Remembering Tony Wilson

Tony_lTowards the end of the hilarious Factory Records biopic 24 Hour Party People, label chief Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), gets so high he hallucinates he is being visited by God (Coogan, again). "It’s a pity you didn’t sign the Smiths," God/Coogan tells Wilson/Coogan. "But you were right about Mick Hucknall. His music’s rubbish, and he’s a ginger!" Tragically, by now, the real-life Wilson (pictured) knows whether these really are the views of his Maker, having died on Friday at the age of 57 following a battle with kidney cancer.

Anyone that thinks the preceding paragraph an inappropriate way to start an obituary clearly never met Wilson, who had a keen a sense of both the comic and the absurd — which was fortunate, given that the history of the Manchester, England-based Factory featured hefty dollops of both. The man whose label brought us Joy Division, New Order, the Happy Mondays and A Certain Ratio was also a pretty relentless self-publicist who at times seemed to care little WHAT was written about him as long as people WERE writing about him.

addCredit(“Anthony Wilson: Mark McNulty / Retna UK”)

Several years ago, while working at a different publication, I cameup with the idea of running a feature about "The Most Disastrous Albumsof All Time," which would detail such notorious record biz fiascos asMC Hammer’s gangsta album The Funky Headhunter and Mariah Carey’s Glitter.Predictably, few of the people involved in these doomed projects werekeen to reminisce about them for a piece whose all-round snarkiness wassummed up by its intro: "No one likes to remind others of theirgreatest failures. Except us." And except Wilson, who was more thanhappy to get on the phone and chat about the Happy Mondays’ notorious1992 opus … Yes Please! The album had been recorded inBarbados under the assumption that the limited availability of heroinon the island would help the dance-rockers’ junkie lead singer ShaunRyder kick the drug. "Nobody told us," Wilson recalled, "that whilethere is no smack there, it is the center for crack cocaine on theAmerican continent." Thus, Ryder merely switched from one narcotic toanother and before long was smoking in the region of 50 rocks a day.The hugely expensive but poor-selling result effectively destroyed bothHappy Mondays and Factory Records.

But the influence of Wilson and Factory is one that cannot, andnever could, be measured in strictly commercial terms. The label’sclub, the Hacienda, for example, was more money pit than profit centerfor various reasons — not least the fact that people dancing while onecstasy (and there was rarely a shortage of people dancing while onecstasy at the Hacienda) tend to drink water rather than alcohol.However, the club played an essential role in incubating the dancemusic revolution that swept across the UK and beyond in the late ’80sand early ’90s.

If legend is to believed, even Factory’s most famous success — New Order’s "Blue Monday" single — was a commercial disaster due to the fact that its ornate packaging meant each copy actually cost the label money (as recounted in this NSFW clip from 24 Hour Party People).Wilson’s commitment to art over commerce — and this CambridgeUniversity graduate’s verbose philosophizing in general — made him acontroversial figure. When New Order bassist Peter Hook heard thatlocal boy Steve Coogan was to portray Wilson in 24 Hour Party People, he was allegedly moved to comment that this meant "Manchester’s biggest c–t" would being played "by its second biggest."

Yet Wilson was also a heroic and ultimately beloved figure. Afternews of his death broke, Hook himself was moved to write on his MySpace page,"It’s a very, very, very sad day. I feel very lost. It’s like my fatherdying all over again. I’m devastated." It also seems cruel Wilsonshould have been taken from us just as he is to be depicted AGAIN onthe big screen in Anton Corbijn’s forthcoming Joy Division biopic Control.

Despite having met him on a few occasions, I can’t claim to haveknown Wilson. Yet I do feel a definite sense of loss at his passing. Hewas a unique figure on the music scene — the exact opposite of thestereotypical, ponytail-sporting label bean counter. And for all itsfaults, Factory Records was an amazing thing — more art project thanrecord label, really — whose failures tended to be more interesting,and influential, than most label’s successes.

Maybe it’s good he didn’t sign the Smiths after all.


Comments (49 total) Add your comment
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  • Matthew

    PopWatch, you definitely have the greatest tributes. I love reading them and learning about these legendary and extremely talented and amazing people that most wouldnt even know about.

  • Andy H

    A legend and an inspiration, it’s a real shame you’ve left us Tony, but look what you left us with. Thank you so much xx

  • a reader writes

    After seeing 24 Hour Party People, I really admired this guy–since he was earning a living as a broadcaster, he ran Factory like a giant art project. The world needs more enlightened nutjobs like Tony Wilson. He will be missed.

  • Rose Woodward

    Everything you have said and more; he was prepared right up to the end to speak the truth and take no prisoners. He died from Kidney Cancer – the NHS denied him the drugs he was prescribed; Please do your bit for his last campaign to get Kidney cancer drugs made available to other patients, he knew it was right.and help us…
    Please sign my e-petition for NHS approval of Kidney Cancer drugs; click this link to show solidarity with kidney cancer patients:

    Please forward this e petition link to everyone in your email address book and ask them to do the same, please post these details on any forum or online community you belong to. We need all the help we can get.

  • Peter

    I came across this news by accident
    today and I’m deeply, deeply saddened. Factory Records produced the soundtrack of the 80’s for me. Great music. Great art. Great man.

  • Ben S

    Wow, only found out about this by reading your blog and I’m totally gutted. Tony is an absolute legend on the Manchester music scene, and in UK music as a whole. The world is a poorer place without him.

  • Winona

    :-( Not even sure what to say… but EW, as always, you said it for me.

  • moonshake

    By coincidance, “24 hour Party People” was on cable here in Canada on Saturday night. A great film and a fitting tribute to Tony Wilson. Factory Records was very much a part of my early eighties life and Joy Division’s “Transmission” single, and “Unknown Pleasures” LP and New Order’s “Ceremony” and “Temptation” and Durutti Column’s “Party” are still among my all-time faves.

  • Hamburger Royal

    It’s sad to hear that one of the most illustrious figures of modern music has left us. I will greatly miss his talent both at spotting the right bands for the time and with the pen (if you haven’t *read* 24 Hour Party People I highly recommend you do). Thank you for never counting the cost of music.

  • Winn

    Thank you for this irreverent yet respectful tribute, EW. Factory Records was a vital part of my high school and early college years, and music fans can thank Tony Wilson every day for prizing art over commerce. The man helped give us Joy Division, that band’s reincarnation as New Order, and one of the best albums of the late 80’s, the Mondays “Pills, Thrills, and Bellyaches”. For that alone he deserves our gratitude.

  • Stephanie Travitsky

    This is awful news. My heart goes out to his family and loved ones. Factory and IRS were THE record lables of the 1980’s and early 90’s. You could not even compare the Manchester music scene then to today.

  • Jim

    What a tragedy. In Tony’s honor, I’m spinning Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures,” “Closer” and “Still” on constant rotation today; it’s sure to drive my co-workers nuts, but such a personality as Tony deserves no less.

  • bp

    It’s truly a sad event. New Order were
    my favorite band for a long time, and still are one of them. I know I probably never would’ve heard them in rural Oregon in the 80s unless Tony made Factory the juggernaut it was. RIP Tony.

  • glas

    A fitting tribute to a man who wanted to make art as much as money. Anyone who hasn’t seen 24 hour party people and has any fondness for this music, see it, you won’t be disappointed.

  • juli groody

    My God the man I loved from afar as a child is gone forever. I am so sad . Tony was such a great example of northern intellect . He did make history . I hope he is a happy phantom and I will remember him for the rest of my life.

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