Ten years ago today (10/08/2007) we lost the man who had fronted the Manchester music revolution through the ‘70s and ‘80s. Tony Wilson’s life work reads as a precisely calculated pathway, leading Manchester towards the epicentre of pop culture. In his obituary in The Guardian, Paul Morley defined Wilson as a ‘Record label boss and broadcaster with twin passions: music and Manchester’.
Starting out his career on Granada Television, he gained local celebrity level very early with regional news reports, but his intentions were greater than this. It didn’t take him long to establish himself as cultural gatekeeper for the Northwest through his music and arts show So It Goes. With this platform he wanted to bring the best and most inventive new music to Manchester, introducing many to the punk scene others had swept under the carpet.
Unsatisfied with making Manchester aware of the newest music trends, he felt it should be setting them. He swiftly opened a small live music venue, and along with Alan Erasmus established Factory Records. There first release was an EP of local bands who had played at their venue called A Factory Sample. The artists? Cabaret Voltaire, The Durutti Column, & Joy Division.
Along with producer Martin Hannett and manager Rob Gretton, Wilson set about making Joy Division Factory’s first major venture. Unlike the major record labels Factory did not tie down artists to professional contracts or force albums. Perhaps his most famous statement was writing Joy Division’s contract out in his own blood, which simply read: “The musicians own everything, the company owns nothing. All our bands have the freedom to fuck off.” This was the first in a line of actions which seemed to prove this ‘business’ was always intended to promote Manchester and it’s musicians, not Wilson’s pockets. Several events followed, including New Order’s Blue Monday becoming the biggest selling 12” single of all time seeing Factory make a LOSS of 5p per sleeve.
By the time the late ‘80s arrived, Wilson had three large scale operations on the go, which would ultimately be the company’s downfall. These projects were New Order, The Hacienda nightclub, and Happy Mondays. The Hacienda, at one time the world’s coolest nightclub was perhaps the single most defining element of Wilson’s ambitions for Manchester, often being compared to the clubs of New York a decade earlier.
As everything came together with New Order’s new found dance theme, Happy Mondays’ in-your-face-northern acid house and the coolest venue in the country, Manchester was undoubtedly the nucleus of everything that was new and exciting. The undoing of the whole operation came through money. He refused to move from his home city or put prices on the door up to fund it. The lack of alcohol being bought due to the copious amounts of ecstasy meant the club lost on average £10,000 a week. Combined with a lack of albums from the Mondays and New Order, this led to the company folding.
This short summary doesn’t even touch the surface of all the work Tony Wilson contributed to. If you’re interested in Wilson’s work 24 Hour Party People is also a good watch, where Steve Coogan plays him in a biopic of his life. How Not to Run a Nightclub also details the downfall of the Hacienda.
For now though, here’s his five most memorable quotes that sum up just how strange yet influential his life was.
5- Jazz is the last refuge of the untalented. Jazz musicians enjoy themselves more than anyone listening to them does.
On Shaun Ryder trying to light his jacket to smoke:
4- I am not a piece of hash. I’m in charge of Factory Records. I think.
Although that quote may be contested, Tony would approve, as proved by this quote about the mystic of Joy Division:
3- When forced to pick between truth and legend, print the legend.
When talking about the scale in which the bands he promoted and signed grew to, he claimed:
2- I’m a minor player in my own life story.
Finally, on why he allowed Factory Records to die whilst still tirelessly pushing the Manchester scene:
1- Most of all, I love Manchester. The crumbling warehouses, the railway arches, the cheap abundant drugs. That’s what did it in the end. Not the money, not the music, not even the guns. That is my heroic flaw: my excess of civic pride.
Words: Sam Wright