PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

Factory Bloke: Tony Wilson 1950-2007

He was a (expletive) who incited invective, but he stuck to principle and remained true to his Factory ideal: "The artists own everything, we own nothing."

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.

+ + +

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.