John Harris

Journalist & Author

Hit Factories by Karl Whitney review – British cities and the music they produced

Why did synth-pop emerge in Sheffield and trip-hop in Bristol? A voyage through Britain and the bands who wrote the soundtrack to decades of change

“To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and at the same time that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” These words are taken from All That Is Solid Melts into Air, Marshall Berman’s treatise on 20th-century modernity. Used as an epigraph, it begins the 2007 documentary about the English band Joy Division, and highlights one of the film’s essential themes: the relationship between that group and Manchester, and between music and cities in general.

Joy Division – along with Factory records, the pioneering record company that put out both of the band’s albums and curated their posthumous myth – came into being at a point when Manchester’s old industrial communities had been beset by years of decay and decline, which partly explains why the band’s music is so full of melancholia. But in the city’s built-up spaces, they also sensed the futuristic excitement of what Berman called “the expressway world”, instantly evoked by the opening line of their 1979 song “Shadowplay”: “To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you.”

Cities were once full of musicians because of their factory-based hard-working cultures, and populations in dire need of entertainment

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