The Thunderdome Was the Home of Madchester's Criminal Underworld
Feb 26 2013
It seems like every month now the world is blessed with the reunion of some long-forgotten band, who we'll forget just as quickly as we were forced to remember them. The last few years have seen the reformations of such vital musical acts as O-Town, The Darkness and Phantom Planet of The OC soundtrack fame, all of whom have toured around the two or three states and satellite towns that will have them to no fanfare whatsoever.
Sometimes, though, the band that comes back are welcome. Bands like Refused, or At the Drive-In, or Take That, if you're into that kind of thing. Another one of those is the Happy Mondays – who've become better known for bloated cameo appearances in music videos and barely lucid cameo appearances on reality shows than for their music. But, towards the end of last year, they announced they'd be releasing a new studio album in early 2013 with the full original line-up all back together.
The news came about a year after Happy Mondays' contemporaries the Stone Roses got back together to play a series of gigs, so the Madchester scene has once again been dredged from the trough of abandoned pop culture and thrust back into the realm of late-night BBC4 documentaries and Jools Holland performances.
Characterised as a scene in which people in baggy clothes took ecstasy and listened to dance music to make indie music that wasn't boring, Madchester helped transform the public perception of Manchester from a grey, rainy, northern city to the centre of everything. The problem is, as with all musical movements, the truth about Madchester has been somewhat distorted over the years by people like Michael Winterbottom. The Hacienda – a club in Manchester owned by the scene's mothering record label, Factory Records – has been left as the scene's irrefutable Mecca. This is something many of the people who were actually involved disagree with.
The Thunderdome as it stands today.
Those who were there claim that the true Mecca of Madchester was a former bingo hall on a big, rough council estate in the east of the city: the Thunderdome, the polar opposite of the Hacienda. The Hacienda was tricky to get into and had a strict dress code, whereas the ‘Dome let in anyone who paid at the door. It catered to kids and those rooted in Manchester's criminal underworld from the more rundown, dangerous areas of the city (like Moss Side, Gorton, Miles Platting and Failsworth), who shunned the glamour of the Factory Records dos for somewhere they didn't have to worry about stuff like looking particularly smart or maintaining an air of sobriety after their eighth pill of the night.
"Everyone was welcome," said 808 State's DJ Darren Partington when I asked him about the club. "A lot of people wouldn’t go to the Hacienda in the early days because it was a bit pretentious, whereas the Thunderdome was all about the music. It was full of all sorts of lunatics, hooligans and vagabonds, but that didn’t matter because everybody had come to dance."
At first it seems odd that the 'Dome managed to remain relatively peaceful considering the crowd was heavier in drug dealers, thieves and members of various football firms than it was in regular revellers, but I suppose ecstasy might have had something to do with that. Regardless, everybody who I spoke to about it was certain that the people who frequented the 'Dome were the ones who inspired the "mad" part of Madchester. They were the people selling Es to the rest of the city, introducing acid house to the scene and starting all the bands. So why the club has been written out of Madchester history, I have no idea.
Hotshot at the Thunderdome in 1989.
Hotshot, a prominent Man United hooligan and regular at the 'Dome, told me, "You’d get Bez, Shaun Ryder, 808 State and all them in there along with all the naughty heads. There were City and United hooligans, grafters [criminals] from east and north Manchester and some Moss Side kids as well. Nobody wanted any trouble, though, because everybody was off their trolleys dancing."
"[Ecstasy] was the reason why a lot of people went there," Stu C, a member of the criminal contingent who used to attend the pub, told me. "Some of the youth went there because they knew they could score Es and wouldn’t even have to pay in. They’d be outside dancing because they could still hear the music."
Plenty of notable names from the scene have since the described the club as somewhere they'd rather not have been hanging out – "[It] was the scariest thing I'd ever seen in my life... in this really dodgy area, full of dodgy people," said Suddi Raval of rave band Together – but apparently the real trouble there only ever came from outsiders.
According to DJ Jay Wearden, another regular at the 'Dome, a notorious gang called Cheetham Hill once shot the doors off the venue and warned all the local DJs not to play there. "Being 19 and full of youthful bravado and ignorance, I saw it as an opportunity," he told me. "I got the number of the club and rang up to get a slot to DJ. I was shitting myself that I was going to get shot all night, but it was what I'd always wanted so I didn't want to waste the opportunity."
The club's stage mid-demolition. Very few photos or videos exist from inside the club as the constant mist from smoke machines and dodgy lighting made cameras kind of pointless.
At the end of the night, the various thugs and pillheads inside would link up with everyone outside and head off to another unsung Madchester haunt: The Kitchen in Hulme. It was even more dilapidated than the 'Dome – two flats that had been converted into a club by demolishing the adjoining wall; the RHINO squat of partying through comedowns, but a bit dirtier and with more acid house artwork than radical political graffiti.
The Kitchen started its life as a shebeen that played reggae, meaning there were a load of Rastas from Hulme and Moss Side kicking about there when the first wave of Madchester kids started piling in. The Rastas were apprehensive about joining in with the tongue-chewing party kids at first, but as soon as some Man United hooligans slipped them a couple of pills they were converted, twisting their melons all night with whoever made it over from the 'Dome or the Hacienda.
"The Kitchen was the official aftershow party spot for the Happy Mondays concerts," explained Darren Partington. "You’d always get Bez down there. When there were big bands on, the real underground afterparty was in The Kitchen. You had Inspiral Carpets and James and people like that down there."
So why is the Hacienda always the club that's remembered as the epicentre of the Madchester scene? Maybe because most music journalists were too afraid to venture out to places like the Thunderdome and The Kitchen. The bands would pass through because they mostly came from simlar backgrounds to the regular crowd, but industry heads were few and far between.
Even if they're destined to be dropped from the Madchester legacy, the people who experienced them in their prime know that Madchester wouldn't have been anything without them. Regardless of director, cast or budget, I highly doubt any film could do the 'Dome and The Kitchen justice without making them look like some excruciatingly lame combination of Skins and that club in Human Traffic.