Accidental Musical Education @ Manchester Polytechnic

Black Rhythms & Soul night at Manchester Poly in the mid-80s was a musically amazing club night, with a weird name which we never used, opting instead to call it “Wednesday Night at the Poly”. Founded by Mick Hucknall, it had been passed over to Hewan Clarke by the time I discovered it, around 1986.

I knew that Hewan also played on Tuesday nights at Berlin in town, but I had no notion that he had been the original resident DJ at The Hacienda for a year or so after it opened in 1982, and that he played at The Reno in Moss Side and The Gallery in town. His involvement in these projects, and many more besides (Sunset Radio in 1989 for instance) made him a pivotal link between some very disparate groups of music enthusiasts in Manchester.

The elastic Poly playlist included brand new House Sound of Chicago and hip-hop on U.S. import; British experimental dance music like 400 Blows, Colourbox and T-COY; rare 1960s and ’70s jazz-dance/latin tunes; as well as current chart hits such as Eric B & Rakim’s Paid In Full.

This was a real ear-opener for me because my non-chart music knowledge was very indie-oriented. This was largely due to music press bias and the tendency of local bands to be folk-rock-inspired and/or post-punk in outlook. Meanwhile, another main source of music information, Radio 1’s John Peel, didn’t seem particularly interested in dance or soul music and rarely played any, although he did play lots of reggae and world music.

So Wednesday night at the Poly became a learning experience; happily for me, Hewan Clarke was quite content to answer my frequent questions about which records he was playing and where (or whether) I might be able to get hold of my own copies. I was very grateful that he didn’t talk down to me – so many DJs can be condescending or even obstructive when being quizzed – especially by a girl.

A jazz-latin version of the Bill Withers’ classic “Ain’t No Sunshine” was a Wednesday night highlight:

Sivuca – Ain’t No Sunshine

This record was the cue for the resident crazy jazz-dancing couple, Trafford and Rae, to wow us with their latest moves! (A few people there could actually do jazz dance but most of us were just guessing.)

Wednesday Night at the Poly - 1987

I eventually bagged my own copy of Sivuka’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” on 7″, after hours spent trawling through second-hand record shops, surrounded by men in anoraks… although not before buying Johnnie Clegg and Savuka records in error, unaware that Sivuka was spelt with an “i”. (Before YouTube came along, finding rare music was a tedious business.)

Another song we heard each week, which I eventually found a copy of, was:

Earl Grant – House of Bamboo

It now sounds very cliched, but in 1986 I thought it was really cool!

I first heard Gil Scott Heron’s ‘The Bottle’ and Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’ at Black Rhythms:

Gil Scott Heron – The Bottle

Curtis Mayfield – Move On Up

After hearing these tunes at the Poly, I went to see both artists play live at The International, Anson Road around 1988. Months later, Curtis Mayfield’s career was ended by a tragic accident and the next time I tried to see Gil Scott Heron, he was arrested at the airport for cocaine possession and never made it to the gig; this was the Womad festival in summer 1990. I was so grateful that I’d seen them both at The International while I had the chance!

It was Phil Denison (citizen of Hulme) who first put me on to the Black Rhythm & Soul night… I knew him from the Royal Exchange Theatre where we both worked.

We would go to an African dance class first at the Poly (in the Mabel Tylecote Building from about 8-9pm) and then we’d go straight on to the Poly Union and dance until 2am. It was a dance binge… and not alcohol driven, although I might have a couple of beers as the night went on, depending on funds… plus lots of water, which was free.

Those Wednesday nights led a group of us to believe that it was perfectly normal to go out mid-week and dance non-stop for six hours. Consequently clubbing was not about looking gorgeous, copping off or getting out of our heads… it was about the pursuit of euphoria induced by dancing tirelessly to amplified music. Clubbing was a physical work-out, a voyage of discovery and a cathartic ritual all rolled into one… a way of getting high without things getting messy. It really was extremely innocent pleasure. The excitement came from musical immersion… but this only worked if the music was good to dance to, of course.

Many of my student peers spent their evenings supping and talking shite in The Salutation or various pubs in Didsbury. I just couldn’t see the point… it was a waste of good dancing time. The function of a pub, as far as I could see, was to provide a free-to-enter weather-proof rendezvous-point with seats and toilets. The idea was to meet and then exit the pub as quickly as possible – and if the club was empty because it was early, all the better, because there was no competition for space.

With hindsight, our patterns of behavior led seamlessly into what became the acid house scene. When Hewan Clarke left The Poly in summer 1987, we moved on to the Wednesday Zumbar night at The Hacienda, and I was still a regular 12 months later when the night became Hot! By then, I’d been doing the mid-week blissed-out tireless dancing thing for almost 2 years.

We were penniless pleasure-seeking escapists searching for cheap alternatives to mid-80s pessimism. We didn’t think we were hippies, but a powerful anti-possessions vibe, emanating from Hulme sub-culture, set the tone for our attitudes and aspirations. Paradoxically, the arrival of ecstasy and acid house in 1988 all but destroyed the musical diversity which I had grown to depend on for a cheap fix.

The Black Rhythms Night was held at Manchester Polytechnic Student Union, 99 Oxford Road, All Saints M1 7EL, on the first floor.

Opened in 1982 as the Sidney Building, it was renamed Mandela Building in 1984, unfortunately after Winnie, not Nelson. It is now called simply MMUnion – Manchester Metropolitan Union – and from this angle it looks much the same as it did in the mid-eighties.