What Really Happened When Martin Hannett Tried To Shoot Tony Wilson

Working as a dogsbody at Slaughterhouse Studios in the 80s, I spent an illuminating period around the Mondays, Hannett and Wilson as they recorded Bummed. It was insane...
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Working as a dogsbody at Slaughterhouse Studios in the 80s, I spent an illuminating period around the Mondays, Hannett and Wilson as they recorded Bummed. It was insane...

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In 24 Hour Party People; Michael Winterbottom’s excellent film about Tony Wilson and Factory Records, there is a short scene, set in the fledgling offices of the label, where legendary unstable producer, Martin Hannett (played by Andy Serkis) is having a rant at Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan.) The scene ends with Hannett heading for the door in black mood, and turning to Wilson just before he leaves. ‘Just one last thing, Toneh’, says Hannett. As Tony Wilson turns to hear what it is, Martin Hannett produces a loaded revolver and fires a shot into the wall next to Tony Wilson’s head, before walking out laughing to himself.

When I first saw 24 Hour Party People, this particular incident gave me a massive flash back. It is not inconceivable that Martin Hannett shot at Tony Wilson on more than one occasion; however I suspect that the scene depicted in the film, was adapted from an incident that occurred during the recording of the Happy Mondays second album at The Slaughterhouse Studios in Driffield, Yorkshire, in the summer of 1988. This is what really happened.

Having recently sent in a demo to his record label, local music impresario, Russell Webster has just offered my band a deal. It’s not quite a record deal, but he says he likes our sound and is prepared to give us a production deal (provide us with studio time to help us develop.)with his company. We will be provided with top end recording studios to help us realize our potential, and in return, Russell Webster wants first dibs on our worldwide publishing, should his support, and the associated recordings, flower in to a recording contract of some kind.  Before we have time to think, he gives us a tour of his new domain; a 36 track state of the art studio, with the most amazing control room that any of us have ever seen.  However, once out of the recording areas, the rest of the huge Georgian building looks like Dresden in 1945. Russell, however, speaks with grandeur and hammers home his vision, and how he wants us to share in this.

As we nod and salivate at the prospect of our inevitable stardom, he then throws in a side- clause to his production deal offer. Starting next week, we have to paint and decorate all fourteen bedrooms of his brand new residential studios, The Slaughterhouse Complex. This will afford us 2 days of recording nirvana until such point as Russell works out what other amount of sanding, painting, and drain clearance, he needs doing in return for giving us another free day, that he can’t fill with paying clients.

A month later, The Slaughterhouse still does not have a bands’ kitchen, or the private bar, advertised on the promo blurb, but it does have 14 comfy and sloppily decorated bedrooms. For my part, I have been upgraded from paint monkey to studio monkey. An accidental rapport with the fat Jonathan King look-alike has resulted in him selling me on to the studio manager, like a catamite, and I am now in charge of ‘artist liaison & hospitality.’  Of course, this is just a grandiose job title for being studio tea boy and gofer, but I haven’t quite cottoned on to that just yet.

Seeing as we don’t have any catering facilities, or a bar, Russell has cut a deal with The Norseman, a local bar over the road. All the proper bands have a tab for food and drink, and, in between tidying the studio and coiling up cables, I am to run over the road to collect whatever has been requested by the band, and sign for it. Starting this week, we have some bunch of leery Mancs arriving. I’ve heard of the Happy Mondays, but, right now I am a guitar band guy, and this Madchester bollocks is all a bit twee and plastic pants for my liking. However, Russell tells me that I am to afford them every whim, because some bloke called Tony Wilson reckons they are the dog’s bollocks (and he’s paying with bundles of 50’s)

For anyone who has seen ‘24 Hour Party People’ which will be most of you, let me just make an observation, here. Coogan was worthy of an Oscar for his portrayal of Tony Wilson. He could not have got him any more right. He genuinely did think that Shaun Ryder was the greatest poet since Yeats. Not so, Martin Hannett.

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Martin arrived a day late, and looked like a black Volkswagen Beatle on two legs, clutching a bottle of Courvoisier. He was quiet but brooding, and after half an hour checking out the recording desk, he immediately asked me to fetch him a MAG. I immediately assumed this must be studio slang for some particular piece of kit. After a few minutes running around, asking a bemused studio maintenance man if we had a MAG for Martin, I plucked up the courage to approach the colossus and asked him to run it by me again. He banged his fist on the studio desk. ‘I need a mag to read. I’m busting for a shit.’

The following six weeks were probably the beginning of the end for Factory Records. In years past, it is impossible to see; even with their roster of talent, just how they could ever maintain this amount to spending for so little result. Tony Wilson would appear once a week, with a shoebox sized parcel. He would swoosh into the studio control room in his floor length Burberry Mac, phone to his ear, and having two conversations at once. Tony would put the box on the mixing desk and point his finger at John Spence, the studio engineer. ‘Don’t fucking touch the desk, unless Shaun is in the studio. He’s a fucking genius.’ He would then disappear like some kind of technicolor Batman, still on his phone, the size of a house brick. An hour later, Shaun Ryder would amble in, see the box, and say ‘Oh fuckin’ ell , Tone’s been,’ and then you would not see the band for three days. This went on for six weeks and, whilst Martin Hannett really was some kind of Sumo sized Sith Lord, he was clearly a man who wanted to make an album.

The first sign that things were not great came, one evening, when the fire alarms went off.  The screeching was coming from the control room, and I ran over to see if we had a bin on fire, or a cig down the sofa. When I opened the heavy sound proofed door, I saw that the mixing desk was on fire, but it appeared that no one was in the room. Suddenly Martin Hannett appeared over the back of the desk, brandy in hand. He was looking confused, as ever. ‘What’s  going on, Martin?’ I yelled. Martin Hannett pulled himself to his feet, and slurred in his Manc growl, ‘I am so fookin’ bored, I decided to set fire to the desk, and see if I could run around it, before I had to stop the tape, but I fell over.’

Finally, the Happy Monday’s second album ‘Bummed’ was in the can; Tony was on his way up from Manchester for the play back, and the band was in The Norseman celebrating their triumph. About 8pm, the band decided to head back over the road and get settled in to await their greatest plaudit. I am left to sign off the tab and collect a couple of cases of beer and a few bottles of spirits to bring back to the studio. Over the past few months, I’ve really come to like The Happy Mondays. I pity anyone who actually has to work with them, or in any way try to make them productive, but once you get past the feral edge, they are very funny and affable bunch; not to mention a great band. (when they actually bother to do anything)

Fifteen minutes later, I barged open the control room door with my shoulder and expected to walk into a throng of happy Mancs ready to bask in Tony Wilson’s praise of their efforts, but there was no play-back coming from the giant speakers, and the room looked empty. I looked over the vast expanse of the control room, my arms creaking with the goodies, to see Paul and Shaun Ryder’s faces rise from behind the glass of the drum room. They looked as sober as I had ever seen them, and Shaun Ryder had real fear in his face, but I was still not sure what was going on. The fact that Martin was nowhere to be seen, suddenly felt ominous.  The previous few weeks had taught me that, the only predictable thing about Martin, was that he was anything but predictable. All of a sudden Martin Hannett squeezed out of the hobbit sized doorway that led to the small tape machine room. He was grunting and chuntering like some giant troll that had just come out of his lair to see what had sprung his meat trap, a bottle of brandy in one hand, and a revolver in the other.

In his drunken stupor, he failed to notice me standing by the door, and began to pace up and down in front to the glass that looked through into the drum room. Even though it was double glazed and each pane was half an inch thick, I somehow doubted whether Russell had thought to make it bullet proof. I slipped quietly out before I was spotted, and ran across to the main office, to raise the alarm.  I thought about who would be the best person to call, and had a quick reviso of the situation. This was not good. A man, whose sanity was questionable when he was sober, was currently wankered up on brandy, pointing a gun, and in a worse mood than usual.  Even in the sometimes temperamental bubble of the recording studio, this was pretty much def-con one.

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I called Russell, the owner, and filled him in on the situation. ‘Martin Hannett has gone Tonto and he’s holding the Monday’s hostage at gun point.’ After finally convincing him I was not winding him up, and that this was not some Ryder brothers joke, he informed me that Tony Wilson was only a few minutes away and I was to go out to the car park and wait. Under no circumstances was I to call the rozzers.

A few minutes later a knackered silver Fiat Uno screeched into the car park and out stepped Tony Wilson. He said virtually nothing, and headed across the car park towards the large sound proofed door that led into the control room. For reasons that still escape me, I just followed him in. The scene was just as I had left it a few minutes earlier. The band were still locked in the drum room, like stoned tropical fish, with the fear, looking out of their tank, and Martin Hannett was still grunting and slurring with a loaded gun in his hand.

Some weeks earlier, when the recording was just getting started, Tony Wilson and Martin Hannett had exchanged a few words in the studio reception area. ‘They’re fookin’ crap, Toneh.’ said Hannett. Tony Wilson almost danced his way to the door, turning as he went, ‘But it’s a fine line between art and crap, Martin.’ Tony Wilson may have got a lot of things wrong in his career, but it is impossible not to admire him as a visionary. He was a man prepared to walk on the high wire without a safety net, and the following few minutes were a master class in refusing to consider risk. Tony Wilson stepped into the studio and announced his arrival by dropping his aluminium brief case on the table with a thud. His tone was confrontational.

Tony Wilson: ‘Martin, what exactly is the problem?’

Martin Hannett:  ‘The problem, Toneh, is that I could write better songs with a pencil tied to my dick.’

Tony Wilson: ‘That may very well be the case, Martin, but your dick is not writing these songs;  Shaun fuckin’ Ryder is writing them, so I suggest you put the gun down.’

In years past, I have often wondered how sure Tony Wilson was that Martin Hannett was not going to go postal. I honestly do not think he knew which way it was going to go. It was akin to the scene in Total Recall where Arnie is trying to decide who is telling the truth, and who is not. It all comes down to one bead of sweat; one sign of weakness that you cannot control.

Martin Hannett suddenly looked deflated. He put the gun on the mixing desk and flopped back in the sofa, looking like a naughty school boy.  Had there not been an inch of glass between us and the band, I am sure their collective sigh of relief would have blown us off our feet.

Tony Wilson told Martin Hannett he was a ‘fookin’ genius’ (which he probably deserves) but he should go and get some sleep. Martin began to gather his stuff, whilst Tony Wilson let the band out of the drum room, but just as he was about to exit the door, Martin Hannett stopped and uttered the immortal line ‘Just one more thing, Toneh.’ and fired a shot in to the wall, about two feet from Tony Wilson’s head. Tony Wilson dived behind a sofa and, realising he was not hit, calmly said, ‘Very funny, Martin, now will you please fuck off?’

The whole moment then became ever more surreal. Having just been held at gunpoint by their record producer, most bands would have been demanding they be sacked and replaced by someone not quite so unstable, but not the Happy Mondays. They came out of the drum room, laughing; the only comment being, ‘Martin’s a bit of a fookin’ header , man!’ and then got stuck in to the booze, like nothing had happened.

Over the next six months, two things became apparent. The first was that my band’s production deal was simply the studio owner’s way of getting all his painting and decorating done for nothing, and the second was that Slaughterhouse Studios was a white elephant falling down a bottomless money pit. The final straw came when the studio label signed a band whose manager, unbeknown the label, was the honorary sergeant at arms of the Northern Irish chapter of the Hells Angels.  Once that little deal went pear it was time to get out of town. A few weeks later the place burned to the ground. No one has ever been quite sure what happened, although it was a miraculous coincidence that the master tapes of all the albums currently in production had been moved to another building on the fateful night. How lucky was that?

The bands came and went, stuff got busted, people got pissed up, and practically every rock ‘n’ roll cliché was observed on a weekly basis. However Tony Wilson and the Happy Mondays stood alone, if only because their only reaction to being shot at and held hostage by a mad man, was to say, ‘He’s a bit of a fookin’ header.’