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The Hamsters
Bloody Hell! Mick Middles , June 23rd, 2014 11:13

At first glance, if not first listen, you could be forgiven for believing this to be a timely collection of gritty R&B standards from the Essex coastline and thereabouts. Beyond the name, Manchester's The Hamsters bear little resemblance. And even if they have been latterly over-looked – no mention, for instance, in Simon Reynold's all-encompassing post punk bible Rip It Up And Start Again or, bizarrely, John Robb's oral history of Manchester music, The North Will Rise Again. (Bizarre indeed, as The Hamsters front man, Eon Morse (aka Moet, Moey or Ian Moss) today fronts the exceptional Kill Pretty, soon to release their second album on Robb's 'Louder Than War Records).

Curious omissions, although I carry part of the blame. As Mancunian correspondent for Sounds magazine during the band's frenetic heyday, I barely recall penning more than the odd fleeting review. Odd indeed, as I must have seen dozens of Hamsters appearances. "Oh that was probably our fault. We didn't do ourselves any favours. We were terribly aloof," exclaimed Moey when I sheepishly broached the subject with him recently.

In truth, they were more than merely "aloof", they were positively dangerous, a fact confirmed upon reading Stephen Dobson's clunky but grimly compelling biography of Ian Moss, The Man Who Killed The Hamsters, in which the story is heavily punctuated by myriad altercations of a physical nature. Within that book lies the story of how The Hamsters snubbed the opportunity of becoming a Factory band which, as far as they were concerned, would have considerably compromised their brutish attack. Needless to say, Mark E. Smith loved them and ushered two tracks onto the Disparate Cognoscenti compilation album that emerged on his own Cog Sinister records. On the sleeve of that album, The Hamsters are depicted oikishly and with unfashionable long hair. They look as parochial as it is possible to get.

They began life by crashing the stage of an infamous PiL gig at Belle Vue, King's Hall in 1979 and, later that same night, invading a smaller stage across Hyde Road as the UK Subs attempted to perform at The Mayflower. Noticing their bubbling machismo, the club owner offered them a gig one week later, despite the fact that they had barely touched an instrument at that point.

On such occasions – Banshees perhaps?, although I never fully trust tales of punk ineptitude – mini legends are formed. "Notoriety" is perhaps the most appropriate word. It was certainly thus at their most famous appearance when they were tacked onto the bottom of the bill at the 'Stuff The Superstars Festive', again at The Mayflower. This hugely celebrated event also featured Joy Division, The Fall, Distractions, Ludus and Manicured Noise, although many clung to the fading opinion that Hamsters stole the day's true glory. I recall, through mists of time and substances, a riotous, shambling, brutish and occasionally beautiful noise. The Hamsters, revelling in Manchester's unfashionable underbelly, eternally scathing of the blanket PR of Factory monopoly.

For me, they created a scar of sorts, one that faded with time. Four years ago, I was idiotic enough to accept a pre-match chance to "talk" before the assembled imbibers of FC United of Manchester at Bury's gig lane. As my terror unfolded, a strangely familiar figure approached from the midst of the raucous throng. "It's Moey," I thought. Part of Manchester history. "It's Moey!"

He is historical, too. His eventual comeback with the ageing and reflective punk blast of Kill Pretty proved massively effective, as has the myriad side projects that surround his sideline KP2 persona almost on a weekly basis. German Shepherd, the label he fronts alongside the bubbling Bob Osborne, shunts out – sometimes enthralling, sometimes bewildering – eclectic fare.

But now, precisely at the moment that Kill Pretty have gained a glorious omnipresence, if only within a North West that pops and spits defiantly in the face of nil record company investment, and just as we re-evaluate Moey as one of the great writers of Manchester music history, out pops Bloody Hell!. An anthology of The Hamsters. It is rather like a devoted Smiths fan, circa Meat Is Murder, discovering a raft of demos that Morrissey had made with Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds. It crosses an unlikely divide.

Bloody Hell! is time travel. It will shunt you back to the dark shadows of Manchester in the late seventies and later – and boy were they dark. You could, for instance, listen to this and imagine yourself downing six pints of Robinsons before heading to the aforementioned crumbly and unfashionable Mayflower venue in the lost wastelands of Gorton. You would pay your £1 entrance fee and, skilfully avoiding the gaggle of aggressively garbed punks in the corner, purchase a further pint and locate yourself stage front to one side, thereby avoiding the inevitable micro mosh-pit flashes of ultra-violence. (And yes, they did happen). The Hamsters would explode onstage in a curious warping of football thug buffoonery and blinding intelligence. It was a defiantly anti-Manchester stance. Light years away from the student hood stranglehold of Hulme or professional; Bohemia of Chorlton-cum-hardy. These rum buggers hailed from Ashton-Under-Lyne. Even then, a town crumbling from Manchester's tight-knit illuminati.

So why listen now? It's a good question, and one that lies beyond the hinge moment provided by the IRA's uniquely positive bombing in 1996, and Madchester's daft blast and into the darkness. Hamsters on-stage. Living it as large as any Gallagher, and not giving a fuck. To locate them, you have to sift beyond the likes of Manicured Noise, Ludus, Glass Animals, The Distractions, The Liggers and The Manchester Mekon. You have to squint, hard.

Until now, so little of this racket has emerged as an "actual" release. As such, a pressure cooker has emerged, partly encouraged by contemporary interest in Kill Pretty. So now, here it blasts from the hiss and steam of German Shepherd Records. Any why not? There are many lost avenues of Manchester music that still hold fascination. This is arguably the most fascinating of all. I can't deny that I know and love Moey of late, and even proudly appeared in Kill Pretty's ferocious love/hate video to the city – 'Manchester' – recently, alongside many contemporaries.

'Stupid Songs' perceptively unfolds the anthology. Is this a comment on the pretentious rain coated Mancunia of Joy Division vintage or, indeed, a defiant and insular glimpse at Tameside's unfashionable heart. Remember, from this outpost, beneath the Pennine shadows, Mick Hucknall – and Mark Reeder – both languished in the land of the ignored. There is a point here. Brilliance exists, and it exists in those over-spills and tower blocks. Ignored and lost to understandable excess. 'Stupid Songs' will – I warm you – catch your brain and sit there for weeks on end. It is, at once, simplistic, arguably artless yet effortlessly enjoyable. It is also defiantly anti-Manchester. Nothing, I suggest, could be further from that short back-n-side sub funk norm that prevailed in the hipper Mancunian venues at the time, although I am led to believe that The Hamsters ironically performed on the final evening of The Factory Club in Hulme.

So you drift through Bloody Hell!, perhaps soaking in a trace of the edginess of the era, certainly accepting the "outsider stance" and you catch a glimpse of a life spent sitting on a 210 bus, or working in a local "mirror factory", or drifting down to The Birdcage disco nite-spot in Ashton-Under lyne. You feel, again, that all encompassing aloofness. While Tony Wilson was pontificating nightly on Granada Reports, encouraging people to get down to – his own club night – The Factory Club – you were sitting with a pudding in a Dukinfield chippy. There is an awful lot of this peripheral aggression here. 'Chip Shop Song' perhaps edges uncomfortably towards St Helens gruff folkists, The Lancashire Hotpots, which is never a good thing, although this is only a minor criticism. One can edge closer to the heart of their 'Lancy' darkness with such outbursts as 'I'm A Cunt' – although perversely presented here in the post Hamsters outfit, Sicknurse, and 'Cloud Of Flies', 'Maggots' and 'Animals'.

You've probably caught the drift by now. This batch of songs, which even includes oddities from Night Watchmen, the outfit instigated by Hamsters' drummer, the late Steve Middlehurst, provides a journey into unholy territories of Pennine darkness. You really can taste and inhale this lonely scene. Sit in smoky shadows, swapping football jibes with edgy males on the outside of everything. Somewhere else, a different history is being feverishly and inaccurately written. It doesn't matter. Manchester has a time-honoured stoicism that tends to eventually discover the truth.