Garbage’s Shirley Manson: ‘Grange Hill was my best friend – it saved my life’

Ahead of a reissue of her band’s classic Beautiful Garbage, the Scottish frontwoman remembers her teenage passions, from the fiction that terrified her to the Edinburgh nightclub that set her free

Manwatching by Desmond Morris

Around 1980 this book was in the window of every bookshop. I got one for Christmas when I was 13 or 14. It was my father’s selection. I remember thinking: “What the fuck is this?” But once I started reading, I could not stop and I became obsessed with it. It’s about human behaviour. I was just discovering my sexuality and how we relate to other human beings and this book blew my mind. I remember a section about “displacement reactions”, something you do when you’re nervous or uncomfortable and you’re trying to divert the conversation elsewhere. I used to do this strange thing with my legs. I’d shake them and rub my thighs. It was very odd and friends used to comment, but through understanding it I was able to curtail my unconscious behaviour. The book changed the way I looked at everybody and I’ve been fascinated by people-watching ever since. Plus there were pictures of genitalia and stuff about sex [laughs], which to this day I don’t think has ever been mentioned in my house. So as a teenager it was mesmerising.

Edinburgh Youth theatre

At high school I had a teacher called Miss Francis Hill. She was a real Miss Jean Brodie character and she selected girls that she was interested in, who she believed had a lot of talent. She invited me to join Edinburgh Youth theatre. I had no idea what it was, but I went along with Rebecca Pidgeon, who became a very successful actor. I became very passionate about it. I loved putting on plays, musicals, working with an ensemble, studying scripts. We’d put shows on at the fringe, where I got my first taste of success. I learned how the stage works – how important light is, the crew, all that behind-the-scenes stuff. It was there that I met Martin Metcalfe, the lead singer of Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, and he invited me to be a keyboard player in his band. My whole life basically exploded. I don’t think I ever really returned to my former self.

Ian Astbury of The Cult.
Ian Astbury of The Cult. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features

The Hoochie Coochie club

I came from a very traditional, sweet and gentle family. My father was very religious. It was lovely and drove me insane, because my sisters were totally charming and, for whatever reason, I was just this thunderbolt. I’d go out with a quarter bottle of Famous Grouse whisky in my pocket, Winston cigarettes, lipstick and blusher. The Hoochie Coochie was a club that was just so cool, where I could dress up, wear tons of eyeliner, do weird shit with my hair and be around people that did the same. I’d go there with my girlfriends, dance all night and get free. They always played incredible music and it always felt like something exciting was happening. I saw Joe Strummer there. I met Ian Astbury from the Cult and saw bands such as Shriekback live. There were rockers, rockabillies, mods, punks, hipsters, art schoolers. I met a lot of really interesting people and again it opened my horizons to what was possible. One of my most cherished memories is talking to [the Associates’] Billy Mackenzie at the bar. He was the biggest star I’d ever met in my life and I just have this beautiful memory of rubbing shoulders with a spectacular talent and getting sucked into his charisma vortex.

Top of the Pops

Of course I’d seen Billy Mackenzie on Top of the Pops, when seeing another Scottish person on the telly hardly ever happened, or it certainly felt like that. Seeing Billy or Clare Grogan from Altered Images was entrancing, confidence-building and exciting. I think I started watching Top of the Pops when I was four. It was the only TV show that I would never miss and I saw Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bowie, Roxy Music … everyone that ever mattered to me. We had a little black and white telly in the dining room with three push buttons to turn over to the other two channels. Every so often the TV would go “on the blink” as they used to say, so there would be this collective roar from me and my sisters. My dad would come running down the stairs and thump the telly, and eventually the picture would come back. I just remember being sat in between my sisters, my two favourite people ever, and being filled with enthusiasm for music.

David Bowie on Top Of The Pops with Mick Ronson, 1973.
David Bowie on Top Of The Pops with Mick Ronson, 1973. Photograph: Watal Asanuma/Shinko Music/Getty Images

The Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille

I was dating a boy in a non-monogamous relationship but I was madly in love with him. He was in Finitribe, arguably the coolest band in Edinburgh at the time, and different to other people I’d hung out with. He was feminist, talented, handsome and took me to art exhibitions and museums and opened me up to a lot of literature that I would never have been exposed to. He gave me this, a 1928 novella that he thought was “intellectually really interesting” and I found absolutely terrorising. To this day, nothing has terrified me more than a passage in this book. I can’t quite remember the details, but a pair of teenage lovers are masturbating a priest, and during the point of orgasm he is forced to denounce his God. It made me very conscious of the power plays between men and women and I was titillated by this idea of defilement, but it also challenged me and introduced me to ideas that I’d never have thought about on my own. When you’re young, people tell you about the “bogeyman” but I’d never been exposed to anything that horrific or evil. Later I read that it was Björk’s favourite book and I wondered why she loved it because I found it terrifying. Of course the book made me like the boy even more.

Grange Hill, 1980.
Grange Hill, 1980. Photograph: Charles Knight/Shutterstock

Grange Hill

Until then the most scared I’d ever been was my first day at high school, when I locked eyes with my tormentor. I was badly bullied in my first year, and because of this girl I folded inwards. I didn’t want to bring any attention to myself because she would punish me for it. I had no self-worth, so I stopped being a good student. I started smoking and drinking privately and cutting myself. I’d come home and watch Grange Hill. I wanted to be as cool as Tucker Jenkins and I got a feathered cut like Trisha Yates, but Grange Hill was a reflection of my life. It was a TV show about high school, and they wore the same kind of awful clothes – big blazers and big ties. The themes touched on my experiences, especially the bullying. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, not even my sisters, but Grange Hill managed to hold my hand and walk me through an incredibly awful, confusing time. It literally saved my life. When I was a teenager, Grange Hill was my best friend.

Garbage’s 20th anniversary expanded reissue of Beautiful Garbage is released on 1 October

  • An earlier version of this piece said the Clash played Top of the Pops. In fact, the band never appeared


As told to Dave Simpson

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