The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, August 13, 2007
LIBERATION DOESN’T HAVE TO HURT: TONY WILSON

It was all about playing. Playfulness. Having the ability to play, leaving time for play, realising that work is the most refined form of playing imaginable, and thereby reintroducing the word “imagination” into work – do you see what he did there? You were never going to see him hosting The Apprentice since that systematic deconstruction of the work ethic demonstrated its ultimate failure on account of its inability to admit concepts like flair and play into its scrupulously monitored and costed anti-world. Would you want Sugar’s 800 million (800 million what, exactly? Holes in Borough, SE1?) if you saw how miserable and monodimensional it made him?

Tony Wilson realised, too late to save himself maybe but not before he managed to save others, that none of it mattered; what cost resources, or assets, against the importance of making an indelible stamp, not in the Hitler sense but in the sense of changing the atoms of the world through which some of us still walk such that we’d be affected by the chain which this absurdist antecedent of Richard Madeley initiated. I recall childhood holidays in Blackpool, watching Granada Reports at rainy teatimes and already noting the Situationist waiting to break out of his flared suit, and then late at night, there he was again, on a journey somewhere from Alan Freeman to Jonathan Meades, on So It Goes, a flailing mess of a show; I saw the one with Patti Smith, and also the one with the Pistols, and also the one with AC/DC after the Whistle Test had laughed them away from their door; Clive James and Peter Cook sat around talking about nothing as though it were everything (mercifully); Alain Stivell strolled his lute, Stephan Micus, obscure even to ECM buffs in 1976, was there with his treated flugelhorn, chimes and chamberpots.

He waited for his moment, grabbed it when the Pistols played the Free Trade Hall, and everyone laughed at him for doing so in a Richard Madeley-doing-the-Twist-to-Wiley sort of a way, including possibly even Richard Madeley, and then he bounded around like a COBRA Group John Noakes, signing up bands, promising worlds to others, treating Vini Reilly like his no-longer-wayward son…

…and Factory was it, the ECM, Ogun and Incus of punk combined, catalogue numbers for people, thoughts and elements of the air as well as music; A Factory Sample I bought, complete with stickers, for the then exorbitant price of 79p out of Bloggs’ Record Shop in St Vincent Street; despite my three decades of Saturday music shopping since then, nothing has quite equalled the intense thrill of those Saturday mornings, going through the new singles boxes (in those days it was hardly ever albums), picking up exotic or cheapskate sleeves housing absurdly or improperly named acts and yet you knew you could pick them up on trust, that there would always be a new dynamic, a new perspective on the world to cover. It was the equivalent of going to a record shop and never knowing what you’d come out with in exchange for your pocket money; there was no satellite PR industry excitedly emailing me four months in advance about their prized new clients, whereas I have always favoured the music I’ve managed to find by myself, or the music my dad, or Laura, or Lena, helped or help me to find where I would otherwise have overlooked and overstepped; and A Factory Sample certainly came under that territory and thus onto mine – Durutti Column, a guitarist seemingly reading from a John Abercrombie Play In A Day manual as he worked his sumptuously inexpensive instrumental songs out, Cabaret Voltaire as though Berio had singlehandedly hauled Joe Meek out of the grave, John Dowie the necessary comic relief, and Joy Division, the former Warsaw whom I kept getting mixed up with Warsaw Pakt who recorded and released an album in 24 hours, but “Digital” and “Glass,” this wasn’t exactly Sham 69, nor quite yet Situationist 68…

My thoughts on Joy Division and New Order are beyond the range of public writing – some things you have to keep to yourself, or to those closest to you, and the one brief paragraph I have previously written on them in CoM is all that needs to be said about them here – but beyond the FACT that Factory were putting out some of the greatest music of all time (my CoM paragraph should have been FAC 812) was the truth that their records were as cherishable as any Rothko or Bonnard canvas; Peter Saville who, encouraged by Wilson, turned every Factory record and gesture into true art (if art is to be regarded as the subtlest of untruths), just so that those of us who lived through Factory know in our bones that the White Stripes calling an album De Stijl is the contemporary equivalent of Swinging Blue Jeans, The, naming one of their long-players Karel Appel.

Then there was the club, the openness, the biggest-selling 12-inch single ever which lost Wilson and Factory millions, the Durutti, ALWAYS the Durutti, A Certain Ratio reopening the road between “Family Affair” and “Breakout,” even the flipping Crispy Ambulance and Stockholm Monsters who certainly added to the gaiety of indie record shop basements of their day, especially to Bobby Gillespie and The Wake, to Section 25 and especially Sumner’s remix of “Looking From A Hilltop” which was the missing link between “Pink Moon” and “Jack Your Body,” even unto the Wendys and the Adventure Babies if you must, leaping over the James which Wilson kept only briefly, and the Roses and Pulp and Oasis which he never got in the first place (but then there was Quango Quango)...

…and the Mondays, the anti-group’s group who became so fused together with their own blissfully determined non-reason that they were the intact link between a Britain of 1967 and a different but broadly similar Britain of 1990; I listened last night to “Reverend Black Grape,” a top ten smash from a number one album which existed after Factory and the Mondays had ceased to exist, and marvelled that such an honest bullshitter like Wilson had somehow enabled this…

Was Tony Wilson the most radiant example of how to run a socialist business? His obtusely heroic refusal to tie his company to his artists was, financially, his undoing; the Hacienda prospered, then lost money, then Shaun and Bez took too long as Tina and Chris shook their heads and it all went bust and eventually – despite all of this, still holding down his Granada Reports day job – so did he. But so what if he lost everything? It was all in his head; the memories, the still vibrant realities. And of course, even if he lost every thing, he didn’t lose anyone, not even the musicians who reluctantly left him for absorption into larger corporations. But Engels was in his head, too, never left the head of Mr Manchester; how could it? He didn’t want to be a Northern McLaren stuck in Little Venice, shuffling it out with the other blue ghosts in the capital; he saw what happened with punk and wanted to make it happen in Manchester – and as a teenager growing up in Glasgow, I wished to Marx that we’d had somebody like that, so shameless, so visionary, so useless, so indispensable, to make Glasgow matter – and what he made happen by necessity became greater than anything anyone could have achieved in London.

Even after the business collapsed, he carried on, an In The City partner and spokesman who didn’t hesitate, in 1988, to remind the likes of Derrick May where Techno and House had really come from; the man who, in a spotless, crease-free cream suit, stood proudly in the 1991 city centre on TV and welcomed rave as the future (he pinpointed “Rhythm Is A Mystery,” a top three hit for Manchester’s K-Klass, as the true spirit of punk continuing and self-refreshing). He remained affably available for outraging comments as a media pundit; he could live with ruination since what he had inspired was indestructible. He was a nitwit who couldn’t run an egg and spoon race, let alone a record company; he was the greatest record company boss who ever lived. He made no money out of it but money wasn’t the point. It was a life curtailed, in large part because he didn’t have the money to spend on the new cancer-relieving drugs and neither did his primary care trust, but he was an artist, a charlatan without the capital C, one of the only socialists in the media I can think of who lived absolutely as he meant life to be lived, and without an aorta of bitterness inside him. A knowingly naff TV personality who enabled some of the greatest of all music to be voiced. An eejit and a genius. A glass or two to him tonight, and label those FAC 682 and the man himself FACT Eternal, though no doubt he would have preferred FAC Off. What a player.


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