The star of VICE's 'Walking Heavy' remembers his time at Manchester's most famous nightclub.
The Hacienda building, Manchester. (Photo by Aidan O'Rourke)
The Haçienda was a nightclub that changed people's lives. A lavishly decorated red-brick warehouse that backed onto the towpath of Rochdale Canal, it was built in 1982, bankrolled by New Order and Factory Records, who had experienced the cosmopolitan charms of New York clubland and decided Manchester needed its own Danceteria, its own Paradise Garage.
As decisions go, it was financially calamitous. When it first opened people weren't interested. "It was depressing as hell, a shit, crappy venue," recalls Rough Trade's Dave Harper in Richard King's independent music tome How Soon Is Now. "Awful sound, grim, people didn't turn up, really, except for New Order."
But the Haçienda wasn't so much a bad idea as just ahead of its time. By 1986, DJs like Mike Pickering and Graeme Park had started spinning imported acid house vinyl from Chicago. Add to that the arrival of ecstasy, and soon the Haçienda was packed out night after night: a place of dance floor epiphanies and communal euphoria.
The Haçienda changed Jason Coghlan, too, although not in the way it changed most. "I never danced," he says. "Don't like to dance. I fucking hated the music. I used to come out of there with a fucking headache."
A former car thief from Brinnington, Greater Manchester, by his early twenties Coghlan placed himself at the nightclub as it became the crucible for a new sound: acid house.
With youth unemployment topping 90 percent in Moss Side throughout the 1980s, the city was awash with gangs, mostly known by their locality: Gooch Close, Doddington, Pepperhill. Towards the end of the decade, Manchester's nightlife security and attendant drugs trade was largely in the grip of criminal firms – firms that saw the thriving nighttime economy and identified a clandestine income source to be guarded at all costs.
"We were there to make sure that what we had there, going on behind the scenes, worked for us," says Coghlan. "And that meant we had to look tough. Tougher than any of the other people who were coming down to invade our scene, our territory. If you come here from Scotland, London, fucking Newcastle and start whipping out whatever, fucking trying to impress us... no: I'm ready."
Violence was common, and frequently brutal. Coghlan was associated with some of Britain's most renowned gangsters to take control of the Hacienda, including Paul Massey, who was shot dead last year, and Damien Noonan, who police believed to be behind 25 murders at the time of his death in 2005. They saw the club as territory that needed protecting.
Coghlan recalls an incident when a rival firm came to Manchester to deal in the Haçienda. "It was a Bank Holiday, we'd had a record-breaking weekend and the Haçienda was doing something special on a Monday night. This firm had made their intentions clear. They were gonna come down and do what they wanted," he says. "So we were ready – me, Paul, Damien, fucking all the rest of us. There were probably 40 of us in [the Hacienda], and we were all game and capable of defending our territory."
Coghlan says they didn't recognise the interlopers at first – they paid in on the door, entered in dribs and drabs. But then they started to congregate, and he took it upon himself to ward them off. "Damien, God bless him, is a fucking man mountain and capable of using all the strength in his fucking body to stand up for himself. And I'm the small fella," laughs Coghlan. "I knew there was no fucking two ways about it. If I go over there, it's gonna go off. But I'm up for it."
So he goes over: "'Listen, we're on to you fucking dickheads. You think you're going to come to Manchester and tell us what fucking time it is? Well guess what?' And bang, it goes off. This motherfucker has hit me with a champagne bottle. Didn't even fucking take the cork out. Like a fucking baseball bat hitting me in the head. I'll be honest with you, slowed me down in my tracks. But our boys were on them then. Everyone was getting battered, stabbed. Gunshots. Everyone was blitzing out. There were two exits out, down by the towpath, and everyone's trying to get out of them at once."
A few stories from back then feel like they've been borrowed from some lurid Mafia crime drama. Damien Noonan once recalled shooing off a rival gang by dropping in at one of their favourite pubs with a shotgun and a machete. He told a TV documentary crew, "One of the gang lads' dogs was about, so we chopped its head off. We carried it inside and put it on the pool table and told them to stay away from the Haçienda, otherwise the next time it would be a human head. They never came back."
Still, the way Coghlan sees it, the Manchester firms were there to keep violence to a minimum. With the underworld economy booming, rival gangs were united in an uneasy truce, and keeping the peace was in everyone's best interests. "If [the clubbers] knew what was making this a safe environment to watch all these fucking celebrity DJs, they'd have probably got straight out back on the bus and fucked off," he says. "This is not fucking Disneyland, this is not a fucking ice cream van. People selling narcotics are fucking drug dealers, gangsters... every one of us were walking heavy, making sure that if anyone came out and started making noise, they'd be dealt with."
He talks fondly of Massey, who was then the club's five-foot-something kingpin with the un-ironic title of Manchester's Mr Big. "There was a real love there for Manchester. He loved that people came from all over to come here," says Coghlan. "It wasn't just business for Paul – he wanted people to be safe, to have a good time. If someone was being an arse-ache, and if we had to kick them out, if we hadn't had to batter them, Paul would be the guy back in there, looking for their friends, their girlfriends. I'd be like, 'Are you joking? They'll get together tomorrow, catch up later.' But that was never his way. That's a testament to him, that's what he was like."
Still, for the Haçienda's owners, the violence was becoming untenable. In January of 1991, a member of the security team was threatened with a machine gun, and the following month the club temporarily closed its doors while the organisers entered into discussions with police. Tony Wilson read a prepared statement to the club's dance floor: "We hope – we must believe – we can reopen the Haçienda in a better climate. But until we are able to run the club in a safe manner and in a way that the owners believe will guarantee the role of the Haçienda at the heart of the city's youth community, it is with great sadness that we will shut our club."
The Haçienda reopened in 1992 with an increased security presence, but the vibe had turned sour, and sporadic violence continued. When local magistrates and police visited the club in 1997, they witnessed an 18-year-old male outside the club beaten with a metal bar and pushed in front of an oncoming car. That same year, Greater Manchester Police registered 68 confirmed shootings, including six deaths; the media began nicknaming the city "Gunchester". The Haçienda closed for good in June, and in 2002 developers unveiled plans to convert the building into "The Haçienda Apartments", a luxury flat complex.
Today, Jason Coghlan has stepped back from the front line. After he was jailed for armed robbery in 1999, he happened on a new pastime, law, and now runs a legal firm in Marbella specialising in criminal cases. But recent news from Manchester weighs heavy on him. Last July, his old mentor Paul Massey was shot dead on his doorstep in what appeared to be a contract killing. Some say he was mediating between two rival Manchester gangs; others that he was a police grass. Coghlan talks of Massey as a stabilising influence on the city's underworld: "He'd say, 'If I die or I'm in prison, you watch what fucking happens.'"
The facts appear to bear that out. Between January and December of 2015, there were 19 shootings in Salford, including those of a 27-year-old mother and her seven-year-old son. Both were shot in the legs, retribution-style. "Right now it feels very fucking heavy," continues Coghlan. "Worse than 1999, which is a fucking big show. You've got fucking lunatics running around, trying to perform summary executions and fucking it up, deciding they're going to do IRA-style punishment attacks on people's doorsteps."
Coghlan obviously recalls the days of the Haçienda with positivity. "They do feel like fond days to me, notwithstanding the fact there was some difficult times. I'm so fucking glad and grateful that my life isn't here any more," he says of Manchester. "I'm not a part of this. I look at what's going on right now currently, and I'm disappointed. I'm ashamed that I could have ever have been somebody who might associate with a life like that. There's nothing glamorous about what's going on right now."
Perhaps, one day, he says, he'll be able to return to Manchester as a positive influence, to heal some of the rifts that have separated this city since the 80s.
"I feel that, one day, I'll be able to start something where I can get through to these kids, connect with them," he says. "Because believe me, I've been through it, I've done it. It's not the way."
He sighs. "But that's somewhere down the line."
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