Trecker’s Travels, Day Four: Sounds of Music

May 5th, 2013

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Photo: Jamie Trecker / FOX Soccer

By Jamie Trecker

SALFORD, MANCHESTER, ENGLAND

On Saturday it was drummers, today it was drum kits. At about 10 a.m. on Sunday, the Angel Centre, a multi-use facility next door to the old Royal Salford Hospital, opened its doors to a scruffy lot unloading vans.

No, it was not Chelsea pulling up to play at Old Trafford (we’ll get to that later). Manchester is hosting a massive music festival, Sounds from the Other City, that will take place across 11 venues and feature some 130 acts. Most of the venues are small, but the bands aren’t. The headliners include trance music pioneer Simon Postford, Glasgow noise-rockers Divorce, and Oregon’s well-regarded Parenthetical Girls.

Did I mention the venues are small? Bands will be playing in the same pub where Marx and Engels discussed the means of production over an open fire. On Sunday, the Salford Arms was clearing a path for all the equipment while I made my way to Old Trafford. The manager’s expression was equal parts exhaustion and panic.

One might ask why in the world pubs would be doing this. You can figure it out just by looking up and down Chapel Street. Each corner used to have its own pub in this working-class town. Now, four out of five of those corner pubs are boarded up and vacant. The free house that used to be the traditional way-station en route to Old Trafford is gone. The hotel across the street from the Salford Arms unexpectedly shuttered Friday morning. There are more vacant buildings between my flat and Old Trafford than people.

The British pub used to be the heart of neighborhood culture but changing social mores have meant that it’s no longer acceptable to drop in for a quick lunchtime pint. A recent local CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) newsletter reported that business was off 37% and that a fifth of the pubs had gone under. Their self-described “curmudgeon” columnist bemoaned the loss of the “parade of human nature that once could be seen.” 

What that means is open to debate. Some have the demise of traditional pub culture as an attack on the heart of what it means to be “British.” The right-wing politician Nigel Farage posed Thursday with a pint and a cigarette in a Westminster pub after his anti-immigrant UKIP party enjoyed a strong showing in local elections. It was a defiantly British tableau, and no one missed its meaning.

Others have taken it as an opportunity. Twenty years ago, the idea that a local music festival could fill eleven pubs would have been laughed off. Pub rock, as a genre, ended sometime south of the eighties. But desperate times bring desperate measures. Pubs are slowly shifting from the fried basics of my childhood to something approaching food. And as craft brewing makes inroads in England – catching up to the Americans – a new generation is coming into pub ownership.

Those new owners were frazzled but excited this morning. The Salford Arms were bought out eight months ago, and the couple that owns it have revamped just about everything possible. There’s cask ales on tap now and vegetarian plates on the menu. What hasn’t changed is the idea that a pub could function as a community center: my landlady left the keys to my flat behind the Arms’ register.

And even if it’s a bit much to host so many bands, well, why not?

“I think it’s going to be great,” said the Arms’ owner in between carrying tables out of the main room. “There’s going to be music all up and down the street. What’s not to like?

This piece is the fourth in a series of pieces sponsored by the new Samsung Galaxy S4 phone. The pictures that accompany this blog post were taken with it. I’m traveling across Europe this month and you should tell me where you’d like me to go and what you’d like to hear about. Tweet me at @JamieTreckerFOX or use the #heytrecker hashtag @FOXSoccer.

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