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

Manchester on my mind

Originally published in issue 3 of Belle Vue magazine, 2010

It’s April 1995 and Shaun Ryder, previously of Happy Mondays and now of Black Grape, is holding court in a London recording studio. Recently relocated to the capital and – am I imagining this? – living with Donovan’s daughter, he has a can of Guinness in one hand, a spliff in the other and, despite the odds, is talking a lot of sense. I ask him about Manchester: “Manchester? It’s like I’ve got a big fucking elastic band around my neck that keeps pulling me back to the place.”

Fifteen years on, I think I finally understand what he meant. Let me explain. I lived in Manchester for 16 years. It’s a familiar story: moved to the city as a student, decided to stay. It was 1989 when I graduated and I wanted to write about music. There wasn’t a better place to be.

So I wrote about music and doors started to open. I got on the Haçienda guest list and met my heroes (New Order, Rob Gretton, Tony Wilson, Les Dawson); became editor of City Life magazine and four years later was marched out of the MEN building after accepting a job on a rival paper; had a blast in a ‘mine’s bigger than your’s’ newspaper war. Manchester was good to me and I like to think I returned the love.

I live in Glasgow now, another great city (I grew up near Wolverhampton; next stop Reykjavik). I left Manchester in 2003, and although friends and work continued to take me back frequently, the city started to feel like a memory, my past rather than present. When Tony Wilson died in 2007 it was as if a door had been closed.

But I didn’t figure on that elastic band.

Recently it’s been pulling me back. I’m self-employed now and working with some great Manchester characters again. I’m in the city most weeks and when I am I keep bumping into people that I haven’t seen for years, reacquainting myself with old friends and colleagues. What was it that Tony said about Manchester being a village?

So much has changed in Manchester since I left yet so much has stayed the same; that’s what cities do, isn’t it? It’s as if I’m getting to know the place I used to call home all over again, and it’s a good feeling.

I get a knot of excitement in my stomach every time the train from Glasgow reaches Salford Crescent and I glimpse Ian Simpson’s ridiculously audacious skyscraper and think about the who, what and why of living in one of those apartments above the Hilton; when I pass Castlefield basin and take in the historical mash-up of old and new and spot the back windows of the flat I used to live in; when I step out of Oxford Road Station and turn round to view the 1960s splendour of a building that always makes me think of a particularly chic ski chalet in the Swiss Alps, even though I’ve never been to such a place.

I don’t feel like a tourist, but I do find myself acting like one; I’m taking in the sites. Britons Protection; the Deaf Institute; John Rylands Library; Rochdale Canal; the CIS Building; the mess that is Piccadilly Gardens (how I groan at every bit of rotten wood, muddy grass and badly weathered concrete); that lovely curved passageway between the Town Hall extension and Central Library; the top end of King Street; the Civil Justice Centre at Spinningfield; Piccadilly Hotel, which like the new courts, still looks to me as if it’s descended from the set of Battlestar Galactica (an entirely good thing, I think).

This rekindling of my Manchester gene has made me think about my new home too. These tough, history-drenched cities have a lot in common, from the banal (yes, it rains even more in Glasgow) to the more edifying (a rich seam of creative talent and an eye on the future).

But it’s what’s different about each city that most excites; there’s not much joy to be had in sameness. I love the sheer muscular physicality of Glasgow city centre’s grid system of main streets and service alleys – Manchester feels rather laissez-faire in comparison; I get a kick out of the undulating landscape, the way buildings cling to the sides of steep hills and the feeling of openness this gives – Glasgow is a city with a view, whereas Manchester can feel closed off, hemmed in.

And then there’s the bridges. The Clyde’s added a couple since I’ve been in Glasgow (and why not? You can never have too many in my view). Pedestrian, rail, road, they go from the thoughtfully ornate to the brutally functional. They do more than just span the Clyde; they’re a constant reminder of the river’s role in shaping the city.

Of course it’s people that make cities not bricks and steel and glass (or rivers, for that matter). But buildings record and recount people’s stories in both their presence and absence. They’re like those time capsules that get buried every so often for future generations to find, except of course they’re not at all because, above ground, nothing gets preserved, time doesn’t stop.

So, here I am with Manchester on my mind again, attempting to decipher its many signposts to the past and future. That’s what I get from the city every time I’m pulled back here. The elastic band may get stretched over time, but I don’t believe it will ever be broken.