Legends of the Pit: Martin Jackson

In the first of our Legend of the Pit series we meet Martin Jackson, a regular face of the northern punk scene, to talk 1980s dive bars, fake IDs, turning 50 in the pit and passing the bug onto the next generation.

Legends of the Pit: Martin Jackson

By Tom Walsh

Aug 14, 2019 12:00

When Martin Jackson turned 50, he was expecting life to change. For almost 40 years, the sweat-stained floors of venues across the country had become his home. They had been the scene of some of his greatest nights; some of his most cherished memories had been forged here, all soundtracked by the great and good of punk.

As he entered his fifth decade, friends told him that “everything changes once you hit the big 5-0”. The bones start to creak, the bruises become a little slower to heal and a once youthful exuberance can fade making way for a punch of nostalgia. He thought the call of those chaotic crowds would become distant and he would have to consign a large part of his life to memory.

He needn’t have worried. “Turning 50 felt like a new lease of life,” he tells me. “There was no big surprise, it was like all the pressure was off. 

“Every show I go to I still get the same twinge of excitement I got from the very first. It’s like “here we go again,” I don’t know why it’s not gone away or why it’s never faded.”

It’s a warm summer evening at the Deansgate Tavern, one of Manchester’s few remaining traditional pubs that has managed to stave off the rampant gentrification that is engulfing this once northern powerhouse. Just around the corner is Rebellion, one of the city’s numerous dive bar punk venues where, in a couple of hours, Martin will be in attendance to see SST Records alumni Meat Puppets.

Donning a blue Black Flag t-shirt and arms covered in tattoos, he may seem like an imposing figure from afar but there is a child-like excitement in his voice when he talks about music. He was there when The Ramones came to Manchester in ‘87, he saw Rage Against The Machine tear apart the Academy in ‘93 and he witnessed the first incarnation of Gallows carve their name into British punk folklore in ‘08.

He’s eager to show me a grainy video of him slam dancing to Chaos UK in a backstreet pub in Manchester during the early-80s. He is there again at the front of a recent show by Canadian hardcore royalty Comeback Kid. He takes regular sips from a glass of coke – he hasn’t drank a drop of alcohol for the past two years – “you can’t be drunk in a pit,” he tells me.

And this is a man that knows a pit; Martin is a pseudo celebrity of the northern punk scene. If you’ve ever been launched into the bumps of a hardcore show, you will have met Martin. You will have met a bald, shirtless man sporting the iconic four bars tattooed into his back. He knows his pits and he’s not afraid of getting a few war wounds.

“I guess when bodies collide you’re going to get bumps and bruises, you’ve got to full on. Crowdsurfing and stage diving is all good but,” he pauses “when did all this windmilling start? When did that start? I don’t understand it, you’re not even moving in time to the music, you’re just throwing a few fists and doing spin kicks. That really pisses me off.”

He pauses, again, and laughs, “you might have noticed but music is the driving thing in my life,”

“Everything is about music. When I get home I’ve got the music on, get in the car there’s music on and all I’m doing is looking for the next gig.”

These gigs are his life and have been from the moment he came downstairs on Christmas morning in 1977 to find The Stranglers’ seminal ‘No More Heroes’ lying beneath the tree. In a period where protective parents were shielding their offspring from the visceral sound of punk, it was almost encouraged in the Jackson household. 

From the copies of Sounds magazine – a weekly music newspaper to rival NME – read to him by school friends to his father eagerly waking his young son when the Sex Pistols featured on Tony Wilson’s magazine show ‘So It Goes’.

“My friend used to get Sounds from his sister and bring it into school and read to me about these punk bands,” Martin explains. “There were bands like the Sex Pistols and The Damned and guys with names like Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, they sounded awesome. I knew right then I needed to know what their music was like.”

His evenings were spent scouring the shelves of Manchester’s now defunct underground market for any form of punk records he could get his hands on. His pocket money went straight into the tills at Underground Records but as he immersed himself into the angry sounds of the disillusioned, there was something missing. He needed to see them.

After failing to get into a UK Subs gig at Manchester Polytechnic for being too young, a 13-year-old Martin along with a couple of school friends went to see The Damned at The Apollo.

“There was about five of us. A pair of twins – the Hayes’ – whose mum took us to the show. They were quite naughty kids, I think their parents got the tickets in a sense of saying “if you’re good you can go to the show””, Martin laughs. “We were all so excited. It was amazing to think we were in the same room as The Damned. That was it, after that it was just like “where can we go next?”

For a young lad from Macclesfield with a penchant for punk, Manchester was the perfect playground. In the winter of 1981, he discovered The Mayflower in Gorton, south-east of the city centre. It had a notable reputation across the music scene with everyone from The Fall to Joy Division playing this downtrodden venue.

“It was the biggest dive you’ve ever been in,” Martin remembers fondly. The Mayflower epitomised the punk scene in Manchester at the time. It was grubby, the toilets were accessible at a patron’s own risk and there were regular scuffles but it was also the home of bands like Blitz, The Violators, and Vice Blood that made it a regular haunt for this young punk.

Punk at The Mayflower was the brainchild of local promoter Denis Mathews. A familiar face on the scene, he was regularly cited in the thanks section of Oi! bands with the signature “Oi the Dens”.

“Denis used to put matinee shows on at The Mayflower on Saturdays with a main show in the evening,” Martin recalls. “It felt like it was ours. We would see bands like Vice Blood in the afternoon and then use fake IDs to get in the evening shows. The Mayflower only lasted 12 months before being burnt down and Denis moved on to Drifters in Dukinfield.

Martin describes Drifters as “the least punk venue” you could ever see. It resembled a 1970s discotheque more befitting the stage of The Bee Gees than Chaos UK. And when Drifters suffered a similar fate to The Mayflower, it was the aptly-named Morriseys in Salford, and then The Gallery on Peter Street, and then The Boardwalk, but it always came back to the famous Apollo where he saw The Damned that fateful night.

For those living in an internet age, the 1980s can seem an almost twee era of consuming music. “You were so reliant on a certain critic,” Martin explains. “It was only really John Peel playing anything on the radio so you had to find someone you liked in Sounds or NME and just take a chance on what they liked.”

The bands that played The Mayflower and Drifters tended to be punk bands from across the UK so when Dead Kennedys released a compilation called ‘Let Them Eat Jelly Beans’ it opened his ears to sounds from across the pond. Here was Black Flag, Bad Brains, Descendents, Social Distortion, all on one CD.

“Anything on SST Records [a label founded by Black Flag’s Greg Ginn] I had to have it. Anytime I saw that logo I had to have it. When ‘Damaged’ [Black Flag’s iconic 1981 debut album] came out it got rave reviews in Sounds. I had to wait five months to get it but when it arrived I was completely blown away.”

To think there were bands like this thousands of miles away was almost an alien concept and could be only be topped with seeing Ginn, Henry Rollins et al bring the California chaos to Manchester in ‘84. While then it was the sounds of Rollins and H.R., today it is the likes of The Bronx, Every Time I Die, Cancer Bats and Turnstile that bring stateside hardcore to his ears.

“They’re bands that do good pits,” he laughs, taking another sip of coke. Naturally, the live shows appeal to him but he’s being introduced to the new breed thanks to his daughter Lauren.

At the time, however, Martin thought the arrival of his first child would mean an end to his mosh pit days. “I had my daughter in my early twenties, so I said to myself “I’m getting on, I’ve got responsibilities now so just do the mosh pits until I’m 30 and then stand at the back” but the first gig of my thirties was Pantera and I was straight in.”

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, “I took her to Iron Maiden when she was four years old,” he laughs. The gigs became a bonding experience and Lauren would become a regular attendee alongside her father at Manchester’s Academy when many children her age were watching pantomimes.

Now 27, Lauren is still going to shows with her old man. “She loves the music,” Martin beams, “she even goes in [the pit] herself sometimes every now and then”. He talks with immense pride about Lauren and the times they’ve enjoyed together.

Highlights include when he took her took to see Black Flag at the Hollywood Palladium, when they were picked out of the crowd to dance on stage with Frank Turner, and spending days seeing the new breed at Slam Dunk. He seems to be incredibly happy to share this life with her.

“She’s well into it now,” he laughs. He considers passing the music bug on to his daughter as being one of his biggest achievements and it only took until she was 12 for him to be back in the pit.

It’s that excitement that many people can relate to, the rush of adrenaline that courses through the body whenever the biggest song comes on. No matter what age, it is people like Martin that make the punk and hardcore scene feel like such a community. And he is an example of not letting anything define how you enjoy the genre.

“Ever since I turned 30, I’ve never put any limitations on myself. Whether its age or whatever, it just feels good”.

The bar begins to fill up with workers from the surrounding office blocks of identikit recruitment consultancies and marketing agencies, we shake hands and he heads off to catch the support band playing ahead of Meat Puppets. 

It is just one of a number of gigs he has lined up in the coming days, from the melodic sounds of aging psychedelic rockers to the double time drums of thrash punks, you know he’ll be front and centre, crashing into people just like him.

Whether it is the dilapidated Mayflower or the grandiose surroundings of the Albert Hall, the call of chaos never faded – “fuck standing at the side” might as well be his lifelong motto.


Images: (header) Jack Kirwin, (body text) Sounds Magazine, Wikicommons, Tom Walsh