Paul Morley,
The TVD Interview

The creation of the Manchester music scene in England can be traced in many ways to one man—a bespectacled TV journalist there named Tony Wilson. His work in signing Joy Division and creating Factory Records inspired dozens of other bands and made the industrial city in the North a kind of beacon for a type of post-punk, industrial sound before he died in 2007 at 57.

Also from Manchester, the writer Paul Morley chronicled the rise of the city’s sounds and the particular character of Wilson over the years for New Musical Express and other publications. More recently, he’s spent 10 years writing the eventual biography, From Manchester to Love: The Life and Opinions of Tony Wilson, which is just now getting a US release this month on Faber Books. We talked via Zoom with Morley from London about the effects one man could have on a city, and culture.

Why did it take a decade to complete the book?

It was something I wanted to get right. I think technically a few years ago I could have finished it.  I wanted more perspective on it, to see how he would develop as a character as times were changing very quickly. The kind of iconoclast that Tony Wilson was in the 20th century—those kinds of figures don’t exist anymore.

I suppose it could have been difficult to know at what point to end the book as well.

That’s right. Because stories continue to change. And also it’s a story about a city, Manchester. And that’s been going through a lot of changes, a lot of  them having to do with Tony’s presence and ambitions. For me the equivalence was the 19th century industrialists who set up the city and are already being forgotten about, apart from the occasional statue. I just wanted to animate that work. Because it’s a story not just about music, it’s about many other things as well.

Did you grow up in Manchester?

Yes. I grew up in Manchester, in a town just a few miles south, Stockport. Manchester consists of a lot of satellite areas if you like. The city center itself is very compact and small. It’s got a lot of resident history.

So I hit my teens in the early 1970s, I was just a bit younger than Wilson. At a time when Manchester seemed to be done as a place; its history seemed over, people like Tony Wilson, oddly enough, kept urging it to reconnect with its industrial heyday.

How did he try to make that happen?  

I think it was simply the fact that he had a knowledge of it. Unlike the people in that area at the time, he was a Cambridge University student, which gave him an immediate difference to the rest of us; he’d been out there, and been out in the world and come back with a very different kind of presence than most Northerners, an intellectual presence, or the presence of a deeper, stranger thinker.

He was very aware of the history of Manchester and the history of things that were firsts: the first computer, first suffragettes, the first library. He felt that we considered ourselves in the North at the edges or margins of the universe, why not put ourselves at the center of the universe. And he had the ambition and energy and the desire to do that.

Of course he was also a great broadcaster, and what happened in the late ’50s and 1960s, a local TV company, Granada, started working out of Manchester, showing that it could be good. And it was very innovative and progressive, and had some of the greatest journalists in the country. It gave a great modern presence to the city in the ’60s as it was declining. Tony ended up there and that fed into the realization that he could make a change. He had a revolutionary sensibility as well, coming out being 18 in 1968, the year of all the great revolutions. And this all sort of coincided.

But it was music that he thought he would do this through?

Yes. The first visit in 1976 of the Sex Pistols to Manchester—that was a great catalyst for him. Not so much the music but their manager Malcolm McLaren, who he identified with as a figure very similar to him. He didn’t do anything specific. You couldn’t say he was a musician or an artist or a designer or a writer, it was this weird thing you have a lot of examples of in rock music, the impresario, the behind the scenes character, like Andrew Loog Oldham or Brian Epstein or Peter Grant—the ones who saw and made the myths. And he was a great myth-maker, so McLaren made him think he could do something. He was very good at broadcasting at Granada television, and he was a local celebrity. But he got bored easily, and he was just at a lull. He was bored and looking for an opportunity to do something else and make things happen.

Had Manchester been known for its music previously?

Manchester had always been a great music city, and a great drug city if you like. They had great dance clubs in the ’60s, and they were great at having great music coming in. And they had one or two groups—the 10ccs, the Sad Cafes. There were musicians that came out of Manchester obviously; Graham Nash came out of Manchester. But it didn’t necessarily have a music scene, and to some extent it had been overshadowed by Liverpool and The Beatles, and the music scene that took over the world. Tony was very aware of that.

The punk thing awakened him but it also awakened a lot of people in Manchester in the sense that they could get the opportunity to form bands. So suddenly there was a music scene in Manchester, based around  this triggering visit of the Sex Pistols. And Tony Wilson being a journalist and broadcaster, he liked to see things happen, he liked scenes, he liked to observe things. Suddenly he had something he was in the middle of that both could help him and his own story through being involved, and I don’t think he really thought he’d set up a record label.

He didn’t even think of it as a record label; he thought of it as an opportunity for him to get him involved, and do that thing that he was the best at: to make things happen. Bands started to form, and the first thing bands would do was to write to Tony Wilson and get on his television show because he was a guy that booked the music on TV. He was a star-breaker. That was his first role in music. Sometimes he would ignore them and they would get angry. And that was the story of Joy Division—they were so furious with him that he wouldn’t put them on their show. They were so angry with him, and in a classic Wilson way, that became a kind of relationship, and they ended up working with them.

That Sex Pistols visit to Manchester came on two nights?

They came up the first night, which Tony didn’t go to, as much as he claimed that he did. They were invited up by a bunch of Manchester guys who became another group, the Buzzcocks, and that first visit wasn’t that well attended because it was very new, this kind of thing. The Pistols themselves hadn’t played many shows. It was very unusual for bands at that time, that early, to go out into the country. Buzzcocks weren’t ready for the first show.

Then they came back a few weeks later when the Buzzcocks were ready—that’s the show Tony Wilson went to. It happened within a six-week period and within that six weeks, in the summer of ’76 you could see a huge change. The second show was sold out. There were more people interested in this music. The Sex Pistols were already on their way to notoriety, and Wilson was there and he put them on national television for the first time. So he played a role immediately by getting them to go on television and have them play an extraordinary show that helped the Sex Pistols on their way.

Were you at either of those shows?

I was at both shows. The first show just as a music fan in ’76, where if you listened to John Peel and read the music papers, you’d be aware that things were happening. You’d have read the reviews of the Sex Pistols where it said this isn’t really music this is noise, this is chaos—which would inspire a teenager in the 1970s who was into the Stooges, MC5, and music like that to see what the fuss was all about. The sense of danger coming into our town was very attractive.

What was the transition for a broadcaster putting the Sex Pistols on his show to becoming someone to foster his own community of music in town?

He had friends who were managers of bands and made music with people. Alan Erasmus was a close friend and he managed the band Fast Breeder. Tony’s mother died around that time and left him a few thousand pounds of cash. They decided they would start a club in a rundown area of Manchester to put the band on. There was nowhere for the band Alan had to play, and it was sort of falling apart in his hands. So he put together a band. He got a guy named Vini Reilly to play guitar. They became a band called Durutti Column.

But there was nowhere for them to play so they put on at a club that usually played black music on a backstreet in Hulme. They called it The Factory because of the Manchester factories and the industrial world. Some thought it was about Andy Warhol at the time but it genuinely was—factories were closing said Alan Erasmus, so I’ll open one. And then in a way the first record they put out was really just a souvenir of that club, The Factory. They weren’t really thinking of it as the start of a label; it could have been the only record they’d put out.

And they did it, it was wonderful, it was unusual, it was beautifully designed. It brought a new design sense to Manchester. It didn’t look like a punk record; it looked like a work of art, like something you get out of Fluxus or something. And that could have been it. Joy Division was one of the groups on it. Tony was worried that they were going to sign to a London label and him and their manager Rob Gretton worked out that perhaps they could do it themselves, having made this one record, the Factory sample, which sold a few thousand and broke even. It didn’t make any money but it broke even. And it emerged from that, ad hoc. Not necessarily a long term strategy, but a case of what if we tried this, what would happen? Let’s see.

It seemed like all of the Factory releases had a similar aesthetic sensibility.

One of Tony’s great skills was getting the right people to do the right thing. They had a great producer, Martin Hannett, who made some of the best-sounding records of the time. And there was a label that started just before Tony’s called New Hormones in Manchester, and they had a really great designer called Malcolm Garrett who designed all the Buzzcocks sleeves. And designed them beautifully, so they didn’t look like do-it-yourself, and they didn’t look provincial and local. Tony was jealous of that and found himself his own designer, a friend of Malcolm’s called Peter Saville.

Peter Saville turned out to be a really great designer, suddenly given the freedom to design what he wanted, to make objects that didn’t have any commercial pressure, because Tony just wanted to make them unique. And that was an important moment for Factory Records. Perhaps Tony’s best signing was Peter Saville, because what started to happen was this sequence of events that gave Factory an immediate identity; an immediate image. Design and style had suddenly erupted in Manchester. You could see it years later in the work of Jonathan Ive at Apple. It was all rooted in a way in Peter Saville.

Peter Saville and Martin Garrett were design students and they were very aware of the history of design and they continued the history of design within Manchester. So it wasn’t a look that you immediately identified with Manchester, because it came from Bauhaus or 19th century typography. But suddenly here was Manchester. It became Manchester. And it gave an added element to the idea of Manchester—that it was a futurist city as well as a city with a great past.

Was there a sound to the Manchester bands that were similar in the way that Liverpool bands once were or that London bands might have been? 

Abstractly. I think the consistent element was Martin Hannett, who himself started from scratch when he started producing. He started by producing the first Buzzcocks record, and he really didn’t have a sound or a style. He made it in like 12 hours. But he was so interested in new equipment and machinery, and drum machines. And he was interested in being a great record producer—not a provincial one.

Obviously, he created the sound of Joy Division effectively, in the way that George Martin came up with the sound of The Beatles. And in a sense they didn’t like it because they didn’t recognize it. It was quite new. They wanted to sound like Black Sabbath and he was making them sound like an avant garde Kraftwerk, because he loved the idea of creating a new kind of sound. And it became the sound of Manchester. And later on, even when he didn’t produce the records and the group that Joy Division became, there was still a sense that this belonged to Manchester, because it was such an unusual hybrid.

What was the immediate effect on the label after Ian Curtis’ suicide on the eve of what would have been Joy Division’s first US tour?

It had a confused and chaotic effect. Tony was very good at putting up a public front, and the public front would be as the manipulator, the Malcolm McLaren type personality who was going to turn it into an advantage and make a big deal out of the romantic suicide of a young genius. And Tony could play that game. But privately he was devastated and felt responsible.

There was a world where it might have come crashing to a halt, but in a way they decided for Ian that the band should keep going and the plans to open a club should keep going. To some, it looked a bit cynical. But in fact it was done out of a kind of idealism and a belief that Ian’s death shouldn’t be for nothing and that Ian’s death helped Joy Division make a lot of money. It was the first time they had any money. And some labels might have wasted that money or spent it on making other records. But they decided, thinking the city needed the kind of thing that New York had at the time, a great club. Why don’t we have a club like that? And the madness of the way they operated, they opened a big nightclub in Manchester, which gave it an enormous shot in the arm.

It was part of Tony’s schtick—if something is missing that I want, I will bring it to Manchester. And the first thing was spending Joy Division money on a club, which was kind of philanthropic apart from anything else. It was about the community. People used to laugh at them when they used to say “We’re doing it for the kids.” But they kind of meant it. They really had done it because something was lacking in the city.

But at first they didn’t know what to do with it. It was more a surrealist social club, if you like—half empty for live music that didn’t suit it. It took a bit of time to become apparent that it was a dance club and it needed dance music. Tony really didn’t like dance music because it made him think of disco. But the people around him—Bob Gretton, Alan Erasmus, the disc jockeys that started to make the Hacienda work, they understood that there was a new kind of dance music that also involved white rock—that hybrid that New Order represented.

So it became a dance club and even though Tony didn’t see it coming, he was very good as a journalist at becoming the figurehead of it, giving it a headline, giving it a name—turning Dirty Manchester into MadChester, becoming Mr. Manchester himself. He was pretty good at offering his own story, relying on energy coming from elsewhere, but putting it into a very accessible package.

In America, it seems if people know Tony Wilson at all it’s through his depiction by Steve Coogan in the movie 24 Hour Party People. Although you do see a lot of young people here wearing Joy Division tee shirts who may not know the band behind it. How do you think people will receive your book in America?

It is interesting what you say. In a way that’s what I meant when I talked about in a funny way Peter Saville was the most important signing because it’s the Peter Saville signals that continue to resonate—the soul of Factory, if you like. There was a world where as much as Tony Wilson was the provincial Northern England music impresario that appealed to a very niche audience, he gave me the opportunity to write a biography about a great personality, filled with contradiction.

Whatever business he was in, whatever he did with his life, there was something magnetic and mysterious about him that I could explore as a biographer—great stories, great characters that he worked with, and I hope that could travel across fashions and generations. If you’re interested in how a person makes his life a work of art, if you like how they change things around and how they interpret truth and persuade others that their truth is the correct one.

However that works, that still seems to have a validity, whatever kind of thing you’re interested in. So I really didn’t just want to disappear into a musical biography, I wanted as much as anything to be a biography of a great character, like a Kubrick or an Orson Welles. Whether you’re interested in what they did, you’re interested in how they did what they did, and how they did it, and also just how they dealt with other people, that could always give you a clue of how to deal with other people. So I was hoping that it might transcend the niche area he had, and indeed explain to those people exactly what that t-shirt is and where it came from.

Was the movie accurate?

It was accurate in the sense there was a farcical element to Factory. There was a series of movies made in the ’60s and ’70s in this country, “Carry On” movies, these broad comedies. And there was definitely a “Carry On” side to Factory. Another film made about that period, Control by Anton Corbijn is more the Ingmar Bergman version. And there’s a grain of truth in that. You could make 100 films and they’d all be completely different but they would make up this messy truth.

One thing he didn’t like about it, is that he thought it didn’t get across how nasty he could be, how bad tempered he could be. He thought it treated him a bit too cuddly. In his last few months, one of the things that genuinely upset him was he said, “I knew I must be dying, because suddenly everybody was being very nice to me.” He didn’t really like it. He liked when people were annoyed with him. He thrived on that kind of tension, that kind of irritating people.

Paul Morley’s From Manchester with Love: The Life and Opinions of Tony Wilson is in stores now via Faber Books.

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