The northern English city of Manchester has long been recognised for its rich music heritage, and recently it was crowned the UK’s ‘best live music city’. It hosts more live music shows per head than any other UK destination, even beating London.
To help you discover the city’s proud musical legacy for yourself, including Manchester’s best gig venues, we teamed up with John Consterdine of Manchester Taxi Tours – a tour guide who drives guests through the city in his taxi – and photographer Ronnie Moore, two Manchester natives who were only too happy to share the musical landmarks of this vibrant city they call home.
Together, they took us on a music-themed tour around Manchester, to highlight the famous sites and contemporary venues that make the city an absolute must-see for anyone interested in UK music history. Follow our Manchester music journey on the map below, then read on for more details of our adventure.
Click on the icons above and explore what musical gems Manchester has to offer.
A city with an industrial soul
To properly understand Manchester’s musical roots, you have to understand its history. Originally built around the site of a Roman fort, the city really exploded in the 19th century thanks to the boom in textile manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution.
Workers from across Britain and Ireland flocked here to make their living in the mills and factories that sprung up in Manchester’s trademark red brick buildings. The local canal network expanded and the UK’s very first rail journey chugged into the city from Liverpool in 1830. As John says, only half-joking, “A rail network required time standardisation – so Greenwich Mean Time should actually be called Manchester Mean Time”.
By 1835, Manchester was acknowledged to be the world’s first industrialised city. The worker bee that’s depicted in designs across the city and on the council’s crest of arms was adopted in 1842 to celebrate the hard work of ordinary Mancunians. This idea of Manchester as a hive of industry persists. It remains a city of firsts: a place where great things are made.
First stop: musical memories in Manchester’s Northern Quarter
Any Manchester music tour begins in the heart of the city’s Northern Quarter, a bohemian district just north of the main shopping streets. Once full of warehouses and old industrial buildings, the area today draws hipsters attracted by its independent boutiques, record stores, cool cafés and bars. It was in this neighbourhood in 1977 that young members of the Buzzcocks walked into a Virgin Records store with a copy of their EP Spiral Scratch and managed to sell it.
Nearby, on Oldham Street, you’ll find Manchester’s Music Walk of Fame: a series of bronze plaques laid into the sidewalk to celebrate the city’s most famous musical memories, including bands like The Stone Roses and clubs like The Twisted Wheel. John tells us the plaques are known locally as ‘Sound Bites’, because they look as though they’ve taken a bite out of the concrete slabs.
Next up: Salford and the Smiths connection
Next on the tour, head over the River Irwell into Salford. Salford is actually a separate city, but it forms part of the county of Greater Manchester. In musical terms it’s most famous as the home of the iconic Salford Lads Club, the façade of which was immortalised on the cover of the 1986 Smiths album The Queen is Dead.
The band actually filmed the video for ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ here, too. Mike Joyce of The Smiths was a former member of the club, as was Graham Nash of The Hollies. Both boys used to practice music in the rooms at the top of the club.
Salford Lads Club was one of many clubs for boys built in the late 19th and early 20th century. Their purpose was to keep ‘scuttlers’ (working class youth gangs) out of mischief by getting them involved in organised sports. Although one of the last clubs of its kind still standing, the Salford Lads Club is still going strong and offers soccer, billiards, pool and a state-of-the-art boxing gym for its current members.
Key to its survival is the astonishing Smiths Room – a literal shrine to the music and success of the band. Visitors are welcomed every Saturday between 11.30am and 2.30pm, when they can look round the premises, photograph the Smiths Room and buy customised music memorabilia. It’s thanks to this revenue that the club continues to thrive and serve the community.
Manchester on TV
Heading back to the centre of town, you’ll pass Media City, a futuristic media development built on Salford Quays. These quays and docks were once Manchester’s trade connection to the world, whereas today they’re the city’s international cultural gateway.
This flourishing media hub is home to the BBC, ITV and many independent production companies. 6 Music, the UK radio station for music aficionados, is broadcast from the BBC studios here.
Broadcasting has always had a strong presence in the city. In the 1960s, the BBC’s flagship music show Top of the Pops was filmed at Dickenson Road Studios in Longsight, South Manchester. Currently Coronation Street, the UK’s number one soap opera, is set and filmed here.
On the trail of Joy Division
John, a genial and ridiculously knowledgeable host, next suggests driving to Epping Bridge in Hulme, just south of the city centre. The bridge was the site of a famous Joy Division photo shoot, and music fans visiting Manchester often stop here to recreate those iconic snaps.
A Manchester Metropolitan University campus has now replaced the gritty housing that surrounded the bridge when the photos were taken in 1979. John explains that the 120,000 students who choose to study in the city are what “keeps it young and vibrant”. Manchester has the highest percentage of student retention in the UK, which helps shape its constantly evolving musical tastes and output.
The next stop on the tour is Knott Mill. This inconspicuous-looking building houses the rehearsal rooms in which Joy Division filmed their ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ video, and went on to became The Boardwalk Club – the site of Oasis’ first-ever gig in 1991.
The Haçienda: a Madchester icon
Just around the corner is the former location of the ultimate ‘Madchester’ superclub, the Haçienda. Today, the site is home to the very 21st century Haçienda apartment complex, but on this spot once stood the warehouse-turned-nightclub that was the focal point of the Manchester music scene in this pivotal era. Madchester was the name given to the distinctive musical movement that sprung up in Manchester in the late 1980s and early 90s, characterized by an energetic sound that blended alternative rock with influences such as 1960s pop, psychedelia and acid house.
The Smiths, The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays were just a few of the homegrown bands to play at this iconic music venue – and James actually had their first gig here. However, for all its popularity and influence, the Haçienda was ill-fated from the start.
The Haçienda was opened in 1982 by Factory Records, a small Manchester record label with a big reputation and even bigger attitude. The label, along with its boss Tony Wilson and the band New Order, largely financed the club – and they all lost millions as ‘The Haç’ struggled to balance its books against a calamitous backdrop of mismanagement, naivety, and illicit substances.
The club finally closed its doors in 1997, bankrupt. John quips that it would have been cheaper for them to stand outside and give everyone a fiver than to run the nightclub. New Order’s Peter Hook also admitted as much in his 2010 book The Haçienda: How Not To Run A Club.
A shared musical heritage
A theme that comes up again and again is the sense of shared history among Mancunian musicians. Bands or artists often share surprising links when you dig a little deeper, suggesting their music wasn’t created in isolation, but was partially formed by the city itself.
For example, the former Free Trade Hall – once a public hall and gig venue, now a hotel – hosted the infamous 1976 Sex Pistols gig that seemed to ignite a spark in the city’s young musicians. Members of the Buzzcocks, The Smiths, Joy Division, New Order, The Fall and Simply Red all claimed they were there that night and left inspired.
Around the corner from the Free Trade Hall is Manchester Central, which was previously the concert venue G-Mex. This vast former railway station had a standing capacity of over 12,500, but stopped hosting concerts in 1997 due to competition from Manchester Arena, Europe’s biggest indoor gig venue. John tells us that Morrissey opened the G-Mex, and closed it again when the space was converted into an international conference and convention centre.
Music history on every corner
Manchester is full of landmarks for the musically minded, including Chapel Studios, a converted church in Castlefield that was once home to Stock, Aitken and Waterman – the wildly successful pop songwriting and record-producing trio. John reveals it was also in this building that Rick Astley recorded his worldwide hit ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’. Nevertheless, it remains less well-known than the famous Strawberry Studios in neighbouring Stockport. Strawberry was part-owned and run by the local band 10cc, who recorded their seminal track ‘I’m Not in Love’ here.
The next stop is a small bar converted from an underground public washroom, the aptly named Temple of Convenience (now called the Temple). This quirky bar was the inspiration for Elbow’s song ‘Grounds for Divorce’. When frontman Guy Garvey sings about ‘a hole in my neighbourhood, down which of late I cannot help but fall’, the connection becomes clear!
While on the south side of the city, take a ride along the elevated ring road or beltway, the proudly titled “Mancunian Way” – immortalised in the song of the same name by former boyband Take That. Then it’s time to head back into Manchester’s bustling heart, past Factory 251, the old headquarters of Factory Records – now a nightclub part-owned by Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order.
Manchester’s modern-day musical connections
What makes Manchester even more appealing to music fans is that many local musicians retain strong connections to the city. As well as Peter Hook’s involvement in nightclubs, Morrissey, Mike Joyce and other members of The Smiths regularly contribute to Salford Lads Club. Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees rents out the terraced house in Chorlton, South Manchester, that he and his brothers grew up in, and former Take That member Robbie Williams runs Soccer Aid, a huge annual charity event at Manchester United’s Old Trafford soccer pitch.
Always on hand with more Manchester trivia, John is quick to point out that many international artists also have unique links to the city. For example, Frank Sinatra played at The Ritz, the city’s oldest nightclub – known for its curved, bouncing dance floor – and the Free Trade Hall hosted the famous Bob Dylan gig during which the young folk singer switched from acoustic to electric guitar, causing the crowd to shout ‘Judas’. Mancunians have never been shy about expressing their opinion.
Our tour wraps up back where we began, in the Northern Quarter – Manchester’s musical heart. There are music venues all over the city, but the Northern Quarter is home to the small pubs and clubs where visitors can enjoy intimate gigs by underground or up-and-coming artists.
John points out the murals on the side of the eclectic shopping arcade Affleck’s Palace, in which Manchester’s music and cultural icons are depicted in colourful mosaics. Morrissey, Ian Brown and Liam Gallagher are just some of the familiar faces staring out from the scene – all Manchester worker bees who changed the music world, and are now immortalised on their home turf.
Top Manchester gig venues
Manchester’s musical heritage is something special. So many of the city’s landmarks are synonymous with great moments in music, but where can you go to find the next great Manchester band or iconic gig? Here’s our list of venues to check out the next time you visit Manchester:
This former Wesleyan Chapel and Grade II listed building was converted into a stunning music hall in 2013. It boasts an atmosphere like no other.
The Deaf Institute
Once a center for deaf adults, this four-story building is now an established live music and club night venue next to Manchester University.
Known for its bouncing, curved dance floor, this old dance hall hosts major name gigs and student nights that are literally bouncing.
Tucked underneath the railway arches on Whitworth Street West, this atmospheric space is the perfect choice for eclectic live music and events.
Band on the Wall
This well-loved venue on the edge of the Northern Quarter has been hosting gigs since the 1930s. It was the center of Manchester’s punk scene in the late 70s and is still going strong.
The basement gig space in this canteen on Spear Street regularly welcomes international DJs, producers and musicians for intimate gigs.
The Castle Hotel
The historic Castle Hotel on Oldham Street started life in 1776. Today, it effortlessly blends a traditional pub atmosphere with quality live music.
Night and Day Café
Reportedly Elbow frontman Guy Garvey’s favorite bar, this Manchester institution boasts a cozy gig space in which to champion new music.
Matt & Phred’s
This long-established bar on Tib Street is known for showcasing international and local jazz. It presents live music from different genres six nights a week, and has even played host to Adele.
A newcomer to the scene, this Newton Street hangout opened in 2016 and is the place to enjoy intimate rock gigs, as well as laid-back club nights.
Dive into Manchester’s music scene
Ready to explore Manchester’s musical legacy and contemporary hotspots yourself? Book your flight to Manchester with Virgin Atlantic today, and get set to delve into the UK’s most exciting live music destination.