The spirit of 1976: innovation made in Manchester

The Free Trade Hall in Peter Street, Manchester was a concert venue every north-west teenager visited as a right of passage. It was originally a public hall designed by architect Edward Walters and constructed in 1853–56 on St Peter’s Fields, the site of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. The hall was built to commemorate the repeal of the Corn Laws.

It was home to the Hallé Orchestra and a vibrant part of Manchester’s culture, until it closed in 1996. In 1997 the building was sold to private developers despite public resistance, who viewed the sale as inappropriate given the historical significance of the building and its site.

After the initial planning application was refused, a second modified planning application was submitted and approved. A 263-bedroom hotel, demolishing Howitt’s post-war hall but preserving the main staircase, was built. The hotel opened in 2004, having cost £45m. Today it is a Radisson Hotel, but retains Grade II listed heritage status.

The Free Trade Hall was a venue for public meetings and political speeches besides a concert hall. Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill and Christabel Pankhurst all roused Mancunians in the hall and on the steps.

However, it was forty years ago last Saturday, 4 June 1976, that the Lesser Free Trade Hall – adjacent to the main hall – was the venue for a concert by the Sex Pistols at the start of the punk movement, now regarded as one of the most influential gigs of all time, that gives it a special status for me.

It was a gig that inspired a generation to make their own music, and arguably changed their world forever. Only a handful of people were actually at the gig but it has iconic status. It’s one of those moments in popular culture whereby you can put your finger on it and say: that was it, that was the day, that was the time, that was the year that was the precise moment when everything took a left turn.And that is the music that we’re listening to now, the musical culture and heritage we have in Manchester, the way we buy records, the independent music scene, basically came out of that audience.

There were about 35-40 people there. Tickets cost 50p. So who was there? We know that Morrissey was there, who went on to form the Smiths. We know that the lads who went on to form the Buzzcocks – Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto – were there because they organised the gig. We know that two lads from Lower Broughton were there who went out the next day and bought guitars – Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner – they formed a band called Stiff Kitten, later to become Warsaw, later to become Joy Division. We know that Mark E Smith was there who went on to form The Fall.

There was another Sex Pistols gig six weeks later there that was actually full, and that’s where the Hacienda came from, that’s where Factory Records came from. Ian Curtis, Martin Hannett, Tony Wilson were there. So it’s a very easy thing to put your finger on and say: yes, that’s where everything kind of it changed.

I wasn’t there, but over the next 18 months I was a witness, although not enough of one to notice at the time that what was taking place was history. I bought the records and went to the concerts of those Manchester bands, and they still form the core of my record collection today.

I had no idea I would talk and write about a gig for what is turning out to be the rest of my life, finding new ways to point out that the evening was something of a revelation and a cabalistic psychic trigger for many.

The momentum caused by the event has now, perhaps, died down, or paused for thought, jumping back to the front page on a milestone anniversary. Or, ultimately, the momentum has turned into a constant nostalgic commentary on the momentum itself – what caused it, how we remember it and what happened because of it to Manchester and how it regenerated sociocultural history.

The people went to see the Sex Pistols, but in reality it was lead singer John Rotten – now known as John Lydon – they were drawn too, an innovator and performer without comparison, venting his social and political ideology through the power of music. Lydon has been angry and sticking two fingers up to the world since 1975 when the Sex Pistols formed. He hasn’t softened with age.

It’s hard to imagine how powerful a counter-cultural force Lydon and the Pistols were in the 70s, but they were perceived enough of a threat to the Establishment for them to be discussed in Parliament under the Traitors and Treason Act. Via his music and invective, Lydon has spearheaded a generation of young people to show their attitude, shown by the bands inspired from the Lesser Free Trade Hall gig.

With his current band, Public Image Ltd, Lydon expresses an equally urgent impulse in his make-up – the constant need to reinvent himself, to keep moving. From the beginning he set the ground-breaking template for a band that continues to challenge and thrive today.

The melancholic howl of This Is Not a Love Song, Rise and Death Disco, Public Image’s new wave tunes sound as vital as they ever did. Anger is an Energy is Lydon’s autobiography, a line from Rise, and his prose is as spikey and angry as his music, packed with defiant energy and an unwillingness to be a passive spectator to his own life. ‘To stay relevant, sometimes you need to stay angry’ seems to be his driving force.

The charismatic Lydon has been angry, wailing and ranting for years, and has remained a compelling and dynamic figure both as a musician, and, thanks to his outspoken, controversial, yet always heartfelt and honest statements, as a cultural commentator and a vibrant, alternative individual.

John’s music, lyrics and writing offer a brilliant insight into the creation of ideas. Right from the start he needed to fight his corner and he’s never stopped, and he’s never made it easy on himself, his inner anger and restlessness being raw and uncomfortable at times. At the same time, you can’t help but be captured by his warmth, humanity, honesty and clarity of thought.

It was the anger, energy and passion in his performance back in 1976 that inspired everyone. But what makes you angry? There are a mountain of reasons why we lose our temper, research shows that the average person gets angry about four times a day. Anger can be expressed assertively, aggressively or in a passive-aggressive way. It rises within us when our need to be valued, respected and appreciated is threatened, our passion spills out.

Anger is a powerful emotion, an energy that can create a decisive call to action. Think about successful entrepreneurs, they’re passionate, but also logical and rational. In the face of opportunity, crisis or danger they remain steely-eyed focused. They don’t get angry – or at the very least they don’t show their anger. Or do they?

According to research conducted by Henry Evans and Colm Foster, emotional intelligence experts and authors of Step Up: Lead in Six Moments That Matter the highest performing people and highest performing teams tap into and express their entire spectrum of emotions, including anger, as an energy and driver of top performance. So Lydon was right.

Evans and Foster say anger is actually useful when harnessed and controlled because it fosters useful behavioural capabilities:

Anger creates focus Get mad and you tend to focus on one thing – the source of your anger. You don’t get distracted. You’re not tempted to multitask. All you can see is what’s in front of you. That degree of focus can be extremely powerful.

Anger generates confidence Get mad and the automatic rush of adrenaline heightens your senses and reduces your inhibitions. Anger, in small doses, can be the spark that gets you started.

Use anger to overcome anxiety or fear When we’re nervous or scared we often later regret what we didn’t say. When you do, the rush of adrenaline will fuel anger and will help move you out of the fear zone and into a mind set where you’re excited and passionate and motivated – but not unreasonable or irrational.

Anger, manifesting itself as frustration, is prevalent in many start-ups. It may not always be obvious, but the combination of passion, desire, and expectation creates an environment ripe for frenzy. Most start-up schedules look like a mangled mess of meetings. Trying to maximise every minute of the day, they only leave a few minutes between each discussion to take a breath.

In this situation, when frustration boils over and anger strikes, it comes quickly. There isn’t time to anticipate the feeling, it just happens. Whether it’s a missed opportunity, a change in circumstances, or an unforeseen action by someone else, your mood quickly changes.

Most entrepreneurs try to continue, they try to ignore it. They put on their best face for the remainder of the day, but the emotion continues to stir under the surface – and no matter how hard you try to find the silver lining, there just isn’t one.

When this happens, you need to stop trying to be positive and channel your anger instead. Sometimes, bad stuff happens that will make you angry, and rather than internalise it you need to channel your frustration, it’s a chance to exert your force of will when the world is counting you out, just channel it into a constructive goal. Afterwards you can let go of your anger. That’s what Lydon did, using his anger as a motivating force to provide self-insight.

Anger is a vital part of that built-in ‘fight-or-flight’ response that helps you adapt to and survive challenges, personal and business. Anger is the fight component, the part that moves you to take offensive measures to defend yourself against actual or perceived threats – you get angry and suddenly you’re infused with a sense of empowerment, a feeling of strength, confidence, and competence. You’re standing straight up to the frustrations and conflicts you’ve been avoiding. There is a fire within each and every one of us, and like John Lydon use it.

In 1976, when popular music was directionless, youth culture dissipated and Britain in the grip of political paralysis, 20-year-old Lydon appeared like a lightning bolt from beyond. “I am an anti-Christ!” was his recorded introduction to the world as Johnny Rotten, the provocatively grotesque frontman of the Sex Pistols. He quickly became the pivotal character in a counter-culture movement that shook the music business out of its lethargy and left an indelible mark on British culture.

But life is long, pop careers are short. The Sex Pistols released one album before rancorously disintegrating in 1978. Over the next 38 years, with his ever-changing ensemble Public Image Limited, Lydon has dabbled in all the usual excesses but his anger was there, fighting to be heard among the excessive verbiage and irrelevant digressions. Oh how an inchoate rebel found his purpose in punk.

Forty years on from that gig in Manchester, John Lydon is still showing anger is an energy. Back then he showed he was ready to roar, and how he lit a touchpaper for others like him. There are full lives, and then there are his.

If your engine is fired up, get moving and get moving now. Set a list of goals or outcomes, and do not stop until you are in a more positive place. You can sort it out. You can turn anger into motivation. Keep angry to keep the energy, get out there and make it happen.





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