To mark the 10th birthday of their debut album, St. Jude, “the normal Manchester lads” give us a pub-rich tour around the city landmarks that inspired their opening salvo.
The story of Courteeners’ 2008 debut album is the triumph of the underdog – four “normal Manchester lads” who wrote songs about being young, dumb and full of insecurity. Nobody expected it to propel them towards stadiums. But it did. To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the band take Niall Doherty on a tour of the city landmarks that informed it.
Courteeners might be the most successful band to emerge from Manchester since the turn of the century, but Liam Fray has always felt like they were outsiders in their hometown. When they formed as a four-piece in 2006, the frontman sensed an element of snootiness about their winning indie anthems, a feeling that because they were “normal lads” their peers thought something special was beyond them. Fray is an easy-going sort, and he was friends with the art-school crew who sneered at his musical efforts. He says it helped him and his bandmates – guitarist Daniel “Conan” Moores, drummer Michael Campbell and since-departed bassist Mark Cupello – to get their heads down while the cool kids stroked their chins in the corner. “They were all asking for guestlist when we played the cricket ground,” laughs Fray now. “‘Yeah, go on, you can come in, we don’t hold grudges…’” The singer is sat in the Night & Day Café on a grey Manchester afternoon. He’s a charming chatterbox with an infectious bounce to him, even though he’s feeling a bit hung over. It’s the day after Mother’s Day, and Fray used the occasion to work his way through
more bottles of champagne than he can remember. “I’m not sure what I was celebrating,” he says to his bandmates. Today, Fray, Campbell and Moores are going to turn tour guide and take Q on a trip of the local haunts that fed into their 2008 debut album St. Jude. To celebrate its 10th anniversary, they have recorded a stripped-down, unplugged version titled St. Jude Re:Wired, and are playing two special shows in London and Manchester to mark the occasion. The trio have barely broken stride since St. Jude’s release. There have been a further four albums and a series of huge live shows that have made Courteeners (they lost the “The” in 2012) one of the UK’s biggest bands. Revisiting their debut has offered a chance to look back and indulge in some uncharacteristic self-congratulation. “Everything from day one was against us. I’m proud of what we’ve done,” says Fray. “We’re mates from north Manchester who weren’t supposed to do this. We saw the Roses do it, The Smiths, Oasis… We thought, ‘They’re from where we’re from, maybe we could do it.’ I’m not aligning us with those,” he says, adding a whispered, “I am.” They swap their pot of tea for three pints of Guinness. Roll up, roll up for the Manchester tour…
1. Night & Day Café
This venue-bar on Oldham Street holds warm memories for the trio. A friend worked here and would give them sought-after support slots with what Fray calls the “indie darlings” of the day. One such set was with Brighton duo Blood Red Shoes, who pulled out at the last minute. “We just thought they were gonna cancel the gig,” says Fray. “As we left soundcheck, it said, “Blood Red Shoes £ 7”, and they’d rubbed it out and it said, “The Courteeners £ 7”. I was like, “You can’t charge that for us! No one’s gonna come!” The band went off for a nerve-settling drink and Fray will never forget the feeling of returning to the venue and seeing a queue of people waiting to get in. “It was absolute
“We’ve always had a good work ethic.”
adrenaline,” he says. “Cos it was like, ‘They know we’re playing here tonight and they’re still there.’ It was a bit of a moment that gig.” Many of the crowd already knew the words to the songs because of a bespoke delivery service they’d devised. “We’d rehearse in Liam’s garage, record the songs onto tape and give them out in the clubs we went to,” says Campbell. The punters would leave with their pockets stuffed with cassettes, Fray thrusting them into the hands of everyone he met. “I was like, ‘These tapes are brilliant, mate, get on these songs!’ And them songs went on St. Jude. They didn’t change much either!” As well as being the scene of some triumphant early gigs, they’d also rehearse in its basement. “It’s a bit of a dungeon,” says Moores. Wasn’t rehearsing beneath your favourite bar a dangerous strategy? “Exactly!” says Fray. “We were really good with that, though. We’ve always had a good work ethic. Even when we were starting out, we’d finish work, meet in Revolution, have a pint, then go to rehearsal. The thought of that now. There’s no way we’d go for one pint.” He finishes his Guinness, sticks his coat on and leads us to our second location.
2. Fred Perry Shop
We head west across the city, past Piccadilly Gardens and across the tramlines. Fray worked at the Fred Perry shop on Police Street, behind Deansgate, from 2004 until 2007, receiving his final paycheck on the same day the band were signed. He was full-time for his last year here, proudly explaining how he was the youngest ever keyholder. “It was brave on their behalf,” he says. “The first person I employed
“The first person I employed was my sister.”
was my sister. I was like, ‘I need a Saturday girl!’” The reason the shop is embedded in Courteeners’ folklore isn’t because the band robbed the retail industry of a prodigious hotshot but because it’s within these walls that Fray began writing the songs that made up St. Jude. “On these steps here, they used to have a guitar and I’d sit here and write,” he says, pointing to some stairs in the corner of the shop. He still has the Fred Perry compliments slip on which he wrote the lyrics to their intoxicating debut single Cavorting. His old boss, a gregarious chap named Jamie, surfaces from the basement. “I was always telling him off,” says Jamie. “For not pulling me weight?” enquires Fray. “Never not pulling your weight,” he replies. “Just a bit of five minutes late here and there…” How long were you here before you felt comfortable enough to take a seat on the stairs and start strumming away? “Quite a bit,” says Fray. “About eight minutes,” interjects Jamie. It was working on the shop floor where Fray was introduced to colourful characters from Manchester’s music scene. “I loved how many people who weren’t at uni or didn’t have conventional jobs would come into the shop,” he says. He’d get talking to people from different avenues in music, promoters and DJs. “I just found that really romantic. I wasn’t arsed about making money, I didn’t wanna be famous. If I could make my living in music someway, that’d be great.” We leave the shop and head towards our next stop when the band spot a poster for an unofficial “Courteeners Aftershow” outside a bar. “Haha! It’s nice to be part of the local economy! Keeping places open, keeping places going…” says Fray. He pauses at the end of the road. “Oh shit, I don’t think we can go through there any more, can we?” Where once there was a quick cut-through, now there’s a branch of family eatery Bill’s. “Oh well, I’m glad we’ve got a fucking Bill’s there,” tuts Fray. “To be fair, I have eaten there. Twice. It does fantastic poached eggs.” 3. 42nd Street A nightclub just off Deansgate known locally as 42’ s, 42nd Street was on the former site of George Best’s ’ 70s bar Slack Alice. In recent years, it’s served as Manchester’s indie disco hotspot. “It’s like our Haçienda, it’s where we went to have our release at the end of the week,” says Fray. “It’s mad to say Haçienda, but it was an indie mecca. Indie is a dirty word now but I don’t give a fucking shit, I was having the best time out of anybody in the country, fucking fact. It was my mission to have a good time.” He stands at the entrance to the club and shakes his head. “Talking about going out to an indie night,” he says. “This is so Courteeners!” In St. Jude’s big singalong track Not Nineteen Forever, Fray sings about how he “front crawled the crowd down the stairs” in reference to punters hazily making their way out of 42’ s. “There’d be 500 people on these stairs,” he says, suddenly aghast when he notices that the
“It’s like our Haçienda.”
Courteeners poster on the wall has been covered up. “Fucking hell!” he says, “Oasis on top of us! Argh! All the girls had kissed it’n’all!” “I’ve got you down here instead,” offers club owner Alan, who has kindly opened up in the middle of the day to show us around. “Have ya?” says Fray, immediately chirping up again. “Oh, look at that,” he says, admiringly. “Has someone put dickhead on me?” “‘I love you’, someone’s wrote,” says Alan. “That’ll do,” says Fray, giving it closer inspection. “Big love heart for Conan, that’ll do.” We enter into the club’s main room, where Moores is reading a drinks menu pinned to the wall. “Inflation’s never hit 42’ s,” he marvels, his finger pointing out the bit that says “Jägerbomb, 90p”. “Right,” says Fray, “we’re going to the step!” and he marches over to the corner where their gang would commandeer. Fittingly, in that section “You’re Not 19 Forever” has been painted onto the wall. “That’s mad, that,” says the singer. The big nights out the band had here fed into the frenzied, you’reonly-young-once spirit of their debut. Fray says they went to the cooler clubnights too, one called Up The Racket, another called Smile, but 42’ s was the cheap thrill. “There’s this mass snobbery, and I always just felt like, ‘Why don’t you all just let your hair down, have a good time?’” says Fray. “We were always like, ‘We’re just gonna have a good time and be direct.’ I wasn’t thinking about songwriting, I was just expressing what those nights out were like. St. Jude was of a time.” The band have been kicked out of here on a few occasions, usually for fighting with each other. “Ah, young and free,” smiles Fray. He signs the You’re Not 19 Forever mural for Alan, and we head back out into the drizzle, down Deansgate, across to Great Bridgewater Street, and into the arms of a nice cosy pub.
4. The Briton’s Protection
Fray climbs the stairs and heads into the upstairs room at The Briton’s Protection, where he played two of his earliest shows. One was as a solo artist, just him and his electric guitar under his own name, and the next was with Campbell on drums, still, for poor old Campbell, under
“It’s smaller than I remember.”
Fray’s own name. “It’s smaller than I remember,” says Fray. The manager pops his head round the door. “Actually, it fits about 55 in,” he says. We head downstairs and take a seat in front of the fire. “Fucking hell, this is dangerous,” says Fray, taking a sip of his Guinness. “We’ll stay here all day.” Fray knows how he came across in the band’s early interviews – cocky Manc, antagonistic motormouth – and says he’s embarrassed looking back. “I was full of self-belief but also ridden with insecurities about what we were doing,” he says. “I think everyone thought we had our chests puffed out and we] thought we were fucking incredible. It couldn’t have been further from the truth.” He says St. Jude is an album about “inadequacies as a bloke, getting things wrong, messing up,” something that was overlooked because he made the mistake of having nine pints of Stella Artois in his first major interview and ended up slagging other bands off. “It was never this cocky bravado, it was a lot more self-reflecting,” he says. His early gigs were both an extension of going out and a way of kicking back against fake scenesters at the time. “There were people going round Manchester in cowboy hats, being all Crosby, Stills & Nash. ‘But you’re from Crumpsall! Why are you singing in that accent, dressed like a cowboy?’” he says. “I just didn’t get it, so I thought, ‘Tight jeans, brogues’. I came from The Libertines, 2004/2005, it was just a social thing.” With him and Campbell established as a duo, it was in a bar near here that he formally, and drunkenly, asked the pair’s old friend Moores to join, too. “I went, ‘I love your songs, they’re brilliant,’ and Fray] said, ‘Well, do you wanna join my band?’” says Moores. “I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely,’ and he said, ‘Here’s the songs you need to learn then.’ And he gave me a week to do it.” After a few more pints in front of the fire, it’s back out into the rain to reach our final spot, walking down Liverpool Road and turning onto Duke Street, stopping beneath the railway line.
It was here in 2007 that the band played a now-defunct music festival called Dpercussion and realised they were becoming quite the local attraction. Fray and Campbell had played it as a duo the year before to 100 people, but on the back of the release of Cavorting, 700 people packed out the railway arches to watch the quartet. “We looked out and there were more people there that we didn’t know than we did know. Like, ‘There’s strangers here now,’” says Fray. “Admittedly, it was only £ 2 to get in, so there might have been a lot of passing trade.” A breakthrough had been made. Local buzz was about to turn into national intrigue, and all those songs about going out in Manchester, and being young and unsure and partying your way through it all, were about to connect on a wider scale. They did their first proper gig in October 2006, and 18 months later they had a Top 5 album. “There was no grand plan,” says Fray. “We just had a good time. We were a gang before we were a band.” He takes another look around, and points across to the 8450- capacity outdoor venue Castlefield Bowl, a stone’s throw from the spot of their Dpercussion set and where they played two sold-out shows in 2013. Liam Fray allows himself a moment of reflection. After a few seconds, he gathers his bandmates and turns to Q and says, “Shall we go back to the pub?” The past is done, and the Courteeners have the local economy to upkeep. Keeping places open, keeping places going.
“There was no grand plan.”
Pride of Manchester: Courteeners (from left, Daniel “Conan” Moores, Liam Fray, Michael Campbell), Night & Day Café, Northern Quarter, 12 March, 2018.
“After a nice polo shirt, are we, sir?” Liam Fray returns to the Fred Perry shop he once worked full-time in.
Floor show: Courteeners at “indie-disco hotspot” 42nd Street.
“Down in one, lads!” Moores, Campbell and Fray do their bit for the local economy, The Briton’s Protection.
Load of old cobbles: the band wind up in the city’s Castlefield area.
The way we were: Liam Fray and Michael Campbell at The Briton’s Protection pub back in 2006.