“And on the sixth day, God created Manchester”

Music photographer P.J. Walsh draws parallels between counterculture in '80s and '90s Manchester and shifts in youth culture today against the backdrop of political disenchantment

Squelching 303 basslines and rattlesnake high-hats to the long-haired baggy sound of “Madchester” and twisted melons.

The summer of 1988 saw the “Second Summer of Love” with Walsh’s camera capturing some of the iconic moments of acid house’s shift from the underground to an international phenomenon. Getting picked up by The Face, Mixmag and the NME, Walsh documented the hedonist mecca of Manchester and the bands, DJs and revellers that graced it. 

Many have said that we are standing on the cusp of a huge shift in youth culture with rave being just one ingredient in the socio-political cocktail. With Walsh reminiscing over the counterculture explosion of acid house and the political revolution that drove it, we are invited to reflect on how the past holds parallels with the chaos of the last year.

The last time the Tories had a majority like they did in the last election, an unexpected byproduct was the acid house and free party rave scene – and some of the best British music to have been created. With the younger generations of today becoming increasingly politicised, and three lockdowns causing a monumental bubbling of energy, we muse with Walsh over the prospect of Summer 2022 heralding in a “third summer of love”.

In the space of an hour, Walsh weaves anecdotes of music history against a backdrop of the iconic black and yellow taped dancefloor with the Happy Mondays, A Guy Called Gerald and 808 State providing the soundtrack… 

Picking up the camera at the tender age of 12, it was Walsh’s father that taught him the basics; from F-stops to composition. Just under a decade went by before he decided to pursue the medium any further. Symbolically it was just after walking out of the Hacienda club (pre-acid-house boom) that he saw a poster advertised on Whitby street for a co-op workshop where, for a fiver for the whole year, he could learn how to print and develop his own pictures.

At the time there was a great deal of civil unrest. Walsh began his time with the co-op shooting some of the early ‘80s demos against Thatcher, the miners’ strikes, mass unemployment… with protests happening every week, the North along with the rest of the country was becoming increasingly politically charged.
On assignment with the group, Walsh planted the seeds of his future success. It wasn’t until he began to shoot Manchester’s clubs and venues that his niche was unearthed, with a memorable wide-angle shot of the Hacienda and a picture of the club door. After refining his skills on the course, it was when he took his photos to City Life magazine (the equivalent of London’s Time Out magazine) that everything started to fall into place. They hired him, and so initiated his shift from shooting the dance floors to shooting the artists on stage.
Walsh defines the turning point in his career as being assigned to go and shoot a Wednesday club night at the Hacienda called “Hot”, where he recalls looking around and thinking “What the hell is going on?”. The club dynamic had seemingly changed overnight, everyone in the club was absolutely going for it and were off their heads, the music had changed and everyone was wearing baggy sweatshirts, t-shirts, and dungarees. Walsh contrasts the style with an earlier picture he’d taken at the club; three boys standing on a podium wearing ties, waistcoats, and Ted Baker shirts.

“That was always one of the great things about the Hacienda – it was one of the only clubs, even before acid house, that you could get into with jeans and trainers on. Everywhere else in Manchester you needed to have a shirt and a tie. It was funny because those same clubs that had dress codes, also ended up being the place where there would always be fights after. People would be heading out of the Hacienda around 2 o’clock, and down the street the Ritz Ballroom would be shutting around the same time. Everyone would be coming out of the Hacienda all very happy and there would always, always be massive fights happening down Whitby street with cars stopping, and it would be the lads coming out of the Ritz. We’d be watching wide-eyed like “Why are they fighting?” and it was a really defined culture shift in that respect.”

It was a penny and pill drop moment and Walsh knew that whatever it was that was happening, he wanted to be there with his camera.

“Shooting the Hacienda meant it was also the building, the DJs, and the people. I wanted to document everything that was happening. I remember thinking pretty early on as the acid house thing was kicking in, like wow, something really culturally significant is happening here. So I was feeling like I should document this not just for myself, but for some kind of an archive for the future. I knew it was going to be important one day. It was a great time, it was wild.”

It wasn’t long before the notorious Tony Wilson (one of the founders of the club) came knocking, asking Peter to shoot the end-of-series rave for his TV show “The Other Side of Midnight” at Granada Studios. The lineup was nothing short of seminal, with A Guy Called Gerald, John Da Silva, Mike Pickering, T-Coy, and then the Happy Mondays to be the headline gig ending the session. Walsh recalls an exchange with Tony Wilson before the gig kicked off, asking him “Where can I go?” and Wilson laughed, telling him he could go anywhere.

“So that was it, I was on the stage and I was about six feet away from Shaun Ryder. I remember processing the pictures and one of them was Shaun with a joint in his hand looking straight at the camera, all I could think was “Wow these are actually alright.” So I sent the pictures down to the NME, and to my surprise, I got a call a few days later from the live editor Helen Mead: “Do you want to work for us up North?”

It snowballed from there. Walsh started working for the NME and the jobs came thick and fast. Meanwhile, the mainstream media remained seemingly oblivious to the ferment of activity that was happening up North; the police were blind to the drugs, and London was still only just flirting with the idea of acid house. “From about ’87 to ’89 it was all very underground. The people who knew about it knew about it, and everyone else had no idea” says Walsh, laughing about how nowadays he’ll be watching TV and an advert will come on playing some big house anthem from the time. “I think it’s great how far it’s come, but it’s honestly crazy to think that back then none of the mainstream radios were playing any of it and a lot of the media was oblivious. It was off the radar and off the airwaves”

Manchester’s music scene was as productive as you can get. The city wasn’t just raving: it had taken the sound, ethos, and spirit of rave and reshaped it into something brand new: Madchester. Walsh compares the music landscape to a blender with the sheer abundance of styles and genres coming together. The city’s youth were becoming increasingly empowered and inspired, they started fashion labels, they bought decks, synths and the age of the bedroom DJ had truly begun.

“A big thing that remains today in Manchester is that the bands were very supportive of each other. So if, say, if you were in the Hacienda and a band like the Inspirals [The Inspiral Carpets] bumped into Graham from 808 State they’d get chatting, then A Guy Called Gerald would come along and they’d catch up about what each other were working on. A Guy Called Gerald actually had a studio in Manchester that was 10 minutes away from the Hacienda, so people would all go back to his place and work on a track together. They’d put it onto a tape, take it back to the Hacienda, the DJs would play it. They would take a look at the reaction, then go back to the studio and mess about with it a bit, then head back to the club either that night or the next and play it again. So we would be the first people to hear ‘Voodoo Ray’or ‘Pacific State’. The songs were tried and tested on the crowd. People would be on the dance floor going “Wow what is this? This is fantastic”. The music that was playing at the Hacienda was almost like an education and the DJs were all looking for the next great record to play.”

Having witnessed such a monumental shift in counterculture during the ‘80s and ‘90s, Walsh foresees a visible change among today’s youth post-pandemic. Disenfranchised twenty-somethings of 2021 hold much resemblance to those of thirty years ago, with youth employment and mental health dropping to similar levels over the past year. Walsh tells us that Thatcher’s government “didn’t give a fuck about young people”, especially up north where he believes they were cut adrift and many were forced to sign on. So when acid house came around, it felt to him, as it did to many, like the perfect blend, a politically charged music revolution. Rave and acid house was preceded by a long conservative period of austerity and slashes to services for young people and those within the creative bracket. Walsh sees this as a sure sign that something will be afoot in the coming months, foreshadowing a wave of political activism, accompanied by a surge in the UK’s creative and artistic output. Walsh mourns the lack of support that was given to the UK’s cultural industries over the course of the pandemic, especially the music and nightlife sectors, chiding the government’s flagrant disregard and distinct lack of understanding of how integral a part The Arts have to play within both society and the economy. 

“I really do hope we can get back to it soon for more reasons than the dance floor, because I know so many people in the creative industries have lost work, jobs, and their livelihood. I really believe that the government could have done more to support the creative and nightlife sector. Germany for instance put about €50 billion into supporting artists and musicians with their creative fund. You can really see how other countries in Europe value their arts and culture a lot more seriously than they do here. Music and clubbing generate so much money for this country in terms of revenue and tax. I don’t think anyone in government had the foresight to realise how important it is and all the things that can be generated from the creative industries. It’s a travesty really.” 

Walsh further condemns the Tory party for caring solely about the “privatisation of money”, with little focus on social justice. He believes that Boris’s government is trying to suppress the voices and the energy of young people because they’re “frightened of it”. The Criminal Justice Act that was passed in ‘94 (an act that gave police power to shut down events “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”) shows a strong resemblance to the “Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill” that was recently proposed; a law that will essentially make it harder for people to protest and grant the police even more power in shutting them down. But out of adversity comes opportunity, and Walsh acknowledges that this brewing of energy among the UK’s youth could most definitely be harnessed to change things for the better.

“Young people are the driving force behind the Black Lives Matter protests, climate marches, student protests, and the other demonstrations that have been going on and I think that’s fantastic. The government doesn’t like the fact that young people don’t like the Tory party, so they’re going to clamp down on protesting as much as possible. There are all these sneaky little things that are going on underneath the government; it’s very much like what it was in Thatcher’s time. The common denominator between now and the ‘80s is the fact that young people are very politicised, they’re using their voice. I really believe that after being locked down for so long there is going to be, and already is to some extent, a huge amount of energy towards fighting for social justice. I’m excited to see where we will go from here.”

If you could remember your time in Manchester around the explosion of acid house with one record what would it be?

Hardcore Uproar by Together

Hardcore Uproar, by together.