Cover Feature: Factory Records
25 years after it closed, it’s still Manchester’s favourite factory. Gareth Murphy speaks to the key figures behind one of the world’s most iconic labels and reveals how Factory Records and its Haçienda nightclub pumped out the sounds, sleeves and spirit that defined an entire epoch of British pop culture…
A Salford headmaster looked down at a teenage dosser named Bernard Sumner. “You’ll end up working in a factory!” was his famous prediction. The joke being that by the time Sumner and his mates found their Factory, its owner, Tony Wilson, described the daily work as “the art of the playground”. Or so the mythology goes. For the story of Factory Records, Joy Division, The Haçienda and everything around it has been told and retold from so many embellished perspectives, at one point it was even a comedy film – 24 Hour Party People, starring Steve Coogan as an Alan Partridge caricature of Tony Wilson.
With most of its protagonists now dead, the true story is only starting to settle. It all began in the spring of 1978, when the original Factory began puffing its new-wavy steam over Manchester’s bleak skyline. Not yet a record label, for one year ‘Factory’ was a theme night at the Russell Club, a West Indian venue in one of Manchester’s roughest and ugliest neighbourhoods.
“The Warholian name of this enterprise,” wrote an early reviewer in Sounds, “must seem like something of an enormous joke to the local residents of Hulme, Manchester’s disastrous answer to Stalinist architecture.” For the door price of 79p, punters got to see three new bands, including the likes of Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, The Fall, Magazine, Throbbing Gristle, Wire, Human League, Gang Of Four, Mekons, OMD, Echo & The Bunnymen, Ultravox, The Teardrop Explodes, Simple Minds, The Cramps, The B-52’s, Suicide and a host of Northern bands with improbable names – such as FC Domestos.
Meeting and greeting in the crowd, the party host was Tony Wilson, the face of Greater Manchester prime-time politics show, Granada Reports. The organising, however, was mostly left to Alan Erasmus, Factory’s nuts-and-bolts man, whose flat on 86 Palatine Road became the production office. The third partner was student graphic designer Peter Saville, whose iconic Factory logo, thus catalogued as FAC 1, was actually a gig poster. Although earning a good salary from his day job at Granada Television – which included a music show, So It Goes – Wilson soon learned running small gigs was a thankless hobby, even with Erasmus and Saville doing the hard work. “There is no more a painful experience,” Wilson later described, “than when you’ve got a club and you’ve got a band on, you’re paying 40 quid for the club and £110 for the band, and there’s two people who bought tickets.”
By late 1978, he was enviously watching a local player named Tosh Ryan, boss of Rabid Records, the home of both John Cooper Clarke and Jilted John of “Gordon is a moron” infamy. Rabid, like 2 Tone, Mute and many other homespun indies, were simply feeding their records into Rough Trade’s network of likeminded stores, or the cartel, as this growing distribution system was being affectionately termed. Rabid’s talented producer was Martin Hannett, who also hung out at Factory gigs and began socialising with Wilson. Another bystander and future partner was a former club DJ, Rob Gretton, the manager of Joy Division, who themselves were fast becoming Manchester’s new hopefuls.
Tony Wilson put up £5,000 of his mother’s inheritance to record and press a Factory double-EP sampler. It was partly an attempt to launch the band he’d been unsuccessfully managing, The Durutti Column. Fortunately, Martin Hannett scored an unexpected winner by completely revamping two Joy Division tracks, Digital and Glass, which were proudly showcased on Side A. The other three sides were filled by The Durutti Column, John Dowie and Cabaret Voltaire, who closed the record with two intriguing tracks, Baader Meinhof and Sex In Secret. In true DIY spirit, all 4,700 plastic sleeves were handmade by Wilson and his entourage.
As Joy Division started to make a name for themselves outside Manchester, Hannett and Gretton grew more involved in helping Wilson, Erasmus and Saville build a proper label – albeit still just a telephone number in Erasmus’s flat. Two successful singles quickly followed: All Night Party by A Certain Ratio and Electricity by OMD. Beyond releasing records, the original policy was also to document visual art. FAC 7 was Peter Saville’s office stationary; FAC 8 was a “menstrual abacus” by artist Linder Sterling; and FAC 9 was an experimental video called No City Fun by Charles Salem and Malcolm Whitehead.
Wilson called this multimedia experiment a ‘Situationist collective’. But as Saville explains to Long Live Vinyl: “None of the people involved had any previous experience, so there was nobody saying: ‘You can’t do that’. None of us had any authority over the others, nor were we being paid, so there wasn’t even the hierarchy of money. It was an autonomous cooperative. All you had to do was step up.”
New York, New Order
A fine example was FAC 10, Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division. Saville designed the sleeve as a striking piece of wall art – in the routine manner, on his own, without hearing the master. It was the same for the album’s innovative sound. Martin Hannett got Stephen Morris to deconstruct the drums into separate recordings, so that he could pan the parts dynamically. He even kicked the band out of his studio to mix the album alone – as if Joy Division was his own sonic statement.
A steady stream of singles and albums followed from Joy Division, A Certain Ratio, The Distractions, The Durutti Column and other one-offs. Needless to say, the suicide of Ian Curtis in May 1980 – before the second album Closer was even released, changed Factory forever. In the summer of 1980, as Love Will Tear Us Apart hung on the airwaves, the renamed New Order followed A Certain Ratio to New York, accompanied by Wilson, Gretton and Hannett. Although the trip was a logistical nightmare of stolen gear and lost luggage, “the three weeks saw the team spending a lot of time either playing or hanging out at Hurrah’s and Danceteria,” remembered Wilson. “Cool design. Clubs as venues and disco and style lounge, all in one. The kind of clubs that David Byrne could go to the toilet in.”
It was while plugged into the downtown dance scene that a lightbulb flicked on in Gretton’s head: “If New York has them, then why the fuck doesn’t Manchester?”. From that point onwards, New Order and A Certain Ratio began mixing Northern post-punk with the rhythmic, melting-pot madness of downtown New York.
“It wasn’t a blinding flash of light on the road to Damascus,” says Stephen Morris to Long Live Vinyl. “I think we were already heading that way, anyway. But it’s true that we picked up a lot of the ideas that later came out. New York was Talking Heads, it was punk and dance completely mixed up. I remember watching ESG thinking they were the best band I’d ever heard. Tony and Rob were looking at the way warehouses and industrial spaces were being used. And Martin was way ahead of his time. The Fairlight sampler had just been invented and he knew it was the future.”
Collectively, they were seeing all the way into the 90s. The problem was that none of Factory’s five partners understood the rules of business. Hannett’s pleas to spend Joy Division profits on state-of-the-art digital machinery were overruled. Instead, Wilson and Gretton spent tens of thousands building The Haçienda inside a rented building. By the time it opened in 1982 to bemused reactions, they sold drinks at cost price. It was the same for everything else. Artists’ contracts weren’t signed, books weren’t kept, tax returns were botched, there was no clear chain of responsibility. The members of New Order, who were taking only a small salary themselves, unwittingly became The Haçienda’s caretakers. “It’s alright for you, Tony,” was a common outburst. “You’ve got a proper job!”
To everyone’s growing frustration, Wilson was only a part-timer, playing the part of impresario. In reality, the club was a royalty-guzzling flop and the record label’s phone often rang unanswered. So when, in early 1983, New Order recorded Blue Monday, Saville simply sent its elaborate sleeve design to the printers without consulting band or label. It proved so costly, Factory lost money on the first run.
But even that was considered a slightly hilarious artistic sacrifice. “Gloriously doomed,” is how Stephen Morris describes Factory’s romantic curse. But if Factory, The Haçienda and even New Order, survived all these spectacular own goals, it always came back to the underlying Northern spirit that enabled everyone to have honest fights – usually about money – but stick together and muddle onwards anyway.
“We didn’t even try to operate like a proper label,” says Morris. “Martin Hannett had wanted to model Factory on Stiff, but it ended up being this closely knit thing.” The way in which the drummer’s wife, Gillian Gilbert, had been brought into New Order was how everything operated. “The reason Factory never signed The Smiths was only because we didn’t know each other,” continues Morris. “We never listened to demos or went looking for stuff. We’d hear someone’s brother had a band, so we’d help them. That’s how we signed the Happy Mondays. They supported us. They were our mates.”
The Sun King
There were, however, two sides to the growing family. To the working-class majority, Wilson was the very definition of what Hannett always described as the “Didsbury Mafia” – bourgeois bohemians who lived in the leafy suburb of Didsbury. Wilson’s clan also included The Durutti Column – regulars on the label, despite never scoring any hits, nor even sounding as if they belonged on Factory. In fact, Wilson was responsible for many of Factory’s dud records – of which there were plenty. But even his fiercest critics happily acknowledge that he did possess a confidence and magnetism without which Factory may not have broken out of Manchester.
Wilson was a brilliant networker who opened doors, threw parties, organised overseas trips, and kept bringing new faces into the fold, such as Michael Shamberg, the award-winning video producer for New Order’s True Faith. As Saville puts it: “Factory was like a solar system and its sun was definitely Tony. Without him, everyone wouldn’t have been locked in orbit. We would have all hurtled off in different directions.”
But because New Order was the cash cow, few underestimate the subtle influence of the band’s manager, Rob Gretton. A sharp-tongued but fiercely loyal character, who scribbled his mile-a-minute ideas into elaborate notebooks, he believed in the principle that New Order should “never peak”. He preferred to pack out small venues than struggle to fill bigger halls. He developed anti-publicity tricks, such as only telling one journalist in a city to report an upcoming gig inside an article – thus provoking “is it true, is it not?” word-of-mouth. Despite excellent ears and touches of creative genius, Gretton also had a dark and addictive streak. When taking ferries, he’d pour all his money into fruit machines, then ask all of the band to lend him whatever they had in their pockets.
It was the same with drugs. Throughout the mid 80s, Gretton smoked and snorted himself into a full-blown clinical depression and had to be hospitalised – a breakdown from which he never fully recovered.
Meanwhile, Tony Wilson was sniffing around Hollywood in big suits alongside the wheeler-dealers who orbited Qwest, a Warner-affiliated label that licensed New Order’s American rights. This was Factory’s corporate period – a time of rapid growth, MTV videos and property acquisitions, complete with a monster Quincy Jones remix of Blue Monday which topped the Billboard dance charts in 1988. The increasingly coked-up Wilson had to admit to an interviewer at the time that: “I’m out of touch with the street. Between ’76 and ’81, I knew everything that was being released and I saw a different band every night. But that part of your life passes, and now I rely on other people to tell me what’s happening.”
One such example was Mike Pickering, a Haçienda DJ and Quando Quango member. He remembers how “Rob Gretton and I wanted a dance label; Factory Dance… you could feel it happening… God bless Tony, but I don’t think he had the vision Rob had. Tony said dance would never happen.”
By late 1987, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at The Haçienda were packed with 1,200 ravers. “The music was coming from all angles,” explained Jon Dasilva, who DJ’d Ibiza-themed parties on Wednesdays. “From the deepest Detroit techno, into hip-hop and into garage, back to house and into acid house. It wasn’t just the chemicals, it was the music… the whole thing hit The Haçienda like a thundering train.”
With the club finally making a profit and Manchester visibly waking up from its post-war slump, New Order gave their blessing for a second bar – Dry. Unfortunately, the sunny economic outlook didn’t last long. Britain’s first ecstasy death was on the dance floor of The Haçienda in the summer of 1989. Gangland thugs, undercover cops and heavy bouncers were rapidly souring the party atmosphere. If all that wasn’t damaging enough, the landlord threatened to sell the freehold out from under their feet. So they bought it for £1 million, just before the police threatened to revoke the club’s alcohol licence.
At this point, things weren’t well at the record label, either. Following Technique, recorded throughout 1988 at huge expense, New Order embarked on solo follies, in particular Peter Hook’s side project, Revenge, which alone cost £250,000. With the demise of Rough Trade, Factory wound up on a costly new distribution deal with Pinnacle, as overspending on Wilson’s various vanity projects built up debts. There was Factory Classical – a hare-brained sub-label which ate up £100,000 on intellectual flops. “I didn’t want to stay and watch the company destroy itself,” said the label’s general manager Tina Simmons, who resigned on April Fool’s Day, 1990. “From that point on, Tony had too much control.” Wilson’s problem was not only weak ears and a cocaine habit, as the sharp-eyed QC who defended The Haçienda’s alcohol licence (for legal fees of £250,000) told Wilson in private; the endangered club needed him to behave like a responsible owner, not a “loudmouth” journalist.
In the bitter end, Morris recalls how: “Rob would call on a Friday and say ‘The Haçienda needs another £40,000 or else it’s gonna close next week’. I reached a point when it was like: ‘Good! Let it all fucking collapse!’. It was just awful. But for Rob, it was like the fruit machine. You couldn’t drag him away. He just kept pushing everything into it.” The inevitable was staved off for a few months, thanks to the Happy Mondays’ brilliant Pills ’N’ Thrills And Bellyaches, recorded in LA with producers Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne. Released just before Christmas 1990, it brought in urgently needed cash throughout 1991. Unfortunately, with New Order out of order, the Happy Mondays weren’t going to save Factory from its own indebted, dysfunctional self. Although the Mondays had got it surprisingly together for their breakthrough album, fame and fortune didn’t suit Shaun Ryder.
As he slid into heroin addiction, the nail in the coffin was the next album, Yes Please! – Factory’s last gamble, and by all accounts a Caribbean disaster of crashed cars and crack dens. On Wilson’s insistence, the album’s co-producers were Talking Heads’ rhythm section Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz. “I’ve seen a lot of people who live life on the edge,” mused Weymouth, “but I’ve never before seen a group of people who had no idea where the edge is.” With Yes Please! failing to pull off the multi-million dollar miracle, Factory went bankrupt in 1992. The Haçienda somehow nearly saw out the millennium, thanks largely to the support of the city’s Labour MPs, who agreed with Wilson it was a symbol of Manchester’s renaissance. The jury, however, is still out on Wilson’s own legacy. And on that question, New Order’s members are still scratching their heads.
For years, they regretted the catastrophic waste of money – Peter Hook makes no secret of the fact that he still does. But following the deaths of both Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson, Bernard Sumner has grown philosophical. “Whenever we were moaning about the money that we’d put into The Haçienda, or the money we lost on Blue Monday... Rob Gretton used to say to us: ‘Fuckin’ hell, what you’ve got, money can’t buy’. And he was absolutely right. Whenever I bump into somebody like Bono, or him out of Coldplay, you name ’em, these multi-multi-millionaires, they don’t have an iota of what we’ve got – which is respect. We kept our credentials and never sold out.” Hearing this, Stephen Morris laughs. “Did Bernard really say something that profound? It’s true, though. Except that we did sell out, a bit. Like doing a greatest hits – Substance – because we needed the money. But yeah, the most important thing in life is respect.”
So folks, forget the comic-book scenes of Alan Partridge on ecstasy. The true story of Factory is about family spirit and Northern values. The photos on the mantelpiece, the records on the shelf, the respect of an entire community – all these things are worth so much more than money. And anyway, everyone involved would’ve wound up far poorer had they not done it. Had it been run as a proper business, the product wouldn’t have been half as good, the profits would’ve long since been spent by now, and we definitely wouldn’t be talking about it in 2018. Joy Division, New Order, Peter Saville’s artwork, the videos, the 12″s, The Haçienda, Madchester… because everything was so radical, Factory’s creations have grown into museum-standard pop art.
On the genealogical tree of genres, it’s even the missing link between UK music’s last true happenings: punk and rave. Manchester has every reason to be proud. You shall know a tree by its fruit.