Tony aka Anthony H Wilson died on Friday at the Christie Hospital in Manchester after suffering from kidney cancer. An obituary appears here.
When I heard the news it occurred to me what an influence on my life he’d had, even though I never met him. As an teenager, I was massively into Joy Division, and naturally this spread into an interest in all things Factory. A lot of stuff on the label was crap (Tunnelvision, Crawling Chaos, Stockholm Monsters), but the attention to detail that the company paid to the packaging often meant that I wasn’t that bothered that I’d bought a record of dubious worth.
The financial black hole that was the Hacienda was beginning to take off when I moved to Manchester in 1987. Even so, it was only on Saturday nights that it ever got full. Dave Haslam’s Temperance Night on Thursdays was always easy to get into, and played a great mix of house, electro, soul and indie – with Inner City, the Stone Roses and 808 State running seamlessly together. I guess it was from there that the ‘Madchester’ thing developed. By then, though, the club had lost its appeal to me. It wasn’t that I was too hip to be seen at anything so popular. It was just too crowded, took too long to queue to get in and was full of bus loads of suburban pillheads – the weekend hippies of the acid house generation. The guns came later to kill it off completely.
Another of Wilson’s projects was the In The City music convention, loosely based on the New York New Music Seminar shindigs. This involved prising the London based industry out of their boardrooms and (gasp!) north of the M25. It was fun for us residents, as there were loads of (often free) shows to go to, coupled with the additional sport of taking the piss out of the pony-tailed cokeheads – all squeezed into their promotional T-shirts, promotional tour jackets and trying to appear important. It emphasised the contrast between the London industry and outfits like Wilson’s Factory.
In the obituaries and death notices, Wilson’s been described as a music ‘mogul’. That conjours up an image of a Sam Goldwyn type tycoon presiding over his empire. The truth is that Wilson’s enthusiasm, nose for talent and big gob weren’t matched by business savvy. Neil Bogert famously bankrupted his own Casablanca label in the seventies by blowing all the company’s earnings on mountains of cocaine and posh cars for everyone at the label down to the post-boy. Wilson’s way was much more in the British slapstick tradition – million selling records with such an intricate sleeve design that the company made a loss on every copy sold (“Blue Monday”), the hugely expensive and impractical boardroom table (FAC331) designed for the new HQ on Charles Street (subsequently broken by the Happy Mondays sitting on it), and out-of-control recording budgets.
Wilson could come across as pompous, and had an unfailing capacity of upsetting people by saying stuff that could be misconstrued as hugely insensitive (like Ian Curtis’ suicide being a great career move), or self-aggrandizing and arrogant. A lot of people didn’t get the black humour and self-mockery that underpinned it. He could dish it out, but was more than able to take it. Those he upset usually had egos that needed taking down a peg or two anyway. It’s why he had a pretty distinguished career as a TV journalist. He was as good as Paxman, Humphries et al, but he always to prefered to stay local – whether at Granada or BBC Manchester.
Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 film 24 Hour Party People was probably the funniest British film since Life Of Brian. It says something about the man that the Tony Wilson on screen (played by Steve Coogan) was much more of a dick than the man in real life – and yet it was based on his own book. Few people these days have the self-confidence that allows them to poke fun at themselves quite so mercilessly. It was part of his charm, and part of the reason he’ll be missed. He was a one-off.