“I think something exciting is happening in Northwich,” she said. This was February and my other half and long term gigging partner Nic was growing increasingly animated. The Charlatans’ Twitter feed was posting pictures of the Northwich Memorial Court and legendary local chippy, The Seafarer. “Do you think they might be playing a homecoming gig? I mean, that would be awesome.” Nic, Northwich born and raised, seemed to simultaneously believe in this and reject it as outright fantasy. Boy oh boy, did we underestimate them.
We’ve just spent the end of last week and the weekend in a remarkably sunny Northwich attending the (hopefully) inaugural North by Northwich. A full week and a half of music, events, talks, exhibitions and four nights on the spin from the band themselves in said Memorial Court. We arrived on Thursday night for the first of the gigs we had had booked. Northwich was quiet but there was a sense of things happening. Sky blue posters adorned pub windows and little groups of band t-shirted gig goers were getting in some sunny pints outside various local pubs. We got to the Memorial Court early (after a sighting of Mr Burgess across the road – the first of many) and nattered to a few early arrivers. What struck all of us was how new and exciting all of this felt. This was not quite a music festival but so much more than a couple of gigs. Using the spaces and businesses of this little town in such inventive ways had captured the imagination and people were genuinely excited and intrigued to see how it would pan out.
After a couple of hours gently grooving to the warm-up DJ, we saw the band arrive on stage. The great thing about The Charlatans is that they speak to 90s indie nostalgia while still making great new records. This played out over a two-hour set that got more and more frenetic. I had said to Nic beforehand that I hoped they play at least one of my own holy trinity (‘Weirdo’, ‘Then’ and ‘Indian Rope’). I got two of them! We then strolled via a late portion of The Seafarer’s marvelous chips to local late night haunt Retros to see Tim DJing. This is a venue that, deliberately or otherwise, speaks to SU bars of old. All of the elements are there: booze, indie rock, a bit of acid house and not much space. It was just roll ups and copies of the NME that were missing. Tim spun tunes for an hour or so to an increasingly excitable crowd, many of whom were out well past their bed time. So far, so good. It was what we expected. Great music and a good dollop of messy fun.
It was only on the Friday that the full ambition and scope of the event really came into focus. The brand new Baron’s Quay development is a patch of shiny steel and glass units in the centre of the town. Not much in use yet, the organisers took full advantage of its potential. First, a visit to The Charlatans exhibition. A personal and affectionate approach to curatorship meant that gold discs and gig posters sat among scrapbook items and old photo albums. The band’s equipment sat centre stage (so to speak) with that tatty and beautiful old Hammond in pride of place. When I was fifteen, Hammond organs were just something that I saw on old footage of the Doors or heard on Blue Note comps. The Charlatans and the Inspiral Carpets changed that. They took indie and shoved it stock full of groove. My bedroom posing moved from moshing to power chords to a sort of Tim like shuffle. Seeing the root of this epiphany in a museum was an odd mix of happy wistfulness and a sadness at time passing. But, as I’ve said, The Charlatans are a band which exist in my past and my present so this sort of ambiguity is not unusual.
One of the most impressive things about North by Northwich was how involved local pubs and venues were. As an example, we tramped across town to the Gladstone Social Club. For a southern ponce like me, this was Pheonix Nights incarnate but my proper northern wife rightly called out my snobbery and told me to focus on the full bill of bands that had tempted us there in the first place. We spent the afternoon sipping cheap lager and watching Brummie punks The Paper Buoys acing Johnny Cash covers. This was followed by Manc oddballs 99 Degrees performing a mesmerising Lynchian take on storytelling and not-fuck-giving. The mood then shifted to the more cerebral (but less fun) electrics of Hello Cosmos and Fuzzy Sun. While the venue turned around these bands, the half hour gaps were filled by the brilliantly weird DJ sounds and spatial dynamics of the Mini Shed of Sound (real garden shed included). All of this should have been a shambles but something about the spirit of collaboration made it work. This was a theme of the weekend. The whole event was held together by creative possibility, working hard, being generous with time and space and (a biggie for me) the absence of VIP nonsense. You willed all of this to go well. It was such a lovely antidote to the nastiness and mean spirited atmosphere that permeates so much of daily life at the moment.
Another stroll, another chippy tea (The Seafarer staff wearing custom ‘Up to Our Chips’ T-Shirts and serving the ‘Tim Special’ of chips, peas and curry) and another Charlatans gig. This was a bigger affair. Cheshire lad and BBC fixture Mark Radcliffe introduced the band on stage and reminded the noisy buggers in the crowd that this was being live-streamed around the world. (“North Pole, North America, North Yorkshire, North Korea and Northallerton!”). Another great set surrounded by fans moved to various states of emotional and physical excess. I still didn’t hear Indian Rope but did get plenty of other favourites and, as said already, plenty of quality new stuff. Knackered now from the sun, music fun and cheap lager; we strolled home.
Back down to Baron’s Quay for a Saturday date with Dave Haslam. Reading from his new memoir Sonic Youth Slept on my Floor, Mr Haslam shared memories and cultural philosophies from a remarkable life in music. The interview was conducted by the fine dudes from the Two Shot podcast and this led to one of the weekend’s more uncanny moments. The interviewer was actor Craig Parkinson who had played Factory Records visionary Tony Wilson in the film Control. Dave Haslam explained that musical ghosts often haunt his life and its spaces and now there was one sitting opposite him. It was an oddly touching moment and one that fit with the oddly touching tone of the whole weekend.
We finished in the Northwich Plaza, a wonderfully battered old bingo hall and now the temporary home of the Vinyl Adventures record fair. There was Tim again. The man was everywhere. His accessibility and openness with punters, staff and stars was undiminished throughout the weekend. He led from the front and the success of the event is a testament to his energy and creative kindness. One (slightly overpriced) Thurston Moore LP later and we were done. Just time for a quick word and a snap with the man himself and we would go. Now, he must have done thousands of such word-and-snap moments over the whole event but you couldn’t tell. Friendly, courteous and with a big beaming smile he simply said, “thanks for coming, it really means a lot.”
Our work on this blog is all about tracing and exploring the ways that musical memories are narrated and put together. These processes are most successful when the attitude is one of plurality and flux. Simple nostalgia is only useful when you’re flogging reissues. What we like are artists and writers that make the past a living, breathing part of the present. The stories are then left open ended and full of potential. This is what North by Northwich pulled off. The inventiveness of each part of the programme meant that you were always looking forwards and backwards (and sideways and upwards too). We only saw a small number of the huge number of bits and pieces on offer. But this was enough to know that this is how it should be done. Let’s do it again soon, eh?
Fancy continuing this chat? We are hosting an event at York St John University on 13th and 14th July 2018. Titled Twisting my Memory, Man: Music, Memory and Memoir, it is a two day programme of talks, performances and a chance to chat with like minded music fans and readers. We have Tom Hingley of the Inspiral Carpets opening the event with a talk about his own memoir Carpet Burns. We are also delighted to include a keynote address from the wonderful Lucy O’Brien, journalist, memoirist and writer of the landmark She Bop: the Definitive History of Women in Popular Music. Events and speakers are being added all the time and we would love to welcome you along. Tickets can be booked here. Let us know if you want any more information.
Dr Fraser Mann