Towards the end of the hilarious Factory Records biopic 24 Hour Party People, label chief Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), gets so high he hallucinates he is being visited by God (Coogan, again). “It’s a pity you didn’t sign the Smiths,” God/Coogan tells Wilson/Coogan. “But you were right about Mick Hucknall. His music’s rubbish, and he’s a ginger!” Tragically, by now, the real-life Wilson (pictured) knows whether these really are the views of his Maker, having died on Friday at the age of 57 following a battle with kidney cancer.
Anyone that thinks the preceding paragraph an inappropriate way to start an obituary clearly never met Wilson, who had a keen a sense of both the comic and the absurd — which was fortunate, given that the history of the Manchester, England-based Factory featured hefty dollops of both. The man whose label brought us Joy Division, New Order, the Happy Mondays and A Certain Ratio was also a pretty relentless self-publicist who at times seemed to care little WHAT was written about him as long as people WERE writing about him.
Several years ago, while working at a different publication, I cameup with the idea of running a feature about “The Most Disastrous Albumsof All Time,” which would detail such notorious record biz fiascos asMC Hammer’s gangsta album The Funky Headhunter and Mariah Carey’s Glitter.Predictably, few of the people involved in these doomed projects werekeen to reminisce about them for a piece whose all-round snarkiness wassummed up by its intro: “No one likes to remind others of theirgreatest failures. Except us.” And except Wilson, who was more thanhappy to get on the phone and chat about the Happy Mondays’ notorious1992 opus … Yes Please! The album had been recorded inBarbados under the assumption that the limited availability of heroinon the island would help the dance-rockers’ junkie lead singer ShaunRyder kick the drug. “Nobody told us,” Wilson recalled, “that whilethere is no smack there, it is the center for crack cocaine on theAmerican continent.” Thus, Ryder merely switched from one narcotic toanother and before long was smoking in the region of 50 rocks a day.The hugely expensive but poor-selling result effectively destroyed bothHappy Mondays and Factory Records.
But the influence of Wilson and Factory is one that cannot, andnever could, be measured in strictly commercial terms. The label’sclub, the Hacienda, for example, was more money pit than profit centerfor various reasons — not least the fact that people dancing while onecstasy (and there was rarely a shortage of people dancing while onecstasy at the Hacienda) tend to drink water rather than alcohol.However, the club played an essential role in incubating the dancemusic revolution that swept across the UK and beyond in the late ’80sand early ’90s.
If legend is to believed, even Factory’s most famous success — New Order’s “Blue Monday” single — was a commercial disaster due to the fact that its ornate packaging meant each copy actually cost the label money (as recounted in this NSFW clip from 24 Hour Party People).Wilson’s commitment to art over commerce — and this CambridgeUniversity graduate’s verbose philosophizing in general — made him acontroversial figure. When New Order bassist Peter Hook heard thatlocal boy Steve Coogan was to portray Wilson in 24 Hour Party People, he was allegedly moved to comment that this meant “Manchester’s biggest c–t” would being played “by its second biggest.”
Yet Wilson was also a heroic and ultimately beloved figure. Afternews of his death broke, Hook himself was moved to write on his MySpace page,”It’s a very, very, very sad day. I feel very lost. It’s like my fatherdying all over again. I’m devastated.” It also seems cruel Wilsonshould have been taken from us just as he is to be depicted AGAIN onthe big screen in Anton Corbijn’s forthcoming Joy Division biopic Control.
Despite having met him on a few occasions, I can’t claim to haveknown Wilson. Yet I do feel a definite sense of loss at his passing. Hewas a unique figure on the music scene — the exact opposite of thestereotypical, ponytail-sporting label bean counter. And for all itsfaults, Factory Records was an amazing thing — more art project thanrecord label, really — whose failures tended to be more interesting,and influential, than most label’s successes.
Maybe it’s good he didn’t sign the Smiths after all.