The Haçienda: Working on a Building of Love

It gives us such great joy to say
That fifteen years ago today
A club was born — the Haçienda
A venue for the maddest benders
So as you turn the next few pages
See nightlife’s progress through the ages.
…Happy Birthday!

IT’S HARD, at first, to see how a story about a building could also be a story about memory, status, nostalgia, money, madness, (in)experience, simple greed (and saintly generosity), youth, life, death and violence. Even music. Not really a story at all then. More like a soap opera. As far as most people are concerned, the story of a building which became a club, an idea and even a lifestyle begins in the middle. And the end? Well, there isn’t one yet. Because this story is a cultural autopsy with the death certificate lost for ever in the post.

The Haçienda is 15 years old. Five would be an achievement. Ten worth writing home about. But 15? The founders seemed full of optimism about the club back in 1982, but not many of them could have thought much about 15 years down the line, or about the significance the place would come to have. After all, this is only a building we’re talking about. Dust some bricks and mortar which changed the course of British club culture, and more than a few lives.

“WE PLAYED THERE IN ’85 AND ’88. IN 1987 ME AND A LOAD OF MATES WENT DOWN THE HAÇIENDA AND SAT IN THE CORNER OFF OUR HEADS ON E. THEN THERE WERE ABOUT 20 PEOPLE THERE. TWO OR THREE MONTHS LATER THERE WERE MORE THAN 2,000”
— SHAUN RYDER WAS IN THE HAPPY MONDAYS, NOW IN BLACK GRAPE

It’s 1981. You are Rob Gretton and you have nowhere to go at night. Nowhere at least that suits you — a no-nonsense Northerner with a few bob in your pocket — secretly too arty for tatty pubs and too young for dinner parties. You or I might have gone to night school or taken up crosswords. Rob instead decided to buttonhole a few of his mates who, like him, had recently come into a few bob through this pop music lark — rambling on about an idea he’d had about opening a club.

The idea was not a new one. Since 1978, Tony Wilson, television presenter and punk rock enthusiast, had hosted The Factory at The Russell Club in Hulme, Manchester, putting on local names and likely chancers — big national and even international names for spitting kids in ill-fitting jackets. Tony had a record label also called Factory, and Rob managed a local group called Joy Division who had put out some records on Tony’s label. Joy Division, after the suicide of their singer Ian Curtis, had by late 1980 become New Order. By this stage, with The Factory finished, Rob was thinking of a different kind of club. A purpose-built place that you actually owned — not some badly-lit basement that you borrowed off some thug in a camel coat. When asked many years later why he had come up with the idea, Rob, typically flip, would claim he wanted somewhere he could go to “ogle birds”.

By then part of a successful Factory Records via a loose and revolutionary verbal profit-sharing agreement between New Order and the label, Rob knew his idea would take a great deal more than his own money to complete. So he persisted. Going on about it until Tony and former actor Alan Erasmus (also part of Factory and later The Haçienda) consented and told him to get on with it.

By the summer of 1981, things were under way. Having promoted a New Order gig at the Manchester Students’ Union to the satisfaction of everyone concerned, Howard Jones (no, not him) was hired to find a venue. He found the International Marine Centre, housed in an 1890s building on Whitworth Street, in the middle of a then grim-looking post-industrial cityscape. The place was huge, but its scale matched the ambitions of the entrepreneurial dreamers who took it over.

Graphic artist Peter Saville, a long-standing Factory associate, had added his distinctive style to many Factory record sleeves. He mentioned his friend Ben Kelly as the man who could turn an unassuming interior into a club environment to equal the likes of New York’s Danceteria, Fun House and Paradise Garage — places that Rob and Tony, now touring with New Order, would enthuse about as ultimate night-time spaces. Kelly saw the building and jumped at the chance. Whitbread Breweries were persuaded to part with £140,000 to assist in the project. This, given the size of the venue and Kelly’s plans, would just about pay for the paint. New Order contributed around £70,000. It is said that the lease on the building and the eventual conversion cost around £340,000. The rest came from Factory itself.

“I LOVE THE GIGS AT THE HAÇIENDA — THEY’RE SOME OF MY FAVOURITE MEMORIES OF THE CLUB. ESPECIALLY NEW ORDER AND MANTRONIX. WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE 1988 IS VERY IMPORTANT. BY THAT TIME THE CLUB WAS SIX YEARS OLD AND A LOT HAD HAPPENED”
— MIKE PICKERING FORMER DJ AND BAND BOOKER

Somewhere close to schedule, with the walls still wet and planks covering areas of unfinished floor, The Haçienda opened on May 21, 1982. With a retrospective significance, Wigan Casino, the capital of Northern Soul, had closed its doors in December 1981. By the time the Haçienda reached warp speed in early 1988, the similarities were clear — same tempo, same obsession with the obscure musical products of black America. But the drug was new — new at least if you weren’t big on keeping abreast of pharmaceutical developments originating in Germany at the start of the First World War. Had Wigan Casino survived it might have passed on a few lessons about the obstacles this impressive new space — christened with its own Factory catalogue number, 51 — would face. Had the Casino survived, both clubs would have been places of worship at either end of the East Lancashire Road — like the twin cathedrals spanning Liverpool’s Hope Street. Except that this time the religion would have been the same.

The name — The Haçienda — had come from some obscurantist Situationist text that Rob had been leafing through. Quoted endlessly since then, the piece, written by Ivan Chtcheglov in 1953, contains the phrase “The Haçienda must be built”. Negotiating the planks on the opening night, you might have amended Gretton’s tag line to “The Haçienda must be finished”. On the 21st it was invite only — and the new-wave hierarchy were out in force. Hewan Clark was the DJ. He went on to DJ every single night the club was open for the next four years, an impressive feat considering the initial madness of a decision to open seven days a week.

Hewan, a funk and soul DJ at black music club The Reno, had been a kind of support act on tours with A Certain Ratio. Tony Wilson managed ACR and he and Hewan had clicked — both enthusing over the same favourite DJ: Frankie Crocker at New York’s WBLS. Wilson told Hewan he was opening his own club and that he wanted him to be the DJ. Every night.

Northern irony being no better back then than it is now, alleged comedian Bernard Manning was hired to open the club. With people still gawping at the industrial majesty of it all, Manning, evidently keen to secure Ben Kelly’s services for a refit at his own Embassy Club, grumbled into a troublesome mic: “I’ve played some shit-holes in my time but this is really something.” He later disappeared, puzzled and waiving his usual fee.

The Architectural Review disagreed with Manning’s appraisal, declaring the club “a pioneering interior”. For people who only listen to records and just need a big space to do it in, your first time at The Haçienda was (is) a breathtaking crash course in the aesthetics of design. It’s impossible to escape the idea that through Ben Kelly, the club, like the labels, had realised a unique vision of how things should be — changing overnight the expectations of UK club-goers used to being treated like dirt.

At that stage we didn’t really have a language to deal with it. A review of the new venue in Manchester Evening News that year was headlined PICK YOUR OWN LEVEL — a reference to the then space-age concept of being able to dance, pose or watch from the floor, the balcony or the basement Gay Traitor Bar. The striped road-bollards on the dancefloor were a talking point. Ben Kelly had put them there at a cost of £4.50 each to stop girls (and the occasional boy) getting their high heels stuck in the road-marking cats’ eyes that edged the floor. The inspiration for the whole thing seems to have originated in discussions between Peter Saville and Ben Kelly about their die-cut grille sleeve for the original issue of the first Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark LP (who were, of course, then considered quite cool) and some work Kelly had done for a shop called Howie in London. He recently commented that his inspiration really came “from the building itself, and my arrogance in thinking I knew exactly what a club designed for Factory and New Order should look like”.

The real opening followed the next evening. Seventy-five people looked for corners to hide in while Cabaret Voltaire approximated the sound of several light aircraft colliding. It was clear there were going to be problems. Getting people in, getting people used to it all — a whole new way of going out — and sorting out the sound. Some £40,000 had already been spent, but in truth the building had been chosen for its size and its design possibilities above its acoustic properties. Hewan Clarke scribbled a note in 1983 asking for some way of seeing out of his black box and “a pair of monitor speakers to aid in the mixing of records”. These days even footballers have monitor speakers in their bedroom mixing dens.

OF A STRAINED DIRECTORS’ MEETING DURING THE 1991 DIFFICULTIES: “I SAID TO BARNEY [SUMNER], ‘I KNOW IT’S BEEN ONE LONG SAGA OF HUMAN HELL, BUT IF THERE’S A BUTTON YOU COULD PRESS AND THE CLUB NEVER EXISTED, YOU COULDN’T PRESS IT.’ HE REPLIED: ‘WHERE’S THE FUCKING BUTTON?'”
— ANTHONY WILSON FACTORY “SUPREMO”

By the end of the first year a regular membership of post-punk trendies had claimed the space as their own — though Tony Wilson’s pioneering black dance policy for the club was causing some controversy among the white hairdressers who saw an appealing pretension in The Haçienda.

“I object to the DJ’s overplaying of funk, jazz, disco or whatever it’s called,” one letter ranted. “After all, not everyone wants to dance to Bauhaus and Patrice Rushen.” DJ John Tracey, now sharing Hewan’s seven-day working week, started playing Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds theme so everyone could wheel about in circles with their arms out at the end of the night. The music settled as a schizophrenic mix of Simple Minds and Willie Hutch, Iggy Pop and Sharon Redd. Other end-of-night favourites included Lulu’s ‘Shout’ and the theme from Zorba The Greek. Obviously things were a long way from Ce Ce Rogers’ ‘Someday’ and ‘Pacific State’ at this point.

By 1985 proper new dance music from various schools was starting to make a real mark on nights like Mike Pickering’s long-running Nude, which began that year. Looking back for the roots of the seismic revolution in club culture that occurred in the Eighties, some place huge emphasis on 1988 — on acid house and the drugs that undoubtedly helped make mass sense of the music. But in real terms, none of that could have happened without the slow — and painful — process of DJs playing Trouble Funk to those who would have preferred Prefab Sprout in the wilderness years between 1982 and 1985. A whole generation of NME readers, completely unaware of jazz funk and Northern Soul, their own rules already written in stone, slowly picked up the idea that you could listen to The Smiths in the daytime while trying to get your head (and your feet) around George Clinton’s ‘Atomic Dog’ at night. The Haçienda, trusted because of its impeccable indie associations (the thinking being, these people brought us Joy Division, how could they be wrong about Cameo?), almost single-handedly took white Manchester beyond the Poly bop mentality and slowly into the black technological futures of electro, funk and disco. The club created a space where new cultural responses to this musical cross-pollination could grow at their own pace. The success of Factory’s own A Certain Ratio in this period, from pale young men to whistle-blowing funkateers, convincingly showed how things changed. At first the music acted as a kind of sonic seasoning — tolerated, often grudgingly accepted, then, with increasing enthusiasm, requested. The Haçienda’s progressive attitude at this time ensured that when pre-movement house music began to appear, those seeing the rhythmic holes in funk-lite white pop were ready.

“THE HAÇIENDA DIDN’T CHANGE US — WE CHANGED THE HAÇIENDA. IT ALL WENT OFF UNDER THE BALCONY IN THE LEFT-HAND CORNER”
— BEZ VIBES CONTROLLER, HAPPY MONDAYS

John Tracey’s The End: A No Funk Night died a natural death at the end of 1984. By 1986 electro legend Greg Wilson had a night at the club, playing the solidly black percussive New York sound to a set of new faces. For the princely sum of £3.50 you could have seen Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five dressed like The Glitter Band. A real eye-opener for some who still thought a party was listening to Throbbing Gristle records doing hot knives round your mate’s house. A great many people, myself included, had their lives, or at least their taste in music, changed by the pre-house Haçienda. We were all learning together. As the summer of 1986 arrived, The Haçienda was full with what is quaintly described in its own records as “a band-less disco”; it was starting to make money too, and Paul Mason became manager of the club, poached from a successful Rock City in Nottingham, to keep it that way. Paul remembers his induction during a Factory-style board meeting where Rob Gretton — in a heated discussion with Tony Wilson — threw his chips at him. Tony and Rob ended up grappling on the floor. Sadly, there are no pictures.

And then the bomb dropped — with no warning that I can remember, apart, perhaps, from DJ Don Da Silva’s siren sound effects. People always use the phrase Acid House. To me that has never made any sense. In the beginning, as somebody with a deep voice used to say, there was house. Records with singing in them, almost like gospel with big, pushy rhythms and vaguely spaced dubs. House certainly sounded new back then (obviously we weren’t as clever as we are now in spotting the disco roots of the sound), but it was still polite. Acid was a different sound altogether — menacing, growling, ungrateful and volatile, at its best like a starved dog prowling in circles. The Chicago House Party Tour which stopped at the club in March 1987 with Frankie Knuckles, Marshall and the rest of them getting their first taste of gullible limeys paying through the nose for their instinctive magic, showed that house, now a big part of nights like Nude and Wide, was here to stay. At least for a while. But Acid sounded like coded radio signals, a kind of dance instruction from another planet. At least until some wayward holidaymakers brought us all a present back.

According to Shaun and Bez, interviewed some time after the event and not usually known for being good with dates, some of their mates had been away on holiday in Valencia and Ibiza and had brought back some Ecstasy tablets. People tried them out and they seemed to fit the music perfectly. Many lost their inhibitions overnight — feeling comfortable enough to get on stages and podiums and wave their arms about in a state of, well, ecstasy — hearing things in the music that they couldn’t hear before. A new low-rent crowd started mixing with the converted hairdressers and Factory obsessives of old. It was, at times, a volatile mix. But the drugs turned an often socially confused crowd into one sweaty nation, under the influence of a groove twisted out of a small silver box (the Roland 303) invented by Japanese technicians to provide a kind of karaoke backing for social-club country and western singers.

But this madness needed a name and a night if it was to really make an impact. Paul Cons, installed as part of the management team since 1986, and struck by the fact that you couldn’t breathe in the club on a good night, came up with the Hot concept: water, ice pops, a swimming pool in the middle of the dancefloor — all fairly standard in the Balearic Islands at the time, but unusual nonetheless for northern England. Hot didn’t last long — from the summer until Christmas ’88 — but is perhaps the best-remembered night in the club’s history. Don Da Silva (who had recently taken Dean Johnson’s place alongside Dave Haslam at the Saturday Wide night after Dean had left, fed up with being pestered for house during his famed Latin break) and Mike Pickering soundtracked the madness. A Guy Called Gerald and Graham Massey of 808 State would turn up, banging on the DJ booth door with tapes of deranged 20-minute acid tracks which were gratefully played in full. Sound effects of thunderstorms and rain were played to underline the insanity. People threw water about and nobody got upset. Minus the tales of pharmaceutical excess, these were times you might want to tell your grandchildren about.

Paul Cons insisted Hot should end on a high and jacked it in with spirits still hovering ten feet above the ground in anticipation. But there was still Zumbar, a retarded cabaret night with fire-eaters and a Wheel Of Fortune. DJ Dave Haslam’s Temperance Club continued too, breaking new ground with an idiosyncratic and open-minded mix of music from James to Mantronix, James Brown to The Smiths, which had much to do with a wide-trousered revolution subsequently called baggy and the fact that, from the great Happy Mondays down, all Manchester bands began sounding like ‘Funky Drummer’ played by The Velvet Underground. As a direct result of all this Manchester in general and The Haçienda in particular became under-age tourist attractions.

It was at this time that, during a London photo-shoot lining up the main house offenders for yet another What The Fuck’s Going On? piece, Mike Pickering met Graeme Park — one of the very few DJs outside London who, like Pickering, had become obsessed. The two got on like an acid house on fire, and a few weeks later Mike called the Scots refugee in Nottingham to ask if he could fill in for him while he was away. Graeme jumped at the chance. By the time Mike got back, things had gone so well with Graeme playing on Fridays that it was decided the two would share the night from then on. Graeme, like Jon Da Silva, was a superb and inventive mixer who made his mark on the club.

“I WENT TO THE OPENING NIGHT AT THE HAÇIENDA. WE USED TO LAUGH AT THE BLACK-AND-WHITE ‘FACTORY’ TYPES THAT FILLED IT – SO SERIOUS, SO DADA, SO EIGHTIES. I REMEMBER BEING THERE ONE NIGHT LOOKING AT THOUSANDS OF BOYS AND GIRLS E-ING OUT OF THEIR MINDS, ALL IN SYNC, POSSESSING A KIND OF ENERGY THAT ROSE AND SWELLED AND THEN TOTALLY LET GO. HERE’S TO ANOTHER 15 YEARS.”
— MICK HUCKNALL SIMPLY RED BOSSMAN

Relying on what was written at the time, from 1989 onwards, you might have thought The Haçienda did little more than fend off the attentions of the police, watch people get stabbed or die from taking Ecstasy, close, reopen and close again. But we’re talking about eight years to date. And in that time The Haçienda has hosted the ultra-successful gay night Flesh (all the madness of Hot in high heels), let a former fan called Sasha play a few times (queues around the block and then around again), ripped up a well-used dancefloor and sold it (ten quid a piece, you planks), let Rolf Harris perform a can-you-tell-what-it-is-yet painting class, and allowed a proper wedding to take place on stage — giving journalists like me the chance to go on about The Haçienda as a church at great and pretentious length. In a coals-to-Newcastle sensation the club even toured the US, to enthusiastic response from Americans who had techno explained to them in thick north Manchester accents.

All of this, however, is still overshadowed by the death in July 1989 of teenager Clare Leighton, the victim of an extreme reaction to Ecstasy. Drugs had helped the club plot its peaks and, during the post ’88 period, they would shadow its worst times. The comparatively innocent and embarrassingly titled Summer Of Love, a kind of blissful narcotic honeymoon, was soon spoiled by greedy dealers fighting for control of a drug-taking frenzy on a scale none of them had witnessed before. These people didn’t give a shit about acid house — the music was simply a soundtrack to a steep and sudden upturn in their personal fortunes. The Haçienda became the backdrop to their struggle for control and supremacy. During 1990, with Clare Leighton’s death obviously in mind, the police had, under Operation Clubwatch, infiltrated The Haçienda, and seemed to conclude that the dealers, the problem and the club were one and the same. In May 1990 they informed manager Paul Mason of their intention to oppose an upcoming licence renewal. At a hearing on Duly 23, 1990, having secured the assistance of George Carman QC, the club was granted six months to sort out the problems.

By January 3, 1991, at the postponed hearing, the magistrates decided there had been a “positive change in direction” and renewed the club’s licence. The management themselves decided to reintroduce the original membership scheme to try and keep troublemakers out. Within just a few weeks, on January 30, Tony Wilson announced that the club was closing voluntarily after door staff had been threatened with a gun.

“THE DEFINING MOMENT FOR ME WAS HEARING RHYTHIM IS RHYTHIM’S ‘THE DANCE’ IN ABOUT 1987. THAT WAS THE START OF ACID HOUSE FOR ME — A MOMENT I’LL NEVER FORGET. I REMAIN ETERNALLY GRATEFUL TO THE HAÇ’S SWEATY PODIUMS”
— JUSTIN ROBERTSON HAÇ DJ, 1990-91, 1994-95

The Haçienda took the time out to apply a new Ben Kelly colour-scheme and install airport-style security measures. It reopened on May 10. By this stage, though, the long-running Saturday with Park and Wainwright, the phenomenal success of Flesh and even Rolf Harris weren’t news enough for the papers, which circled like vultures waiting for stabbings and drug stories. During all of this support came from some strange quarters. One news piece in the Sun called The Haçienda “the most important venue since the Cavern”. New Order, who were never that visible in their financial association with the club, wheeled themselves out to talk and have their pictures taken on the hallowed dancefloor. “Basically,” said Peter Hook, “this place has got to stay. It’s the only place in Manchester that’ll let me in with my jackboots on.”

In 1997, those that took their cues from The Haçienda (step forward, Cream and Hard Times among many, many others) enjoy the ride on the cultural rollercoaster the club helped to create. The Haçienda plays on for ever, like in that Sterling Void song. There’s Pleasure on Fridays (real house and adult techno upstairs, downbeat experiments in the basement), the return of Paul Cons with Freak on Saturdays (fire-eaters, contortionists, Haslam back downstairs and those familiar queues again in a handbag-free zone), and Stone Love (son of Temperance, plenty of under-age snogging in the shadows) to be getting on with.

I asked Tony Wilson a stupid question: can it all happen again? He replied: “Of course it can. Somewhere around 1999 to 2001. And it probably won’t have a thing to do with house music.” And of course he’s right. And the music will change (I’m sure you’ll join me in hoping we’re not diving in swimming pools to trip hop come the millennium), but the building will be there for it — heading for a twentieth birthday — still fighting, still breathing, still giving a damn.

And Rob Gretton will be perched in his favourite ogling spot (“the upstairs lighting booth”, if you must know), confirmed as a bona fide house hero alongside Farley, Marshall, Frankie and the rest of them if you want to start adding it all up. 

Musical history tour: Five certified Haçienda classics

Klein and MBO ‘Dirty Talk’ Released pre-house, this Italian electro-disco curio only really made sense after the Chicago invasion. It is impossible to tire of this record and its handclap crazy charm
Mantronix ‘Bassline’ In spite of MC Tee — probably the worst rapper in history — ‘Bassline’ is a truly groundbreaking record, which signalled a whole era of hip hop tracks (Eric B, Roxanne Shante etc, etc) designed primarily as dance aids
Dee-Lite ‘Wild Times (Derrick May Mix)’ This Dee-Lite are not the bri-nylon funkateers from New York but some pony combo whose cliché-filled house record was dragged into the future by Derrick May. This is now rightly regarded as a Rhythim Is Rhythim record
Gwen Guthrie ‘Seventh Heaven’ At the time this just seemed like something made by aliens sent down to earth to have a vocal added. A truly startling record
Salt City Orchestra ‘The Book’ Miles Holloway and Eliot Eastwick used to work behind the bar at The Haçienda. Then they put together this hero-eclipsing, fundamentalist, spooked-out classic which takes the American idea and puts its fingers in a wall socket.

© John McCreadyThe Face, May 1997

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