Tony Wilson remembered

Originally published 13 August 2007,

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

Peter Hook’s Haçienda book

Originally published November 2009

Peter Hook’s How Not To Run A Nightclub is a great knockabout history of the Haçienda. He tells it like he saw it (mostly through a haze of booze and drugs), charting the highs and the dark and dangerous lows of the infamous Manchester club’s 15 years of fame. It’s a roll call of Mancunian rogues, misfits and mavericks, by turns funny, sad, inspiring and downright scary.

Michael Winterbottom’s film about Tony Wilson and Factory records, 24 Hour Party People, may have played fast and loose with the facts, but there’s plenty in Hooky’s book that really is stranger than fiction: the New Order bassist pissing in a Hellmann’s mayonnaise bucket kept in the Haç’s kitchen rather than using the toilets (long queues and, when the gangs moved in, too much violence); a bin bag full of £40K in cash delivered to New Order manager and Hacienda co-owner Rob Gretton by a Salford gangster (who was also running the door at the club); the member of staff who gave the tax man the wrong books (the ones with all the cash-in-hand payments rather than the ‘official’ version).

How did such a bunch of incompetent dreamers keep the club going for so long? It’s a question that’s never fully answered in the book, and that’s hardly surprising. Because much like Factory records and New Order – who of course bankrolled the club as it haemorrhaged money – the Haçienda was a beautiful mistake; not so much a club as an art manifesto that went wrong.

Anyone who was going to clubs in Manchester from 1982 to 1997 will have stories about the Haçienda. You only had to go there once for it to leave its mark; it was that kind of place. And although fashioned out of New Order and most importantly Rob Gretton’s experience of early Eighties New York nightclubs, it was never a copy of anything.

The combination of Ben Kelly’s design and the eccentric way in which it was run (both good and bad) made sure that it was always out on its own, even when it became hugely fashionable as acid house swept Britain’s clubs in 1988.

I was a student in Manchester when the Haçienda became the most talked about club in the world. I moved to the city in 1986, a Factory records fan in love with the Peter Saville aesthetic and the eclectic, contradictory and often awkward music of the label. The Haçienda was like a Factory release in 3D. Kelly’s playful and uncompromising industrial design meant that it always felt like you were walking into a special place; to borrow from Le Corbusier, it was like a machine for dancing in. The black and white portrait of Tony Wilson smiling down on you as you paid added to the sense of occasion. The fact that it was at most half-full for the first few years that I went was a good thing; it made you appreciate the space even more.

I can vividly recall when everything changed and the influence of ecstasy and Ibiza took hold. It was the summer of ’88 and I was a regular at Wednesday’s Zumbar night, a ridiculously camp combination of catwalk-style fashion/dance routines and live PAs (I remember cheesy Eighties pop duo Dollar in particular. I seem to recall people throwing Sapporo cans at them. Which was quite something, as the Haçienda was the only place you could get this designer Japanese lager at the time). It was all presided over by a master of ceremonies with a dodgy moustache. It was great fun and there was always plenty of room at the bar.

Then Zumbar became Hot. I turned up with friends expecting Zumbar’s camp theatrics and was profoundly shocked. It was wall-to-wall acid house and I didn’t get it. I made my excuses and was on the bus home by midnight. Of course the following week I was back and it started to make more sense. Within a few weeks I was dancing on the podiums. And no, I wasn’t on ecstasy, just a few cans of strong lager.

Hooky’s book does a great job of capturing how quickly the euphoria of acid house went sour, and how success turned to disaster as the Haçienda began to creak under the weight of its popularity. By then I was a music journalist and still loved going to the club; it helped that I could now get on the guest list.

Of course things lurched from bad to worse from the early to mid-‘90s. By the time the Haçienda closed in 1997 the sadness at its demise was tempered by a huge sigh of relief. It was time to admit defeat and let Manchester clubland move on. Which of course it did.

Now that Hooky has told his side of this great, crazy story, let’s hope he can do the same.