The Factory Records Story

Extracted from new book Shadowplayers, the inside story of the start of Britain's most revered and infamous record label.
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The paucity of active labels in the city was underlined by an enthusiastic showing at the so-called Stiff/Chiswick Challenge, an audition night held at popular cellar venue Rafters on 14 April. Essentially a talent contest, the event had already stopped off in London, Liverpool and Glasgow, and promised the winning artist the chance to record for a London label. At Rafters the Mancunian candidates included several acts from the Rabid stable, including Jilted John, Ed Banger and Prime Time Suckers, as well as Fast Product band 2.3, and an array of unattached hopefuls including Joy Division, Fly, V2, The Yo-Yos, Time Out, Mike King and the Tunes, and The Negatives, the latter a joke punk gesture featuring Paul Morley, Richard Boon and photographer Kevin Cummins.

Joy Division performed last, at two-thirty in the monring, but failed to convince the judges. Sounds too were left unimpressed, Mick Wall dismissing ‘mock heroics all round from Iggy imitators acting out their sons-of-world-war-two histrionics’. Despite becoming involved in a fierce running order squabble backstage, Morley offered a more positive appraisal in NME. ‘They’re a dry, doomy group who depend promisingly on the possibilities of repetition, sudden stripping away, with deceptive dynamics, whilst they use sound in a more orthodox hard rock manner than, say, either The Fall or Magazine. They have an ambiguous appeal, and with patience they could develop strongly and make some testing, worthwhile metallic music.’ Metallic, not metal.

Still struggling to perfect ‘the next music’ in a derelict scout hut, The Durutti Column were notable absentees at Rafters, although Wilson did attend along with his wife Lindsay Reade and M24J partner Alan Erasmus. As the smart Didsbury set trio descended the stairs of the cellar venue, a bystander demanded to know when So It Goes might return to Granadaland screens. The answer was supplied not by Wilson but by Rob Gretton, who overheard the exchange from the DJ booth: ‘He doesn’t want it to come back. He wants it to be gone forever. Then it can grow into a legend.’

If Wilson was amused, he was less pleased on being accosted by Ian Curtis, who handed over an abusive letter before calling him a ‘fucking cunt’ for failing to showcase Joy Division on What’s On. Whether or not Gretton was privy to this forthright exchange, he was profoundly impressed by the three songs performed by Curtis and Joy Division later that night. ‘I thought they were the best group I’d ever seen. There was something really weird about them. I’d met them before because they used to come to Rafters and ask me to play records by Kraftwerk; they always asked for pretty weird stuff. It was around then that people first said “Fascists” because they dressed so differently. They were smart, punky, but not scruffy; it was unusual. And the music was absolutely wonderful.’

The following day Gretton spied guitarist Bernard Sumner in a city centre phone box. ‘Barney was on the phone to me,’ Steve Morris recalls, ‘and said that the bloke from Rafters was outside. He didn’t mention anything about Rob wanting to manage us, so when Rob came down to the rehearsal room it was all a bit awkward. Terry Mason, our roadie, had tried a bit of management, but basically Rob was first in a queue of one.’

Failure to communicate remained amodus operandi for the band that preferred instinct over intellect. ‘We never talked about the music,’ confirms Sumner. ‘We had an understanding which we never felt the need to vocalize.We felt that talking about the music would stop that inspiration. In the same way, we never talked about Ian’s lyrics or Ian’s performance.’ In terms of songwriting, no single member took a dominant role in Joy Division, although Curtis would emerge as their principal editor. ‘He never wrote any music but he was a great orchestrator,’ Sumner continues. ‘I’d arrange the songs and we all wrote the music, but Ian would give us the direction. I’m more rhythm and chords, and Hooky was melody. Steve has his own style which is different to other drummers. To me, a drummer in the band is the clock, but Steve wouldn’t be the clock, because he’s passive. He would follow the rhythm of the band, which gave us our own edge. Live, we were driven by watching Ian dance; we were playing to him visually.’

"If Wilson was amused, he was less pleased on being accosted by Ian Curtis, who handed over an abusive letter before calling him a ‘fucking cunt’ for failing to showcase Joy Division on What’s On."

Curtis even influenced Peter Hook’s distinctive bass style, which led with high, melodic lines rather than merely underlining the beat. ‘Maybe it was because we had such terrible equipment,’ Hook offers by way of explanation. ‘The only way you could hear yourself was to play up high, to cut through everything. Ian spotted most of the high bass riffs. You’d just be playing along, jamming away, and he’d say, “Oh, that one’s good. Play it again”.’

Dropping all other projects, one of Gretton’s first acts as manager was to write to Wilson at Granada, who replied in encouraging terms that Joy Division were ‘the best thing I have heard in Manchester for about six months’. Gretton also set about cancelling the unsatisfactory album deal made with RCA, as well as arranging a superior 12-inch pressing of An Ideal for Living in a revised sleeve, and shifting the remaining unsold copies of the original EP through Rabid. However, co-owner Lawrence Beedle recalls that Gretton encountered a degree of resistance at Cotton Lane.

‘Rob took myself and Martin Hannett to meet Joy Division and he wanted them to sign to Rabid. Martin was quite keen and I thought we could sell some records. Then Tosh saw the Nazi iconography and said, “No way”.’ According to Bob Last, this early flirtation with ‘fascist iconography’ also saw Fast Product lose interest in recording the group severalmonths later. It hardly helped when Sounds ran a late but prominent review of the original EP in June, appraising Joy Division as ‘another Fascism for Fun and Profit mob’. Before then, on 9 May, Wilson again wrote to Gretton to repeat that he ‘adored’ An Ideal for Living, and asked if Joy Division might be interested in playing at a new Manchester venue. Elaborating further, Wilson explained that ‘the band I am involved with are promoting a new venue at the Russell Club.’

Here, at last, The Durutti Column would be unveiled to the public. As well as launching their ‘new psychedelic’ protégés, in promoting a new wave club night Wilson and Erasmus also hoped to fill a gap in the market following the temporary closure of Rafters, and the demise of the Electric Circus. In this new endeavour the pair were assisted by Roger Eagle, a veteran of the legendary Twisted Wheel and now booking gigs at key Liverpool venue Eric’s. Indeed the new Manchester club took the form of a reciprocal agreement, and was initially written up in the press as an outlet for ‘wayward sounds and noises inspired by the ideals of Tony Wilson and Roger Eagle’.

The venue itself was located by Erasmus, and sat in the shadow of the grim concrete high-rise crescents of Hulme, artlessly constructed a decade earlier. ‘We had a group, we needed a place to play,’ wrote Wilson. ‘Alan had been checking the Russell Club, a West Indian night-spot on Royce Road in Hulme, where his dad used to take him. The Russell was a big, black room, low ceiling rising over a rudimentary dance floor in the centre, and a fair-enough stage diagonally cutting the far corner. Peeling wooden stools and tables, the bisexual perfume of stale beer and dope smoke.’ Erasmus and Wilson approached colourful Russell Club leaseholder Don Tonay and booked four Friday nights in May and June, electing to re-badge what was widely known as a Caribbean club as The Factory.

Then, as now, the suspicion remains that the Factory name was adopted in overt homage to the studio run by Andy Warhol between 1962 and 1968, with Durutti Column as Wilson’s very own Velvet Underground. However, this retrograde charge was always strenuously denied. ‘With my background in radical art,’ claimed Wilson, ‘you would have thought that it would have occurred to me that the name Factory and Warhol was a wonderful thing. In fact it was nothing to do with that. Erasmus saw a sign somewhere saying, factory closing and he thought we’d call it the Factory, and have a Factory opening.’ In a rare public statement, Erasmus told much the same story. ‘I was driving down a road and there was a big sign saying, “Factory For Sale” standing out in neon. And I thought, “Factory, that’s the name”, because a factory was a place where people work and create things, and I thought to myself, these are workers who are also musicians and they’ll be creative. Factory was nothing to do with Andy Warhol because I didn’t know at that time that Warhol had this building in New York called the Factory.’

Whatever the truth, the exploding plastic inevitable convened by Wilson, Erasmus and Eagle offered a radical but smart programme of provincial postpunk talent, designed to position the as yet untried Durutti Column at the centre of a new movement of Northern Modern. The first Factory event, on 19 May, showcased Durutti and coming hitmaker Jilted John, as well as Margox and the Zinc, a Liverpool group fronted by actress Margi Clarke, then a regular contributor to What’s On. With entrance costing just seventy-nine pence the first Factory night was well attended, although M24J and ‘the next music’ earned just one review in the national music press.

"Dropping all other projects, one of Gretton’s first acts as manager was to write to Wilson at Granada, who replied in encouraging terms that Joy Division were ‘the best thing I have heard in Manchester for about six months’."

Stringing for Sounds, New Manchester Review writer Ian Wood observed that ‘the Warholian name of this enterprise must seem like something of an enormous joke to the local residents of Hulme, Manchester’s disastrous answer to Stalinist architecture, and what the regular clientele of the Russell Club think of the whole affair can only be guessed at, since the place normally serves up a mixture of roots reggae and US soul to a largely black local audience. The Factory is the dreamchild of one-time presenter of So It Goes, Tony Wilson. As one who enjoyed that show, it must be said that one of its consequences was to imbue all manner of upcoming and little known acts with a sort of jiveass fashionability for the coffee table set. So it comes as no surprise to find The Factory packed out by not merely half the musicians in town, but also a fleet-load of media people, semi-fashionable figures and known hustlers, hairdressers and even, according to the Word, hordes of A&R men. This may all be quite irrelevant, but it does provide a pointer for the reason why the bands on met rather less enthusiasm than the reggae toasters and disco between the sets, doing the ethnic hustle doubtless being a whole lot more credibility-inducing than actually trying to work out where a bunch of completely unknown new bands are going.’

Wood missed Jilted John, and poured scorn on the hopeful notion that Margox might yet become ‘Kirby’s answer to Patti Smith’. As for the main event: ‘Durutti Column were making their debut this evening in the belief that agitprop psychedelia is the next big thing. The Column have taken the title of a revolutionary group, put out posters with entirely meaningless cartoons in French and handbills with the message “White Liberation”. As Tony Bowers, late of the Albertos, is the group’s bass player, one is tempted to think all this some enormously funny joke. Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be the case. The only humour in the whole set occurs when they dedicate a number called Police State to one Anderton, Manchester’s God-fearing man in blue. Otherwise they sounded much like Generation X, with the addition of Bowers’ copyrighted silly walks, though their guitarist [Vini Reilly] was interesting with an odd, angular, surreal style. In fairness, everyone else thought they were very impressive. Perhaps they were, perhaps I was reacting negatively due to the oppressively fashionable vibe in the club?’

Back at the office of New Manchester Review, Wood spoke more freely, resulting in more caustic jibes aimed squarely at Wilson. Declining to write up the first Factory night in detail, Steve Forster sniped: ‘My informants tell me that “the Didsbury set” were out in full force for the opening night of Tony Wilson’s “Factory” at the Russell Club on Friday 19 May. Not having been there I cannot comment on the night but colleagues tell me that Durutti Column were, ahem, “a load of wank”. Needless to say it would be churlish to suggest that plugs for The Factory on Mr Wilson’s What’s On programme were in any way less than fair.’

The second Factory happening, on 26 May, offered Big in Japan,Manicured Noise and The Germs, as well as more toasting and reggae between sets. Another Liverpool group dispatched east by Roger Eagle, Big in Japan offered shambolic, cartoonish new wave performance art, populated by a host of future notables including Jayne Casey, Ian Broudie, Holly Johnson and also Bill Drummond, later a founder of Zoo Records. Highly regarded by many, Manicured Noise dispensed spiky, angular, experimental jazz-punk and took their name from a Buzzcocks flyer designed by Linder. Early Noise members included singer Owen Gavin and guitarist Jeff Noon, although the group would soon be transformed by the arrival of Londoner Steve Walsh, who had previously played in hypothetical punk supergroup Flowers of Romance and boasted little or no local allegiance.

The last two Factory Fridays fell on 2 and 9 June. The first of these again showcased The Durutti Column, this time matched with FC Domestos and Cabaret Voltaire. Yet to release a record, Cabaret Voltaire were a resolutely experimental electronic trio from Sheffield comprising StephenMallinder, Chris Watson and Richard H. Kirk. A tape submitted to New Hormones had earned them a London support slot with Buzzcocks at the Lyceum in March, followed by a feature in Sounds in April, written by Jon Savage. ChrisWatson recalls: ‘We got invited over to play at the Factory night in a West Indian club in Hulme. That was just great. At the time Factory just had it for one Friday night each month, and so there were all the elements there of what it was like the rest of the time. You could get Red Stripe, and these fantastic goat pasties. It just had a brilliant atmosphere, and because it was a West Indian club they also had a great sound system.’

"I was driving down a road and there was a big sign saying, 'Factory For Sale' standing out in neon. And I thought, 'Factory, that’s the name'."

The New Manchester Review begged to differ, but at least had learned to love The Durutti Column. ‘The venue was great,’ enthused PaulMiller, ‘but the sound system is crap and the bands suffer for this. Cabaret Voltaire were… different. However, after twenty minutes of distorted vocals and a very poor light show they started to become slightly monotonous. The second band, FC Domestos, were obliterated by the PA. Next were three reggae toasters with their overdubbed dub who went down well with the mainly white punters. Meanwhile TonyWilson walked around and generally enjoyed being the centre of attention. The evening climaxed with The Durutti Column. They play psychedelic punk with a strong reggae rhythm and their classy pedigree – the Albertos, Nosebleeds and Fast Breeder – creates a lethal line-up, with strong songs that belt along at cracking pace. Destined for great things as the latest Manchester band, they should have no trouble securing a record contract in the near future.’

The final Factory night on 9 June paired Joy Division with The Tiller Boys, an experimental loop and Krautrock-informed trio featuring Eric Random, Francis Cookson and moonlighting Buzzcock Pete Shelley. Paul Morley attended, noting that ‘there were a few more people in the club than on the stage, but not many. In my memory, this is when and where Joy Division became the Joy Division you would recognize as Joy Division. Joy Division assaulted our senses that night. Ian Curtis quite easily spiraled off the stage into our midst. The music seemed to lift him up and fling him about, as if he was possessed by its power. He was being carried somewhere.’ Morley also rated The Tiller Boys, who stacked chairs across the front of the stage to obscure the view, then joined the queue at the bar while loops took care of the music. ‘A visionary alternative to support groups and DJs.’

The first four Factory nights were promoted – at least in theory – by means of a now iconic poster designed by student novice Peter Saville. Born in 1955 and raised in a middle-class household in Hale, Saville was about to graduate in graphic design from Manchester Polytechnic, where his contemporaries included Linder and Malcolm Garrett, the latter a school friend of Saville and already applying dayglo constructivism to Buzzcocks. ‘Malcolm had a copy of Herbert Spencer’s Pioneers of Modern Typography,’ recalls Saville. ‘The one chapter that he hadn’t reinterpreted in his own work was the cool, disciplined “New Typography” of Jan Tschichold, and its subtlety appealed to me. I found a parallel in it for the new wave that was evolving out of punk. In this obscure byway of graphic design history, as it seemed at the time, I saw a look for the new, cold mood of 1977–78.’ Thus far, his only commission had been a broadsheet for a local audio firm, Amek. Frustrated, Saville buttonholed Wilson at a concert and offered his services as a general designer.

‘I was desperate for work other than college things, and jealous of Malcolm working on Buzzcocks covers. So I approached Tony on hearing of the Factory club through Richard Boon.’ The pair arranged to meet in the canteen at Granada, a regular venue for summits withWilson. In loquacious sophisticate Saville, the pseudo-Situationist Durutti co-manager perhaps hoped to procure his own Jamie Reid. ‘The crucial thing about graphic design is that you have to impart a message, information,’ Saville concludes. ‘If that means simply putting a name on a piece of paper in the right type at the right size, then that’s what you do. I showed him the Tschichold book, and he liked the ideas. Although Tony’s sensibilities were always literary rather than visual. He would never have opened a hip clothes shop like Malcolm McLaren.’

This is an extract from ‘Shadowplayers – The Rise and Fall of Factory Records’ by James Nice (Aurum). Check back tomorrow for Part 3 of this extract, or if you missed Part 1 read it here. To buy this book click below.

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