Annals of urban renewal: how ecstasy + acid house produced “Madchester”

Can ecstasy use and acid house music spark urban renewal? This fascinating report from Manchester — where ecstasy plus an “acid house” dance scene is alleged to have triggered a “Madchester” music boom in the 1980s — suggests those ingredients can work, provided there’s lots of useable, cheap space, political leadership and luck.

They all helped Manchester bounce out of urban decline and the devastation of an IRA bombing campaign.

The minimum necessary condition: access to plenty of cheap, unused industrial space that incubated music, dance and clubbing until critical mass was achieved. It is precisely this type of space that is hard to come by in Vancouver, a problem Mayor Gregor Robertson is determined to address.

(Note: everything I know about this topic I learned from this article. This is not an endorsement for illegal drug use as an economic or cultural development strategy, even though Vancouver’s 420 demo is a boon to catering trucks.)

Here’s an excerpt from the full article:

. . . a scene as downright loopy as the Manchester acid house scene really defied a label. House music caused a sensation elsewhere in the country, of course, but in Manchester it had a focus. Down south, kids were forced to dance in fields; Manchester had a perfect, cool-as, ready-made venue in the Haçienda, owned by a band, New Order, who made one of the era’s best albums, Technique.

It also had a music scene small and healthy enough to foster band ambition, disused industrial warehouse spaces for any after-hours raves (the clubs shut at 2am) and a generation of adventurous kids. Kids who’d travelled around Europe, following football teams, or just because; whose taste in music was already open enough to take in the 13th Floor Elevators; who had their own sense of style, with its own, very particular rules; who ran around setting up parties, labels, bands, merchandising as well as having a laugh. All that, plus natural PR machines such as Tony Wilson, Shaun Ryder and Ian Brown, whose every utterance had journalists cheering.

The reputation that Madchester gave Manchester – that of a joyful, creative, sociable place of opportunity – has never left the city. Manchester is now all about going out. When I was young, footballers and their wannabeyourgirlfriends wouldn’t dream of going into town: too scruffy and glum. Now, the city centre is packed at weekends, students move there because of the nightlife and just along from where the Haçienda used to be is a line of bars that, as Shaun Ryder once said to me, “have the look of the Haçienda but the attitude of Rotters”.

The city has always boasted a forward-thinking, arts-oriented Labour council. That council, after the Haçienda had to be shut due to gangs muscling in and, especially, after an IRA bomb destroyed much of Manchester city centre in 1996, used the idea of Manchester as a social destination to reinvent the city. Now it has a world-beating arts festival, Manchester international festival, it has the BBC in Salford, it even managed to attract investment into Manchester City Football Club.