Pop impressario Tony Wilson, the king of the Manchester music scene until his untimely death from a heart attack in 2007, left an indelible mark on popular culture. He began his career as a TV presenter and So It Goes, his music show, saw performances from – among others – The Clash, Siouxsie and The Banshees and Iggy Pop (whose sweary performance prompted ITV bosses to cancel the programme).
But it was as the owner of the legendary label Factory Records and iconic Manchester club The Haçienda that Wilson cultivated his own place in history and helped to established his city as a cultural powerhouse. As today would have been his 70th birthday, here we look back on his 10 greatest gifts to pop culture. RIP Tony – you were a hell of a bloke.
Manchester as a go-to musical destination
Sure, many of the great Manchester bands, The Smiths and The Stone Roses included, were not signed to Factory. But Tony Wilson gave post-industrial Manchester a serious leg-up when he formed the label in 1978, picking up on a music scene ignited by punk. As the empire spread to art, design and – famously – clubs, so did Manchester’s cultural cache.
Factory’s co-owner and designer Peter Saville has said: “Tony created a new understanding of Manchester; the resonance of Factory goes way beyond the music. Young people often dream of going to another place to achieve their goals. Tony provided the catalyst and context for Mancunians to do that without having to go anywhere.”
Wilson signed Joy Division in ’78, famously inking the contract in his own blood. Crucially, the deal split publishing rights 50/50 between Factory and the band, creating a level playing field in an industry that was often characterised by a power dynamic in the favour of the label. “The musicians own everything, the company owns nothing. All our bands have the freedom to fuck off,” Wilson said at the time.
When Ian Curtis tragically took his own life in 1980, the rest of band formed New Order, combining their trademark post punk with dance music, and staking Britain’s claim on a scene forged in America’s industrial cities.
The Happy Mondays
Wilson discovered Shaun Ryder and the gang at a battle of the bands contest at The Haçienda. Guitarist Paul Ryder has said: “I would still be working at the post office if it wasn’t for Tony. He was the one that gave working kids like me and Shaun their chance.”
The Factory boss had a talent for burning through money. That 50/50 deal crippled the label and it spluttered out with debts of £2m in 1992. Similarly, The Haçienda – which was co-owned by Factory and New Order – burned brightly for a while, but closed in 1997 after losing tens of thousands of pounds every month. The club’s mission was to import house music from Detroit, Chicago and New York, helping to usher in acid house and the clubby, trippy Madchester era so beloved of The Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays.
Wilson was fond of saying “we made history, not money.” In 2015, New Order drummer Stephen Morris told NME: “When The Haçienda was suggested to me, I thought it was going to be like the old Factory nights at the Russell club. I didn’t realise it was going to be so massive and grandiose. But that was Tony: he would take an idea and make it as big as he possibly could.”
The other essential indie label, Creation, wouldn’t have happened without Factory. When Wilson died, Creation Records boss Alan McGee told NME: “Factory Records was the template for every indie label with its 50/50 deals and I can honestly say without Factory there would have been no Creation. In fact if it wasn’t for his talk to us in 1985 I might have quit music altogether.”
No Factory, no Creation. The logical conclusion: no Oasis. It’s enough to make Noel Gallagher raise his caterpillar eyebrows in horror.
In The City festival
Wilson launched In The City, a concert and conference affair that was sort of the UK’s answer to SXSW, with his partner Yvette Livesey in 1992. It helped to introduce the likes of Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys and Muse – at the time without record deals – to the public, and survived for four years after his death.
John Cooper Clarke
It seems Tony Wilson didn’t just launch musicians’ careers – he also injected some talent into the rather less crowded field of punk-poets. Manchester’s John Cooper Clarke, whose witty rhymes have inspired the likes of Alex Turner, told us: “He gave me my first television gig on his Granada show. He came out to see Buzzcocks and I was third on the bill, and ended up getting chucked out of the venue for something or other, but he noticed me and said ‘No, give him a chance’. It really gave me a leg up – in those days it was really hard to get on TV, and it tripled my audiences overnight.”
The Factory project
This £110m arts venue, named after Wilson’s label and dedicated to his memory, has been touted as a force to make Manchester the “cultural capital of the world.” Bankrolled to the tune of £78m by the Government, it’ll be a malleable space that can hold 5,000 people, will host art forms from music to dance and provide a home for the annual arts shindig the Manchester International Festival. It received it;s planning permission in January 2017, and it’s due to open in July 2019. Surely be fitting tribute to Tony Wilson’s contributions to pop culture.