Back in 1993, Manchester nightlife was still dining out on the late ’80s/early ’90s Madchester era, and there was more than a whiff of danger as gangs still ran the night-club doors. It felt like there was nowhere for mild-mannered Mancunians to bop along to obscure ’60s pop without getting their heads kicked in, until, that is, the launch of Smile — a club night at a pub on the edge of town. Smile was the brainchild of three music fanatics who history remembers only as John, Emma and Julian. In a scene so small, there was no need for second names, it was enough to know that they were fans of ’60s girl groups and had previously DJ’ed at a night called the Candy Store (at the now defunct Banshee). Smile, however; was to become the indie night that defined a generation. Anne-Marie Marshall remembers.
Walking to the Star and Garter pub in the 1990s was a journey that required a bit of nerve as you navigated the pimps and the prostitutes who lurked along Fairfield Street looking for business. Positioned between three railway bridges, the Star and Garter stands alone behind Piccadilly Station. It isn’t the type of place that does passing trade – you had to know about it to find it, which had the advantage of not attracting the nocoat / thin-shirt-in-deep-mid-winter crowd that hung out in the likes of 21 Piccadilly or Discotheque Royale (both now thankfully shut down). The Star and Garter was reborn in 1991, from the ashes of a squat and longterm abandoned building, not uncommon in post ’80s Manchester. Its most important feature – as far as this story is concerned, anyway – was that it had a function room above the Victorian bar, which was available for hire on Saturday nights and was licensed until 2am.
It was in this very room that Smile began in September 1993 with the first night attracting about ten people. Slowly it built a reputation for great music, and in the pre-internet age Smile relied on word-of-mouth, fly posters and a listing in City Life magazine to draw in punters. It was the advent of Britpop that helped Smile break through, and by 1995 it was the place to be, with queues around the block, and often the doors were closed by midnight. Since then, Smile has ridden out the music fashions, sometimes king of the heap and sometimes competing with the new kids on the block, but always ahead of the curve.
Smile has always been about the music. In many respects the playlist evolved through a musical relay race where each DJ added their own passion to the mix. Emma and John brought the aforementioned girl groups to the table, Julian added Scottish indie to the mix with Belle & Sebastian and The Pastels – one night he played 11 Belle & Sebastian tracks when they’d still only released two albums – while John and Yumi embraced Britpop, playing Oasis at a time when they were still fresh and relevant. They also brought The Smiths into the night as, bizarrely, they had been a glaring omission at Smile up to that point, especially as the Star and Garter also hosted the legendary Smiths Night. Neil and I smuggled in ’80s pop, much to the annoyance of the odd patron; then again, their foresight was rewarded when in the mid 2000s the dancefloor would be bouncing to the sounds of the Human League and Duran Duran. Andy Woods ushered in ’80s synth pop and curated the Smile electro-clash era, while Jamie continued to champion the indie tradition.
1999 saw the start of the annual Smile birthday party, thanks to Andy Woods being a man with good music connections. The first one saw Andy Rourke (ex- Smiths) and Richard Coburn (drummer from Belle & Sebastian) as guest DJs – a Shine indie compilation may have featured heavily in Andy Rourke’s set… Isobel and Stuart from Belle & Sebastian made a surprise appearance (pictured above), much to the shock and awe of everyone. From then on, Smile birthdays became a very popular feature on the Star and Garter schedule. Over the years, guest DJ nights have featured everyone from Richard Hawley, Jake Shillingford (My Life Story) and Marc Riley (ex- Fall and BBC 6 Music DJ) to Will Sergeant (Echo & The Bunnymen) and the other half of The Smiths rhythm section, Mike Joyce.
Smile has evolved over the years and has been host to many after-show parties and album launches. Also, for a time, the night would be preceded by Akoustik Anarkhy, which provided a showcase for local musicians and is still going strong, now in the guise of an independent record label, supporting local musicians.
Smile’s influence on Manchester’s club scene stretches far and wide. There have been many imitators, many of which have taken up residence in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Even beyond the local club scene, you can walk into a Manchester art gallery, dirty food joint or a funky craft class and hear what appears to be a Smile playlist as background music. The most recent of Smile’s offspring – let’s say grandchild – is ‘Let’s Make This Precious’, which now takes place at the Star and Garter. Its DJs, despite being toddlers when Smile first started, have plugged into that seam of musical heritage that continues to inspire devotion and great nights.
There are not many club nights that successfully span three decades, but Smile is one of those rare breeds. What is its secret? It’s hard to know as, on the surface, the venue, the location and the lack of “cool” DJs didn’t seem promising. Maybe it’s a combination of the passion of the people involved, the landlord not pulling the plug on Smile when numbers weren’t good, and being a safe distance from the Saturday night idiots. I do have a personal theory about L- shaped venues, but that’s another story.
What I do think has really helped Smile to continue as long as it has is that outsiders feel welcome – people can be themselves and dance to the songs they love. This has inspired devotion and loyalty. Smile has also been responsible for many a great night out, and instrumental in the formation of many friendships, marriages and, no doubt, some births, too. Thousands of people have been through the doors of Smile and I’d like to think, for many of them, a tiny bit of their hearts are forever Smile.