This is the second instalment in a nostalgic series of articles by guest writer Em Johnson, where she interviews people she admired in her youth.
This series is about connection. Something I miss beyond all reason.
Remember dancing in Jilly’s or Satan’s Hollow? Remember buying a record in Roadkill Records on Oldham Street (latterly the home of Rockers)?
If you don’t remember, you’re probably influenced by someone who does. This article is about a friend of mine who was the backbone of everything that has happened in the last 20 years in the Manchester punk scene. He is a DJ, a record store champ, and now runs his own site Apathy and Exhaustion.
These words are for everyone who doesn’t think they make a difference. And for everyone whose brain hates them. And for everyone who has taken an alternative route one day, made it work, and paid it forward.
When I thought to ask my friend Tony Maher some questions, I had an extended breakdown about not wanting to stress him out. But I know he writes so well, and I thought if anyone could give him the confidence to remember how interesting he is, it’s probably me. Tony and I have always bounced our insecurities into each other, I hope for the best. Do you have any friends like that? It’s good, isn’t it? It works out for the best.
I’m sure the great rock stories are formed at parties or in bars.
“Good grief. Where and when did we meet? Probably around 2000/2001, give or take. Probably I either flyered you for the punk room at Jilly’s Rock World (outside Manchester Uni, no doubt) or I talked to you while I was DJing there. Option A involves sobriety, hence I can’t really remember, and option B we were probably both pretty hammered so … I can’t remember. I was probably in the run-up to ending my uni career or arsing my way through life post-uni depending on when this momentous event actually took place.”
And thus, you are introduced to Tony. DJ at the coolest rock club that Manchester has ever had, and yet probably the most insecure person I’ve ever known.
“Who was I? Well, I was and still am just some guy. I was doing a weekly punk night at Jilly’s Rock World on Thursday nights. It was a cheap night out. Depending on who you ask, I was either some kind of inexplicable folk-hero (to people that enjoyed a piss-up with an actually half-decent soundtrack) or a figure of general scorn and derision (to people who thought that they were better than me or that I wasn’t punk enough or whatever – but they would still come to it week in week out, regardless – what does that tell you? Either it was good or it was the least worst option).”
I came to Manchester for its music, and the £1 rock night at Jilly’s on a Thursday was an insanely direct part of that. I’d never lived in a real city. A city with a rock club. A club with a punk night, that played songs I had thought I was the only person in the world that knew them. Tony played Sublime, he played AFI, he played Rancid. I realised after a while that he hated a lot of it! But at 19 it blew my mind. I never thought I would be as happy as I was dancing to Catch 22 in an actual club, with a £1 beer in my hand.
Tony’s night gave me the confidence that I could spin off some ska nights and go even more niche, and through that we became friends and I ended up playing at Jilly’s with him. We also realised we were next door neighbours, and we realised we got on with each other’s partners in that way that tells you you’ll be mates forever.
“What was my life like? Not in the least bit glamourous, and typically spent working in a shit call centre, skateboarding, going to gigs, and DJing punk discos. People seemed to be under some kind of misapprehension that I was getting paid a fortune for that DJ gig. In reality, we (me and Scott) got paid £20 each and out of that we had to get cigs, beer (smuggled in) and a taxi home with the CDs so I didn’t get robbed on the night bus. So, realistically operating at a loss, but I for some reason felt obligated to do it week in week out for seven odd years without a single week off. Proper martyr, mate.”
Somewhere along the way, I realised one of the things we had in common was our demons.
“Past me was living something of a lie, I suppose. As the perennial butt of other people’s jokes since time immemorial and being excruciatingly introverted, it becomes impossible to reconcile that with being forced into some small degree of ‘popularity’. Somehow I got through it in some kind of alcohol- and bluster-fuelled blur. Was I a good person? I’d like to think so, at the root of it all. I was definitely a bit of an arsehole from time to time. But I think I acted that way because there was some kind of expectation for me to be that way – I kind of felt forced into it somehow … Perhaps it was also a way of covering up how incredibly uncomfortable I felt being the focus of any kind of attention. To be honest, I had to talk to some proper wazzocks and really all I wanted was to be left alone. I was like a captive audience in that tiny little DJ booth.
“I made a rod for my own back, though. I started a night because I wanted somewhere to exist that I would want to go to for a night out. I still can’t comprehend how massively popular it was for a few years. It did provide a service to the scene, I suppose. It’s where people went to find out about gigs and where people formed bands, friendships and relationships. So yeah, I suppose I’m proud of that whole thing of providing an important social networking hub of sorts, years before all that MySpace bullshit became a thing. I suppose it also paved the way for some of my future endeavours too.”
I’ve always been a bit selfish about my friendship with Tony (and Louise, and Owen), and I usually prefer keeping their company to myself. Partly it’s because they are at their funniest when they know they can say anything. But partly it’s because Tony will inadvertently fall out with people if he’s given a chance. My brand of insecurity is to want to be always loved. But, by god, Tony gets cross and doesn’t mind it ….
“When was I at my best? When I was the most ‘Tony’? When I feel like I was putting the most effort in? If it’s any or all of those things, then probably whilst I was co-running Roadkill Records (2004-08). I was still young(ish) and idealistic, and I suppose for similar reasons to those behind starting up that dumb punk disco, because I wanted there to be somewhere where I would want to go out to, I had an inkling that there should be a record shop selling the music that I and people like me would hopefully want to buy. Looking back, it was probably a ridiculous idea, and that probably came to fruition a bit too late because: the internet …
“The punk scene in general and sub-scenes belonging to fans of associated sub-genres have always been full of fucking posers, but mid-2000s was probably the biggest peak in the poser-punk population. The popularity of skate-punk and ska-core was on the wane, whilst gruff punk (legit) and that garbage version of the emo / pop-punk crossover they were playing on MTV2 was gaining popularity, along with one of the periodic revivals in youth-crew style hardcore. Sub-genres of extreme metal like grind and doom and the like were also getting a whole lot of attention. It was pretty hectic.
“Obviously for some, that MTV2 garbage was something of a gateway drug for better things. For most, it was another flash in the pan case of ‘whatever is popular, that’s what I’m going to like for now, because I’m not very interesting and it’s all disposable’. Pervading this entire period was the popularity of downloading shit for free off the internet instead of buying records and CDs. A whole generation of kids who’d grown up with easy access to the internet and ADSL broadband and exploited the living shit out of it. Obviously, this happened at the expense of small bands and small labels and small record shops. I remember having a lot of arguments on internet forums with raft-loads of clean-shirts who thought they were the absolute proverbial tits because they could get what they wanted for free, and fuck the morality of it all. People that thought they could take take take and still claim to be punk. When, in fact, they were ripping the heart out of everything that loads of people had spent years putting their hearts and souls into. And obviously, because such people are typically massive attention seekers, they would also be the first to loudly bemoan this that and the other, calling it a day, and x venue closing it’s doors. If any of you clowns are reading this (and yes you doubtless know who you are), thanks for your lack of commitment. That seemed to go off on a tangent ….”
He’s a bit scary isn’t he?! I used to often feel relieved that he was on my side, because I was often the kind of bell-end he was raging against. And aren’t DJs always scary when you’re 19?
This series is about reflections and the people we’ve become. So is Tony still that same terrifying DJ who used to scowl when asked to play Anti-Flag?
“Well, I called a lot of things quits over the years. I quit Rockworld in 2006 as I felt like it had run it’s course and I wanted to concentrate on the shop. Quit the shop due to mental health issues and stress. Quit Satan’s Hollow around September 2008. I’ve still not told them. I just packed my shit up at the end of a night and didn’t come back. I was just sick and tired of everything. Sick of wasting effort. Sick of having to be polite to complete and utter weapons that I had absolutely no respect for. Sick of seeing my hopes reduced to tatters and ruination.
“Soon after that I started a new monthly night with Carpet and Ruth called Refuse to Lose which was at the Retro Bar. Carpet was in charge. It was nice to let someone else take the reigns for once.
“It was also nice to get back to playing music I liked, instead of being forced to pander to the shitty tastes of turbo-melts and hating every last gruelling microsecond of it.”
“We still have a Refuse to Lose reunion club night once every year or so (lockdown notwithstanding) and, all being well, we will be at Retro Bar in early September for right old good time.
“Ultimately, I ended up moving away to London in early 2010 and getting ‘proper jobs’. This also coincided with me having a major falling out with music to the extent that I just couldn’t listen to it for a few years; I’d become that burned out and used up.
“At some point we ended up with a mortgage and a kid, which I suppose qualifies as grown up stuff. We moved back up to North at the end of 2018 and are now in Leeds, where my other half has managed to maintain a decent job. I, on the other hand, spent ages spectacularly failing to find employment and now have a badly paid part-time admin job.”
And at this point, my job as Tony’s mate is to say that he has a great job, his son is a beautiful diamond, and Louise is in the category of people I fall into ‘boring management chat’ with. Which is a massive compliment, by the way.
Tony is the first to admit the consistency with which he finds frustration. Imagine a Yorkshire Bernard Black who tries to skateboard?
“It’s all been some kind of failure to a greater or lesser degree.
“I suppose I put on some pretty decent and memorable gigs back in the day, in association with a rotating cast of notable co-promoters. So that counts as a success, right?
“Some (not small) number of people (usually drunk) have said to me over the years that there wouldn’t be a punk scene in Manchester if it wasn’t for me. I have no way of knowing or quantifying if that is true or not. Probably depends who you ask, I suppose. Do I believe that myself? I’m not really sure. As someone that has never been comfortable in the limelight, and that doesn’t crave attention, it seems like a weird concept. I’ll say that I definitely contributed and I definitely put in the hard yards over the years.”
So that brings me to my conclusion. A conclusion that even the best people don’t know the effect that they have.
Some of you will have read this knowing Tony, some of you won’t have. All I can say is he is a huge part of who I am. And what, despite everything, I wouldn’t give to be back in that small room at Jilly’s.
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