The seaside town of Rhyl, North Wales has the undeniable charm of a traditional British summertime destination. It’s ageing fish and chip shops and neon-hued amusements automatically bring back memories of sandy ham and cheese butties in -22º weather, sitting under a candy stripe parasol with nothing but a Sports Direct swimming cossie on.
It’s also the birthplace of Ang Matthews, the former Manager and Licensee of Manchester’s infamous night club, the Hacienda. As much as we can enjoy the character of the Welsh coastline, and our Mr Whippy drenched grins, growing up there was different and, for Ang, she was desperate to escape.
“I always thought I’d go to London, but when Factory records opened its doors in the late 70s, I was automatically drawn to Manchester. I was a punk kid at the time, and there were a couple of records released on the label that I fell in love with. It just seemed to have a lot going for it, way more than London did, anyway.”
Ang initially moved to Manchester to study at Manchester Polytechnic (what we now know as Manchester Metropolitan). It was through her escape route that she cemented her love of indie music and began hanging around with the folk behind Factory records. “The city was fairly dead during the early 80s, but, in 1982 when I was a student, the Hacienda opened its doors.
“I initially began working behind the bar, pulling pints before everyone started downing bottles of water when ecstasy came in a bit later on. It was a different place back then, this was pre-87 and way before Manchester’s DJ culture. The club was open most nights, but it wasn’t making much money at all.”
Beginning her very first shift at the Hacienda, Ang was met by a bunch of curly-mopped indie boys and a bar full of gladiola – it was, obviously, The Smiths and their entourage. The band were in their heyday at the time, housed in tent-like blazers and droning on about being miserable teenagers, “the place was absolutely packed out,” she recalled.
“It was nights like this that really got people talking. There weren’t really any DJs, and, if there were, they would attract the Vidal Sassoon crowd who worked in town. It was a disco, but nothing like the club nights that came after.”
After her studies, Ang left for Leicester where she began working at the University, putting on gigs and events, but she admittedly hated living in the city and was quickly drawn back to Manchester’s grittiness.
On her return, she was approached to work back at the Hacienda, but now in a Management position. “I was originally brought in as Assistant Manager, then, after the first big trouble with the police, they recommended that I become the official manager and licensee. They’d been watching me at work and felt like I was a safe and trustworthy person who knew what they were doing.”
As well as taking control of one of the most groundbreaking clubs in the world, Ang also became the first ever female in the UK to hold a licence for a venue of that size. The club industry was, and still is, a very male-dominated space, and the history of the Hacienda seems to write out the women, like Ang, that were at the forefront of the movement.
DJs such as Paulette Constable and Kath McDermott, alongside promoter Lucy Scher, shaped innovative and inclusive club nights including Flesh, one of the UK’s very first mainstream queer events, going on to lead incredibly successful careers, with both Paulette and Kath still DJing at many of the city’s clubs now.
But, for Ang, being a woman working in the Hacienda never held her back: “For me, I didn’t really feel as though I was out of place or anything, I was just doing my job to the best of my ability,” she furthered.
“It was, in a way, safer for me because when all of the gang stuff was going on, they were never violent towards me. If the Assistant Manager, who was male, had gone to sort anything out he would’ve just been punched.
“I also had 14 doormen on my side and I definitely saw the management as non-sexist, too, so my experience was different to that of the women who were working in an office or in the media in that era, it’s just a shame we’re not mentioned as much in the history books now.”
So, what did the day-to-day role of the Hacienda’s manager look like? You’d be wrong in thinking that Ang started the day by dropping 12 pills and ended it sweat-soaked and stuck to the walls of the club.
She was responsible for booking the nights and entertainment, keeping the place in check, looking after the staff, and, of course, the abundance of ravers that filtered through the doors every week.
“The atmosphere was totally electric, it’s really difficult to explain. You knew you were part of something huge, it was like being in a goldfish bowl full of these familiar, friendly faces that shaped a significant part of your life. There was a lot of music industry interest, too, which gave it even more of a buzz.”
But running one of the UK’s most notorious nightlife hotspots didn’t come without its difficulties, and Ang recalled one New Year’s Eve where fireworks were set off inside the venue (yes, this was LEGAL at the time) and the club’s entire cash stash went up in flames.
“There was also another incident where I kept the club open the evening in which the clocks went forward. My argument was that if I was to lose an hour of business when the clocks go back, I should be able to gain an hour when they go forward.
“This wasn’t taken lightly by the police, and they stormed the club trying to arrest me. One of the members of staff went up to the DJ booth, I think it was Graeme Park playing at the time, and DJs never used the mics, but on this particular evening he shouted across the venue ‘Ang Matthews is about to get arrested!’ and there was just a swarm of people who burst through the doors and flooded the main bar. I didn’t get arrested, they just gave me a warning instead.”
Leaving such a colourful career behind would be hard for anyone, and Ang was the final standing member of Factory Records when she left her position. Her reasoning? It became a volatile and frightening place to work.
The stories of the Hacienda’s gang wars are not unknown, and after someone was badly injured outside, Ang had become burnt out and handed in her resignation. Little did she know that six months after she left, the Hacienda would close its doors for good.
“After I left I ended up working in a corporate role in London, which I absolutely hated. I came back to Manchester and did a few admin jobs, and then went on to work for Vivienne Westwood for 10 years – a role which, being massively into fashion, I absolutely loved.”
Nowadays, you’ll find Ang running a more wholesome set-up at Altrincham’s popular market selling her husband’s pottery creations. A bit of a change from the cheshire cat grins of the early 90s, but still a distance away from the simple seaside town mentality of Rhyl.