‘For homos, heteros, lesbos and don’t knows.” Since 1997, these words have guided Manchester’s Homoelectric. Started as a retort to the entrenched etiquette and increasingly tacky music of the bars clustered around Canal Street in the city’s Gay Village, Homoelectric grew to become one of the UK’s best-loved institutions. Prioritising a musical policy of house, techno, space disco, Italo, acid and outsider pop that was uncommonly eclectic for the time, it has survived waves of changes to Manchester’s physical landscape, as well as shifts in the wider social ones. Upscaling an independent and nomadic gay night to a 10,000-capacity festival, though? A high-stakes manoeuvre.
It had been in Homoelectric co-founder Luke Unabomber’s mind for years, but repeated attempts to establish it as a summer knees-up on the outskirts of Manchester kept falling through. Suddenly, a dream spot was available. The cavernous Mayfield Depot, just a few hundred yards from Homoelectric’s first venue, Follies, and within earshot of Piccadilly station, had broken free from red tape. In 2018, Warehouse Project, the big beast of Manchester clubbing, acquired the rights to host shows there. They were keen to assist in making Homobloc a reality, but aware enough to let it be established on Homoelectric’s terms, so as best to encourage discerning Mancunian clubbers who prize independence and authenticity. From the announcement on 10 July, the hype was deafening.
This intended gay utopia, Unabomber says, suddenly became a vision of hell. “It’s like you’ve got the ultimate date, but you know you’ve got to go out there and perform. And you think, ‘What the fuck am I going to do? I might not even get it up! They’re going to hate me.’ It’s not just a shag. You want to deliver for someone you really love.” Unabomber, a larger-than-life gadabout who speaks in grandiloquent passages – “a gobshite”, in his own words – was racked with fear about blowing what people wanted to be a landmark event in Manchester’s gay history. “The pressure has been insurmountable. I’ve never been more anxious in my entire life.”
In spite of jangled nerves, Homobloc did deliver. Walking into Mayfield Depot was a beautiful scene, even with freezing rain lashing down outside. The crowd was a coalition of grizzled bears, feather-boa-adorned fortysomethings out for their big one of the year, and Gen Zs in Frank Ocean crop tops. They sported capes, chaps, taches, tassels, chiffon bodysuits with the genitals X’d out, hats made out of cantaloupe’d disco balls and every colour of hair dye imaginable, and danced hard from 2pm until 3am. “All shades of LGBT on the rainbow,” Unabomber grins, “have started partying together. There’s no tribalism. I haven’t seen the mood this good since the days of acid house.”
As much as the focus on intergenerational community spirit, what helped Homobloc to sell out was that the lineup was as strong as conceivable for any festival’s first year. Performers ranged from longstanding, high-profile friends of Homoelectric – Robyn, Erol Alkan, Midland, Prosumer – to contemporary queer icons such as the Black Madonna and the xx frontwoman Romy, who have taken danceable messages of self-belief and positivity, and projected them to arenas. Unabomber personally got on the phone whenever the booking process got sticky, vouching that Homobloc was going to be “the one”.
To get people down early, contemporary limelights such as Gideön, Jaye Ward, Honey Soundsystem, Hifi Sean and Dan Beaumont were all billed before teatime, as well as representatives from Kiss Me Again and High Hoops. These are two local parties that, alongside techno-focused Meat Free, Unabomber cites as keeping Homoelectric’s mix of adventurous musical and dancefloor warmth burning for a younger generation. It was paramount to Unabomber and co that the festival really did function as “a queer block party for all”.
More than 200 dancers and alternative performers from Manchester and beyond were brought in to roam across four areas within Mayfield Depot, some imported from collectives Night Bus and Little Gay Brother, others choreographed by Sophie B. Bollox and Body Horror, two of the city’s more outre parties, added a particularly northern tongue-in-cheek flavour: all shapes and sizes squeezed into latex outfits and carried placards that mimicked the distinctive signs of the heinously homophobic Westboro Baptist church, then inverted them. The messages ranged from irreverent – “POPPERS DON’T PREACH”; “PAT BUTCHER MADE ME GAY”; “GOD LOVES K-HOLES” – to the necessary – “BODY FACISM ISN’T CUTE”; “ACT UP! DEMAND PREP PILLS”.
Unabomber hoped that Homobloc’s Manifesto, an extension of the mantra they have kept foregrounded since the 90s that demands “no fighting, blighting, shiteing, celebrity sighting or ego biting”, would ensure the right crowd turned up. “I don’t want to be holier than thou, but there’s a degree of alpha strutting in dance music that I’ve got no love for,” Unabomber says. “You can feel it at parties: blokes who make people uncomfortable. So, yes, we are inclusive – but, no, we don’t want wankers in.” Hammering home the message in a promotional video narrated by drag star Cheddar Gorgeous dressed as a fabulous unicorn seemed to have worked. There were a negligible number of wankers in attendance.
Moments of unforced joy occur left, right and centre. While playing Robbie Tronco’s ballroom anthem C.U.N.T. – with its charming refrain of “cunt / pussy / cunt / pussy” – New York’s Honey Dijon saunters over from the decks, beckons the vogue dancer on stage and pours a drink from height into their mouth. Later on, another dancer, this one in butcher drag, can be found lobbing chips into ravers’ mouths with pinpoint precision as a remix of Joe Smooth’s stirring anthem Promised Land airs. When Róisín Murphy, styled as a high-couture Zorro, slides into Moloko’s Sing It Back at the end of her solo set, the crowd are positively vibrating. And it’s a testament to Mancunian hardiness that hundreds brave the arctic conditions to cavort to local hero DJ Paulette doling out fruity house numbers on an alfresco terrace.
Grounding the bacchanalian excess at Homobloc was a focus on the political. When Homoelectric began, Section 28, a draconian law that banned overt promotion of homosexuality in the public domain, was still active. Manchester police, led in the 80s by a chief constable who denounced gays as being “in a cesspit of their own making through HIV”, donated a riot shield for the dancers to adorn. A sizzle reel of visuals backed DJs and dancers on the main stage. Shots of foundational figures Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, images of Stonewall and the first gay couples to adopt, local haunts The Glory Hole and The Mancunian Gay, art from Cindy Sherman, and sordid snaps from parties past all whizzed by.
Most striking of all were images of present-day repression in Poland and Chechnya. In the weeks leading up to Homobloc, a partnership with LGBT+ charity All Out was announced to help “stand with our persecuted siblings around the world”, as DJ and activist Midland said. Fundraisers made sure that the history displayed across the event functioned as a call to action – £11,648 was made in all. “It was the biggest possible mosaic of stuff that we could put out there,” Unabomber says. “We felt that it was a beautiful story. And we didn’t want to go into overkill, because we were there to lift up spirits, but we sought a balance to something that was celebratory.”
This hammered home the journey the city’s gay community has taken to arrive at a point where Homobloc is not just permissable, but a wild success. The anything-goes musical and sexual policy of Homoelectric proved scalable after all. It made the festival feel historical, but not traditional. Even moments to revel in the commercial disco nostalgia that Homoelectric first pushed back on were relished: when Honey Dijon wrapped up her set with Sylvester’s anthemic You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), it’s hard to imagine any event of Homobloc’s size in louder, prouder voice.
Five key Homoelectric tracks, by residents Will Tramp, Gina Breeze and Jamie Bull
Prince – Sticky Like Glue (JC Extended mix)
Hard to find, unofficial remix of Prince by Joe Clausell of Body & Soul fame, this is 15 minutes of organs, trademark sleazy Prince vocals and lots of percussion. The joy of repetition personified.
Peggi Blu – I Want It All Now (Justin Van Der Volgen Edit)
Hard-to-find disco edit from Justin Van Der Volgen of Out Hud and !!! fame. Huge, hands-in-the-air Homoelectric anthem that has been a staple in our sets for years, and it’s Shazam-proof.
Front Page – You Got Love Song (C.O.M.B.i. Edit)
Arpeggiated chugger with a more-than-dramatic string section. Just when you think it can’t tug at the heartstrings any more, a killer, sultry female vocal comes in halfway through. Disco perfection.
Gina Breeze – Reckless
From one of our own residents, this sultry, acid-tinged slammer has become a Homoelectric classic.
Miss Kittin – Girlz
A favourite that can expect to be heard in the basement at Hidden. Killer vocal and all around ace-ness from Miss Kittin.