There’s barely been a period of British rock history when Liverpool and Manchester haven’t been the centre of the musical universe, but if you had to pick one single highpoint, the punk-and-new-wave-segue-into-electropop years of 1976 to 1984 would come pretty close.
North by Northwest is a three-disc, 42-track compilation on which Paul Morley (contemporary NME writer, instrumental figure in influential record label ZTT, part of The Art of Noise and now half of Infantjoy) brilliantly illustrates the evolution of styles and bands that took place in this brief period, tracking the changing face of the region’s musical scene from the punk energy of the legendary Buzzcocks and lesser-known Spitfire Boys through the darker industrial sounds of Joy Division to early electronic pioneers such as OMD and banned chart-toppers Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
Along the way you’ll stop off to visit people’s poet John Cooper Clarke, electropop survivors Echo and the Bunnymen, John Peel favourites The Fall, early Bill Drummond vehicles such as Big in Japan and, of course The Smiths, the band who have come to personify Manchester and the early 80s despite denying categorisation even here, among their peers and contemporaries.
The compilation works on two levels: on the first, it shows the way music was changing in general, from the raw DIY ethos of three-chord punk to dense electronics where producers such as Frankie Goes To Hollywood‘s Trevor Horn were often as important as the band itself. The second is more personal, giving the listener a series of aural rock family trees: from Warsaw through Joy Division to New Order; Will Sergeant with and without the Bunnymen.
If you need a guide, the sleeve notes helpfully provide it. If you need more convincing, remember that some of the more obscure bands are still championed by their contemporaries who did make the big time, such as Ludus, who Morrissey chose to perform at his Meltdown and whose lead singer Linder counts among his painfully short list of ‘Official Friends’. Innovators and mavericks such as Pete Wylie and Bill Drummond turn up all over the compilation, weaving in an out of so many bands there isn’t room here to list them all.
And then of course, there’s the forgotten and half-forgotten classics: if you like Editors, check out tracks such as Section 25′s Knew Noise and The Passage‘s Fear; Mystery Jets fans might find something to like in James‘ Folklore; clubbers won’t be disappointed by Swamp Children‘s ahead-of-its-time Call Me Honey. Even the tracks which are aren’t owed as much by today’s musical scene are worth investigating, such as The Royal Family & Poor‘s sublime and haunting Dream, with its beautiful and lonely guitars.
There are too many bands here who shouldn’t be allowed to fade away (Lori and the Chameleons, Pale Fountains, Crispy Ambulance…) along, of course, with the inevitable one or two who should. Yes, China Crisis, we’re talking about you.
Of course, this is a Best Of, so it’s not too surprising that duff tracks are few and far between, but it’s still worth being reminded of quite how much good stuff was coming out of the Northwest at that time and to revisit the early days of bands such as Echo and the Bunnymen who’ve stayed the distance. The darker pop sensibilities on show here may have been overshadowed by the south’s more chart-friendly New Romantics, but they’ve had just as much influence on the current music scene. That’s more than enough to ensure the 42 tracks you’ll find here work as much more than just a period piece.