Well, I hope that 2007 doesn’t turn into the year when my heroes start all dropping off (just as this other Wilson recently did).
Tony Wilson. Yeah, he was certainly a bit influential in the way I (and many others) view the presentation of music and musical artists. His Factory Records label wrote the playbook on how to develop an eclectic, boutique-style record label and yet maintain a homogenized image that practically sold the label as an artist of its own. The plots, techniques, and excesses are legendary … perhaps the most famous being how the elaborate cover art to New Order‘s “Blue Monday” cost so much to manufacture that Factory actually lost money for each copy sold. And it is generally recognized as the biggest selling 12″ in history.
Sure, Blue Monday’s lozenge-cut sleeve cost so much to print that the label actually lost more money the more copies they printed. But even that isn’t bad business. It’s an investment in mystique, and a bold statement that lavish elegance counts more than profit. “Some make money, others make history,” is how Tony put it.
I suppose that’s what Wilson showed me … that the choice exists to go that commercial route and create ‘art’ by committee, thus improving chances towards an accelerated yet temporary monetary success. Or you can live for your art and let it envelope every part of your being, to where the message of the music or writing or whatever comes through in every aspect of what you do. The creative life. Being satisfied with solely making ‘history’, even if it’s exclusive of its own.
Here’s something interesting: I totally remember my first exposure to Factory Records. My grandmother used to live on the beach in Melbourne, Florida, and as a young ‘un I would stay with her two or more weeks out of every summer. In addition to the pleasures of being stationed mere yards from the ocean and in the vicinity of my ever-spoiling grandmother, I looked forward to these visits for two other reasons: the really amazing college radio station WFIT which completely ruled in the ’80s (and is now light commercial jazz or something else sinister) and a little hole in the wall record store called Play It Again. I would find myself at Play It Again at least a few times each visit and, though I would rarely have the money to buy something each time, I would spend a couple hours just looking through the racks at the cover art of the LPs.
Now, because at the time Melbourne was blessed with a great college radio station Play It Again had quite a healthy ‘import section’ (as we used to call it in those days). I was around twelve years old and oblivious to the cooler happenings in the British underground at the time (I was into new wave synth-pop that you’d hear on top 40 radio circa 1980) but I dug the ‘import section’ because the covers were cooler and a bit mysterious. And, wouldn’t you know, the only covers I remember seeing at the time were two odd Peter Saville designed LPs: New Order’s Movement and Everything’s Gone Green. It was probably a couple years until I’d actually even listen to New Order but for some reason, the striking starkness of these covers, the absence of band photos or information beyond what was absolutely necessary (song titles, producer name – Martin Hannett! – and label info) really hit me as if I were looking at a moon rock in those record racks. I remember thinking “New Order” was an ominous band name, and it was as if this wasn’t a record album but an invite to some esoteric cabal. I didn’t buy anything from the shop that day but those covers and the name New Order stuck in my head until a couple years later when I finally gave in and bought a vinyl copy of a new album called Power, Corruption, and Lies.
So I guess my point is that this was what Wilson pioneered: his modus operandi so infected everything he was a part of that even a twelve-year-old kid looking at an album cover in Melbourne Beach, Florida, could pick up on his intentions and be affected. Of course, he didn’t design the covers or produce the music but Wilson was the glue that put all of this together to fulfill a master plan. He put up with Martin Hannett’s legendary studio tantrums and Peter Saville’s constant missed deadlines because he knew the result was more important. Everything had to perfectly fit into the Factory paradigm and there was no budging. Wilson believed early on that, through this, he’d be one of the ‘others’ making history. That’s pretty groundbreaking and important and we’re all still trying to catch up. Thankfully he left behind one hell of a playbook for us to follow. (Now if only more labels today would follow it … but that’s a different rant entirely)
Here are some other related Tony Wilson links that you should check out:
– 24 Hour Party People … an utterly fantastic film by the prolific Michael Winterbottom chronicling Tony Wilson’s life during the heyday of Factory Records and The Hacienda. It was stated a few times in the Metafilter thread linked above that a good way to remember Wilson is to watch this movie. I added to that thread that I think an even better homage (after watching the film at least once, of course) is to watch the film with Tony Wilson’s commentary track playing. His thoughts on how he and his history is cinematically represented give you even more of a feel for the man then the wonderful film does.
– From Joy Division To New Order … an excellent but somewhat hard-to-find book that, despite the title, is mainly about the history of Tony Wilson and Factory Records. It’s written by a close friend of everyone involved so it’s filled with tons of insight and juicy tidbits.
– Paul Morley, who was there in many ways, pays tribute to Tony Wilson in the Guardian
– How Tony Wilson changed the face of pop culture in Slate
– The always interesting Bob Lefsetz on Tony Wilson
– Factory Communications Ltd. – A Chronology
– Melody Maker article on Factory Records at the New Music Seminar in 1990
– Factory Records Image Bank … the inspiring early Factory-related design work of Peter Saville.
(This post originally appeared on my Q-Burns Abstract Message blog.)