Mr. Manchester

How Tony Wilson changed the face of pop culture.

Tony Wilson. Click image to expand.
Tony Wilson

Tony Wilson, the television journalist and music impresario who died of a heart attack a week ago at age 57, inspired the only great rock biopic ever made. It’s a minor achievement, in the scheme of things—but it’s a revealing one. 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 film chronicling Wilson’s creation of Factory Records and the Haçienda nightclub in ‘80s and ‘90s Manchester, was not (like Ray or El Cantante or any of a dozen others) an earnest hagiography sprinkled with Behind the Music prurience. It was a comedy, a fizzy farce. The tone befit the movie’s hero, who managed to accomplish some very serious things, changing the face of popular culture—and, far more important to Wilson himself, changing his beloved, battered home city—without tamping down his flaming irony and impishness, or bothering to bring a whit of good business sense to the conduct of his affairs. He was, as Steve Coogan portrayed him in the 2002 film, a clown triumphant.

The Wilson legend begins, like so many important pop music stories of the past three decades, with a Sex Pistols concert. Wilson, then a local newscaster, was one of 40 or so people at the 1976 show by the Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall—the other attendees included future members of the Buzzcocks, the Fall, the Smiths, Simply Red, and Joy Division—and was intoxicated by the Pistols’ electroshock mix of conceptual art, protest, and noise. He invited the band on his show, So It Goes (it was the Pistols’ broadcast debut), and vowed to do his part to foster Manchester’s burgeoning punk scene, founding a showcase for local bands, the Factory Club, which in 1979 spun off an eponymous record label. Factory would go on to release some of the most important post-punk records of the next decade-plus, by artists such as Joy Division, New Order, A Certain Ratio, the Durutti Column, and Happy Mondays, before going bankrupt. In 1982, Wilson (in partnership with his Factory Records co-owners and members of New Order) opened FAC 51 Haçienda, better known simply as the Haçienda, a beautifully designed megaclub that hosted Madonna’s U.K. debut, served as the symbolic epicenter of the late-’80s and early-’90s “Madchester” dance-rock explosion, and helped bring house music and rave culture to Britain.

Those are the headlines of Wilson’s life. Impressive to be sure, although the recitation of the résumé in no way conveys the madcap, anarchic way he made it all happen. (“One of my worst habits,” he once said, “is that I can talk to my bosses and my betters as if they’re pieces of shit.”) For music fans, Wilson’s legacy is self-evident on “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” “Blue Monday,” “Step On,” and other records that bridged the gap between genres and eras. Factory’s earliest releases, especially those of the label’s flagship act, Joy Division, remain massively influential and totally transcendent. The best tracks are tuneful and eerie, full of evocative silences and space, propelled by an insistent beat—it was the sound of punk making peace with lush melody and the discothèque. (As you read this, a hundred Brooklyn bands are hunkered in rehearsal spaces trying to replicate Joy Divison’s Unknown Pleasures LP.) Wags associated the sound with the gloom of Manchester, with slate Northern skies and a foreboding industrial landscape—a notion that Wilson rightly rejected, both on musical grounds and for reasons of civic pride. “I don’t find it gloomy,” Wilson told an interviewer. “It’s like saying that Hamlet is gloomy.”

Wilson’s first love was his hometown, which, he would always insist, in the face of its post-industrial, economic malaise, was the greatest place on earth. His boosterism helped turn England’s “third city” into a pop-culture mecca, a model that has been followed by indie boosters around the world, from Seattle to Toronto and beyond, whose vibrant music scenes are in part the product of utopianism, the insistence that their towns are as cool as—no, cooler—than London or New York or Los Angeles. Every Manchester band, even those not on his record label—the Buzzcocks, the Fall, the Smiths, the Stone Roses—owes a debt to the voluble cheerleader who put their city on the map.

Wilson was a strange mix of carnival barker, hack journalist, and intellectual. He was forever bloviating about punk’s links to the Situationists and other philosophical movements. No one who has seen Factory’s gorgeous, über-sleek LP cover designs could doubt that Wilson was a man of certain tastes and pretensions. It was Wilson’s dedication to his aesthetic and sense of propriety, regardless of how the numbers crunched, that led to the repeated implosion of his entrepreneurial ventures. When the Haçienda was at its late-’80s apotheosis, one of the most famous clubs in the world, it still charged less for door fees and drinks than many Manchester dives. (While Wilson and his partners were hemorrhaging cash, the drug dealers at the Haçienda were raking it in.) The most famous story involves the 12-inch single of New Order’s “Blue Monday,” a huge best-seller, which Factory managed to lose money on because the label had shelled out so much on the sleeve art design. These days, you can pick up a copy cheap on eBay, a keepsake to remind you of Tony Wilson’s terrible head for business and great head for the other stuff—awesome album covers, all-night parties, art, joy, mischief—that mattered more.