On the eighth anniversary of his death, ‘St Anthony: An Ode To Anthony H Wilson’, has been released in tribute to the late Factory Records boss. Watch the star-studded Andrew Weatherall remix video exclusively on NME.COM and read Barry Nicolson on the legacy of the iconic Manchester maverick, featuring interviews with New Order and Durutti Column
Liverpool has St Nicholas; Glasgow has St Mungo; even Exeter has St Sidwell. Now, thanks to poet Mike Garry and composer Joe Duddell, Manchester has a civic saint of its own: St Anthony. As Garry’s and Duddell’s heartfelt tribute single ‘St Anthony: An Ode To Anthony H Wilson’ attests, Tony Wilson’s miracle is modern Manchester itself, and its transformation from post-industrial wasteland to the thriving cultural hub of the Northwest, and one of Britain’s preeminent music metropolises.
The city as we know it today would be unimaginable without the artists and institutions – such as Joy Division, New Order, The Haçienda and Happy Mondays – the late Factory records boss (who passed away in August 2007) helped facilitate. His canonisation, informal though it may be, is long overdue.
Yet Wilson was also one of the music industry’s most complex and contradictory characters: an entrepreneurial hustler who was uninterested in money, the boss of a hugely successful record label who gave its bands complete ownership of the music they released and a countercultural catalyst and habitual self-mythologiser whose day-job was in light entertainment.
“Everyone came across Tony in the same way – he was the bloke off the telly,” remembers New Order’s Stephen Morris – pictured above – who used to run home from the pub on Saturday nights to watch So It Goes, Wilson’s weekly music show on Granada Television, where the Sex Pistols made their TV debut. “Your first impression of him was that he was a show-off and a knobhead, but that was something he cultivated – he liked people not liking him. But once you got to know him, you discovered that he was a really brilliant, clever guy. He was really big on [computer scientist and Bletchley Park codebreaker] Alan Turing and all the work he did in Manchester. He believed the city was on a par with anywhere else in the world; that it was severely underrated. I think he fancied himself as Emperor of Manchester, which he probably would’ve been very good at…”
Tony Wilson’s love of Manchester went beyond the sense of civic pride most people feel for their hometown: not only did he believe in the city’s cultural potential at a time when few saw any to speak of, but he was determined to realise it, to give Manchester a new sense of itself. When Wilson and Alan Erasmus started Factory Records in 1978, the music industry was still massively London-centric, and Wilson himself had lived and worked there as an ITN reporter after graduating from Cambridge. When he got his job at Granada, he initially saw the move back to Manchester as a temporary one, but it proved permanent.
“There was that famous thing where he was going to go to London and he put his stuff in the car and turned around halfway down and came back, because he wanted to stay in Manchester,” says BBC broadcaster Mark Radcliffe. “I think for all of us doing radio shows, going to the clubs, listening to new music and playing in bands, he more than anyone else made us believe that you didn’t have to wait for some wanker in London to give you permission to do it. We could do it all here. When he later became a passionate believer in the Regional Assembly, it was no surprise, because he absolutely believed that we didn’t need any permission or help from anyone outside of Manchester.”
Inspired by situationist ideologies and the Sex Pistols’ legendary show at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in June 1976, Wilson envisioned Factory not as a business, but as an engine for cutural regeneration. It began with a series of club nights at the Russell club in Hulme, but Wilson always had something far greater in mind. “Anthony really was a saint,” insists Durutti Column guitarist Vini Reilly – pictured above – the first artist to sign to Factory, and who Wilson personally managed for many years. “Factory was originally funded with an inheritance from his mother, who he adored and who he had a very close bond with, and he decided that he needed to put that money to good use. He loved music, obviously, but the most important thing for him was literature. If he’d been left more money, he would’ve done something literary, but music was the next best thing. It was never meant to earn him anything – in fact, it didn’t earn him anything. He never made a penny from it. The only money he ever earned from managing me, he spent on a cheap car stereo that he’d use to listen to demos that he’d been sent.”
Wilson’s well-paid job at Granada allowed him to be cavalier with money – his own, as well as other people’s. When Joy Division signed to Factory in 1978, having turned down million-pound offers from London, the contract – famously written in Wilson’s blood – stated that, “The musicians own everything, the company owns nothing. All our bands have the freedom to fuck off.” It was the first in a series of quixotic business decisions that would cement Factory’s legend but ultimately prove its undoing, and arguably the biggest of them was The Haçienda – Britain’s first superclub, a joint venture between Factory and New Order which became Madchester’s answer to Mecca, but which also lost tens of thousands of pounds every month.
“Being able to do what you wanted was fantastic, but when you don’t know what you’re doing – which none of us did, because we were all making it up as we went along – then it can become total chaos,” says Stephen Morris, who along with his bandmates sunk a fortune into the club. “That was the downside of Factory, particularly from a financial point of view. Tony used to do the accounts by writing everything on the back of his hand – then he’d accidentally wash it off! Nobody would ever say, ‘No, we can’t do that, it’s too much money.’ 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.”
“We made history, not money,” was how Wilson would later look back on The Haçienda, but whatever losses the company itself might have incurred, for the generation who grew up listening to Factory’s artists, or discovering ecstasy in its white elephant of a nightclub, the gains were undoubtedly worth it. “When I was a 15 year-old soft southern suburbanite, Tony Wilson was one of the gatekeepers to a parallel universe of dark exoticism,” says DJ Andrew Weatherall. “I was obsessed with the whole Factory thing, and it even led me to going onstage with a bleach-blonde haircut and big shorts, in a very substandard impersonation of A Certain Ratio. He just opened cultural doors when I was 15 or 16, and I will forever love him for that. He still resonates with me, because the track ‘Never There’ on my last album goes, ““Never there when you want me, always there when you need me“, which is what he said to two disgruntled members of Section 25 in the New Order Play At Home documentary.”
Even after Factory’s demise in 1992 – brought about when Wilson found himself unable to sell off its most valuable asset, the music, because he’d never actually owned the rights to any of it – he remained fascinated by the cyclical nature of musical revolutions, or as Stephen Morris puts it, “the way in which people do the same things, but at different times and with different technology”. The state of the modern music industry, however, means that Wilson himself looks increasingly like an anomaly, and it’s hard to imagine Factory achieving even half of what it did in the fractured cultural climate we live in today. That’s what makes ‘St Anthony’ so timely and so important. We might never see Tony Wilson’s like again, but his legacy is written into the bricks and mortar of Manchester itself, whether it’s the newly-announced Factory arts centre that’s being built on the site of the old Granada studio, Peter Hook’s FAC251 nightclub, located in the label’s old office building, or even the luxury flats which now stand where The Haçienda once did, and which bear the legendary club’s name. Wilson always had a gift for self-mythologising, but not even he could have foreseen the extent of what he and his anarchic little label would accomplish.
Tony Wilson died in 2007 in Manchester’s Christie Cancer Hospital. All profits from the single will go to The Christie Charitable Fund