In The Studio With Factory Records

From cutting the first ever Factory record to Tony Wilson fronting the costs with his dead mother's cash, take a peek into what became the soundtrack of the Manchester music scene.
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From cutting the first ever Factory record to Tony Wilson fronting the costs with his dead mother's cash, take a peek into what became the soundtrack of the Manchester music scene.

As for Buzzcocks two years earlier, Martin Hannett seemed suitably qualified to produce the first Factory record, his burgeoning reputation as a sonic innovator now enhanced by a hit single with Jilted John. However Hannett’s initial involvement in Factory was simply that of a favoured freelance, and he would remain a director at Rabid for some time to come. Wilson tended to denigrate Rabid as a label, declaring in the press that Tosh Ryan no longer appeared interested in serving local artists and interests. While this was untrue, much of Ryan’s novelty-heavy roster now looked increasingly passé, and the benighted label would cease operations the following year.

In any event, Hannett was fast outgrowing Rabid, preferring the larger budgets available through CBS, whose deal with John Cooper Clarke was contingent on Hannett and Steve Hopkins providing musical backing as The Invisible Girls, a collaboration heard to great effect on debut album Disguise in Love, released in September. Furthermore Zero now wished to invest in costly new digital recording technology, gadgets which Rabid could ill afford. Nonetheless Ryan felt aggrieved, and according to Hannett ‘hated’ Factory and Wilson from this point onwards. These machinations stopped short of open hostility, and despite the personal animus between Ryan and Wilson, Alan Erasmus was allowed to visit the Rabid office to pick up practical tips on how to operate an independent label.

‘There’s an awful lot of incest that goes on,’ mused Hannett. ‘Intrigue and stuff.’ Wisely Rob Gretton remained neutral, financing a 12-inch pressing of An Ideal for Living on Anonymous, distributed through Rabid, while at the same time agreeing that Joy Division could appear on the first Factory record, the novel double 7-inch package designated Fac 2 by Wilson, and titled A Factory Sample. Together with The Durutti Column, Joy Division were an obvious choice for the EP and contributed two tracks, Digital and Glass. Both were recorded at Cargo in Rochdale, a basic studio owned by John Brierley and equipped with an unusual two-inch, 16-track machine.

As a cameraman Brierley had shot location footage for So It Goes, but on 11 October was surprised to find the producer’s chair occupied by Hannett. This single-day session marked the first collaboration between Zero and Joy Division, an event made even more notable by Hannett’s judicious use of a brand-new AMS digital delay, a revolutionary effects unit designed by former aerospace engineers based in Burnley, and soon an essential component of his signature production sound. The results were sharp and exceptional, and light years ahead of the primitive Ideal for Living EP, or the botched recordings for RCA.

‘We had picked up a bit of studio knowhow,’ says Steve Morris, ‘but we had no real idea how you went about doing things. Rob brought Martin down to see us rehearse before we recorded the tracks for the Factory Sample. He seemed a nice enough kind of hippy person (we had several interests in common) and left suitably impressed. At Cargo things got a little tense, as Tony hadn’t told John Brierley that Martin would be producing. I think some reassuring words from Tony eventually did the trick, as they usually did. Martin spent a lot of time getting a drum sound because he did each drum separately, but once that was out of the way he recorded the songs quite quickly. Martin told us to clear off for the mix, since he didn’t want any interference in what was for him a creative process. He could be a stereotypical Mad Professor type, but only briefly. I was really excited about the finished tracks. Martin had taken the two songs and, without changing them musically, made them into something different sonically. They sounded like a real record.’

"Wilson tended to denigrate Rabid as a label, declaring in the press that Tosh Ryan no longer appeared interested in serving local artists and interests."

Hannett was equally impressed by Joy Division. ‘There was lots of space in their sound initially,’ he told Jon Savage. ‘They were different from punk. It might have put me off if I’d seen them in that Warsaw period. Steve Morris was good so immediately they had a red hot start. Ian Curtis was one of those channels for the Gestalt, the only one I bumped into in that period. And they were a gift to a producer, because they didn’t have a clue. They didn’t argue.’ Unlike The Durutti Column, whose contributions ended up sounding as poor as Joy Division’s did brilliant. Both Thin Ice and No Communication were recorded first with Laurie Latham, an accomplished arranger-producer whose previous credits included Manfred Mann, Monty Python and Ian Dury.

These lacklustre tracks were then remixed by Hannett at Strawberry Studios, a stateof- the-art 24-track facility in Stockport owned by soft rockers 10cc, though the imposition of Zero served to trigger the demise of the contrived Durutti quintet. According to Wilson: ‘The row took place in the front room of the flat shared by Alan Erasmus and Charles Sturridge. The original Durutti Column band broke up because we were so pleased with Martin, and so impressed by him, whereas they didn’t want that particular thing to go out. And we did. So we simply went our separate ways.’ Finding themselves ‘excluded’ by their sponsors at M24J, Chris Joyce, Tony Bowers and Dave Rowbotham went on to form The Mothmen, and later still would form the nucleus of an early version of Simply Red. Vini Reilly and replacement vocalist Colin Sharp struggled on as a duo, though by the time A Factory Sample was released in January 1979, Reilly too had tired of the muddled ‘new psychedelia’ project.

‘Tony found this actor, Colin Sharp, with dreadful pretentious and portentous lyrics, which bore no resemblance to anything I felt or wanted to say. After that first Factory Sample I was so disappointed with how flat and ordinary the music was, as I was trying to write music that was interesting. It became predictable, and too obvious.’ The Tiller Boys, Ludus and Manicured Noise may well have been considered for the third and fourth sides, but these plans were derailed by various feuds and rivalries, not least Richard Boon’s stated intention to resurrect New Hormones as a going concern. Instead Wilson settled on Sheffield unconventionalists Cabaret Voltaire, who were already set to release their first single (Extended Play) through Rough Trade, but possessed a sizeable backlog of spare tracks. Stephen Mallinder explains:

‘We’d already done Baader–Meinhof and wanted to get it out, but it didn’t really fit on Extended Play, so it was a good opportunity. But Sex In Secret was done specifically for Fac 2. I think both tracks, and specifically the titles, which were intended to provoke a response, seemed to fit with Factory’s sensibilities. Tony wore his Situationist heart on his sleeve.’

While Cabaret Voltaire were avowedly experimental, Wilson’s fourth choice for Fac 2 was arguably even less orthodox. Birmingham native John Dowie was already an established stand-up and musical comedian, having gigged regularly with Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias, performed routines on So It Goes, and released a flop EP on Virgin, Another Close Shave. ‘Astonishingly, and unprecedentedly, they chose me,’ laughs Dowie, who duly reported to Cargo and cut three short sketches (Acne, Idiot and Hitler’s Liver), a hilarious triptych produced by C. P. Lee, with fellow Albertos member BruceMitchell guesting on drums. Three decades on, Dowie remains bemused by his surprise inclusion on A Factory Sample. ‘I lived near Manchester at the time and used to play gigs at the Russell Club. Not many laughs, but plenty of gob. I think Tony Wilson had a side going spare because they only had three bands. He asked if I had any tracks. Unfortunately for him, I did.’

While Factory Records was notionally a three-way partnership,Wilson alone underwrote the cost of producing Fac 2, staking £5,000 inherited from his mother, who had passed away in 1975. Lindsay Reade confirms that this decision was entirely selfless. ‘Tony was wondering if his mother would object to a good portion of his inheritance being spent on what was – to all intents and purposes – something of an artistic frippery. We were lucky in that we didn’t need to dip into that fund to survive and I said that, unlike the dead, money did not belong in a stone vault. I thought, therefore, that his mum would approve. However, I don’t think either of us seriously expected the money to return.’

The actual bill for manufacturing 5,000 copies of the double-EP package was £3,600. ‘Tony’s income and profession were fundamental elements in the formula of Factory happening,’ adds Peter Saville. ‘Alan and I could only contribute in kind.’

The initial division of labour at Factory was simple.Wilson provided funding and selected the talent, while Erasmus took care of general organization from a makeshift office at Flat 4, 86 Palatine Road. Peter Saville directed art, his design concept for A Factory Sample repeating the style applied to the first Factory poster, including the ‘use hearing protection’ motif stolen from a Polytechnic door. ‘It was based on the Fac 1 poster,’ explains Saville.

"Ian Curtis was one of those channels for the Gestalt, the only one I bumped into in that period. And they were a gift to a producer, because they didn’t have a clue."

‘To a certain extent Fac 1 was the default identity for Factory, and it seemed appropriate with the first record to stay within the context of that. I was working to convey not the music, but the mood, the sense of a new movement. I hadn’t heard any of the tracks before I did the cover, and the only one that really moved me was Digital by Joy Division.’ Saville also liked the packaging idea, despite its origins in budget jazz fusion. ‘It was very clever. It provided a sort of do-it-yourself record sleeve manufacturing process. You could easily print the piece of paper within the context of everyday printing, slip it inside the polythene, fold it over a couple of times and heat-seal it.’

However, this was easier said than done, as Wilson soon discovered. ‘I thought putting a piece of silver paper into a plastic bag, flattening it, folding it, sealing it and cutting it – times 5,000 – would take a few weeks. It took several people, including me and Lindsay, about four months, night after night, loads of us doing it.’ The labour force included journalist Jon Savage, who moved from London to Manchester to work with Wilson at Granada early in 1979. ‘I recall sitting in Wilson’s house in Charlesworth folding thousands of those things. It was such a tricky thing to do. There would be a folding party – everyone who attended would take 500 sheets of paper, 500 plastic bags and 500 singles.’

Other invitees included Joy Division. ‘We helped to make the sleeves and were paid fifty pence per hundred,’ says bassist Peter Hook. ‘We were skint. Coming from Salford, we viewed Factory as another world. Tony seemed an impressive figure mainly because he was middle class, and we’d never really had anything to do with anyone who was middle class before. The day-to-day running of Factory he’d leave to Alan, but Alan (unlike Tony) wasn’t very good with people. I suppose they complemented each other’s weaknesses in that respect. Ideas were Tony’s thing, but he glossed over details. They slowed him down, bored him, and stopped him moving on to the next project, which he had this compulsion to do.’

In addition to the cost of recording, pressing and sleeving Fac 2,Wilson also funded a sheet of monochrome stickers. Each group contributed an abstract image: a sailor marionette (Joy Division), a deep-sea diver poised before a urinal (Cabaret Voltaire), a Dadaist word collage (John Dowie), and the original 1966 cartoon panel Le Retour de la Colonne Durruti, featuring the Situationist cowboy pair on horseback. According to Reade, the stickers were the single most expensive element of the package, yet while undoubtedly amusing, they revealed less about the artists than did the credits on the inner panel.

While Cabaret Voltaire listed their recording equipment in exhaustive detail, Durutti Column again gestured towards radical political chic, listing former members alongside their date of exclusion, as if victims of a purge. Recording date and location aside, Joy Division and manager Rob Gretton chose to reveal nothing at all. No matter, for the music, design and packaging coalesced to make the Factory Sample an almost perfect debut, as Wilson apprehended. ‘Hand-making the sleeve was to do with this amazing thing, to actually be putting records out. If to make the record what you wanted involved making them by hand, you would do it. It was something wonderful, a sacred task.’ The duration and complexity of the sacred task also meant that the 4,700 copies of A Factory Sample earmarked for sale trickled out in batches.

According to Wilson, Fac 2 should have been released on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1978. However, with few finished copies available by this date, the EP instead appeared in two main instalments in January and February 1979. This short delay meant that Fac 2 was missing from a year-end round-up of leading independent releases published in NME, but thanks to Manchester correspondent Paul Morley benefited from a generous preview.

‘Incorporating the diversity of Rough Trade with the sharply eclectic marketing processes of New Hormones, Factory Records is run by co-directors actor/tramp Alan Erasmus and graphic designer Peter Saville. With the ever-enthusiastic Tony So It Goes Wilson inevitably involved, it will release an attractive double EP sampler of acts and artists who have appeared at the club over the last few months. A devious sampler out both to seduce and introduce, its packaging is thoughtful and unusual, its implications exciting. It is provisionally set for mid- December release, priced an irresistible £1.50.’

Tony was wondering if his mother would object to a good portion of his inheritance being spent on what was – to all intents and purposes – something of an artistic frippery.

Indeed December proved a busy month. In addition to the feverish activity surrounding A Factory Sample, Fac 4 emerged in the form of a third Factory club poster, tabulated boldly by Saville, and announcing a string of gigs by The Adverts, The Distractions, The Damned, The Human League, The Undertones and Magazine, as well as a Christmas party. Two of these gigs, The Distractions and The Human League, were billed as M24J presentations, and represented a last hurrah for Wilson and Erasmus as live promoters. Already the label seemed far more important, and had secured Joy Division their first London gig. On 27 December the group performed to a handful of people at the Hope and Anchor, a cramped and uninspiring cellar venue in Islington, more generally associated with pub rock.

That Sounds slated Joy Division as ‘awkward, contrived and mundane’ was bad enough, but paled into insignificance after Ian Curtis suffered his first recognizable epileptic fit. ‘We were driving back home in Steve’s car,’ recalls Sumner. ‘I was really ill with flu, shivering, covered in a sleeping bag. Ian just grabbed the sleeping bag and pulled it off. He’d been moaning about the gig, the audience, the sound: he was in a really negative mood. So I grab the sleeping bag back, and he grabbed it back again and covered himself with it, and started growling like a dog. It was scary. He suddenly starts lashing out, punching the windscreen, and then he just went into a full overblown red-stage fit, in the car. We pulled over on to the hard shoulder, dragged him out of the car, held him down. Then we did about a hundred miles an hour to the nearest hospital, somewhere near Luton. We were in this horrible casualty ward and the doctor said, “You’ve had a fit; you’d better go and see a doctor when you get back.”’

Curtis was given Phenobarbitone tablets before the group resumed the long drive back to Manchester. ‘We took it for granted that the incident had been a one-off,’ wrote Deborah Curtis. ‘And that if there was any illness, it could be cured.’ Before long, however, her husband’s seizures would become increasingly frequent, and alarmingly violent. ‘With Ian it was the full-blown grand mal,’ says Steve Morris. ‘They put him on heavy tranquillizers; the doctor told him the only way he could minimize the risk was by leading a normal regular life, which by that time wasn’t something he wanted to do. He liked to jump around onstage, and to get pissed. It was one of the reasons he got into the band in the first place.’ Disaster also visited the depleted Durutti Column, around whom the entire Factory edifice had been built. According to short-stay vocalist Colin Sharp: ‘After the recording sessions, Dave Rowbotham left, leaving Vini and I to work together briefly on some “songs” – more ambient poetic stylings, really.’

The illmatched duo performed at the Factory Christmas party on 22 December, along with Manicured Noise, Margox and the Zinc and Pete Shelley, but drew scathing reviews.Writing in Sounds, Mick Middles was at least charitable. ‘Vini Reilly is busily creating his own biting/slicing cold sound. On this night it reminded me of the guitar that makes the Banshees’ Overground so irresistible. Over the top of this the singer (or actor, whose name eludes me) recited lyrics that could have been read straight out of the pages of Sniffin’ Glue. Either hopelessly out of date or sticking true to the early principles, depending on your point of view.’

The all-powerful NME found even less to admire, leavingWilson furious. ‘Now down to a two-piece, Durutti Column make a sordid attempt to liven up the show. The singer bellows grossly amidst the meticulous flash guitar trickery of one-time Nosebleed Vini Reilly, and the beat is aided and abetted by the singer occasionally hitting the tom-toms. But this duo can be rejected as yet another drab bunch of pretentious poseurs trying to inflict the audience with an inferiority complex.’ For Vini Reilly, this critical drubbing in the national press marked the end of the line. ‘Those first two tracks on the Factory Sample were a mess. It was complete and total rubbish, and not me, more importantly. I don’t even see them as my work at all. I disowned them, very disillusioned. I was so disappointed with how flat and ordinary the music was, predictable and too obvious. So then I left the band. I wrote a note to Tony and Alan, and a note to the band, and went home and concentrated on being depressed.’

Where next for the next music? With the increasingly fragile Reilly now missing in action, Wilson and Erasmus found their situation changed almost beyond recognition since 24 January. Within twelve short months the arriviste M24J management project had expanded to become first a club, and then a boutique record label with national reach, gaining a design partner and an artsy new name along the way.More astonishing still, for Factory Records the future was clearly signposted not by the faux radical Durutti Column, but by rank outsiders Joy Division.

This is an extract from ‘Shadowplayers – The Rise and Fall of Factory Records’ by James Nice (Aurum).

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