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The legacy of Night & Day Cafe as it turns 30 years old, The Manc

The legacy of Night & Day Cafe as it turns 30 years old

We explore the history behind the iconic burgundy venue on Oldham Street that bubbled up from the depths of deep fat fryers to become a Manchester institution: Night & Day Cafe.

On a cloudy afternoon in 2017, Michael C. Hall steps out onto Oldham Street, puffs out his cheeks and stares up at the sky. 

Cameras are subtly shooting the Dexter star as he paces the pavement, a pained expression etched into his features.

There’s very little commotion in the area at first. The Northern Quarter is something of a playground for creatives, and people often find themselves weaving around film crews in this part of the city. But when passers-by see which actor is in shot, they do a double-take, halt their stride, and begin prodding one another with excitable nudges of realisation. 

A crowd begins to build, and before long all eyes are on Hall – with the exception of the frowning cluster of commuters near Back Piccadilly who remain stoically huddled together at the bus stop like always.

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Incredibly, though, a TV serial killer strolling around the Northern Quarter in the middle of the afternoon is still only the second most surprising sight of the day. 

Even more jarring is the fact that one of Manchester’s most famous gig venues has completely vanished. 

For the purposes of the shoot, Night & Day Cafe has been redecorated – with its iconic lettering hidden beneath unfamiliar blue lights spelling out a new name: ‘Heaven’. 

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The venue’s disappearance deepens the starstruck state of people on the street, as they gawp ahead at what appears to be a fever dream version of Manchester.

For a brief moment, during the production of Netflix show Safe, we got a hint of what it might be like to lose Night & Day for a little while.

Then, in 2020, it happened for real. 

The legacy of Night & Day Cafe as it turns 30 years old, The Manc
Michael C. Hall in Manchester / Image: Netflix

This legendary gig space was one of thousands of grassroots venues that had to lock its doors, for months on end, during the UK’s many lockdowns.

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The odds were stacked against it – and it’s recently been embroiled in a row about noise (…duh) – but Night & Day made it through.

And now, this stalwart of Manchester’s music scene is about to celebrate a very special milestone indeed.

Over the space of three decades, staff have experienced more ups and downs than a mixing console during a sound check. 

Occasionally, the good and the bad have come at the same time; with some gigs proving so rip-roaringly entertaining they triggered complaints from disgruntled, sleep-starved neighbours.

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But according to Night & Day’s in-house promoter Jay Taylor, this past year has ‘categorically’ been the toughest of all.  

“Culturally, Manchester is completely lost without these businesses,” Jay admits, thanking the hard work of Mayor Andy Burnham (a major player behind the United We Stream virtual shows, which raised £583,000 for the sector), and the Music Venue Trust, for supporting them through to reopening this spring.

He says that Manchester has got a ‘robust, brilliant’ music scene with a ‘good future’.

Night & Day’s Pearl Anniversary has been marked with a week’s worth of events, culminating this weekend with performances from The Orielles and Hotel Lux.

It’s a fitting, marathon-style celebration for a venue that hasn’t just been part of the music scene’s furniture, but the seat on which all arts personnel feel most at home.

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In the years before Night & Day was welcoming punters with joyous roars and sweaty hugs, however, it was inviting them indoors with dulcet tones and a delicate squeeze of the shoulder.

The building actually began life as a funeral-wear and mourning shop – selling high-end clothing for people attending burials, cremations and wakes.

The legacy of Night & Day Cafe as it turns 30 years old, The Manc
Image: https://nightnday.org/

It then turned into a delicatessen, before eventually being relaunched as a chippy called Pisces

The cafe was perfectly positioned for people-watching – and peering out from its window in the early nineties told you everything you needed to about Manchester at that time: It was the city of music. 

A few doors down, the pioneering electronic group 808 State had formed at Eastern Bloc Records, and the labyrinthian vinyl store Piccadilly Records was just around the corner.

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The Hacienda was still open, and the vibe of Madchester was swaggering around the city; its residents revelling in the city’s renaissance as the nerve centre for nightlife. 

So, when Jan Oldenburg purchased the city centre chippy in 1991, he knew what he wanted to do. He was going to plug into the electric atmosphere that was crackling through the city. 

Slowly but surely, Night & Day began morphing from a humble cafe into a dual venue that doubled as a boisterous live music club. 

Before long, it was the meeting place for all the city’s creatives. 

“It was genius foresight,” Jay marvels.

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“All it takes is for one or two people with vision to kickstart a neighbourhood.”

And that’s exactly what happened. 

The legacy of Night & Day Cafe as it turns 30 years old, The Manc
Image: https://nightnday.org/

Oldham Street developed around Night & Day in the years that followed. 

Piccadilly Records moved in across the road. Quirky cafes and shops flung their doors open nearby. New nightclubs launched just a stone’s throw away. After being neglected for so long, the Northern Quarter began to mould its own identity as an alternative cultural hotspot. 

The Madchester movement came and went, but Night & Day continued to buzz long beyond the mid-nineties. It was the place that had its finger on the pulse of Mancunian music and moved smoothly with the times.

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Anyone who was anyone in the sector could often be found inside. 

When local bands weren’t luring in rowdy crowds by night, the venue opened as a gallery space in the daytime – with free music magazines stocked inside. 

If members of the music industry needed to hold a meeting, they’d head down to Night & Day.

The venue also developed a reputation for its uncanny ability to catapult careers into the spotlight. 

For bands and artists, a slot on that stage was the first step on the path to success. 

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The legacy of Night & Day Cafe as it turns 30 years old, The Manc
Image: https://nightnday.org/

For music fans, every event potentially offered them front row seats at witnesses to the next big thing. There was a carrot permanently dangling from the doorway marked ‘I was there’. 

On the long list of artists to have graced the Night & Day stage over the years include The Courteeners, Slow Readers Club, Elbow, Kasabian, Paulo Nutini, Arctic Monkeys, Manic Street Preachers, The Enemy, Blossoms and many, many more. 

As well as being a fixture in Michael C. Hall’s aforementioned Safe, the venue was also directly referenced in award-winning drama Lost (by rockstar character Charlie Pace). 

Night & Day is a Manchester institution. That’s undeniable. What’s less clear is how it became so popular in the first place. 

“It’s the best venue on Earth,” according to Jay.

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Many in Manchester would be inclined agree. But there’s no single right answer as to why. 

“It’s got personality and feels independent,” Jay points out, indicating to the no-frills attire and simple set-up of chairs, tables and a stage. 

The legacy of Night & Day Cafe as it turns 30 years old, The Manc
Image: https://nightnday.org/

“But we’ve also got a very wide selection of drinks served at a beautiful long bar.

“The technical specs are good, too. The venue promises a really good experience for bands.

“There’s grafters in here. I think people can see the work that goes into it.”

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It’s that last part – graft – that perhaps comes closest to explaining the staying power of Night & Day. 

Promoters have spent thirty years working tirelessly to bring a diverse range of acts to the stage, defying those who have pigeon-holed the venue as a ‘white indie’ spot. 

“Our aim is to stand in that venue and watch different things happen,” says Jay. 

The legacy of Night & Day Cafe as it turns 30 years old, The Manc
Image: https://nightnday.org/

“We have an obligation to Manchester.

“We look at the things [and new artists] that make us excited. 

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“Lots of thought goes into it – from the gig bookings to the club nights.”

One of the warning signs that an older venue may be entering its twilight is when the crowd thins out – leaving only the regulars from yesteryear. But Night & Day continues to remain fresh in an ever-evolving, fast-moving world of modern music. 

Younger fans have regularly piled in through the doors to see the next wave of talent coming through the ranks; including DJs, bands and solo singers.

“Everyone always asks me about my greatest memories over the years, but my favourite bit is when a show’s happening, usually around 9.30pm,” Jay muses. 

“Everyone’s had a drink, the mood in the room is brilliant, and the main headline act is just starting.

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“It’s happened a few times when I’ve been stood watching from the back of the room – where everything all just comes together perfectly. 

“There’s nothing better. 

“At that moment… everything is as exactly as it’s supposed to be.”

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