In an age in which many of our timeless taboos have crumbled like so much dust paedophilia and bestiality and, okay, murder are still generally regarded as beyond the pale it is strange that language, the spoken word, is still charged with the power to shock. While the UK has become an increasingly liberal place in this regard, the words “fuck” and “fucking”, once regarded as a step too far, now spice up many of our adult dramas and comedies on both the small and big screen. “Bloody”, the term that had my parents reaching for the TV off button in the late 1960s, seems as quaint as “gosh” or “golly”. Yet if “fuck” has lost its primal insolence in the last decade, it has taken a post-millennium leap to bring another term not into common usage but into the fringes of everyday exchange. “Cunt” has possessed a peculiar violence that has left it on the shelf, long after “fucking” has become the adjective of choice for the majority of the generation growing up post 1970. In fact, as I write this introduction, I have no certainty that my editors will not rely on the euphemism of c*** to save their own blushes. In a liberal English mainstream newspaper, “fuck” may now just make it in context a quotation for example. In said venue, “cunt” even quoted, would almost certainly hide behind a wall of appropriately placed asterisks.
These thoughts arose in recent weeks as a new movie, 24 Hour Party People, gained its British premiere and brought into focus the man whose fascinating misadventures it principally charts. Tony Wilson, a worthy member of a maverick British pop pantheon stretching from managers like Larry Parnes and Malcolm McLaren, to producers like Joe Meek and Pete Waterman, has become more associated than most with that form of insult that is finally losing its out-of-bounds status.
Wilson, the founder of the seminal independent label Factory, and thus sire of New Order, the Happy Mondays and others, is portrayed in the film by Steve Coogan, a widely-acclaimed comic and character actor, who hails from the same northern industrial city. When Pete Hook, bass player with New Order heard that Coogan was to bring Wilson to cinematic life he commented, according to Q magazine: “Great casting. The biggest cunt in Manchester being played by the second biggest cunt in Manchester”.
Such issues were also on the agenda when I spoke to Wilson just days before the movie was unveiled in April. It transpired that there had been some controversy over the posters advertising the film. The billboard promoters had utilised life-size portraits of the actors in the principal parts, Wilson, Shaun Ryder of the Mondays, and so on, super-imposed by a single bold word. Designer Peter Saville was “Genius”; Ryder was “Poet”.
On the posters deployed on the walls of London Underground, Wilson had been dubbed “Prat”. When I asked him about this, he was a little surprised. In Manchester, he said, the posters had featured the word “Twat”. Both terms were, again, English vernacular for the female genitalia; “prat”, an older, gentler version, “twat”, less acceptable but still not as a demonised as “cunt”. It seemed that the earthy north of England was prepared to accept the more risqué form than the moral arbiters of the capital’s transport system.
What is perhaps more peculiar is that Wilson is quite so relaxed discussing these pejorative slurs. Yet, as it has been remarked more than once, this particular individual has been far less concerned about what people call him, and always more concerned about being noticed. He has always been more happy to accept the slings and arrows of infamy than to cower in the shadows of undersung respectability.
Yet it seems curious still that Wilson, the presiding force over a great label, not to mention a world famous dance club, the Haçienda, should be the continuing victim of such pointed vitriol. Why has he become the perennial whipping boy, even of his home town? Here is a man who, almost single-handedly, wrested the UK rock crown from Liverpool in the mid-1970s and made Manchester, for the next 20 years, the undisputed heavyweight of British sub-cultural credibility. From post-punk and new wave to electro-pop; from industrial to house; from rave to rock driven by DJ beats, Wilson’s extraordinary blend of anarchy and inspiration, vision and incompetence, utopianism and pragmatism, triggered a revolution that saw music shift from grinding guitars to a global dancefloor diaspora.
There is a history, though, that is deeply parochial and ingrained with the snobberies that only British provincialism can so effectively and pettily cultivate. Wilson may have been a Mancunian, actually from an attached, sister city called Salford, but he is also an outsider a lower middle class Catholic in a working class city which has only cast aside its Protestant-Catholic divide in the last 40 years. He is a grammar school boy who made it to the hallowed halls of Cambridge University; a would-be intellectual with a boundless appetite for the low life; an admirer of giant thinkers like Anthony Burgess and Terry Eagleton, both of whom came from similar backgrounds, but more interested in wallowing in nostalgie de la boue.
Logically, in an Angry Young Man novel, Wilson, with his journalistic aspirations, would have left the smoking stacks of Manchester for the dreaming spires of Cambridge before locating himself in the high tech towers of London’s ascendant television sector. Instead, he returned to the place of his birth, became a local news presenter on the North West show Granada Reports, before establishing a dual life as on-screen reporter and rock’n'roll entrepreneur.
Such unlikely duplicity was triggered by a late-night show he hatched, a pop showcase called So It Goes, which gave TV debuts to a gallery of punk prophets including, most significantly, the Sex Pistols. The show quickly assumed cult status. When Wilson’s ground-breaking broadcasts began to run short on talent to screen, he went off and began trawling Manchester’s bars and backstreets for home-grown guitar-slingers. In the process he discovered the startling Joy Division and a producer of rare ability, Martin Hannett, and launched in 1978, on the back of a £12,000 inheritance, Factory Records.
Factory would, over the next 15 years, be a hothouse of creative excellence. While Joy Division’s flame would be prematurely extinguished by the suicide of vocalist Ian Curtis in 1980, the surviving members would go on to form New Order. They would leave behind the neo-gothic doom of their previous incarnation to forge a white hot blend of rock and dance, marrying guitar riffs and bass licks to electronic keyboards and synthesised drums. With legendary New York producer Arthur Baker they created a tune called “Blue Monday”, a track that would become the biggest selling 12 inch single ever. Yet it was typical of Factory’s management lapses that the record sleeve cost so much to produce that the label lost 5p, around 10c, on every copy sold.
Another financial disaster was the vast warehouse the label bought and transformed into a club in 1982. It took four years for the Haçienda to garner a sizeable audience it was crucial to the nascent dance scene and even when it attained a reputation across the planet as a cradle of the new culture, its bar profits were savaged by the emergence of a cheap, new drug, ecstasy, that would fuel its customers through the excesses of Madchester.
Along the way, another band assumed the mantle of Factory flag-wavers. The Happy Mondays combined a tough rock swagger with a battery of international grooves latin, African, house, techno and the E-fuelled mantras of singer Shaun Ryder. Yet the riotous 24-hour party, would speedily turn into a five year nightmare. First the Mondays swallowed vast quantities of the label’s cash on an abortive record project in the Barbados. Factory then went belly up. And in 1997, the Haçienda, for 15 years a beacon of alternative alchemy, folded in the wake of drug busts and gangster shootings.
It is this tale that lies at the heart of director Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, a self-conscious and neurotic account that captures the frenetic chaos of the Factory years. Coogan, as Wilson, plays MC, stalking the past and present with equal facility, offering insights and reflections to camera with a playful acknowledgement of Wilson’s obsession with the game of semiotics and the politics of the postmodern. It’s a furious, flawed telling of a fable, a factionalised account which Wilson himself underpins with a book-of-the-film, emphasising both the truths and lies that have been woven, over the years, into this florid myth. Layer upon layer, lie upon lie, both pieces movie and book are part trick, part treat, a more than passable reconstruction of an era I saw most of first-hand.
The story isn’t quite over, either. Even though Wilson, still a local TV anchor-man, tried to revive his Factory dream with Factory Too, it never ignited the blue touch-paper in the way the original had. But he refuses to be bowed. He says that he has discovered two great bands Joy Division/New Order and the Happy Mondays but “you don’t take home the ball unless you get a hat-trick,” he says, referring to the soccer tradition that the scorer of three goals keeps the match ball. He is, it appears, quite determined to establish an unholy trinity of world class acts and the search is still very much on. “Prat” or “twat” or “cunt”, Wilson has no intention of resting on his “laurels”. The Factory may be shut, but the eyes and ears of its founder remain wide open.