The Rise & Fall of Factory Records

From Tony Wilson's 'free-spirited' missus to The Sex Pistols' seminal punk record almost being given a bum name, read all about the life and times of Factory Records.
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From Tony Wilson's 'free-spirited' missus to The Sex Pistols' seminal punk record almost being given a bum name, read all about the life and times of Factory Records.

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At the beginning of 1978, with So It Goes gone for good, the idea of McLarenesque creative artist management seemed suddenly appealing to Tony Wilson, fitting as it did his developing self-image as an auteur. ‘Television was work to me,’ he reasoned later. ‘I love aspects of it, but I was always more passionate about music and music-orientated people. It dawned on me that no longer would wonderful and bizarre people be part of my everyday life. Elvis Costello would walk on stage and smile at me in the audience. Malcolm McLaren would give me a teeshirt and ask how things were going, even Lydon would grunt at me. Suddenly I was connected to my heroes and that art form. Then I was told, that’s it, no more. But I knew a lot of brilliant people in Manchester, and I wanted to stay involved.’

One such brilliant person was Howard Devoto, whose new band Magazine had been featured by Wilson on So It Goes, valuable exposure soon eclipsed by an appearance on Top of the Pops in January to promote Shot By Both Sides, their exemplary debut single. ‘There was talk at one stage of Tony Wilson managing us,’ claims drummer Martin Jackson. ‘We went to meet him at Granada. He was very enthusiastic, but you wondered if any of his ideas would really happen.’ Unfortunately Devoto has no recollection of this encounter, besides which another more basic complication arose. ‘Tony was very supportive of Magazine,’ he offers drily. ‘Until I had an affair with his wife.’ Wilson had married free-spirited beauty Lindsay Reade little more than a year earlier, although their relationship would prove famously volatile. ‘If you play with fire…’ reflects Wilson. ‘Debbie Harry threw me a rose on What’s On. Lindsay immediately thought, “Oh, that’s really done it, he’s fucking Blondie.” So that’s why she went off with Devoto. Did I ever tell you about me and Linder?’

Not for the first time, Wilson stood guilty of embellishing the truth. Over the next three decades he would drop occasional hints at a vengeful affair with Devoto’s muse, though Linder confirms that she and Wilson were never involved in a sexual relationship. ‘Tony and I were good friends for a while, but when he made an advance I firmly and politely refused.’ Clearly Wilson was stung by his wife’s brief liaison with the Magazine frontman, and from this point on took delight in disparaging his group, while taking care to cover bruised male pride by feigning modernist disdain at Dave Formula’s ornate keyboard lines.

All was not lost. Wilson and Reade stayed together, and at the end of January Wilson received a timely call from Alan Erasmus, a freewheeling yet fiercely intelligent actor friend who complained that after months of hard work he had just been usurped as manager of a band called Fast Breeder. Born in Didsbury in April 1949 to a Jamaican father and English mother, Erasmus had first encountered Wilson at a Christmas party in either 1974 or 1975. ‘I’d seen Tony on the television and thought, if I ever meet this man then we will fight. Anyway I got invited to a party at The Beeches in Didsbury. There were a couple of girls from Granada there, and Tony. He was sitting on the floor, pontificating, and rolling a kind of double joint, which he said they called a Richmond at Cambridge. I thought it looked more like a Jamaican snorkel. I let Tony have a piece of this Afghan dope ball I had with me, and he asked if I could get him one, gave me his phone number. So I did, and we met up on Kingsway the next day, and ended up talking for about an hour, utterly stoned.’

By 1978 Erasmus had moved to a large redbrick Victorian villa at 86 Palatine Road in leafy West Didsbury, where his flatmate was Charles Sturridge, a rising Granada director. Following his fateful telephone call toWilson in January, the pair now decided to create and co-manage a new band, retaining drummer Chris Joyce and guitarist Dave Rowbotham from Fast Breeder, and adding Vini Reilly, late of Rabid also-rans The Nosebleeds. ‘Alan brought Tony round three times before I finally agreed to take part and put a band together with other musicians,’ recalls Reilly, whose egotistical streak was already emerging. ‘I insisted that I would have control and all kinds of ridiculous things, which was just silly.’ In the meantime,Wilson received an ‘ominous’ phone call from Vinny Faal, who warned that the mercurial virtuoso guitarist was difficult to manage, and had excused himself from several Nosebleeds rehearsals with notes from his doctor. Far from being discouraged, Wilson was intrigued.

‘Tony was very supportive of Magazine,’ he offers drily. ‘Until I had an affair with his wife.’

Somewhat portentously, Wilson and Erasmus named their new management project after the day the plan was conceived: The Movement of the 24th January, or M24J in abbreviated form. The result was a five-piece band, comprising Reilly, Joyce and Rowbotham together with former Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias bassist Tony Bowers and vocalist Phil Rainford. Once complete, the new group buckled down to several months of intensive rehearsal, convening in a ‘semi-derelict scout hut’ rented byWilson with money generated by the sale of unwanted promotional albums received by Granada. Wilson also provided the musicians with some light reading material: Leaving the 20th Century, a collection of Situationist writings translated by Christopher Gray.

Often referenced, though seldom properly understood, Situationism first emerged in 1957, the product of a small grouping of artistic and political radicals who took on the identity of the Situationist International, or SI. Drawing from left-wing politics, anarchism and the Surrealists, SI was active in Europe throughout the 1960s and aspired to effect major social and political transformation. Notable theoreticians included Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, respective authors of The Society of the Spectacle and The Revolution of Everyday Life, although inevitably the group was fractious, and often wilfully obscure. Thus the first issue of house journal Internationale Situationniste in 1958 would define Situationist as ‘having to do with the theory or practical activity of constructing situations; one who engages in the construction of situations; a member of the Situationist International’, while at the same time explaining that Situationism itself was ‘a meaningless term improperly derived from the above’.

In Britain, SI was best known for its role in the social unrest that gripped France in May 1968. Situationist strands were also evident in the promotion and packaging of the Sex Pistols, whose art director Jamie Reid boasted links with British SI mutation King Mob. Indeed prior to settling on Never Mind the Bollocks… Here’s the Sex Pistols as the title for their only album, Reid and McLaren had toyed with a number of alternatives, one being Where’s the Durruti Column?

A year later, Tony Wilson gleefully appropriated the same set of ideas as a pseudo-radical marketing tool. The new group assembled by the two-man managerial Movement would be christened The Durutti Column, a moniker inspired by Buenaventura Durruti Dumange, a central figure of Spanish anarchism during the bloody civil war, killed by a bullet to the heart in Madrid in 1936. ‘Buenaventura Durruti was a cool dude,’ proposed Wilson. ‘A Spanish anarchist who led a team in the civil war against Franco, called the Durruti Column. But that isn’t where the name came from. In 1966 a bunch of protostudent revolutionaries, fired with the cult brand of anarchist theory that goes by the name Situationism, took over the student union at Strasbourg University, just by turning up for the elections. They spent their entire annual funding on creating a massive comic strip which they then flyposted overnight in their city. One of the panels featured two cowboys talking about reification. This panel was called The Return of the Durruti Column.’

In fact the original Strasbourg panel was titled Le Retour de la Colonne Durruti, an event Wilson and Erasmus would soon re-enact by printing their own run of large monochrome cowboy posters, copies of which were strategically positioned around Manchester – to widespread incomprehension. Wilson seems never to have mastered the correct spelling of Buenaventura’s surname, but no matter: a legend was born, and the new band gifted a memorable and superlative name. Had McLaren called the Pistols’ album Where’s the Durruti Column?, and Wilson christened the Reilly/Bowers group Bollocks, the landscape of popular culture might look a little different today.

Wilson and Erasmus hoped to land a major label deal for The Durutti Column, and for the moment paid little heed to the nascent independent scene, which in Manchester still amounted to little more than Rabid, mail order and the Virgin shop on Lever Street. However, even as M24J began plotting their opening move the indie landscape was transformed by the arrival of two new imprints: Rough Trade and Fast Product. Based in Edinburgh, Fast was the brainchild of Robert (Bob) Last, who had dabbled in architecture and theatre design prior to managing the cartoonish, retropunk Rezillos. ‘I was just looking around for the right sort of package to communicate or use,’ reasoned Last of Fast Product, like Wilson never short of an abstract cultural theory or three. ‘With new wave singles, suddenly there was the right package to put out. You could do something that was interesting without it being labelled as avantgardist. So we became a record label. The aspect that I’m concerned with in Fast is the package, and the implications of the package – how you’re going to market it, how it’s going to get to people. I don’t believe in dropping out or alternative cultures or any of this nonsense. You’ve got to get in there and struggle.’

"I’d seen Tony on the television and thought, if I ever meet this man then we will fight ... we ended up talking for about an hour, utterly stoned."

Initially Last found himself locked firmly outside. Exactly one year after the release of Spiral Scratch, Fast Product issued Never Been In A Riot, the primitive, freeform debut by Leeds art-punks Mekons. Despite acclaim as a single of the week in NME, Rough Trade declined to distribute FAST 1, which would struggle to sell 3,000 copies. A single by Sheffield band 2.3 fared no better, but at least connected Last with two superior groups: The Human League and Gang of Four. Both were far better able to deliver on the radical Fast agenda, by which Last presented as a post-modern advocate of aggressive, audacious mainstream intervention, launched from a northern provincial base. Indeed Fast Product came to resemble the label that Richard Boon might well have shaped with New Hormones had he possessed sufficient time, funding and drive. Tellingly, Tony Wilson would judge Fast far more interesting than New Hormones, Rabid or Rough Trade, not on the basis of any music delivered, but because Last came first in playing ‘a lot of high-art games’.

Rough Trade would swiftly establish itself as a far more significant enterprise. Founded by Geoff Travis in February 1976, Rough Trade began life as an imports and reggae shop in boho London district Ladbroke Grove. The store quickly became a key hub for alternative music, branching out first into mail order, then distribution. Managed by Richard Scott, by the beginning of 1978 Rough Trade’s distribution arm had expanded to become a nationwide network which linked the London parent with a number of provincial associates including Red Rhino, Probe and Revolver. Rough Trade itself functioned as a kibbutz-like co-operative, publishing a useful booklet with advice on how to press DIY records, and offering generous manufacturing and distribution deals to innovative new labels such as Mute, Industrial and Y.

The Rough Trade label was a natural progression from distribution, and the endless flow of demos and singles arriving at 202 Kensington Park Road. Geoff Travis opened his account with Paris Maquis by Metal Urbain, released in February 1978. ‘We had Stiff and Virgin within walking distance, so I thought if they can do it, why not us? We’d sold hundreds of copies of Lady Coca-Cola by this Parisian electronic punk group, Metal Urbain. A&R didn’t involve a masterplan or an apprenticeship. Our signing policy was simple: if we really loved it we would sign it. That was our single guiding principle.’

In common with Stiff, Rough Trade provided a practical template for likeminded independent labels to copy, following futuristic Metal Urbain with singles by Augustus Pablo, Cabaret Voltaire, Stiff Little Fingers, Subway Sect, Kleenex and The Monochrome Set. LikeWilson, Geoff Travis was a Cambridge graduate, yet the two budding entrepreneurs shared little else in common, and instead the arriviste M24J co-founder chose to follow the example of Bob Last and Richard Boon as creative, entrepreneurial managers, prone to cloaking their activities in post-modern pop and media dialectics. ‘We were all managers,’ remarks Wilson. ‘We all looked after artists. In a sense that’s why we had a different view from the major labels. We were all coming from the artist manager point of view.’

Back in Manchester, Boon and the New Hormones faction seemed briefly to dominate the scene. In March 1978 Buzzcocks released their first album, Another Music in a Different Kitchen, which peaked at #15 on the national chart. Although United Artists had declined to hire Martin Hannett as producer, rival Martin Rushent proved a more than capable substitution, while intelligent, modern packaging by Linder Sterling and art director Malcolm Garrett continued to set Buzzcocks apart from the bulk of their London counterparts. Garrett, a friend of Linder, began designing for Buzzcocks while still at Manchester Polytechnic, leaving his classmate Peter Saville somewhat envious.

Linder had graduated the previous year, providing graphics for singles and posters by Buzzcocks, as well as singles and albums for Magazine, and collaborating with writer Jon Savage on The Secret Public, a glossy collage fanzine issued by New Hormones as ORG 2. Linder was a radical feminist, and her work frequently combined pornographic images with pictures from fashion and home magazines, domestic appliances being very much a favourite, by way of comment on the cultural expectations of women and the treatment of the female body as a commodity. Broadly similar themes would inform the music and lyrics of the group formed around her in August: Ludus.

"Had McLaren called the Pistols’ album Where’s the Durruti Column?, and Wilson christened the Reilly/Bowers group Bollocks, the landscape of popular culture might look a little different today."

Even Joy Division were making progress of a sort. Still freighted with unsold copies of their unsatisfactory first EP, the band now at least boasted an accomplished drummer in Stephen Morris. The youngest member of the group after Ian Curtis, Morris was also a native of Macclesfield and had attended the King’s School, from which he was expelled for drinking cough syrup. Shy, though always affable, as a musician Morris aimed to emulate the metronomic style of Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, and joined Joy Division after replying to an ad placed by Curtis in the window of a local music shop.

In April the newly invigorated group set about recording an album at Arrow Studio, a session arranged by the local RCA promotions man Richard Searling, who had originally approached the band to record a cover of Northern Soul staple Keep On Keepin’ On. This the band turned into their own song, Interzone, and utilized the session to record eleven tracks over five days, including early versions of Shadowplay and Transmission, as well as improved versions of tracks from the earlier EP. However, Joy Division announced their dissatisfaction with the recordings even before the session wrapped, falling out with producer John Anderson and suspicious of his proposal to add synthesizer lines to several songs. Consequently, the album later referred to as Warsaw would never gain an official release.

Rabid, too, returned to the vinyl fray. After six quiet months, in the spring of 1978 Tosh Ryan issued singles by three new signings: Ed Banger, Giro and Jilted John. Although his label was still a shoestring operation run from a former grocery store, Cranked Up Really High by Slaughter and the Dogs had sold 18,000 copies, generating a reasonable profit. ‘Now that our initial investment has been returned, we have nothing to lose,’ Ryan proclaimed in Melody Maker. ‘The big record companies still stink, and I think that it’s very important that we exist and that we are truly independent.We are outside the system, and we will always remain that way.’ Ryan would deliver on this promise with Jilted John, a pseudonym of Graham Fellows, then a drama student at Manchester University, now better known as comedian John Shuttleworth.

Produced by Martin Hannett, Fellows’ eponymous tale of teenage love and loss arrived in April and quickly shifted 15,000 copies, after which Rabid licensed the single to EMI and were rewarded with a bona fide hit, peaking at #4 on the national chart in August. Durutti Column guitarist Vini Reilly was invited to perform as part of John’s backing band on Top of the Pops, but declined. A suitably snotty Jilted John album (True Love Stories) followed at the end of the year, as well as a cash-in response single credited to Gordon theMoron. Neither repeated the success of the original single, but no matter: eighteen months into his career as a producer, Zero Hannett had delivered a Top five hit. Slaughter and the Dogs fared less well, releasing an album on Decca in June, and splitting at precisely the same time.

Profiling Jilted John in NME, Paul Morley provided a snapshot of the emerging indie label scene in Manchester. ‘Rabid’s contribution to the cracked picture of 1977 Manchester tended to be submerged in a slight unfashionability and a deserved reputation for ruthlessness. Elsewhere, organizations hastily promised or hinted at future developments. Valer Records signed The Drones and folded at the beginning of the year. New Hormones, the label conceived by Richard Boon and Howard Trafford as a vehicle for Buzzcocks records, began quietly to prepare more idealistic multi-media projects for the future. But because of other interests (Boon managing Buzzcocks, Trafford managing Devoto) little has happened. Rabid is, at present, Manchester’s one independent label willing to give chances to the most seemingly flimsy talents.’

This is an extract from ‘Shadowplayers – The Rise and Fall of Factory Records’ by James Nice (Aurum). To buy this book click below.

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