Funny how everyone hated Tony Wilson. Hating the head of Factory Records was a kind of sport, and being of a contrary nature, Wilson encouraged it, along with the idea that this should be an active participation sport, one that anyone could play. Wilson, like any impresario worth his salt, subscribed to the Oscar Wilde dictum that “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Since the news of his death filtered through this week—at age 57, from complications of cancer—he’s been receiving plenty of press, and one suspects he might only regret not being around to exploit it.
I first remember seeing Wilson on television when I was about 10 years old. My brother was a decade older, and consequently, of an age when music mattered more than most anything else. For him there was football, music, and then, possibly, women. Or, maybe, beer, then women. Obviously I was too young for any of it, but I was looking to learn.
David Bowie’s Low had just been released (and thankfully, in our house, purchased), and my brother was trying to make sense of it. And then there was this new music show he was watching on the telly, So It Goes, which came into our living room for half an hour soon after dinner (on Fridays, I think. I’ve debated the time-slot element with a friend, but I’ll stick to my own recollection here). The Sex Pistols’ first British television appearance was on this show, and if my recollection is correct, then I wonder now how many folks were spitting out their sausage and chips at the sight of John Lydon performing “Anarchy in the UK”.
Certainly, though, it says something for Wilson’s ‘charisma’ that he made such an impression, even on a wee lad like myself. He’d sit there, scruffy and unkempt, slumped in his chair, disaffected yet possessed of a knowing leer as he introduced obscure bands, his tone suggesting that of course you already know who these people are—and if you don’t, then you really have no business watching the show, nor even drawing in the same oxygen as those of us who do.
Arrogance and pretension were the keystones of his persona. In London and the south, those who knew of Wilson were generally involved in the music business, and he was especially inspired in inciting their loathing. Fiercely proud of his Mancunian heritage, he argued that his city had given the world the Industrial Revolution, the Trade Union Movement, Marx’s Communist Manifesto, the modern computer, Joy Division, and Manchester United. In return, he said, London had given us Chas ‘n’ Dave.
Yet, he was almost equally reviled in Manchester—though I’d suggest it was the sort of hate reserved for a perennially failing local sport’s team, a mix of embittered pride and contempt. He embarrassed us regularly, and he was obviously an arsehole, but at least he was our arsehole. Often I’d see him around town, usually exiting one of the posh clothes shops around St. Ann’s Square or along King’s Street. Almost without fail, someone would yell abuse at him: “Wilson, you twat!” It’s a popular enough term of abuse up north, but I can think of no one who inspired the term so specifically and so universally. In return, he would wave and grin, or give the ‘V’, depending upon the mood.
“I’m treated with contempt,” Wilson said. “And quite rightly so. I’m a television presenter and a big-head…” Naturally, he reveled in it. For a time during the ‘90s, he insisted on being known as Anthony H. Wilson, and only later confessed the move’s sole motive: “I wanted to wind up all the people in Manchester who think I’m a flash twat.” He was pretentious and he was a flash twat, but at least he was sincere about it. In Manchester they’ll forgive you most things if you’re straight about it.
A lasting cause of resentment was that he was Tony Wilson and they weren’t. It remains true that in England, nothing provokes envy like success. Also, it’s a country in which being ‘different’ provokes love and hate in almost equal measure. Most anyone in Manchester, or in ‘the music biz’, would have lived his life if they could, but it was his pretentiousness that was seen as the cardinal sin.
Still, few possessed his talent, his energy, or his intelligence. To say nothing of his taste. He opened the eyes and ears of many to an astonishing array of artists, and not merely those on his own label. I remember another of his television shows, The Other Side of Midnight, which appeared a decade or so after So It Goes. The program was a high-brow cross-pollination of music and books and modern media, and the show’s title and theme song came from an unheralded local urban blues band, Yargo.
Back at my parent’s house somewhere, I have a vinyl copy of Yargo’s Bodybeat, and I’ve been trying to trace a copy on CD for years (if anyone has one, perhaps you might let me know). It’s just one example of the way Wilson would utilize his position as a television personality to unearth and promote local talent.
Ultimately, though, Wilson’s defining legacy is tied up in Factory Records, in Joy Division and New Order. And not least in the beautiful, epoch-making Hacienda club. It’s true that he was regularly seen at the club, lording it up like a king surveying his territory. Wilson’s part in the Factory story is a book-length article in itself, but I think it’s worth reiterating here his adherence to principle. Many a man has claimed a lifelong devotion to Socialism, but few—certainly precious few ‘socialist businessmen’—have remained so true to their ideals. The Factory mission statement—“The artists own everything, we own nothing”—and the lack of written contracts are not mere urban myths, but real honest truths, and astonishing truths at that.
Surely there is a book of Wilson anecdotes waiting to be compiled, full of bilious words. One typical story I recall of “Pretentious Tony” is of his appearance as an after-dinner speaker at his high school alma-mater. He appeared in a white dinner jacket that was marked by a substantial red wine stain down one sleeve. When asked why he hadn’t had the jacket cleaned, Wilson explained that Leonard Cohen had spilled wine on him in Montreal in 1974. He couldn’t imagine how cleaning the jacket would improve it.
In the days since Tony Wilson passed away, there’s been an outpouring of grief in Manchester, more surprising in its affection than one might expect. The reaction to the recent death of another, lesser north-west icon, the comedian Bernard Manning, is instructive here. Manning’s act was famously ribald, his routine filled with jokes that were racist, sexist and homophobic. A few rose-tinted obituaries of Manning appeared in the press, but they were quickly supplanted by words from columnists, as well as by letters from readers, who were keen not to lose track of the fact that Manning was essentially racist, sexist and homophobic. Perhaps it goes some way to suggest that while all of us must die, the truth of our lives seldom dies with us.
The essential truth of Wilson is that he was a grand colorful character. There aren’t enough of his ilk around. He was arrogant, certainly, but paradoxically he was possessed of a great, redeeming humility, too. A fan of Duchamp and the Situationists, he was not without self-deprecation or wit. When office talk turned, as it invariably does, to the optimum way of committing suicide, Wilson’s suggestion for himself was that he would take a flying leap from the top of his own ego.
He was perennially troubled by money woes (Factory closed in 1991 with debts of two million pounds), yet undoubtedly lived well, proud in his belief that he had created for himself a life in which the intellectual culture of his city was married to a working-class yob culture. Finally, he was lucky enough to write his own epitaph: “Some make money and some make history.”
Tony Wilson, the twat.
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John Davidson is a freelance writer whose work can be found at WordsByJohnD.com. He also maintains a visual blog, which can be found at The Vanished Instant.