Union strike. Garbage strike. Nurse’s strike. Gravedigger’s strike.
Manchester, England in 1979, as all of England at that time, was in serious decline economically, politically, and socially. There was no money, there were no jobs, and there was an especially virulent form of nationalist neo-fascism sweeping the United Kingdom. England’s anti-immigrant movement, the National Front, which blamed all social and economic ills on every minority class within its territories, was so strong that its 300 candidates across the nation garnered over 300,000 votes in general elections.
The National Front was omnipresent during England’s self-proclaimed “Winter of Discontent,” marching through the streets, rioting, and violently spreading its message of hate throughout the nation. It was the perfect time for a leader of strength to appear and set the country right. So, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of England, and, well…the rest, as they say, is history.
There was, however, another guiding light in England who may not have accumulated the, uh, accolades of The Iron Lady, but who did, in his own way, attempt to set right these out-of-joint times; respected television presenter, punk rock enthusiast, and Manchester’s own Anthony H. Wilson. “Tony” was one of the 40 people present at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976 when the Sex Pistols played there, and was galvanized into devoting the rest of his life to presenting new music, both young and strange, not only to his neighborhood environs, but to the unsuspecting world at large.
Any glance at the UK charts in 1979 can inform people of all they need to know concerning the crap state of pop music at that time. The Village People’s “YMCA” was the number one song for 3 weeks at the beginning of 1979, with Art Garfunkel’s “Bright Eyes” at number one for an astounding three weeks (does anybody even remember this song???), with “Ring My Bell” and “I Will Survive” not far behind. Elsewhere, the Grease OST, Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door, and Journey’s Evolution all shared space for number one album in 1979.
Not that there is anything inherently evil with any of these offerings, but it is obvious that the music released in this era was not meant to speak to any listener’s sense of individuality, but, instead, to lull the masses into a state of complacency with smooth harmonies, non-intrusive rhythms, and generic romanticism. Even David Bowie, who had released the intensely personal Low and “Heroes” albums in 1977, sent the global message art pop of Lodger into the world in 1979. By discarding the broken psychology of his Berlin years for a more measured and detached missive that explored “Big” themes, Bowie successfully distanced himself from the outcast nature of much of his audience, objectively commenting on isolation and alienation from afar. Unintentionally or not, Bowie personified, with Lodger, much that was wrong with the state of pop music in 1979.
Enter Tony Wilson. He took over Friday nights at a local Manchester club, renaming it The Factory as a Situationist pun on England’s abominable unemployment rate, and as a nod to Andy Warhol’s place of business in the 1960’s. Wilson befriended local bands like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Joy Division, and, um, A Certain Ratio, and decided to start the Factory Records label. His contract, written in his own blood, was a simple promise that, “The musicians own everything. The company owns nothing. All our bands have the freedom to fuck off.” Who could argue with that?
With the first wave of punk rock largely collapsing in upon itself like some dying star in a far off galaxy, leaving its promise of a brave new world unfulfilled, Tony Wilson took it upon himself to provide a shock to the system in the form of a new, and localized, artistic movement. Joy Division, The Durutti Column, and Cabaret Voltaire were polar opposites musically, yet each contributed singular artistic visions that Tony Wilson felt exemplified the Factory aesthetic. Wilson professed to be unconcerned with marketplace commodity, but, instead, set his sights on the shock and outrage of the new, often at the expense of reasonable business sense.
Taking his cue from late Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, himself an avowed Situationist International adherent, Wilson disregarded corporate dictates and, instead, treated each element of Factory output as an invited guest to the art party. He constructed record covers so expensive to produce that his company lost money every time the record was sold; he released an album housed in a sandpaper cover (in honor of French SI co-founder Guy Debord, who also published his 1959 philosophical Dadaist tract Mémoires in a sandpaper cover to purposely destroy the books adjacent to it on the shelf); and he put a 19th century family tomb, and a 19th century painting of roses, on record covers instead of the more commonly accepted glamour photos of the bands in make-up, with teased hair, and in flattering light.
Further, Wilson also gave everything, everything, having to do with Factory business a catalogue number. Not only did Factory records, tapes, and other merchandise have catalogue numbers (e.g., Joy Division’s first album, Unknown Pleasures, had the Factory Records catalogue number FACT 10), but items such as office stationary was catalogued (FAC 7); poducer Martin Hannett’s lawsuit against Factory Records (FAC 61); the Haçienda cat (FAC 191); flowers for Paul Ryder’s wedding (FAC 282); the Temporary Contemporary Table featured in Wilson’s boardroom (FAC 331); and last, I suppose, Tony Wilson’s coffin (FAC 501).
Essentially, Wilson attempted to infuse the clinical, corporate pop music scene of the early 1980’s with a sense of artistic adventure and experimentation missing from the airwaves at the time. It seems that he was continually willing to risk everything financially to produce that one unique thing that could not be found anywhere else, and on most counts he succeeded. However, for the sake of artistic ingenuity, and to the eternal consternation of his long-suffering business partners, he also lost amazing amounts of money by following his elusive artistic ideals and staying true to the signed-in-blood words of his contract.
In this sense, Wilson should, at least, be remembered as a music executive with integrity and daring, and one who, somehow, believed it would all work out in the end, which, in a way, it sort of did. Unfortunately, only time will tell if Tony Wilson will join posterity as one of pop music’s leading visionaries, along with Brian Epstein, or Kit Lambert, or Andrew Loog Oldham, or even Malcolm McLaren. It is probably too soon to tell, but, chances are, his story isn’t finished quite yet.
Tony Wilson died of cancer at the age of 57 in 2007, but 24 Hour Party People isn’t about him. It’s “about” that brief moment in time, from Joy Division to the Happy Mondays, when Factory Records, in its own uncompromising and non-conformist way, transmitted arcane knowledge from the end of the world to your town. The movie begins with an allusion to Icarus, and, along the way, also references such notable pop music icons as Boethius, Plutarch, William Blake, T.S. Eliot (“I am not Prince Hamlet/Nor was meant to be”), 19th century renaissance man William Morris (“Nothing useless can be truly beautiful,” which is a slightly inaccurate misquote of Morris, but close enough for rock and roll), W.B. Yeats (who, God agrees with Wilson, is on a par with Shaun Ryder as a poet), as well as Werner Herzog’s 1977 film, Stroszek. There is even a brief snippet of Kajagoogoo’s “Too Shy.”
24 Hour Party People includes cameos by a veritable Who’s Who of British in-crowders, including Tony Wilson himself (as the Studio Director), as well as The Fall’s Mark. E. Smith (as “Punter”), members of Happy Mondays, the real Howard Devoto, Mani from the Stone Roses, and, of course, God, among others. There are UFO’s in Manchester and CGI pigeons dropping from the sky. There is also just enough of Iggy Pop’s The Idiot tucked away in the final Ian Curtis scene to give it authenticity (it was the last thing he listened to).
Strangely, 24 Hour Party People feels authentic, in that it appears to be credibly researched, and constructed with unquestionable affection. It doesn’t succumb to the fawning evasion of the many ugly, bitter truths that mar much of Factory’s history. It shows how swiftly one can plunge into a barbed wire fence immediately after soaring unencumbered through the stratosphere. 24 Hour Party People also reminds us, as my former friend Nasstassja would confirm, that Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” catalogue number FAC 23, is possibly the greatest single ever recorded.
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.