I don’t like this song very much, but I think it made a big impact on people my age in the late 70s, in spite of being completely uncool. It was in the charts for about 3 months and was Number 1 during April 1978, when I was eleven.
I already knew about Lowry (1887-1976) from my grandma’s table mats… and that was about it. We weren’t taught about him at school and I don’t remember ever seeing his paintings in a gallery. Art teachers didn’t dwell on him because they really didn’t want us to paint like he did. He was considered a ‘people’s artist’, I think, which was an oblique way of saying that he was popular but not very good.
You could say the same thing about the song… but it did something useful: it introduced a whole generation of young people to the paintings of L. S. Lowry via the unlikely route of Top of the Pops.
The lyrics painted their own picture of poverty in Salford and Manchester; they sounded like the stuff my grandad (and countless other grandads) came out with on a regular basis, along with ‘You young’uns today – you don’t know you’re born’, and other well-worn phrases; but these observations seemed more relevant and interesting when someone was singing them on the telly.
Brian & Michael – Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs
When the recession in the 80s really took a grip, we already knew what poverty on a grand scale looked like in our cities from Lowry’s paintings. The old industrial buildings looked bleak and impressive to us, and we copied the appearance of the figures in the paintings with our big clompy shoes and second-hand clothes. ‘Short back and sides’ became all the rage for girls and boys, with hair left longer on top. Sun-tans were out; black and white photos were in, as was ‘Black & White':
There were lots of postcards of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy around in the early to mid-80s, and an interest in images from early cinema was fuelled by Harold Lloyd and other newly restored silent films being shown every evening on the BBC. The itinerant workers depicted in these depression era films looked very similar to the figures in the Lowry paintings.
Certain images of 50s film stars were also popular, then as now: James Dean, Elvis in ‘Jailhouse Rock’, Marlon Brando in ‘On The Waterfront’, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn; but somehow these images, the black & white ‘kitchen sink’ films of the 50s and 60s and Lowry paintings seemed to sit well together in our collective imagination.
There was also great interest in George Orwell, not surprisingly due to our living through the year of his most famous title ‘1984’. Some of us went on to read ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ and ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ in which Orwell ‘slummed it’ with menial workers in order to get an insight into their everyday lives, which he then recorded.
I met a girl from America sometime around 1986 whose name I can’t now remember, but she lived in the big old house which still backs onto the territorial army barracks in Hulme. She told me she had been determined to come to Manchester ever since she’d read that the city was filled with hoards of un-sun-tanned, unhealthy-looking people without ‘big hair’, wearing second-hand clothes, singing in english regional accents and generally embracing pauperdom. She saw the place as the opposite of Los Angeles, where she was from, and she found it culturally fascinating.
At the time we called the scene ‘Alternative’, although this word came to mean something else very soon after.
‘Alternative’ in Manchester in the mid-80s was defined by what it opposed: mainstream 80s culture, in particular the big sportswear brands sold through the highstreet sports shops. It embraced the music of independent British record labels like Postcard, Kitchenware, Factory, Cherry Red and On-U-Sound, independent local clothing companies and independent films. It was somewhat bookish although not really political.
However by the late 80s the word ‘Alternative’ was used by club promoters to describe non-dance music club nights and it became an umbrella term for ‘all the tribes’, conjuring up images of punks and goths in particular. Consequently the particular tribe of young people which I am describing from mid-80s Manchester was marooned in time without a useful name to describe it.
We were the people who ran around Manchester before people started wearing Joe Bloggs, Gio Goi, Bench, taking E and going on cheap Spanish holidays. We weren’t just into grim, northern, depression style… there was a big interest in ‘jazz’ style and this included 1920s, 30s and 50s influences… though it didn’t have much to do with actual jazz music in most cases. There was also a big rockabilly influence, which was again more about a look than a sound. We tried to ‘embrace the grimness’ of our environment rather than escape it or deny it… and the neglected cityscape was often visually stunning while also being incredibly bleak.
What was striking with hindsight was the lack of aspiration to be rich. It was, in those days, cool to be poor. And certainly it was possible to have a great time in Manchester without much money, although I’m now talking about young, free and single people, not families with children. I disliked London in those days because so much of its cultural life catered to the very wealthy. Meanwhile, Manchester’s cultural life was pretty much designed for the unwaged, which meant that everybody could join in as long as they didn’t live too far away from town.
I would like to like the Matchstalk Men song, but it reminds me of Mull of Kintyre from a few months earlier… nice enough tune, but slow and sentimental, and I’ve heard it a million times… so sadly I just can’t bare to listen to it.
Thankfully, the paintings of L. S. Lowry can now be viewed all year round at the fantastic gallery and theatre complex named after him in Salford, which officially opened in October 2000. More details can be found at The Lowry website: http://www.thelowry.com/.