Still Breathing: The Donnelly Brothers On Gio-Goi & Madchester

From illegal raves and cars shot up like Swiss cheese to the origins of ‘Gio Goi’, the birth of ‘Madchester’ was a fascinating time...
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From illegal raves and cars shot up like Swiss cheese to the origins of ‘Gio Goi’, the birth of ‘Madchester’ was a fascinating time...

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All photos copyright Donnelly 24

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ asks Factory Records and Hacienda club boss Tony Wilson. Anthony Donnelly, renowned football hooligan, hothead and bootlegger extraordinaire, draws back his jacket and pulls out a 12inch bayonet knife. The last time Wilson had encountered Donnelly it was the boy’s 21st and he was leading a violent mass brawl against the doorman at The Hacienda. Sitting beside Anthony, his pal, Shaun Ryder, lead singer with the Happy Mondays, roars with crazed laughter.

‘Then I pulled out a bag of powder and put the knife in,’ says Donnelly. ‘And Wilson started laughing too.’ Wilson filmed this and much of the ensuing debauchery that followed; the tape, thought long lost, recently resurfaced. It was an important moment: a very Madchester moment – although the term had not yet been coined. It was Oct 8, 1988 and this was Sweat It Out, Manchester first illegal Acid House party, organized by Anthony, now 22, and his younger brother Christopher, 20. It was a year zero moment for the city, the repercussion of which would change Manchester beyond all recognition: not just in terms of music and fashion but culturally, commercially, architecturally and, ultimately, deep in its own soul.

Stone Roses’ front man Ian Brown, future Oasis star Noel Gallagher and New Order were all, in different ways, liberated at Sweat It Out as Manchester threw off its post-industrial shackles and turned Day-Glo. Supplying the tunes were Mike Pickering and Jon DaSilva, the two DJs who [aided by the supplicant Ecstasy – the importation of which, some said, was also organised by the Donnelly brothers] had ushered in the Acid House revolution at The Hacienda during the summer of 1988. But the Hacienda closed at 2am and people wanted to party all night. The Donnellys seized the day.

‘There’d just been a whole load of railway arches done up by the council,’ says Christopher. ‘We built a stage out of scaffolding, used our dad’s [Arthur Donnelly, scrapyard owner] wagon to transport it, bolt-cropped the railway arch doors, drove the wagon in and built it all in there. We had five or six strobe lights; never stopped once, right though until ten in the morning. It went off with a boom, not a bang.’

‘I love Anthony and Chris,’ say Mike Pickering [Bernard Sumner of New Order says exactly the same thing in the Donnellys’ soon to be released autobiography, Still Breathing]. Sweat It Out was brilliant. That was right at the beginning of the revolution. At that time, if you were in that movement, it was like being in a secret society; no one knew about it. The first eighteen months was the whole beauty of it.’

The Donnellys were not just in on the ground floor of the revolution: they were the revolution. They were part of Manchester’s original small clique of Ecstasy converts that had congregated, in late 1987/early 1988, on a Sunday night at Stuffed Olives, a well-known gay bar in the city centre.  ‘It was open from ten o’clock until four a.m. and that was the place,’ says Christopher. ‘You’d pull up round the corner and there’d be people in the street with their hands in the air because they were already up on E. No music, all outside, all dancing. There was no alcohol. You could buy half a tablet in Stuffed Olives for £12.50 and the geezer would bite it in half in front of you and put it in your hand.’

Slowly the Stuffed Olives’ crowd – all working class ‘boys’ – hooligans, ‘sneaks’, duckers and divers and ‘grafters’ – had taken over The Hacienda. Characters such as the Donnelly brothers, ‘the Wizard of E’ - Eric Barker, a close associate of 808 State, Bez and Shaun Ryder emerged as key faces. ‘Lads from all different areas [of the city] came together through the love of dancing, believe it or not,’ says Bez in Still Breathing.

‘At The Hacienda, in our corner underneath the balcony it would be like a zoo,’ says Christopher. ‘Eric Barker was on the podium, whistling [with his fingers, leading to the popularisation of whistles on the dance floor]. People would come in just to watch this corner. They would say, ‘Have you seen these fuckers all throwing their arms in the air?’

Via this spectacle, more and more people got enticed into the E scene at The Hacienda, until, by the Summer of 1988, the whole club was on fire with Ecstasy.  ‘I watched my mate, the chef, in the queue at The Hacienda,’ says Anthony. ‘He was going along the queue and shouting, ‘Ecstasy,’ and people were waving £20 notes waiting to be served. There were hundreds of people in the queue. It was amazing. The police wasn’t on it with the tablets at the start.’

For the next few months no disused warehouse in the city was safe as the Donnellys played a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the police who were initially perplexed there was no beer being sold at the events. In May 1989, a party to celebrate Christopher’s twenty-first birthday, held on a farm in Stockport, also passed into city folklore. ‘It was the best party I’ve ever, ever been to,’ says Jimi Goodwin of the Doves.  ‘By nine o’clock in the morning, anyone still there had retreated outside to gather their shattered minds. I was walking round the garden in a daze and there was still music playing . . . I popped my head around the barn door. There were only two people in there, still dancing, still communing with the spirit, facing each other wild-eyed . . . Anthony and Chris.’

Again, Mike Pickering and Jon DaSilva DJed and the Roses, the Mondays and New Order [who brought Quincy Jones] were among the crowd. ‘It felt like we were all in the mix together – the wrong ’uns from Wythenshawe [Europe’s largest council estate, where the brothers grew up and from where they drew their 100-strong ‘firm’] were together with pop stars,’ says Christopher.

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‘I used to play everything for them,’ say Pickering. ‘I was like their family DJ. Chris’s twenty-first birthday party was amazing. The police walked up and down the road, smashing a load of windscreens – it was the obvious standoff. It was a mad party. I recall stumbling into a barn full of telephone boxes that Arthur had picked up from somewhere at one point.’

The Donnellys – with help from friends and family including cousins Tony and Dominic Donnelly – next managed to pull off the North’s biggest ever rave: a ‘mega-rave’ for tens of thousands, called Joy, in August 1989, at Stand Lees Farm, Ashworth Valley in Rochdale. ‘For two weeks, we had scaffolders on site,’ says Anthony.  ‘At the time the police were out in helicopters looking for these things. We built a stage that was 200ft long. We had a big wheel and dodgems. We marketed T-shirts. This was an illegal rave but it had an official T-shirt and a programme. It was a really expensive production – the fireworks cost £5,000.’

Understandably, given the heat, the Donnellys operated as clandestinely as possible in organizing Joy. ‘The kid who put the light show on had done [huge London events for] Biology and Sunrise,’ says Christopher. ‘I went to Blackpool on the bus to meet the geezer and I had to use a bandana to cover my face. You couldn’t let him see your face because if he got nicked he’d have stuck you in as the organisers.’

‘There was a major investigation into Joy by the police afterwards,’ says Anthony. ‘You can only imagine what the police were thinking: with parties come the drugs. They think, if you’re at a rave and there are 10,000 people there, for this to work there needs to be 10,000 trips or 10,000 tablets.’

The aftermath of the event was, says Christopher, a ‘nightmare’. There were money problems regarding people not getting paid  – culminating, says Anthony, ‘in a car looking like Swiss cheese’. This was symptomatic of where the scene was heading: elsewhere in Manchester, the early signs of what would become know as Gunchester, were self-evident. The Thunderdome club was closed down after a drive-by shooting of a bouncer and The Hacienda began to be plagued by gang troubles.  Ironically, this was the moment, as paranoia, violence and profit replaced love, music and dancing, the world bought in and ‘Madchester’ exploded globally as a youth movement.

Madchester went public in November 1989. This was the month the Happy Mondays’ played their biggest Manchester gig to date at the Free Trade Hall. The Donnellys, long-linked to the Mondays’ merchandising [official and unofficial] released a successful bootleg video – with Factory’s permission – of the gig, called Madchester, Rave On [also the title of the Mondays’ latest EP]. The brothers also organized the after show party, in a disused warehouse. When the police raided it, they were attacked with slates thrown from the roof. ‘The first parties the police came to they just let everyone go,’ says Christopher. ‘Now they had the bright idea to start confiscating decks and stuff so someone had to put their hand up and say, ‘Can I have my decks back, please?’ Then it was, ‘Well, who put the party on? Who booked you? At that party Sasha had a deck and I had a deck and we were running off with them as the police chased us.’

The same night as the Monday’s Free Trade hall gig, fellow Manchester band The Stone Roses played their biggest gig to date at AlexandraPalace in London. Days later both bands appeared on the same edition of Top of the Pops. The Roses played their latest single ‘Fools Gold’ and the Mondays played ‘Hallelujah’ from the Madchester EP. That TV show was the tipping point. There followed a tsunami of media interest in all things Manchester led by the NME who would run fifteen Manchester-related cover stories in 1990. New Order took their World Cup song, ‘World in Motion’ [aka ‘E for England’] to the top of the charts. The front cover of Newsweek declared ‘Stark Raving Madchester’. It was a new gold rush. Leo Stanley, who owned the Identity shop in the city’s clothes Mecca, Afflecks Palace, hit pay dirt with a T-shirt that read ‘ . . . AND ON THE SIXTH DAY, GOD CREATED MANchester.’

The Face wondered if ‘the cloth’ was ‘mightier than the chord’ as T-shirts sales and fashion boomed [a third Madchester band, Inspiral Carpets, were said to sell more T-shorts than records]. A chief beneficiaries of the Madchester boom was local clothing brand Joe Bloggs who turned over a reputed £60 million and for many appeared to have invented Madchester’s ‘baggy’ look - voluminous denim jeans, heavily-logo’d sweatshirts and hooded tops, worn with Kickers or Wallabees and a ‘Reni’ bucket hat.

Anthony and Christopher were not convinced. ‘We were the scene – Bloggs was ripping off the scene,’ says Anthony. ‘Shami Ahmed [Bloggs founder] was saying he was at the forefront of fashion with the Acid House scene and he was linked to ‘Madchester’. We knew ‘Madchester’ didn’t exist and we knew he was full of shit because the gear he was producing was absolutely nothing like the lads would wear! The ‘look’ became a long-sleeved white T-shirt, a pair of flares and a pair of Kickers, and that was a million, million miles away from what it really was. We moved into the clothes to right the wrongs.’

The Donnelly brothers’ own fashion label, Gio-Goi, was launched with the classic tagline ‘Dedicated to those Dodgin’ the Rain ‘n’ Bullets’. The first T-shirts were made in collaboration with the Happy Monday’s famed record sleeve designers, Central Station, and were an immediate hit. Worn by New Order, Electronic, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Flowered Up, EMF, KLF, The La’s, Take That, Galliano and many more, Anthony and Christopher were soon taking tens of thousands of pounds in orders, designing full ranges and showing them in Paris. Acid House-coloured (tangerine, lime and lemon) ‘warm-up’ jackets, jogging bottoms and short-sleeved knitwear, were clothes for the lads by the lads. ‘Anthony and Chris have my utmost respect,’ says Mani of the Roses. ‘They were shaking up the fashion world like we wanted to shake up the music world.’ Vivienne Westwood called Anthony and Christopher ‘ambassadors for a generation.’

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They were unlikely fashion designers. With a staff made up largely of pals from Wythenshawe [or others from the bootlegging and ‘grafter’ scene], Gio-Goi’s reputation was genuinely edgy. One of their travelling salesmen admitted to selling crack as well as clothes and their warehouse did a nifty line in bulletproof vests. The branded vests were tested and a bullet went through a box of baseball caps that subsequently sold for a higher price as they had an entry and exit hole.

By 1991, Madchester’s sun was setting. Factory Records was experiencing financial difficulties, the Mondays, Roses and New Order were all disintegrating, and The Hacienda had surrendered itself to a new crowd of pleasure-seekers. The Donnellys, however, continued to prosper. They produced ever more popular Gio-Goi ranges such as Get Fresh and Fucked Up. Their casual wear took off in New York [the   doormen at Peter Gatien’s Limelight club wore Gio and the staff at the Stussy shop in Greenwich village were head to toe in it], Japan [photos would arrive at the office of the country’s biggest bands proudly sporting the label] and Europe [200 stockists]. At home, they were featured in Vogue, i-D and The Face as ‘bad boys’ such as Ronnie Wood and Alex Higgins aligned themselves with the label. They planned to open a flagship store in London, investing tens of thousands in developing a Covent Garden site. They also invested in a new Manchester club, Parliament, and spent a quarter of a million refurbishing it.

Then things started to go wrong. The brothers’ lost a close friend, the club attracted violence, a manufacturer began a bitter legal battle over the ownership of Gio and, to top it all, they discovered they were under police surveillance. An informant and two undercover police had infiltrated the family hoping to nail Manchester’s notoriously elusive Quality Street Gang – allegedly one of the largest and most powerful crime syndicates in the UK and world, a ‘firm’ the Donnelly family have long been linked with). Operation Bluebell ended with 120 police involved in a dawn raid on a series of addresses across Manchester. The first ever weapon discharged by officers of the Great Manchester Police was fired on their father Arthur’s land. Anthony, Christopher and Arthur were all arrested and accused of being involved in a major conspiracy to launder money supply drugs. Anthony was treated as Category A prisoner and faced a 22 year sentence.

The arrests destroyed Gio-Goi – this was one step too far even for the so-called ‘Sex Pistols of the fashion industry’ [as Pete Doherty calls them in Still Breathing]. Christopher was released on bail prior to all charges being dropped against him. In court, it transpired the Ecstasy pills Anthony was charged with supplying were fakes and he was sentenced to nine months [they contained a trace of Diazepam]. The highly speculative [some say dubious] police investigation into the brothers came to nothing.  It didn't matter. The Donnellys. Guns. Drugs. Organized Crime.  These were the headlines. The London store was unsalvageable. ‘We lost everything,’ Christopher says. ‘I was on a pushbike. I’d gone from a millionaire to riding a pushbike. We couldn’t move because of the police. They were all over us. They’d got what they’d been trying to do for years. They ruined us. The only thing they didn’t ruin was our spirits.’

Little was heard of the Donnelly brothers for the next ten years. Like Madchester, they were consigned to history. Then, remarkably and quite unexpectedly, in 2004 they embarked on one of the most amazing comebacks in fashion history. Suddenly, vividly, Gio-Goi was everywhere again. ‘Robbie Williams is a Goi boy’ was a Sun headline that went around the world: Williams, the biggest act of the time, was said to have signed a fashion deal to front the label. Arctic Monkeys, the world’s hottest new act, were photographed in Gio. New hit TV show, Shameless – filmed in the brothers’ old stamping ground of Wythenshawe – came to resemble a Gio-Goi catwalk.

Pete Doherty, then in the early days of his relationship with Kate Moss, became the label’s self-declared ‘poster-boy’. Doherty signed [in blood] a contract that tied him to Gio exclusively for three years and made famous the label’s ‘Drug Free’ and ‘Too Much Rock ’n’ Roll’ slogan T-shirts. The Donnelly brothers found themselves partying with a new hip crowd, making an MTV documentary and on the cover of Vogue magazine [a Dior/Gio-Go collaboration shot by Mario Testino].

‘Every time Kate did something, Pete was there, or vice versa, and between the two of them it was the biggest story in the world,’ says Anthony. ‘Peter was around all the time,’ says Christopher. ‘He’d come up and stay. He was all over the papers with Kate. Then he’d be at the Admiral pub on Sunday afternoon in Ancoats playing his guitar to ten old blokes all sat having a pint of bitter.’

Having captured the market of, in Christopher’s words, ‘indie kids with skinny jeans’, the Donnellys reunited with old Liverpool friend James Barton to sponsor his Cream night at Amnesia in Ibiza. A new generation of clubbers took to the new Gio label massively. Anthony also organized a photoshoot that featured Ryhs Ifans, Liam Gallagher and Kasabian to reconnect with the ‘lads’. Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen sported women’s wear collections. ‘We had more stars than Glastonbury on our books,’ says Anthony. By 2008, Gio-Goi was No2 on the Sunday Times Fast Track 100, with an annual turnover of £19 million.

Projects with Plan B [Strickland Banks launch], Deadmau5 [I Remember video] and Chase & Status [Blind Faith video] saw the brother’s expanding their horizons – directing videos and launching a new label: Your Own [YO]. Billion-pound company Pentland [who also own Speedo, Ellesse, Berghaus, Lacoste and Kickers] invested heavily in Gio-Goi. Glitzy high-street stores were opened, flash branded trainers, sunglasses, watches and vast new clothing ranges rolled out.

The global expansion the Donnelly brothers were told was just around the corner, promises of adding a nought to their £40 million turnover, however, failed to materialize. Pentland, who invested tens of millions in the brand, weren't to blame. At the heart of the company there was a now unbridgeable difference of opinion over the direction Gio should take between original investors, Melville Capital [who had put up £3million in 2004] and the Donnellys. ‘We were trying to do stuff that was credible but it was getting harder and harder to get Melville to accept what we wanted to do,’ says Christopher. As the label became visibly more corporate [‘They we’re putting shit like ‘Party Hard’ on T-shirts,’ says Christopher. ‘We wanted to die with embarrassment’] the labels' original fan base dropped away. It was only when the new stores closed in 2012 [one, in the Arndale in Manchester had only been open eight months] that Melville realized sidelining the brothers had not been a wise move. It was too late. In early 2013 Gio-Goi went into administration, a victim, administrators said, of the recession. The Donnelly brothers knew different: Melville, they felt, had fucked up. Millions of pounds in shares were now worthless. This, being Gio-Goi, was not quite the end – the saga of the label is ongoing. In recent months, the Donnelly brothers have been negotiating with JD Sports who bought out the label from the administrators for a reputed £4million. This has resulted in the brothers signing  a private deal with JD Sports Chairman Peter Cowgill.

Anthony and Christopher have also gone back to their roots with new label, Your Own [YO] – back to independent stores and quick thinking. The new Donnelly label has been photographed on Ed Sheeran, Wu-Tang Clan, Idris Elba, Ian Brown, Dynamo, Skream & Benga, Ben Grove, Nico Mirallegro and Nervo, and the brothers, both now in their mid-40s, are (after the corporate hassles) enjoying themselves again, back fizzing with youthful energy, party spirit and crazy plans for the future.

‘Brands now copy our Gio-Goi model,’ says Anthony. ‘We understand that we didn’t invent the wheel by doing product placement and great marketing, but our style is unique to us. We are real and we have great history and a great story to tell. I know there are a million brands out there all saying they are rock ’n’ roll and all the other bullshit that goes with it, but not like us – we really have lived it.’

Simon Spence is co-author of Still Breathing: The True Adventures of the Donnelly Brothers (Black and White, released November 7).  Buy it here.