Tony Wilson, who died last week at the age of 57, was head of Factory Records and one of the most historically vital figures in the UK independent record industry. He discovered Joy Division and Happy Mondays, and his label released their records – as well as those of the even more successful New Order. He was part-owner of the most famous nightclub in the world. He was a TV personality. Despite all of this, he is also the guy who said, "I am famous for being the only person who didn't make any money out of the Manchester music scene of the Eighties and Nineties." As a result, he ended up being unable to personally afford the drugs he needed to fight the cancer he had been suffering from for over a year, relying instead on donations made from the bands he had previously worked with. As Wilson himself said last year, “I'd love to have a yacht and a house on Lake Cuomo, but they're numbers 98 and 99 on my priorities.”
Following his graduation from Cambridge, Wilson decided to move back to his hometown of Manchester and began working as a reporter for Granada, the regional TV station for the North West of England. By the late '70s, he had become a news anchor for Granada Reports (a job he kept through to 1989). At the same time, he was becoming increasingly inspired by the Manchester punk and, later, the post-punk scenes, particularly after experiencing the self-described “epiphany” of having seen the Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall in 1977. Wilson subsequently became increasingly determined to work at helping establish Manchester as Britain's cultural and musical epicentre, finally moving it out of the long shadow cast by London. Over the next 30 years, he posited himself as a self-proclaimed spokesman and cultural cheerleader for his home city; in this role, he was often brash, divisive and arrogant, but he never faltered in his commitment to his interwoven passions for the city of his birth and the music that it produced.
One of his first steps was opening a club in Hulme -- the original Factory -- with his friend Alan Erasmus, which was dedicated to showcasing the local bands that inspired them, such as Durutti Column and Joy Division. Subsequently Wilson, Erasmus, Martin Hannett, Peter Saville and Rob Gretton partnered to form Factory Records, though Wilson was generally the public face of the label. When the fertility of Manchester's music scene of the late '70s -- and Wilson's total passion in promoting it -- was merged with Hannett's production skills, Saville's unique design aesthetic and Gretton's fiercely protective management of Joy Division (and later New Order), the label clearly had an artistic foundation possibly unmatched in the music industry before or since. It all came to fruition with the release of the first Factory LP, Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, which immediately placed the label -- and Manchester -- at the vanguard of the UK independent scene. The UK record industry had barely existed outside of London previously, and this went for the nascent independent sector as well as the established majors. Factory's success in operating outside of the mainstream culturally, geographically, and in its business practices, was completely unprecedented and a massive factor in the huge expansion of the UK independent scene from the early '80s onward.
Although the label went on to release further epoch-defining singles and albums by Durutti Column, ESG, Happy Mondays, and Joy Division/New Order, Factory hemorrhaged funds almost from the beginning. The label, reputedly, was never actually a profitable enterprise. Astonishing as it may seem, given their apparent pre-eminence at the time, even a brief glance at the Factory catalogue indicates just how much garbage was put out. The recording costs, lavish packaging and promotional budgets afforded to certain questionable releases created a financial strain on the label that even the huge success of New Order, and later Happy Mondays, could do little to remedy. The ornate packaging was not just confined to Factory's lesser acts, either. Incredibly, the sleeve for the Blue Monday 12” -- the biggest selling 12” single in history -- was so expensive to produce that Factory made a loss on every copy sold.
Furthermore, the fact that many of the Factory bands had never signed a contract with the label, due to Wilson's innate trust in the artists to do the right thing by him so long as he did it by them, led to further problems for the label. When Factory finally went bankrupt in 1991 with debts of over Â£2 million, London Records' eagerness to purchase the back catalogue of the label provided a potential lifeline. However, this interest soon evaporated when they found out New Order had never signed a contract with Wilson and the label. As such, they owned the rights to their recordings, not Factory, and the value of the label's back catalogue was decimated in a single stroke. As Stephen Morris from New Order said, “He was, I think, the only person in the music industry that didn't believe in contracts. You'd see him do deals with record companies and the whole thing was done on the back of his hand. You could literally do what you want."
Anxious to create a club in Manchester that catered to their style and tastes, in the process molding a central ‘base' for the culture of Manchester that Wilson was continuing to promote, FAC51 -- otherwise known as The Haçienda -- was opened by Wilson, Rob Gretton and New Order in 1982. The groundbreaking interior design of the club, the sheer excellence of many of the bands who would perform there, and the quality of the club nights themselves seemed to guarantee success. With the advent of dance culture in the late '80s, it was certainly the best and most famous nightclub in Britain, and probably the world, for an period stretching through to the early '90s. The importance of the club to the rave scene was part of its downfall, however, as ecstasy-fueled clubbers increasingly eschewed alcohol (which was famously low-priced in the club already) to drink water from washroom taps. As the new breed of superstar DJs started increasing their fees to astronomical levels, the cost of running nights at the Haçienda began to skyrocket. As a result, a club that was packed virtually every night of the week was still often operating at a loss -- all at the same time that Factory itself was rapidly disintegrating. Manchester's emerging gun culture also began to intrude upon the club, and the Haçienda continued upon a grim decline, ending in the legendary club's final closure in 1997.
Following the collapse of Factory and the gradual implosion of the Haçienda, Wilson continued to seek new ways to help maintain Manchester's (and his own) cultural significance. Although he continued to tirelessly promote the culture of the city worldwide, his public image was glimpsed primarily through his formation of Manchester's annual In The City festival, based on the conference/unsigned band template of Austin's SXSW. Wilson was constantly on the lookout for the next band he could claim to have discovered, to follow Joy Division and the Mondays. Although he never again found such a group, the festival itself continues to run to this day. His almost wistfully reimagined versions of the Factory label (F4 was the final incarnation), however, were considerably less successful.
Wilson's major gift, or motivation, was obviously not the pursuit of profits; his honesty in his dealings with people, evidenced by his rejection of contracts, put paid to that. But his innate ability to identify bands that utterly encapsulated the time and space that they occupied -- combined with his almost devotional belief in these artists -- paid off for him, the bands, and Manchester handsomely. Much as Joy Division reflected a Manchester that was reeling from nearly two decades of brutal ‘urban renewal,' entering an era of post-industrial uncertainty, Happy Mondays offered a vision of a city seeking to escape, or at least temporarily mollify, the aftermath of these periods through the dropping of pills and dancing through the night -- ‘Madchester'.
In their own contrasting ways, both bands served to fulfill Wilson's primary aim of focusing the cultural eyes of the nation squarely on the North West. And by the mid-'90s, Wilson's dream of a proud, vibrant and culturally re-energized Manchester had fully come to fruition. This isn't to say that Wilson was by any means solely responsible for this, but his persona had been so intrinsically attached to Manchester throughout the preceding 20 years that his significant role in the renaissance of the city is now universally acknowledged. It's not surprising that the Manchester Evening News, upon reporting his death, referred to him as ‘Mr Manchester.'
24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom's 2002 Wilson biopic, presents a loosely factual -- and hilarious -- account of Wilson's role in the rise of Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays, as well as the travails of Factory Records and the Haçienda. As Wilson himself commented on the film, “It's all lies … But hey, what do you want? There's that line about the choice between truth and legend -- always pick the legend. And that's what they've done.” In the unlikely event that you haven't seen it, it's essential viewing.
[Photo: Don McPhee]