Factory Records was as influential in design, sound production, and defining what a label could be as it was in music.
It’s tempting to place the history of Factory Records within the spaces between its chronological first song and the last song of Factory’s original incarnation, both of which appear in that sequence on Rhino Records’ expansive four-disc box set Factory Records: Communications 1978-92. The first track from the four-way split A Factory Sample EP, FAC 2, is Joy Division’s “Digital”, an urgent starter built around an oscillating riff and lyrics that are both claustrophobic and bleak. Singer Ian Curtis’s vocals are delivered with a militaristic physicality that perfectly befits his group’s future SS-inspired fashion sense. As he shouts on the track, “Day in / Day out / Day in / Day out”, you sense the intrinsic yearning, nay the imperative, to escape the forbidding monotony that the song dictates must continue “closing in”.
As the infamous legends of Curtis’s fate have made clear, only in death was he ever able to escape it, that hollow earth that he felt had abandoned him and his human brethren. To Curtis, civilization was simply morose suture, stitching across the gaping void that is humanity’s capacity for darkness. Yet it was within this desolation that a completely different kind of musical culture would emerge, new sonic avenues would be explored, and a Hacienda that must be built would be built. Curtis’s premature departure was Factory’s reluctant arrival, his single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” cruising up British charts as bandmates and friends attempted to mourn and, according to Communications' sleeve notes scribe Paul Morley, ignore their own belated hype.
If Curtis was the one who erected the Factory empire, the band that brought it all down also bears the distinction of putting out the aforementioned label’s last release. The Happy Mondays’ single “Sunshine & Love” (represented here by an inferior Lionrock remix) was plucked from the band’s disastrous fourth album, Yes Please!, recorded in Barbados on a massive budget that mainly involved Shaun Ryder splurging all of Factory’s money on indulgences and excesses. Ryder’s lyrics to the original “Sunshine & Love” seem to signal the end of the ecstasy dream that his band had helped facilitate. “The bad vibes, so moody, when it should just move me / So get me an Uzi and someone to use it who smiles… / Can’t get enough of your sunshine / Can’t get enough of your love”, reads the lyric sheet. In true Factory fashion, Ryder’s “can’t get enough” was less about the exaltation of overconsumption than it was about an itch that couldn’t be scratched.
Ryder, like Curtis, felt jailed by his experience and his dependency. Curtis was confined because he was never able to break out of his own fortress of solitude, his mind’s eye panopticon of self-refusal. The drugs that dominated his life were epilepsy meds, which began to deteriorate his enjoyment of music-making. Ryder, on the other hand, had manifested an artificial paradise whose utopian post-culture idyll was now clashing with the dreary, rotting albatross of industrial permanence that Curtis had been so fixated on in the final years of his life. UK Rave and its Madchester kin faced terminal opposition from the powers that be, who perceived the music as a countercultural surrogate of traditional work and play, and hence a threat. At the same time, the drugs, the sunshine and love, not only began to wear off, but also transformed from a cosmic portal to the beyond into the destination itsef.
Thus, the space between “Digital”, named after Martin Hannett’s favorite toy -- the AMS digital delay -- and “Sunshine & Love” is merely the width of circle. Ryder’s righteously celebratory and stroboscopic masterpiece “24 Hour Party People” gave way to A Certain Ratio’s “All Night Party” from 17 years previous. “All Night Party”, A Certain Ratio’s debut single, is beatless proto-Batcave goth like Bauhaus’s “Boys” that reads as dejected as Curtis ever got. “I work all day / I drink all night / My life is just an angry blur… / The all night party goes on and on and on…”
Thus, like good postmodernists, Factory Records had decentralized culture and become the new center. The label didn’t exactly die in 1992. The Hacienda lived on until 1997. Attempts at Phoenix-like resuscitation by Tony Wilson continued from Factory Too to F4, distributing Stephin Merritt in Britain, promoting grime MC Raw T for the masses, and still relentlessly searching for an audience for Vini Reilly. Factory’s Situationist tactic of assigning catalogue numbers to meaningful events and ephemera continued through the release of several films, books, and websites, culminating in FAC 501, “Anthony H. Wilson & His Funeral & His Coffin”. Yet, for all intents and purposes, Factory had to self-destruct at the peak of its power to authenticate its apocryphal role as the lone agent in all that took place during its years of operation. Wilson, in 24 Hour Party People, makes no qualms about owning his narrative, no matter how much of it may have actually happened.
The closest we may then get to the empirically “real” story of Factory records then lies in the music between “Digital” and “Sunshine & Love”, even if the specious legends created new truths that outlived Factory’s due date.
Factory was the brainchild of Granada TV host Wilson and co-founder Alan Erasmus. Morley adds three other names to the permanent roster, but perhaps it would be easier and just as accurate to simply proclaim the whole Joy Division enterprise as the integral third leg of Factory’s revolutionary plans. Joy Division’s surviving members advanced from their disposition to adhere themselves to nearly every facet of Factory life, from their work as New Order to co-ownership of the Hacienda to production and songwriting assistance on the bulk of the work featured here by the likes of 52nd Street, Quando Quango, Section 25, Stockholm Monsters, Life, and the Happy Mondays. Not to mention the various, mostly lackluster side projects like Revenge (Hooky), Electronic (Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr), and the Other Two (made up the other two, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert, who are married), all of which get a cut on this set. But in-house graphic design god Peter Saville, top-class manager Rob Gretton, and the inimitably eccentric and brilliant pothead producer Martin Hannett could all also claim Joy Division (and New Order) as the epicenter of their talents, making them something like unofficial members and part of an unholy trifecta, along with Wilson and Erasmus.
If Wilson, Erasmus, and Gretton were business and philosophy, inventing a model that directed profits toward the artists and granted them full creative control over their material (a policy that not only prevented Factory from making a return on their investments, but also put them in the red with certain releases), then Hannett and Saville were sound and vision respectively. Hannett produced albums like Welles directed films, using devious psychological trickery to extract the sound effects he wanted from his musicians, and treating the creaky industrial reverberations of Manchester as his train set. This methodology was able to make New Order sound like a transmission from the future, the Happy Mondays sound like the ultimate present zeitgeist, and Joy Division sound like the eternal. Saville presented another dimension to the factory chrono-scape: nostalgic futurism, the constructivist dream of an alternate Marxist now uncorrupted by the ghosts of Mao. His production-line blueprint 12-inch sleeves epitomized what Sheffeldians the Human League (occasional guests at Wilson’s pre-Hacienda club, which was simply called “The Factory”) would dub “The Dignity of Labour”, which is far more Dziga Vertov than Guy Debord.
Of course, people will not be drawn to Factory Communications for the inclusions of the heavyweight acts discussed above, but rather they’ll tune in to hear those from the margins of history, many of whom have seen their work go out of print over the years. It’s unlikely that any one investing in a four-disc box set compendium of the Factory narrative will arrive at it without having heard “Blue Monday”, “Transmission”, “True Faith”, or even the Paul Oakenfold/Andy Weatherall club mix of “Hallelujah”. Yet, it’s still worthy to note that despite being scattered amidst the stardust of forgotten and overlooked gems (as well as a few unremarkable entries) from the Factory vault, these tracks endure spectacularly and remain peaks amidst the resurfaced others. Here, as on any other compilation they might appear, they act as effulgent spires of perfect pop with peerless atmospherics, untouchable hooks, and a transcendent sense of self-actualization. Indeed, this writer could hardly imagine life without these tunes in it.
The discs progressively downshift in quality from one to four, but perhaps not as much as one might think. For instance, Northside’s inane rave 'n’ roll anthem “Take 5” from disc four, which blatantly pilfers the main riff from Boston’s “More Than a Feeling”, is predictable, but not half as dull as the Railway Children’s formulary college rock. The problem with Madchester-heavy disc four is that the disc’s rockist tendencies often seem retrogressive, whereas much of the purely electronic, breakbeat-driven, or otherwise posthuman stuff pounding out of the Hacienda during that time still feels alarmingly fresh. As was the case during the brief electronica boom of the late '90s in America, the musicians think they’re importing techno to enhance their rock, but in actuality their rock is diluting the techno.
Instead of the flat, sausage party chugging of “World in Motion”, the World Cup anthem by the sinisterly renamed England New Order, which nevertheless deserves props for having the British football team chant the daft line “Hooray, E for England” as a sly nod to MDMA, music fans would be wise to check out Quando Quango’s “Genius”, which anticipates the Balearic ambient house of 808 State’s “Pacific State” three years before the fact. Like “Pacific State”, the track gets a bit cheesy (fantastically so) and borders on muzak in parts, but the even earlier NRG-fueled “Love Tempo” confirms that Quando Quango were indeed ahead of the game. The band’s Mike Pickering eventually became one of the first DJs to start spinning exported US House and was an early champion of Acid House.
808 State’s Graham Massey turns up himself in his earlier post-punk outfit, Biting Tongues, though the single chosen here is far from the group’s best. However, early work by future stars and icons like OMD (the original 7” version of “Electricity”), James (the sublime post-Postcard pop chop jangle of “Hymns from a Village”), and Cabaret Voltaire (the disturbing and moody “Baader Meinhof”, named after a German communist terrorist faction) are stunning. 808 State, OMD, and Cabaret Voltaire would later maintain friendly relations with Factory and rightfully thank the label for fueling their sonic paths, but, as Morley notes, James found the label frustratingly inefficient to work with. Ironically, the band’s ambitions evaded them until they got swept in the Madchester craze kickstarted by Wilson and the Mondays.
Despite a few oddball asides like Kalima’s big band jazz, X-O-Dus’s pure reggae, and the Durutti Column’s instrumentals, which could maybe be referred to as proto-post-rock, the trajectory of Factory pretty much swung from pitch-black post-punk to synthpop to rocktronica, but thankfully much of the music lingered liminally between these eras, incidentally stumbling upon subgenres. “Nightshift” by the Names attempted to combined sonorous ethereal synths and guitars, but kept the slow tempo to create a sound in 1981 that the Cure would later employ to great success. Section 25’s 1980 single “Girls Don’t Count”, and incessant dirge not unlike Faust’s “Knochentanz”, is eons away from 1984’s “Looking from a Hilltop”, particularly the “Megamix” featured here, which sounds like an advanced version of the Electronic Body Music (EBM) that was being explored in a more primitive way by the likes of DAF and Front 242 at the time .
Other highlights abound: The Distractions' pitch-perfect pop-punk “Time Goes By So Slow”, the Eno-circa-Taking Tiger Mountain sing-songy atmospherics of comedian John Dowie’s “It’s Hard to Be an Egg”, the Pop Group funk and Situationist poetry of The Royal Family and the Poor’s “Art on 45”, and the sweet synth-funk soul of Marcel King’s “Reach for Love”.
The runaway success couldn’t pay its bills and went from raincoats to baggy clothes, from Anglo dub to white Chicago house, from suicides to euphoria. The story told on Factory Communications is perhaps too clean and well-assembled to represent the final real story, but Factory was all about creating new situations, possessing one’s own narrative, and “taking from punk the idea that you could take from punk things that weren’t necessarily about music”, as Morley states.