From Piccadilly to Parklife: the story of Manchester’s favourite rats

  • Manchester buskers The Piccadilly Rats are enjoying a rise which has seen them added to the lineup for Parklife 2018.
  • Tom Green sits down with singer Gaz Stanley to talk all about it.

Nobody needs reminding of the rich musical heritage that Manchester has attached to it – it’s almost like a broken record at times. You only have to walk down Oldham Street to see the likes of the Stone Roses, Oasis and Happy Mondays quite literally etched into the city’s makeup.

But away from the glitz, glamour and mountains of gold discs, a whole other scene is slowly bubbling to the surface.

The art of busking is one to be admired, and although many won’t give a street musician a second glance, one Manchester group in particular continue to make unmissable strides into the mainstream.

Thanks to a recent impromptu Twitter campaign fronted by guitarist and lead vocalist Gaz Stanley, the Piccadilly Rats look set to perform at this year’s Parklife Festival at Heaton Park.

Their rider? A ‘few butties and a bottle of dandelion and burdock’.

Since their formation in 2013, the group have gradually grown to achieve legendary status on the local underground scene with their rousing mix of classic pop covers, street attire, and distinctive rat-masked theatrics.

Sadly, today’s freezing weather means I won’t be seeing the lads in their usual spot on the corner of Lever Street, but just around the corner on Newton Street, Gaz’s friend Ian, manager of Empire Exchange, has kindly let the two of us sit down for a chat in his shop.

An unusual setting, granted, but as I’ve forgotten my gloves I’m glad to be out of the cold; a subject which 60-year-old street performer Gaz knows all too well.

“People tell me I should be used to it by now after all these years”, he tells me.

“But I don’t see it like that. I think the weather can grind you down as you get older. It’s difficult in those conditions and people won’t stop for you either because they just want to get out of the cold.”

That said, I wonder what it is about busking with the Piccadilly Rats that keeps Gaz returning time after time.

“We’re just having a laugh and a good time. We’re not pretending to be serious musicians or anything. It’s a bit theatrical, bit surreal, and all we’re doing is just trying to put a smile on people’s faces.

“When we first started doing it with rat masks on, people started to give us more money. Playing on the streets is actually one of the best advertisements that you can do for yourself because people might come up and ask us to play at a wedding or whatever, so actually by playing on the street, we can create work off it as well.

“Also, because we play outside Wetherspoons, we get loads of hen parties and stag-dos interested in us on a weekend. We might get somebody come up to us and say, ‘it’s my mates’ stag, can we give you twenty quid to sing Wonderwall?’, well yeah, dead right you can, mate.”

The group, who in their infancy were formally known as Gaz Stanley and the Piccadilly Rats, are usually made up of ‘vibemaster’ Ray Boddington, Tommy Piggott, Alan Jones and of course, Gaz himself.

However, such is the nature of busking, the Rats often borrow bassist Paul Sewell and drummer Jamie Wilson from Manchester band Death to the Strange, too.

The group are heavily involved with various charities across the city – their part in the I Love Manchester bombing appeal in particular raised £400 for those affected by the tragedy.

But I want to ask Gaz where his ‘street career’ began, and what it was that first sparked his interest in doing what he does.

“The very first time I ever decided to go busking, before I was with the Rats, was outside the big Primark in town”, he tells me.

“I set up all my gear and I’d been there for about fifteen minutes and I just couldn’t sing into the microphone. I just didn’t have the f***ing nerve to actually do it. So, I just thought ‘sod this’, and I started to pack all my stuff away.

“And then, I don’t know what it was that made me do it, but I just thought, ‘no, f*** it, I’m f***ing doing it. I don’t care if it sounds crap or whatever but I’m having a go’. So, I plugged my guitar back in and just went straight for it.

“And one fella walked past, and he didn’t even take that much notice of me, but he just dropped ten pence onto my guitar case. And that ten pence, even though it’s hardly anything, spurred me on. I was alright with it after that.”

However, Gaz tells me he is still a bit shy and much prefers busking as a group rather than as a solo act.

“With Ray’s dancing, the animal masks and the police hat, it deflects the attention off of me slightly and goes from just being an ordinary busking group to quite a surreal theatrical performance. A f***ing weird show.”

And the performances have certainly not gone unnoticed. A documentary about the group, titled Piccadilly Rats: Live in Moderation, is currently in its final editing stages.

“It’s been a very long time in the making, but it’s not been an easy ride”, says Gaz.

“When we talk about the actual busking, we’re only scratching the surface really and this documentary has delved deeper into all of our pasts.

“I’m 60 and the rest are pensioners so there’s a lot of stories to tell – some of them not so great.

“I don’t want to spoil it, but it follows our journey and finishes at Kendal Calling festival, where we played in 2016.”

The film, produced by a company called Low Flying Geese and directed by Nathan Cunningham, is due to be shown at the Vue Cinema in the Printworks later this year.

Piccadilly Rats cartoon animation by Adam Frith

Perhaps more exciting though, thanks to the power of social media and Gaz’s wit, the Rats look set to make an even bigger name for themselves on the hometown festival stage later this year.

A slot on the bill at the ever-growing Parklife weekend at Heaton Park in June alongside the likes of Liam Gallagher, Skepta and The xx would be their greatest achievement yet, according to Gaz.

And he tells me it all stemmed from one rainy afternoon when he was stuck inside feeling miserable about not being able to get out and play, leaving him with nothing to do but write a few daft tweets.

He jokingly posted, ‘The Piccadilly Rats will be playing Parklife this year – ha ha, not on the main stage – outside the gates busking on the grass’, but what happened next amazed him.

“One woman in particular noticed the tweet and she actually got in touch with Sacha Lord-Marchionne who runs Parklife and told him we should be on one of the main stages instead of busking outside.

“So then, Sacha posted on Twitter about it himself and he got loads of responses to it. Then he sent me a message directly and that was it.

“I had to get my daughter to check that it was actually him and not just somebody pulling my leg.

“It’s still a way off yet and we know things could still go wrong, but hopefully everything goes to plan because that would put us on another level.

“It would be a surreal moment for all of us because it would mean we’ll have gone from playing on places like Market Street and Lever Street in town to playing at an event that’s going to be attended by about 140,000 people. It’s just f***ing mind-blowing really.”

Gaz laughs as he tells me they told the Parklife organisers that all they’ll want for playing a slot was a ‘few butties and a bottle of dandelion and burdock for Tommy’.

“We said that tongue in cheek because we didn’t think anything would come of it.

“But with something like that, it doesn’t matter if you do it for nothing. The exposure that something like Parklife would give us would be amazing.

“So, if it does happen, we’ll be there with our beach balls, batting them into the crowd, and we’ve also said we’ll wear our I Love MCR t-shirts too.”

Through chatting to Gaz, I can see how much it means to him, and though I’ve not met the others, I’m sure they’re the same.

I hope it happens. Their determination is admirable, as is their confidence to get up and do their thing. Next time you’re passing through Piccadilly and you spot them, or indeed any busker, don’t just walk on because they’re not Oasis – give them a listen. You never know what magic you might find lurking right there on the street corner.