From the outside, the Star & Garter on Fairfield Street in Manchester looks dark, dingy, rickety and slightly foreboding. It’s the sort of venue you could imagine yourself being thrown out of unconscious, straight back in to the gutter from which you erstwhile had crawled. It looks like a place of rich history and untold debauchery, the sort of place which causes you to vomit uncontrollably on your shoes just from looking at it. In short, it’s everything you want from an indie venue.
I’ve not actually lived in Manchester for that long, and despite a brief stint in a band back in the noughties during which I had the pleasure to play at many a similar venue, I had never actually been to this one until I booked some tickets to see a couple of bands one Thursday night. So myself and my good friend Tom met after work to begin a short tour of Manchester drinking establishments ending with the Star & Garter and a date with two fine US bands and Bad Tripe faves, Joyce Manor and Cheap Girls. We made sure that we drunkenly accosted every member of the bands for photos and we also forced them to read this esteemed blog, which I’m sure was a real treat for them.
As soon as we entered the venue I liked what I was seeing, it’s just a traditional boozer downstairs, so traditional in fact that it’s been used as a set for a number of TV shoots. Try to picture in your mind if you can; a pub without tastefully exposed iron girders wrapped in fairy lights, no blackboards displaying local handcrafted, artisanal delicacies and absolutely bereft of retro computer games or ping pong tables. Instead what you have is a pub, as (I’m told) pubs used to be, with a bar, a pool table, some normal tables and some seating. A small alcove at the back contained a trestle table which displayed the bands’ rider which consisted of ham, jam, crisps and bread, all the essentials apart from beer. It’s a pub though, as I keep saying so beer was available.
Upstairs is where the live music happens and true to form and my expectations this was nothing more than a dark room with a small stage. The walls are completely black, although it’s impossible to tell whether they’ve been painted, papered, or whether they are in fact just made of black. For those of you who enjoy a slightly obscure literary reference the décor, or lack thereof brings to mind Mark Z Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’ (look that one up you fuckers). Slightly terrifying were it not for the friendly people, excellent live music and beer.
Now during the course of the night we had learned via Twitter and from speaking with fellow punters within the venue that the Star & Garter is facing imminent closure, to make way for a planned extension to Manchester Piccadilly Train Station. This came as a blow as I already felt a connection to this place and I did not want my first visit to also be my last. By the end of the evening I had accosted the Licensee Andy Martin and was drunkenly slurring at him that I would be the one to tell the world about the plight of this historic venue via the medium of my excellent writing and surprisingly, he politely agreed to indulge me and gave me his number. I awoke the next day and immediately stayed in bed until 1pm and did not attend work. I called Andy though and got round to meeting up at the pub the following Monday.
The first thing we discuss is his view on social media, “I fucking hate Facebook” he tells me. He goes on to explain that he put up a post about an upcoming gig at the Star & Garter and it received about 20 likes and 3 shares. Later that day he posted a picture of what he had found whilst cleaning the car park at the rear of the venue; a used condom and an actual human shit, possibly the work of a “multi-tasking prostitute.” This tableau of bodily expulsions, he exasperatedly explains, received over 100 likes and a fuckload of shares . Point made I suppose.
Getting down to brass tacks and Andy begins to talk me through exactly what is going on at The Star & Garter. The pub stands on the site of the former Mayfield Train Station which is just over the road from Manchester Piccadilly. Mayfield has stood dormant since 1986 but the land on which it stands, and this includes the Star & Garter, is owned by shady, greased up corporate bastards London Continental Railways and after doing nothing with it for the last 30 years, they’ve now decided they want it back. This is all part of Network Rail’s proposed £560million Northern Hub wankathon which has been backed by Manchester City Council.
There’s been a few different options presented in regards to work being carried out at the site but it looks like what will happen is that Fairfield Street will be closed for up to three years. This means that the Star & Garter would be forced to close down for the duration and then reopen right next to a dramatically redeveloped railway station, Hell they’ll pretty much be on the fucking tracks by the looks of things. Now at this point I was thinking, ok – just agree to close down, and wait while the real estate value of the place quadruples, then sell up and move to Tahiti. Unfortunately, Andy tells me, no dice because the building is Grade II listed, it’s stood for nearly 200 years and most of what the business makes goes back in to the upkeep of the building itself. The likelihood is that after 3 years the place will have gone to rack and ruin and London Continental could grasp it between their bony, mishapen corporate claws for next to nowt. If they did buy it now then the owners will not even break even on what they’ve put in over the years and to make matters even worse, Andy lives there! London Continental, the bastards, have yet to confirm if he would even be allowed to be a sit in tenant while the work was carried out so it’s bad news whichever way they turn.
Basically it looks like the place is destined to close, which is a terrible shame as it represents part of Manchester’s heritage which is rapidly disappearing. I recently attended, with my day job hat on, a conference called the Manchester Manifesto which was a debate on what the people of Manchester want to see now that Devolution has been granted. The panel included three MP’s all of whom, at one stage or another, started banging on about Manchester’s cultural contribution to the UK, specifically mentioning the Hacienda and Tony Wilson in a feeble and ill-advised attempt at gaining credibility. I know I play the “I used to be in a band I’ll have you know” card a lot but by Christ, watching politicians doing it fair turned my stomach. I put this to Andy and his response sums it all up perfectly, “The Hacienda’s been turned in to flats and Tony Wilson’s been dead for almost a decade, don’t get me wrong though, lovely fella.”
The Star & Garter obviously means something to many people; it represents the hardest way up and the quickest way down with its DIY ethos, and spirit of independence. And there’s nowhere in the world more Indie than Manchester, or at least there didn’t used to be. The club is famous for its renowned Smiths Disco night, and also the Smile club night which used to be widely mentioned in NME and the like as one of the best nights to attend in Manchester. I think these days most people head to the Northern Quarter for such things and tend to avoid the faeces and hooker ridden back alley of Fairfield Street. It’s no coincidence that the Star & Garter has been a massive staple of the Punk scene over the years. Andy proudly tells me of the time Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks dropped in to catch the UK Subs show (who actually played in December I think). A quick online search throws up details of anti-BNP and anti-fascist meetings being held at the pub way back in 1987 which must have been the start of the relationship with the DIY punk scene. They also host a monthly LGBT night, the brilliantly named ‘Club Bollox’ which offers “something different to the usual security blanket of gay scene clubbing.” Not something which I’ve been actively searching for but hey, I’d give it a go. YOLO.
The reason that sub-cultures like these exist is really quite simple; not everyone likes the same stuff. Some people would actually rather look at a picture of a used condom and a human shit than yet another glass fronted Starbucks. Don’t get me wrong, the author enjoys a nice latte on a long train journey but if there’s one thing I like more it’s getting drunk as fuck and watching awesome bands. Please let it continue.