In an article about the Manchester gay club scene from NSM magazine in 1986, a photo depicts two women posing as they drink Breaker beers in a club. In the background, two others are slumped asleep on the sofa, done in by the night of partying. “I love that photo. I think it captures the scene at that time,” says Abigail Ward. “It wasn’t until the 1990s that Manchester was dubbed ‘Gaychester’, house music took over and LGBT music culture in the city went boom.”
The clipping is just one of thousands of pieces uploaded to the online archive Abigail runs to celebrate Manchester’s long and varied music history – the Manchester District Music Archive.
On the homepage today, a ticket stub to an Emerson Lake & Palmer gig at the Free Trade hall sits next to a record in a W.Walford Gramophone sleeve (‘Gramophone and Cycle Repair’) and a ticket to Motown band The Four Tops at Blighty’s in 1972. “In the layout of the site, we make sure there’s no hierarchy of merit”, says Abigail. “Our job is to draw out the hidden histories.”
The idea for the archive came from two filmmakers – Matthew Norman and Alison Surtees. Inspired by historian C.P Lee’s book about Manchester music, ‘Shake, Rattle and Rain’, they started a campaign, with the help of C.P Lee and band manger Dave Rofe, to set up a physical museum in the city. Abigail got involved to develop the website soon after and found that people were sending her stuff from their personal collections, which she would upload onto the site herself. “One day I thought ‘God, I really wish people could do this for themselves!’ It was before Facebook had really taken off so I set about creating a site that would allow people to upload their own images. As the online presence took hold we let go of the idea of doing a museum. Instead of it being a large dreary institution, we took a more of a guerrilla approach.”
The online archive grew quickly as word spread and has allowed Abigail and her colleagues to create pop-up events and exhibitions giving a voice to untold stories. ‘Queer Noise’, for instance, explored the hidden history of Manchester’s LGBT music culture and club life, while ‘Moss Side Stories’ told the history of clubs in the area and ‘City Fun’ collected together memorabilia of the post-punk fanzine collective.
“For a long time, the mainstream perception of Manchester was a very laddish one. It was about celebrating a very white, male culture. We felt that there were other stories that needed to be told and the way to destabilise the dominant historical narrative was to give people a platform to talk about what’s important to them.”
For Abigail, the stories about Manchester’s music scene reveal it as a “radical, pioneering and political city”. That’s her personal experience too. “I am from Preston in Lancashire, which is about 40 minutes away, but it might as well have been 40 million miles away in terms of my ability to get to Manchester. I grew up obsessing about bands like Magazine and The Smiths. Listening to Morrissey in particular made me feel less lonely as a person who was confused about my sexuality. I would pound the streets with my Walkman listening to what he was saying and, when I was very young, Manchester seemed like a romantic place to be. It also seemed like a safer city to come out in.
“With my focus on LGBT club culture I have tried to tell a story about how lots of people only a few years older than me protested on the streets against things like Section 28 in the 80s and 90s. These demos helped to make Manchester a safer space for gay people, so that when someone like me came along, there were good clubs to go to. I’d never even met another gay person before I came here.”
It was in the 1990s, when Abigail arrived in Manchester, that Manto club was launched on Canal Street, flouting the secrecy of gay venues by installing full-height plate glass windows. DJ Tim Lennox had been building the house and dance music scene at the gay-friendly Number 1 Club and that led to the birth of Flesh, a popular house night at the Haçienda billed as ‘Serious Pleasure for Dykes and Queers’.
“As a curator, I would say the thread in my work is celebrating and exploring when communities come together through their music and club life to protest oppression. It doesn’t have to be under a specifically political banner. It’s the coming together and being visible that’s a political act. That’s when the best parties happen.”
Abigail’s favourite pieces change all the time, but here are her current top three:
2. A reggae poster for when the reggae artist Johnney Osbourne came to play at the PSV club. “When he came on stage it turned out he was an imposter who was performing under Johnny Osbourne’s name. It obviously kicked off massively in the club.”
3. A photo of Jonny Cash at the Astoria Plymouth Grove: “This is a beautiful shot by a guy called Brian Smith, who was just a fan in the audience. The venue is on the street that I first moved to in Manchester. It’s a fantastic picture of Jonny. It’s his first ever gig in the UK. It’s an Irish social club. And in the background you can see the clock and it’s just past midnight. It just really does it for me.”