Born February 20 1950; died August 10 2007
Without Tony Wilson, or Anthony H Wilson as he styled himself when at his most pretentious, modern music, popular culture and urban regeneration simply wouldn’t exist in the same way. As the co-founder of Factory Records, which birthed Joy Division and Happy Mondays, two of the most influential bands of the late twentieth century to have grown out of Manchester’s post-punk scene, as founder of the world’s first super-club, The Hacienda, or as an iconoclastic broadcaster and motor-mouthed media pundit and bull-shitter immortalised by Steve Coogan in the film, 24-Hour Party People, Wilson’s flamboyant signature is embedded in a modern world which never quite repaid its debt or gave him the credit he deserved.
With the Edinburgh International Film Festival screening of Control, Anton Corbjin’s biography of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, who hanged himself aged 23 in 1980, less than a week away, Wilson’s death last week of a heart attack following complications caused by kidney cancer looks like one last brilliant attention-seeking situationist stunt. In truth, it’s a major loss that puts the full-stop on a maverick anti-career that influenced generations of music fans across the world.
Anyone growing up in the north of England in the 1970s will have first encountered Wilson via Granada Reports, the ITV region’s tea-time news and magazine programme, whose ranks also included the young, pre-chat show Judy Finnigan and Richard Madely. Younger than the rest of the show’s host and unashamedly clever, for those more used to more wooden presenters, even when reading the news there seemed to be a sarcastic sneer in Wilson’s voice. It was as if Malcolm McDowell’s portrayal of futuristic tearaway Alex De Large in Stanley Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange had hi-jacked the show.
Initially hired as a junior reporter seconded to take part in often dangerous ‘human interest’ stories, including hang-gliding and driving a Manchester corporation bus, Wilson’s laconic individual streak soon marked him for bigger things, and each Thursday tea-time, the last 15 minutes were given over to the Wilson-fronted arts magazine, What’s On. It was here the nascent punk scene started to filter through the air-waves, as the likes of Blondie, and Devo all made their UK TV debuts in this unlikely slot. It was probably the only mainstream television show where a group like the portentous, Dostoyevsky-inspired Magazine could debut songs from their new album three nights in a row.
What’s On moved to a late-night half-hour format, and became the template for Wilson’s next venture, So It Goes. A compendium of music, satire (courtesy of Clive James) and chat, it was unlike any other programme at the time. Initially networked nationwide, it was critically derided and misunderstood, and was put in an assortment of Sunday night graveyard slots around the regions. It didn’t matter, because, by the end of its first run, it had introduced The Sex Pistols, in a pre-Bill Grundy controversy TV first, to the world.
Wilson had seen the band at a gig put on by Buzzcocks and Magazine singer Howard Devoto at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall. Of the 42 people in attendance, most would go on to form the city’s future music scene. Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner would form Joy Division, Morrissey would form the Smiths and Mick Hucknall would go global with Simply Red. For Wilson, weaned on increasingly turgid Prog rock, it was an epiphany, and informed everything else he did. A third series of So It Goes was cancelled after an expletive-laden appearance by Iggy Pop, and Wilson returned to Granada Reports and Whats On.
So It Goes may have looked strange, but in retrospect it can be seen as a template for the glut of pop culture shows that fill the airwaves today. When Wilson fronted The Other Side Of Midnight at the height of early 1990s Madchester, it was essentially the same format. Only the sounds were different.
By the time So It Goes ended, Wilson, along with Joy Division manager Rob Gretton and Alan Erasmus had begun promoting gigs at a club in Hulme, which they christened The Factory, spawning Factory Records, a name which referenced Andy Warhol as much as its own industrial terrain. With designer Peter Saville and producer Martin Hannett, Factory was founded on Situationist idealism, and put out records in elaborate packaging that made the label look far bigger than it was.
Starting small, Factory gained plaudits with Joy Division’s debut album, Unknown Pleasures, while other releases followed by A Certain Ratio and others. The Return Of The Durutti Column album was housed in a sandpaper sleeve. Wilson was Factory’s mouth, a living PR machine who enabled others to create their masterpieces. This bravado reached new heights when Factory opened The Hacienda, the Ben Kelly designed night-club inspired by visits to New York. Situated on Whitworth Street, close to another legendary club, The Twisted Wheel, The Hacienda was at odds with Manchester’s pervading grimness. At first the club was a glorious failure which haemorrhaged money, most of it belonging to New Order, the band formed from Joy Division’s ashes following Curtis’s suicide. Madonna made her live UK debut there after supporting A Certain Ratio in New York.
Then came acid house, Happy Mondays and Madchester. The mood had changed, and The Hacienda was the coolest club on the planet. With a typical semantic flourish, Wilson compared Happy Mondays singer Shaun Ryder to poet WB Yeats. So full of civic pride for the scene on his own doorstep he found himself the ring-master of that when leading a seminar at New York’s New Music Seminar in 1990, along with Keith Allen and Happy Mondays manager Nathan McGough, he titled it, Wake Up America, You’re Dead. The honeymoon didn’t last, and drugs, guns and an ongoing financial mess eventually killed The Hacienda in 1997. Factory had closed in similar fashion five years earlier after expenses incurred during lengthy recording sessions by Happy Mondays.
All of this was captured in 24-Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom’s scurrilous 2002 fictionalisation of Factory. Played by Steve Coogan, Wilson was the film’s centre, a pretentious but likeable buffoon who flew through life on the back of his designer-label pants. It wasn’t all true, as Wilson’s own novelisation of the film makes clear. But as Wilson never tired of saying, if the choice was between the myth and the truth, print the myth every time.
Anthony Howard Wilson was born on February 20, 1950 in Salford. Aged five, his family moved to Marple, but Wilson would return to Salford daily after passing his 11-plus and gaining a place De La Salle grammar school. Of the 1000 entrants, Wilson had come top. Initially intending to become a nuclear physicist, he had his first epiphany when he saw Hamlet at Stratford, and a life in the arts was guaranteed. At Cambridge, Wilson studied English at Jesus College in rooms once used by the poet Coleridge. He worked on the student paper and, after leaving with a disappointing 2.2, embarked on a journalistic career. Wilson returned to Manchester and Granada Reports.
Juggling life as a TV reporter and record company boss wasn’t easy, and a short stint with World In Action wasn’t successful. Quiz shows and a stint presenting TV debates and radio talk shows were his bread and butter for most of the 1990s. With his partner Yvette Livesy Wilson founded In the City, a Manchester based music conference and industry showcase that became a model for similar events worldwide.
Factory lived on in a variety of incarnations, most recently in F4, though by this time a burgeoning network of micro-labels had again stolen Wilson’s thunder. After 13 years away, Wilson briefly returned to Granada Reports in 2002.
Much of his energy was spent campaigning for devolution for the north west of England. He founded the Necessary Group, made up of politicians and opinion-formers keen to see an elected regional assembly, and asked Peter Saville to design a flag. The idea never progressed, but, as with everything Wilson did, may simply be ahead of its time.
Manchester is a differing place today to the dark satanic mills of old. Culture and art are a vital part of the city’s reinvention, and without Wilson it’s unlikely that this year’s Manchester International Festival would even have been mooted.
After being diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, Wilson underwent emergency surgery to remove a kidney and took a course of chemotherapy at Christie Hospital. He was recommended Sutent, a pioneering new drug, but was refused it by The Greater Manchester NHS, and forced to pay £3,500 per month for it. A few miles away in Cheshire it was free.
Unable to afford the payments, Nathan McGough and current Happy Mondays manager Eliot Rashman raised funds to buy Sutent for the next few months. The huge gesture came too late to save Wilson, who died at Christie’s. “I used to say some people make money and some make history,” Wilson said recently of his plight. “Which is very funny until you find you can't afford to keep yourself alive.”
Tony Wilson made history several times over. If he’d had the money that would have allowed him to live longer, he might well have made it again.
His partner Yvette Livesy, a son Olly, and a daughter Izzy, both from a previous marriage, survive him.
Written on spec in August 2007 for The Herald and then Plan B, this remains unpublished