’s gay nightlife would be built, and not the Haçienda – which only dared set up an LGBT night in the immediate aftermath of Anderton’s 1991 resignation. Dissenting queer voices from the time, such as the writer Jon Savage and the fanzine editor Liz Naylor, do not appear in the film and were not asked to participate. By all accounts, the Haçienda was a stroppy quagmire of interminable fallings out and bleary-eyed philosophical disputes. Here, though, it’s a cosy consensus about how blokes changed the world.

What’s more, while this is a film whose subtitle is about the club changing Britain, it barely evidences how it changed Manchester. From the chilly corporate Tony Wilson Place to the long-delayed, budget-guzzling Factory Arts Centre, the Haçienda would shape the branding of the city’s ongoing regeneration. Wilson’s bombastic regional populism would influence the mayoralty of the former Haçienda attendee Andy Burnham, who was dazzled by Wilson when they both sat on the board for the doomed Yes For The North West devolution campaign. These links, which Owen Hatherley termed “the post-rave urban growth coalition” are not explored at all.

They should be, because it would all have consequences for exactly the kind of creativity that the Haçienda was set up to nurture in the city. The average cost of rent in Manchester has risen by 23.4 per cent in the last year alone, while music venues such as Night & Day Café are threatened by noise complaints from new flats. The city’s centre has been transformed by high-density, luxury Manc-hattan residential apartments and office towers. Is this the modernist city that the Haçienda had been intended to birth?

For some time now, the BBC’s music programming has been in serious decline. Much of its output – like this year’s critically panned, clichéd Rolling Stones retrospective – is outsourced. In the last month, BBC Two has screened documentaries on The Waste Land and Ulysses. It would not dream of covering those literary works with the banality and intellectual lethargy with which The Haçienda is saturated. The BBC’s centenary year would have been a good opportunity for the corporation to renew its commitment to music television that’s informative and exciting. This, presented with all the depth of a bucket hat, is neither.

[See also: The White Lotus and the horror of the super-rich]

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