Queer Noise is a crowd-sourced online exhibition exploring the history of LGBT+ music and club life in Greater Manchester from the 1950s to the present day. It sits within Manchester District Music Archive, a user-generated digital archive of ephemera founded in 2003 to celebrate Greater Manchester music and its social history.
Queer Noise contains over 250 digitised artefacts, including photos, posters, press articles and videos, all contributed by the general public. The chronologically presented images and accompanying stories form a narrative that reveals the importance of music to a community experiencing oppression and hardship, notably during the years when James Anderton, Manchester’s notoriously homophobic Chief Constable was in post.
Themes that emerge in the digital exhibition include: the piano bars of the 1950s and 60s; the relationship between Manchester punk and the queer scene; the women-only music scene of the 1980s; and anti-Section 28 protest nights.
Two moments of particular interest occur in the 1990s: the house music explosion that became a national phenomenon circa 1992 (‘Gaychester’), and the musically eclectic ‘alt-queer’ movement that developed as a reaction to it towards the end of the decade.
At the heart of the house scene was Flesh – a no holds barred queer clubbing extravaganza held once a month (on a Wednesday) at the Haçienda, which attracted crowds of 1500 at its peak. DJ Tim Lennox and a host of other resident spinners played a pioneering blend of house, garage and disco whilst drag queens, performance artists and gimps with angle grinders threaded their way through the crowd. Well known for its themed parties, Flesh’s flamboyant ‘sets’ included a beach with an ice cream van, a makeshift swimming pool and a fun fair.
Flesh promoters A Bit Ginger produced flyers bearing proudly confrontational slogans, such as ‘Practice Makes Pervert’ or ‘Thank You For Not Being Heterosexual’. This was, in part, a defiant reaction to the anti-gay rhetoric of Chief Constable Anderton and Section 28. There was a stringent door policy at the club: no straights allowed. Door staff often asked punters a series of questions to ascertain their true sexuality. The press article below, featured in Queer Noise and taken from the Manchester Evening News (1992), highlights this.
Lasting for 5 years, Flesh finally closed in October 1996, a year before the Haçienda itself shut its doors. An interesting piece exploring the positives and negatives of the club’s legacy appeared in local queer interest magazine The Girlfriend.
In the article, writer Steven Whittle (not the trans rights campaigner) is glad to see the back of the club:
…FLESH was always about the money. […] When FLESH was created it was a great way for the Haçienda management to show how liberal they could be – at the same time pushing up takings on an otherwise slack Wednesday night. It was expensive enough to deter the old and ugly working class, but the ‘nice gay boys’, who bought apartments in the city […] were to come and practise ideas of clean, safe, yet entertainingly camp, sex without ever actually cuming (sic).
Clubber Ian Stevenson is sad to see it go:
Why was FLESH so special? I suppose it was really a combination of factors. Luck played a part; it happened to be in the right place at the right time. The promoters took a huge risk and introduced a rampant imagination onto a dull and stale gay scene. The DJs pioneered a sound that [now] seems obvious in today’s clubs (both gay and straight). It tapped into an energy desperate for a bigger stage (there would have been no FLESH without the equally legendary Number One Club). But most importantly the people who paid homage to a lifestyle month after month, the people who spent weeks planning their outfits, saving for their drugs, working themselves into a frenzy: this was the thing that made FLESH such an amazing experience.
It was around this time (1997) that Manchester’s alternative queer club culture began to take hold. Discerning DJs, promoters and clubbers who had grown tired of the homogeneity of the house scene nurtured a new movement based in back street, intimate nightspots away from the hen parties and commercial dance sounds of Canal Street (Manchester’s Gay Village). Clubs like Homo Electric and Club Brenda boasted a wide-open, eclectic music policy and on the door everyone was welcome – even heterosexuals.
The fractured atmosphere of the late 80s and early 90s, which had often seen trans and bisexual people sidelined, and gay men and lesbians at loggerheads, was starting to give way to mixed parties, where labels and gender no longer mattered.
Early Homo Electric nights sought to attract ‘homos, hetros (sic), lesbos and don’t knows’. The club also distanced itself from the image-conscious elements of the traditional gay scene. Tiny, stamp-like flyers were distributed on Canal Street written in the style of personal ads:
Bitter and twisted muscle queen sick and tired of bitching sessions, orange-faced bouffoned Marys, Dolce & Gabbana and HiNRG Celine Dion Remixes. Put down those weights and meet me for a night of underground musical mayhem and heavy petting at HOMOELECTRIC 21.5.98
The photo below, also taken from the Manchester Evening News, (1998) shows the team behind Homo Electric making their message clear. DJ and promoter Luke Cowdrey (Electric Chair) states in the piece, ‘It’s about people coming together around music and forgetting the politics of sexuality.’
Flesh and Homo Electric are just two examples of key turning points within Manchester’s LGBT+ music history. There are many more stories to explore in Queer Noise, not least those of world-renowned Mancunian stars such as Pete Shelley (Buzzcocks) and Morrissey, both of whom challenged dominant heterosexual narratives in pop music at a time when few others were willing to.
A small physical version of the Queer Noise online exhibition will take place at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, between 1st July and 10th September 2017, as part of Never Going Underground: The Fight for LGBT+ Rights – a unique exhibition curated by members of the local LGBT+ community.
Abigail Ward is an award-winning curator, writer & DJ with over fifteen years’ experience in the music industry and cultural sector. She specialises in Greater Manchester music history; music and disability; and LGBT music culture. Abigail works regularly as a freelance project manager for Drake Music – a charity that uses technology to open up access to music for disabled people of all ages. She is a co-founder of Manchester District Music Archive. She tweets from @abigail_ward_DJ and @mdmarchive