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Sways Records, Manchester: When The Gatefolds Open
Austin Collings , June 7th, 2012 03:00

Post Factory indie in Manchester is just the establishment in disguise, argues Austin Collings, and Sways Records are the solution. Contains a gratuitous photograph of a naked man holding a rifle

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If any cultural artefact had to be at the root of Manchester’s most promisingly awkward and uncompromising record label since Factory, then it makes sense for it to be Stanley Kubrick’s vivid, prescient and once-elusive masterwork, A Clockwork Orange. Add in the fact the source book was authored by a Mancunian - Anthony Burgess - and the loops of logic take shape.

Certain people – mainly men my own age (32), or slightly older – have a uniquely close relationship with this film, this original ‘video nasty’ and the pirate form that they first heard about, or watched it in. And when quiet, withdrawn Ben Ward saw the brashly extrovert Martin Hurley peddling his hooky copy of this illicit wonder to fellow students at Manchester College, Ben saw the possibility and promise of a connection.

As with The Exorcist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre and any other video nasty that had been pulled from the public eye (for various antiquarian/moral/artistic reasons), A Clockwork Orange was pure taboo; verging on porn.

Hearing schoolyard and/or college rumours of Alex DeLarge and his excitably violent Droogs, stalking the mundanely surreal landscape, on the lookout for victims, and potential scenes and sites of ultraviolence, was a memorable thrill in itself. Few had seen it. Fewer still actually owned a copy.

But many of us liked to talk and speculate about it – and even fake ownership of it. Visual possessions weren’t the same back then in the 90s. You didn’t ‘own’ much in the way of moving images. You mainly listened and imagined, and tried to capture the image/s for posterity, or kicks.

For Ben it was a pivotal moment. Growing up in Edgely, Stockport, he may as well have been transparent at school. Yet, back home, under the close scrutiny of his strictly Christian stepfather and mother, he felt watched, like a manageably mad animal is watched in a cage.

He knew the religious stuff was a load of shit; knew also that his step-father should have known better, should have given him a break occasionally, and certainly never once sat him down at the small table in the kitchen, asking what’s this? When clearly ‘this’ was the picture of a naked women ripped from the pages of a porno magazine, with a hole in place of her vagina, where Ben would stick his dick. There was no need for that level of parental authority. The shaming need not have been so intense.

What kept him going through this challenging period was the music of Pulp; Jarvis Cocker’s "subversive, suburban, and seedy lyrics", as Ben describes them. Stockport’s not called Swingersville for nothing, and he saw a connection there, with Cocker’s Sheffield; an ally, a confidant, of sorts; as he did again a few years later when he met Martin at College, brandishing that most taboo of banned videos.

The story of SWAYS records is written within all of these disparate elements: the teenage loneliness and longing, Alex and his Droogs, the love of indelible visual images, the solace one finds in a fellow outlaw. And so from that early meeting in college, after Martin had passed on his dodgy copy of A Clockwork Orange, and after he’d taken Ben down to see his Polish grandad’s bag factory in Salford; and after both went their separate ways, but Ben kept Martin’s bass guitar; three years passed, and Martin wanted his guitar back, and so naturally they formed a band called The Marder in the (now empty) bag factory. A dazzlingly inventive threesome that sounded like The Fall, Magazine and The Pixies condensed into trailer form.

But aside from producing a pocket rocket of a song that name-dropped the likes of Orson Welles, Bruno Ganz, Arnold Clark and ‘Fucking Michael ‘Batman’ Keaton’ - bearing the Communist-tinged title: ‘I’m Perestroika’.

In 2005 they played their first show in Manchester. In 2008 they recorded with Steve Albini. In 2009 they released their debut/last EP – Men’s Ruin on 10” vinyl.

They remain a cult hit amongst certain people in Manchester and further afield, but their awkward talents and equally awkward songs were overshadowed by two different forms of music that have continued to plague Manchester since the late 90’s: ‘Lad-Rock’, as perfected by the lite-Liam Gallagher-ites The Courteeners and countless others. And something else altogether: a casually misogynistic form of pub-based-folk music, mastered by the likes of Elbow and I Am Kloot; wherein the viewpoint is mainly that of a victimised male whose downfall is women. In its own unbending way, it’s every bit as conservative as Oasis supposedly were, but without the cocky, seize-the-moment front – or without the honesty, you could say.

This faux sensitive viewpoint has bled into many immensely successful corners of modern society. Manchester’s Oldham St (or the newly named and newly-gentrified Northern Quarter) is awash with men and women, boys and girls dressed nose to toe in thrift, in tweed and ratty jumpers etc. Some of the men wear fashionably Victorian moustaches. Some of the girls bake Fanny Craddock cup cakes. They wouldn’t harm a flea. They’re incapable of harm. Everybody’s sensitive, but everybody’s on the make as well. It’s all very symptomatic of our times, this new form of hip conservatism that wallows – quite literally – in stagnation and victimhood. The trick is to appear deeply emotive whilst raking in dough and maintaining power.

As a viewing public, we now should feel sorry for politicians because they shed a tear when Piers Morgan gives them a platform to reveal their inner hurt. All the while, his/her cabinet is getting away with murder. The emphasis has shifted ever so subtly. The unemployed kids in tracksuits from shockingly under-developed backgrounds are vile bodies, but the men in suits who make the decisions are deeply human and sensitive.

On a less drastic, but equally insidious note, take Elbow’s BBC soundtrack for the Olympic; a six-minute song entitled ‘First Steps’. Lead singer Guy Garvey’s cosily insular relationship with the BBC has served him well. When he was supposedly ‘struggling’ to make ends-meet with Elbow, he was working for BBC Radio 6. Yet, Elbow’s story is now synonymous with struggle and hardship and everybody likes a plucky loser who can belt out an anthem. As with most – or all – forms of conservatism, of sticking close to the man, the only thing that’s being developed is one’s own bank balance. All the while, what’s being lost, and overlooked is the times we live in. The brave artist would have shunned this offer from the Olympics, or questioned the sham-like set-up of it all a la Morrisey and Live Aid; for the whole thing seems neither to be serving nor reflecting the real struggle, and gifted dexterity of the athletes involved but maintaining a dubious, and let’s be honest corrupt elite.

This is where Ben and Martin re-enter. After the demise of The Marder, and years of battling stiff promoters with little enthusiasm for their skew-whiff worldview, they fashioned a record label in 2011: SWAYS records, based in a studio facing Strangeway’s Prison. Their ethos is anti-ambition. Their maxim is: ‘Independent Label and Cultural Regenerator’. They’re not out to make a mint and uphold bogus authority. They know the artistic limitations of getting caught up in that world.

And so Ben’s been getting up for work recently having fallen asleep listening to all sorts of noises - the guttural night-cries of frustrated prisoners and sometimes Martin toiling away in the studio. He then schlepps it to work, endures the chatter of office folk, returns to the studio, nukes a microwave meal and listens to more noise. It’s all noise. He’s not had time to read. Not one minute to himself. People stop by the studio and they’re there for the night, necking cans that stay cold in the crisp air. And then there’s The Bunker nights. One each month. The place is packed to the rafters. People stood outside smoking and talking and staring out at the truncheon-like totem pole that is Strangeway’s Prison, that cuts the skyline and cuts lives short.

On the other side of town people are sat in bars, twirling moustaches and talking cake mixture, but back inside in The Bunker, the old industrial space, it’s a lively cross between a rave and some skewed conceptual art installation. The vast majority crowd round to watch the bands play in a wooden cage. The structure of which resembles the artist Francis Bacon’s space-frames (as he called them), wherein bodies, deprived of shape, squirmed and twisted under the rule of unseen elements. The caged life. The crowd watches the bands like Ben’s stepfather watched him, all those years ago. The connections are essential to his – and the label’s – story. It’s all backwards and forwards, between his stifled, straightjacketed youth, and the stifled, straightjacketed here and now of modern life, where success has no solidity, no grounding in what’s actually happening.

Up for work having listened to all those noises. He’s the new Mod in this respect. And he knows they’ve got some exciting bands on their label: Ghost Outfit, The Louche. That’s what keeps him going. Then there’s Money (and what a timely and ironic name that is).

Recently asked to play David Lynch’s new Parisian nightclub, Silencio, and fronted by the sharply cerebral Jamie Lee, it’s Money who has been the ‘catalyst for a lot of things’, in Ben’s words. He had them on his wish list for some time and now they’re delivering the goods in spades with a growing output that’s part Jack Nitzche, part film-composer Gustavo Santaolla, part The Smiths, Arcade Fire, Talk Talk and The Cocteau Twins.

The whole shebang – from Ben’s teenage troubles to that auspicious meeting at college and The Marder and on - is all written deep in the wondrously emotive veins of ‘Who’s Going to Love You Now’: Money’s first and only (to date) truly outstanding moment. And then there’s the video that’s inseparable from the song because Money are a ‘visual band’.

The connections are woven into a thrilling succession of slickly edited images: into the gargoyle-like face of a ranting Klaus Kinski, into Badlands Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen, David Foster Wallace, Ronnie and Reggie Kray, porn and space and Stanley Spencer, war and crowd trouble and Elvis’s wobbly legs...And so on.

As the images pile up, suddenly Manchester seems slightly, but also noticeably, invigorated - less staid, less conservative and hungover and afraid to express itself. And though all this may just be a smidgen of hope, of false hope at that - it’s hope all the same.

“We seek to re-establish the Poetic, the Human Spirit and the Imagination as supreme soul commodities in a landscape that is increasingly spiritually impoverished and pervaded by technological and material ontology.

We wish to re-establish the sacredness of language.”

Words taken from the SWAYS pamphlet No.4 written by Jamie Lee [pictured below]:

Sways Records

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Mof Gimmers
Jun 7, 2012 7:40am

I'm not really sure what point this article is making, but if it's 'Manchester indie is just part of the establishment', based solely on the successes of Factory, Oasis and Elbow, then I'd have to disagree. There's a number of a little labels who don't sign up for that alpha male bullshit (that's blighting the whole of rock currently, not just Manchester) with Red Deer Club, Cloud Sounds, Akoustik Anarkhy, micro-label Gardensticks, the Mind On Fire collective, Suffering Jukebox and more. All of these labels aren't in it for commerce's sake and are all losing money hand over fist in a bid to do something away from all that dick-swinging nonsense. Likewise, there's a whole bunch of artists holed up at Islington Mill doing weird and wonderful things, all united with Manchester's music scene under the umbrella of being broke as shit and juggling shit jobs to pay for their art. Just like anywhere else really and just like it's always been, everywhere.

Anyone who thinks Manchester is a stereotype of 'laddishness' hasn't been walking around it with their eyes open. Oddly, Fac-nostalgia aside, this city has never felt so healthy in terms of art, culture and music.

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Jun 7, 2012 10:04am

Kubrick's Clockwork Orange wasn't a video nasty.

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Jun 7, 2012 10:12am

Spot on Mof. Plus, Clockwork Orange, David Lynch, The Smiths, Cocteau Twins & Talk Talk are hardly esoteric influences for a whiteboy indie band. The International Anthony Burgess Foundation (based in ... Manchester!) is holding a 'Fifty Years of A Clockwork Orange conference' to discuss the profound influence the book/film has had on pop culture.

This is one of the thinnest leg-up pieces I've ever read on Thequietus.

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Dan B
Jun 7, 2012 3:01pm

"Their ethos is anti-ambition." I guess they won't be troubled by me not listening then.

Anyone reading this: Manchester (and Greater Manchester!)is alive, come up and see us some time.

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Jun 7, 2012 6:09pm

These guys really are doing something genuinely exciting at the moment.
The atmosphere at the bunker gigs is unlike anything else i've experienced in the city, it feels DIY, it feels personal, it feels like you're standing at the forefront of some sort of artistic regeneration.
It feels fucking real.

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Fad Gadget
Jun 7, 2012 6:34pm

Salford music, art etc... is not Manchester!!!!. Worst Quietus article ever!.

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Lora Tadine
Jun 7, 2012 7:50pm

"These guys really are doing something genuinely exciting at the moment" - aka These guys really aren't doing anything remotely exciting at the moment.

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Bill Merzky
Jun 7, 2012 9:42pm

Manchester (and Salford) does feel healthy again, but it has taken a long time. Small labels, like Sways, can exist because there is a group of people with a similar attitude - an attitude of 'fuck what has come before'. This has become an immigrant city, the culture has changed, people now flock here from many different towns & cities to enjoy this musical culture - to live here - to make art here. And it is thanks to the generations before (Smith, Smiths, Fac / Ian & co) that this culture took hold, but we do not have to worship them, or spend our days building monuments to them. There was a danger a few years ago that this city was just going to become a museum, but then these new people with their new attitude started to reject the old Gods. Many played a part - now wave, underachievers, wotgodforgot, comfortable, islington, pigeon post, kraak ... and fuxking loads more which should be mentioned.

Manchester is paradise.

The author of this article has picked up on one of this cities newest brigades and fallen in love, fine, and Thequietus could easily run more articles on different parts of this city. There are many stories to tell - it just so happens that this particular one is my favourite too.

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Johnny Jones
Jun 7, 2012 10:19pm

Well. The (non) output of Sways records is, indeed, the most exciting schmultz happening in Manchester at the moment, but let's face it : it benefits from the somewhat saddening contrast with the rest of the city's production, which, let's face it, is downright appalling. Indie-sounding bands with indie haircuts, indie guitars and an atrociously soft indie stance.

Seldom are the bands that actually leave you with a raging hard-on or make you want to run outside screaming. I shall not give names, but most of the concerts I had the misfortune to see for the past few months only made me want to throw myself in the bloody Medlock.

Except for the Bunker gigs of course, where naked bodies and unknown chemicals still dwell.

But that's just because everything else is so bad, really.

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Jun 7, 2012 10:20pm

A lot of bitterness in the preceding comments. Collings is merely pointing out that there are other things out there other than 'what we're supposed to listen to' and I sense a little jealousy from some other camps. Besides, the best stories are always true.

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Jun 8, 2012 9:47am

So, whatever happened to WU LYF anyway...?

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Bill Merzky
Jun 8, 2012 10:00am

In reply to Rooksby:

They've ascended. They play on roofs now instead.

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George Worst
Jun 8, 2012 11:34am

Agree or disagree, Collings can write. This is the sort of article I miss reading in the Guardian or The Times. Proper rock n roll writing, like Nick Cohn. Thank God The Quietus are here to fill the void!

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Chester Whelks
Jun 8, 2012 10:03pm

In reply to George Worst:

In 'A Clockwork Orange', Minister of the Interior Frederick Alexander co-opts a volatile 'symbol' he doesn't fully understand to give his own ambitions some momentum...

Manchester's past is repeatedly perceived as an albatross, but (as pertinently and roundly pointed-out during yet another invocation of that period in a recent piece about our current scene) nowhere moreso than in the media. Of course, its not helped by some of us inside the City either, for example, 50 year old John Robb giving us Stone Roses 'Micro News' via his various Twitter feeds about which airport the band have just passed through...

Bu that's to be expected, being overrun with the plughole-mulch of previous generations' cultural touchstones isn't something specific to just this City. All 'Indie' is now part of the establishment. Bands and fans alike flount their Indie credentials in hopes of bolstering their own (they hope) embryonic legend, or at least clamouring for the adoration of their peers. Just look at the deification of professional Indie Kids like Josie Long, braying on and on about (smog). Listen to interminably twee, name-dropathons Allo Darlin' or The Lovely Eggs. What was once 'The Alternative' was born out of a reaction to the machinations of big business and popular culture, now it's been bodysnatched by its supposedly enlightened offspring, driven by similar motivations, employing the same psychological tactics, but adorned instead with a hodge podge of what were once 'Indie' signifiers. We all do it. It's why you want people to see you're wearing that T-Shirt.

Don't kid yourself - every little label listed in the above comments would kill to get their 'talent' on 6Music and have them start shifting units like ruby-menstruating poontang. In fact, it's hard to argue that anyone who starts a band is NOT driven by success and recognition. If you love making music so much, why not just do it in your own bedroom? Only now it isn't just the artists, but also the promoters and label-heads embroiled in a scenewide circle jerk. But this is born out of indelible meories of what it is to be a fan. To want to consume, and in turn be consumed by something you've fallen utterly in love with. It’s the memory of that feeling, and the desire to perpetuate or repeat it that is the catalyst for people creating their own scenes, but ultimately the root of this problem we have with inauthenticity. The love of 'art' becomes corrupted into wanting to emulate its immortality. Sways at least seem to be bucking some trends, and operating on the periphery of the status quo. We do have something of a plimsolls and knitwear epidemic here in Manchester. Not that I'm necessarily saying Sways are wholly different than any of the examples I've previously given, I mean, just watch that Money video. Fuck, just read this article. True, Clockwork Orange, David Lynch, The Smiths, Cocteau Twins & Talk Talk are hardly esoteric influences anymore - but for a generation just coming into their own, populated by what seems to amount to little more than bipedal Tumblr accounts - they most certainly are.

It's abundantly clear that we're still not ready to Jettison the 20th Century.

The whole Sways aesthetic itself seems slightly mired in Joy Division Post-Punk histrionics with the obligatory sprinkling of 'shocking' or outré imagery to lend some instant portent or magnitude. The 'anti ambition' creed is still redolent of the Factory 'anti-contractual' ethos, a conceit that while seemingly non-materialistic, still screams out for attention as a means to succeed. Whether or not this is just a simulacrum of a scene remains to be seen. If you're curious, you can see for yourself. Watch the actual BANDS - thats who this should be about. You can do so on June 16th at Strangeway Studios, Unit 3, Dickinson Street Salford, M3 7LW. Sounds like I'm advertising, but nothing could be further from my nature or intent. I'm on the guestlist, but I won't be going. The fuckers stole what they perceived to be my 'schtick' and fabricated themselves a Goebbels in my cynical-image that would never attack 'the brand'.....'In 'A Clockwork Orange', Minister of the Interior Frederick Alexander co-opts a volatile 'symbol' he doesn't fully understand to give his own ambitions some momentum...' Lookit, they've got us talking, and that's all they really want. (In a raggedy flat, a flabby man once again dons a digital skin. Having tired of haranguing his barely responsive cock into his ninth wank of the night, this time over the sight of mice becoming engulfed by dogeared, pock-marked vaginas - he takes a swipe at people doing better than him, in the hopes the Quietus - terrified of one day being on the wrong end of his tongue - will contact him, begging to tap his caustic wit as dour mouthed commentator on the affected & creatively moribund slew of pansy-arse bands that pass for incendiary these days. His inbox lays empty, save for the usual Google Alerts for "felch tennis" ...he supposes they already have plenty of friends to do that for them. He goes back to scratching the scabs off his cat's back, depositing them in an empty beer can. At least, he thought it was empty...)

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Jamie 'Naked' Money
Jun 9, 2012 1:09am

In reply to Chester Whelks:

Hello everyone. I just wanted to say a couple of things.

First, I think it's a shame that there has been a lot of misinformation about what's been going on at the shows etc and wanted to give my side.

(i) the shows started as the result of a small party at Strangeways Studios where Ben was living (on a camp bed in a recording booth) - one of us came up with the idea of putting on shows there - a free space where people could do/say/behave how they wanted

(ii) we have all lived in manchester for a long time and know how special this city is. (there are by the way very serious reasons for this - it is a poetic place...etc). we have fallen in love with many bands. we wanted this space to have all the bands that we loved playing there. so far we have had loads, even bands from outside the city - we have already asked so many bands its been hard to fit them all in - hopefully we will be able to see all the bands that we love playing in these kind of open environments

(iii) this was never meant to be an esoteric thing. we wanted it to be COMPLETELY inclusive. this attitude will continue with the next shows

(iv) i would like to think that the atmosphere has been communal, inspiring and positive

(iv) the rhetoric involving 'anti-ambition' was only supposed to be a statement on not succeeding in the conventional sense. that to succeed in the conventional sense was really to lie in creating a dishonest artform and therefore fail - to aim for failure (ie to not comply with the expectations of an artistically morally crippled public and landscape) was to be honest

I think it's a shame that it has come to this because all the shows were founded on an inclusive, celebratory and positive attitude. we want to encourage, support and help a community/next generation of young artists that we thoroughly believe in and love.

there needs to be a coming together in this way if we are to progress as the result of a completely disillusioned and fragmented society that is artistically and spiritually impoverished

we do not specify or prescribe any 'type' of individual but support individuality in all forms. we are not a group

i really hope that all aspects of the manchester music scene can work together to achieve something special and colourful. i think that it is already starting to happen due to the talent and ambition of the bands and the support and spirit of music lovers that this city does produce

Manchester is Paradise


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John Doran
Jun 9, 2012 1:42am

In reply to Chester Whelks:

Now, THAT is what I call a comment. Read, weep and raise your game. And us too probably.

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Give me a one suck
Jun 9, 2012 1:08pm

In reply to John Doran:

The only man to rival Whelks is a boy. Atrocity Boy.

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debbie gary
Jun 13, 2012 11:41am

Love the article. I'm sure SWAYS and co are not blind to all of the above. Re. Elbow: like a lot of artists and bands who live outside of London, they assume they can kid the public that they're not part of the dull mainstream. When in truth they very much are.

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