He was known by a few names down the years. Tony, for the most part. But at one point he decided he wanted to be known as Anthony (because the Pope told him to, he liked to say), then Anthony H. The music press would inevitably call him “Factory Records guru” after the record label he helped set up and run. Eventually, he would be given the label Mr Manchester (or sometimes, Mayor of Manchester, pre-empting Andy Burnham by two or three decades).

And now and then, actually, quite often, Tony Wilson would simply be called “w**ker.” Indeed, in 1982, the legend “Tony Wilson is a w**ker” was a common piece of graffiti to be seen around Manchester’s city centre.

If not “w**ker”, then “twat”. The latter was used on a picture of Steve Coogan playing Wilson to promote the film about his life, 24 Hour Party People, back in 2002.

Tony Wilson, news presenter, Factory Records guru, wannabe intellectual, the man who gave us Joy Division, New Order, the Happy Mondays and the Hacienda (or at least had a hand in giving all of them to us), “Sir Robin Day crossed with Malcolm McLaren,” as the late Tom Hibbert once quipped in the late Q magazine, and the man who some feel reinvented Manchester itself, has been dead for nearly 15 years.

HeraldScotland:

He has become a ghost in our public memory, but a ghost that still haunts the streets of one of England’s major cities, and pop culture itself. His legacy has both disappeared and is all around us, as Paul Morley’s new biography, From Manchester With Love, makes clear.

In 2002, just before the release of 24 Hour Party People, I travelled down to Manchester to meet the man himself. We sat in Wilson’s expensive, expansive loft apartment (designed by Ben Kelly who had also designed the Hacienda, once the UK’s most famous nightclub, now the site of city centre apartments) while he told me about how the film had led to a bust-up with his then partner, Yvette. He then spent hours spinning his well-polished story of the rise and fall of Factory Records and the rise and fall of the Hacienda, all the while intricately constructing a joint. He was inordinately enjoyable company.

“He was always putting on a show, he was always entertaining,” suggests fanzine writer Liz Naylor, whom Wilson once commissioned to write a film script for A Certain Ratio, the band he managed and saw as potential pop stars. “And he needed an audience.”

Wilson was the mouthpiece for Factory, which began as a club night organised by Wilson and his friend Alan Erasmus. Wilson was already a successful broadcaster with Granada, the then ambitious regional powerhouse of independent television. But that wasn’t quite enough for him. Taking a £10,000 inheritance from his mother, he paid for the recording of Unknown Pleasures, the debut LP by Joy Division and in doing so launched a subsidiary career as a music mogul that at times (often?) overshadowed his day job.

But what did he actually do? Cut Magazine (another dead music paper – this time Scottish) once described him as a “TV talking head, pop culture conceptualist, entrepreneur and bullshitter”.

Wilson himself admitted that was very accurate but was a bit miffed it missed out his academic side.

When he had an audience he talked about the possibility of pop music, the idea of a new club, a new idea of a new public space in the city that was his home, and he talked about how the city itself could be reinvented. In time his visions somehow became real.

He was also, Morley’s book makes clear, now and then a total arse, someone who used people to his own ends, who was a poor husband (twice) and not the greatest father, who took too many drugs and was too fond of his own voice. Which makes him what? Human, I guess.

HeraldScotland: Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy DivisionIan Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division

The story of Factory Records is really a death story. The label’s alternative kudos was built on Wilson’s wordy, sometimes pretentious hype, on the classical (and often expensive) beauty of Peter Saville’s designs for the record sleeves, and now and again on the music. But mostly it was constructed on the back of the tragedy of Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division, who hanged himself at the age of just 23.

“The entire Factory history is based on the capital that is Ian’s life,” Saville tells Morley at one point in From Manchester with Love. “I once said to Howard Bernstein, the chief executive of Manchester City Council, that I believe modern Manchester stands on the investment of Ian Curtis’s life. I feel that very strongly.”

Without Curtis’s death, and the resultant uplift in record sales, Factory may have faded away, an indulgent whim. Without Curtis’s death Factory could not have afforded to build the Hacienda, which, after a rocky beginning, would eventually help transform pop culture with its embrace of acid house and which subsequently offered a model for how that culture could transform a city (Wilson was talking about the power of culture in reinventing cities, and in particular Manchester, long before anyone talked about “the Bilbao effect”.)

Morley is, in many ways, the obvious biographer of Wilson as someone who was part of the Manchester scene at the birth of Factory. The music journalist’s account, part insider’s love letter, part outsider’s wary demystification, is, as you might expect if you know his work, very Morley-esque. It circles and drifts rather than follows straight lines. So much so that those who prefer a straightforward narrative will fall gleefully on the direct first-person statements that crop up and which come closest to nailing Wilson to the page (his ex-wives, perhaps understandably, take no prisoners).

But Morley, while aware of all Wilson’s failings, is also keen to find the line between Wilson and 21st-century Manchester, between the dreamer and the dream and how those dreams played out in reality. He couches it in lists and digressions. He places Wilson in the intellectual context of his time, influenced by Welsh cultural critic Raymond Williams (Wilson studied under Williams at Cambridge) and situationist Guy Debord.

Ultimately, Morley wants to believe in the idea that Wilson was a utopian thinker himself, one who talked his dreams into existence.

In short, Morley makes the case for another name for Wilson, that of “visionary”. A flawed, messy, egotistical, self-serving, arrogant, uncomprehending, not-as-clever-as-he-thinks, sometimes tin-eared, often unfeeling even casually hurtful visionary, but a visionary nonetheless.

There are worse names to be called.

 

HeraldScotland:

From Manchester with Love: The Life and Opinions of Tony Wilson, Paul Morley, Faber & Faber, £20