Help Yourself Manchester: Revisiting DIY Music & The Mancunian Weird

Alun Richards recalls a small but lively Levenshulme-based music scene of shamanic improvs, husband-wife gypsy-punks and contact miked bikes

Written by  Alun Richards | Follow @ | Tuesday, 3 January 2017 10:48

FOR a few years in the mid-2000s, the regulars of the Klondyke Bowling & Social Club in Levenshulme were at the forefront of the international musical avant-garde. Local men who had popped in to play snooker or watch the footy over a pint would find themselves suddenly bombarded by a hellish racket from the function room – no sooner had it subsided than a crowd of young people would emerge, chattering excitedly, to lay siege to the bar.

The strangest venue of the bunch was probably Slade Hall, a Grade II Tudor mansion in Longsight

These young people were a dishevelled bunch. ‘Student-y’ is probably the easiest way to describe them, but in the old-fashioned sense, before it meant someone who owns an iPad and the three-bedroom semi they’re sharing with friends. A decent proportion of the men had beards – it wasn’t just musically that they were ahead of their time. Their thirst slaked, they would head back to the function room for the following set, which might be a twenty-minute bass clarinet solo or a song-and-dance number performed by a band of anarchic rock’n’rollers. Alone again in the bar, the regulars would get another round in and brace themselves for the next assault. 

I was living in Levenshulme in 2006, and was lucky enough to catch a few of the Klondyke gigs. The organisers were a loose collective of musicians and music lovers based in south Manchester. They used various monikers for their activities, but the one that stuck was the name of the website where they listed upcoming events: Help Yourself Manchester (HYM). Between 2003 and 2006 they put on dozens of gigs at various venues around the city, featuring musicians from the US and mainland Europe alongside local groups, and ranging stylistically from hardcore and noise rock to free-improv and folk.

.Portland's Cerberus Shoal play the Klondyke in May 2004 (credit: Anthony Saunders, courtesy of mdmarchive.co.uk)
.A DIY flyer promoting a May 2005 gig at the Klondyke (credit: Storminateacup courtesy of mdmarchive.co.uk)

Although individual members of HYM booked artists according to their own tastes, somehow there seemed to be a recognisable style. Whether you’d gone to see shamanic Boston improvisers Sunburned Hand of the Man or French art-punk duo Vialka, the atmosphere was always the same: welcoming, unpretentious, cheerfully disorganised. It was like attending a house party hosted by a friend of a friend – a house party where hardcore legend Ian MacKaye had dropped in to play a folk set.

A big part of HYM’s appeal was due to their punk-inspired DIY approach to concert promoting, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the choice of venues. Although they used established rock clubs from time to time, their preference was for more unconventional spaces, and over the years they put on gigs in practice rooms, art centres, churches and squats. The strangest venue of the bunch was probably Slade Hall, a Grade II Tudor mansion in Longsight. A 2013 documentary, available on YouTube, features entertaining footage of German screamo band Yage hurling themselves around the timber-framed living room. House gigs were also a frequent occurrence, but angry neighbours and, on one occasion, a gang of knife-wielding scallies, made them difficult to manage.

The HYM years coincided with major developments in alternative and underground music. The All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, launched in 2000 at the Camber Sands resort in East Sussex, was becoming a beacon event for experimental and outsider musicians, attracting foreign artists who would previously have been reluctant to come to the UK. At the same time, there was a growing awareness of what Wire journalist David Keenan termed ‘New Weird America’, a musical subculture influenced by folk and psychedelia, whose best-known representatives were Animal Collective and Devendra Banhart.

Slade HallThe most unlikely venue was Slade Hall - a Grade II Tudor mansion in Longsight
The Evens at the Klondyke March 2006  credit Matt Ashworth mdmarchive The Evens play the Klondyke, March 2006 (credit Matt Ashworth, courtesy of mdmarchive.co.uk)

Many of the artists who headlined HYM gigs fell within this – admittedly nebulous – category, but often just as interesting were the local groups, budding representatives of Weird Manchester or Weird Leeds. Levenshulme Bicycle Orchestra were a good example. An improv troupe with a fluctuating line-up, their performances were built around a contact-miked bicycle that could be drummed, plucked and rattled. It gave the band a distinctive sound and physical presence, and even got them into the Manchester Evening News, although it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the author’s primary interest was coming up with cycling puns.

So what became of Help Yourself Manchester and the scene around it? By late 2006 certain people had decided they no longer wanted to advertise their events under the collective banner, prompting the group to break down into its constituent parts. Lee Jones, one of the most active members, now runs a folk label called Thread Recordings. Another member, David Birchall, is a full-time musician. On the last Sunday before Christmas, I went to see him play a gig in an old industrial building near the city centre. We chatted for a while about the HYM days, and he told me about what he’d been up to since. For him, there had been no definitive ending – he was still making music, still collaborating. It was just that some of the collaborators had changed. We ate roasted chestnuts from a paper bag and watched the other musicians, including a duo called Sippy Cup, who sat on a blanket on the floor and gave an impromptu rendition of Mull of Kintyre, which I can honestly say is one of the most entertaining things I have ever witnessed.

David’s own performance took place in a chilly back room lined with old gig posters. The principal instruments were two lightbulbs hanging from mic stands and a pair of amplified solar panels. At a certain moment, he extinguished the bulbs and turned on a set of bike lights, whose syncopated flashing was transformed by the solar panels into a kind of Steve Reich-style electronic percussion. Glancing up at the audience, their faces illuminated by bursts of red light, I found myself again in a room full of strangers, watching something at once odd and thoroughly compelling. All of which is to say that Weird Manchester is still out there – you just have to know how to help yourself.

Follow Alun Richards @VoreGidal

Main image: Vialka gig, Levenshulme, Sept 2005 (credit: Anthony Saunders, courtesy of mdmarchive.co.uk)

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