According to the legendary song, Route 66 was where it was at. But as a kid from Northwich, Cheshire who’d just past his driving test, it was the M56 where we got our kicks.
It was our conduit to another world in more ways than one. Geographically we were an hour away from the bright lights of Manchester, but culturally it felt as distant as New York. Back then, in my early teens, a football and a mates house to listen to records at seemed enough, but once my friends and I started to reach 17 and pass our driving tests, it was like a flock of ungainly juvenile birds had just discovered they could fly – albeit in their Dad’s beige Vauxhall Chevette… when he was generous enough to lend it to them.
Before any of us could drive we would still head to Manchester for nights out. The Haçienda was a beacon, calling out to us with its rule-breaking approach to design and the fact that you didn’t have to wear shiny shoes and a suit to get in. Before we had wheels getting there was fine, we’d just jump on the train; but getting home was more difficult. We would start a 9 mile walk at 3am – until public transport had started about 6am – and we’d finish the journey back to Northwich, wiped out on the top deck of the bus until we made it home.
It was like a flock of ungainly juvenile birds had just discovered they could fly – albeit in their Dad’s beige Vauxhall Chevette.
Then. Everything changed.
One by one we passed our driving tests. I was one of the first to get my own car; a green 1974 Triumph Dolomite. The bright lights of Manchester meant everything to me, way more than drinking, so I was more often than not the designated driver, which definitely wasn’t a term we would use.
I had the power to choose the other three who would drive with me to The Haçienda, and we all knew the unsaid code that would guarantee you a place in ‘the Imp’. In the week running up to our night out, a kind of reverence had to be shown to the driver and pretty much any small favour asked for had to be honoured.
Our night of choice at The Haçienda was a Tuesday to watch bands, or Thursday for a club night. It was a couple of years before acid house came along and changed everything. Before then, The Haçienda felt like the world’s best kept secret and we got to see some brilliant bands like The Chameleons, The Fall, Psychic TV, A Certain Ratio and Big Audio Dynamite.
Steve Drew was usually in the car with us. He would often drive as well, so he was an automatic choice. Steve’s brother, ‘The Axe’, would come too. I’m not even sure we knew his real name, but I think it might have been Simon. Anyway, he chose to be known as The Axe. According to rumours (which I think he started himself), ‘every’ band in Manchester wanted him to be their guitarist. In the meantime, he was biding his time with a job at Knutsford services. Numbers would be made up by Staggy, Jeff Hunt, Chedder (Jeff’s brother) and any friends of friends we had captivated with our tales of The Haçienda.
It wasn’t just about our night out, it was about the journey too. Bravado and a sense of excitement on the way, and a kind of satisfaction and time to share tales of what had gone on – or nearly gone on – in the club during our hour drive back.
The drive had a soundtrack and that was always entrusted to me. I’d make mix-tapes all week and test them out on my day job – cycling around ICI listening to my Walkman delivering post and taking equipment between departments. I had a reputation and it had to be upheld. Felt, New Order and The Smiths would be on there, maybe some Orange Juice, and all those bands led you down different rabbit holes to different kinds of music.
The Fall’s Mark E Smith would talk about Neu in an interview and Morrissey would recommend Twinkle. We’d find records by them and they’d make it onto the tapes. The Cult featured Billy Duffy, a guy from just down the road, but sounding like a full-blown American guitar hero. A lot of it was music that was being made around us. At those nights in The Haçienda, we’d hear early versions of Happy Mondays records and whatever else was hot from the pressing plant.
It was a couple of years before acid house came along and changed everything. Before then, The Haçienda felt like the world’s best kept secret.
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What happened inside the venue definitely got me thinking it was a world that I wanted to be part of, but it was the drive there and back – with the camaraderie and the perfect soundtrack – that was where so much of our night happened.
Within a few years, we went our separate ways, The Axe never did get taken on by any big band from Manchester but I got an audition with some lads called The Charlatans. We eventually played at The Hacienda and I swapped my bike and ICI for a job in the music business. At this very moment, I’m listening to music on my way to a venue.
Everything changes, but everything kind of stays the same.
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Words by Tim Burgess
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