Tony Wilson remembered

Originally published 13 August 2007, metro.co.uk

Tony Wilson was as good at making enemies as he was making friends. It’s a mark of this brave, foolhardy, passionate and inspirational man’s character; he drew the battle lines and got on with waging the war for what he believed was the best in pop culture. And most of the time he was right.

He will of course be best remembered for Factory records, for Joy Division/New Order and Happy Mondays and his pivotal role in the rise and fall of the Haçienda nightclub.

He embraced the unusual, the maverick outsider, from Ian Curtis to producer Martin Hannett; Shaun Ryder to designer Peter Saville.

In an industry of release dates and deadlines, a lesser, more conventional label boss would have despaired at Saville’s habit of delivering artwork late.

Wilson instead gave him free rein and in the process helped create a visual aesthetic for Factory that has shaped a whole generation’s view of what is good and bad design. Hopeless business man perhaps, but a true visionary.

Like pretty much anyone involved in the creative industries in Manchester at any time over the last 30 years, I came to know Tony Wilson as more than just the iconic founder of Factory.

In the mid-1990s I worked for him writing copy for his In The City music conference. He would pop in the office full of chat, his energy levels putting the rest of us, 20 years his junior, to shame. He’d roll a joint and regale us with stories about touring with New Order. He was good company.

Wilson was a punk at heart; he knew that the next big thing always comes from the nobodies.

After all, while some saw druggy Salford scallies, Wilson saw poetry in Shaun Ryder’s lyrics and a new kind of rock ‘n’ roll in Happy Mondays’ music.

In 1994 when The Stone Roses finally returned with ‘Love Spreads’ I found myself being interviewed alongside Wilson for Radio 5.

I was in the Roses corner, lauding a triumphant return (I’d yet to hear Second Coming). Wilson was arguing the case that Happy Mondays were the true innovators of the Madchester period, Shaun Ryder the finest lyricist of a generation. I stood my ground, he stood his.

At the time the tide had turned against the Mondays and they were being widely ridiculed, Ryder seemingly a washed-up hasbeen. But despite that band’s appetite for drugs and destruction being partly responsible for the collapse of his beloved Factory, Wilson kept the faith.

Despite his status as Mr Manchester and, in later life, his easy access to the city’s decision makers, Wilson always seemed to have the time for any idea that interested him, no matter who it came from.

I remember an evening meeting over a curry in central Manchester with a friend and Wilson. It was to talk about a new venture to set up a Manchester debating society, which was to discuss contemporary topics affecting the city.

I was there as editor of a Manchester magazine that was lending its support. Wilson arrived late, looking an odd shade of pink, the features of his face curiously defined.

He’d just dashed over from Granada, a five minute walk away, where he’d been filming, and was still wearing his TV make-up. He didn’t have any cash on him, so he wrote an IOU for his curry.

The last time I bumped into Wilson was a few years ago, after I’d left Manchester. As he so often seemed to do, he made his presence felt in the room, said a few hellos and swept out again.

It made my evening.

Before coming to Manchester in 1986 I’d quietly worshipped Factory from afar, then as a student his black and white portrait stared down on us all from the Haçienda box office like some benevolent pop culture guru, as we paid to go to the Temperance Club and Hot night. So many people will have similar memories. Friends and enemies alike will miss him.

Anthony Howard Wilson, 20 February 1950 – 10 August 2007

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