Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

Tony Wilson: The Postmodern Mythmaker

A Factory Sample Too, 7-inch EP. Design by Mat Cook, Intro. 1995.

Tony Wilson, founder of Factory records, died on last Friday, August 10. He'd been fighting cancer for some time. Wilson had many claims to fame: he was a successful television presenter; a music industry impresario of flawed and maverick genius; a professional Mancunian; a witty and literate man who wrote a classic pop autobiography; and he was one of the shrewdest patrons of graphic design there has ever been.

Tony Wilson was the Colonel Tom Parker of postmodern pop. Just as the Colonel had used fairground astuteness to turn Elvis into the first electronic-age pop star, Wilson deployed his Cambridge education to turn Factory's roster of acts — Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays, Durtti Column, and others — into the first wave of postmodern pop stars. Wilson knew how pop myths were made, and he spun them around his bands, around the doomed Factory empire, and around his own career. He did it with style, wit and a lot of black Armani. As a myth builder par excellence, Wilson used all the media-age tools at his disposal, but none more effectively than graphic design.

I met Wilson in 1994. He was charming, unreliable and totally unlike the other record company people I dealt with at the time. Wilson never let you forget that he'd graduated with a degree (third class) in English from Jesus College, Cambridge. He never missed a chance to tell you that he knew his Goethe from his Boethius. In the two-page foreword to his book, 24 Hour Party People: What the Sleeve Notes Never Tell You, he manages to weave in references to Voltaire, the Balfour Declaration and Mark Twain.

By the time I got to know Wilson, the Factory dream was over. So too was Madchester and the frazzled Acid House hallucination that Wilson provided with an ancestral home in the shape of The Haçienda. He was about to launch Factory Too, in collaboration with London Records, part of PolyGram. Peter Saville, newly returned from LA, had created the logo — two words set in Rotis that hinted at ennui and a lack of conviction on the part of both designer and label boss.

Wilson phoned from his Jaguar and announced that he was coming to see me. He wanted my studio to design A Factory Sample Too. Just as the original Factory had been launched with a double 7-inch EP (A Factory Sample), the second coming of Factory was to be celebrated with the release of another EP. Accompanied by his glamorous companion and business partner Yvette Livesey, Wilson briefed us on the project. But there was something missing: the bands were dreadful, and Wilson's patter, although as effervescent as ever, rang hollow.

He was a thrilling client, full of praise and enthusiasm: in Mathew Robertson's survey of Factory's graphic legacy, Wilson explains his attitude to graphic design: "Why was packaging important to us? Because the job was a sacred one. Music had transformed our young lives, children of the sixties all. And now we were in the privileged position of putting out records ourselves. Does the Catholic Church pour its wine into mouldy earthenware pots? I think not.'"

I worked with him off-and-on for two years — mainly on his In The City project, an annual music festival and conference — but getting paid was always difficult, and I realized I was doing the work because I was in thrall to the Factory myth, the Wilson myth, and the role that graphic design played in that mythos.

In his book (which he writes in the third person), Wilson describes meeting Peter Saville for the first time: "...a sort of 20-year-old Brian Ferry look-a-like with searingly intelligent eyes turned up at the Granada canteen to see Wilson over a cup of GTV coffee. Peter showed Wilson a book on Jan Tschichold. He showed him the Penguin Crime covers from 1941, the constructivist play posters from the 1920s and the cover of the 1965 Hoffmann-Laroche catalogue (the Swiss chemical boys who did so much for the neural pathways in the second-half of the century in question)."

Wilson recognized Saville's genius. But he also recognised graphic design's potential to be spun into the fabric of the Factory legend alongside the music, the drugs, the guns, and the deaths. Nor was it only Saville's cool postmodernism that Wilson championed. He also recognized the more rigorous genius of 8vo, and the anarcho-wierdness of Central Station Design.

In their book On The Outside, 8vo quote Wilson as saying, "The problem with 8vo is that they are bigger than the music," but as they point out, it didn't feel like that to them. In Central Station, Wilson found a graphic sensibility — the antitheses of Savile and 8vo's — to match the ramshackle pharmaceutical grandeur of Happy Mondays, who ironically would become the agents of Factory's demise.

The last time I saw Wilson was in 2005 at a seminar in Manchester about record sleeve design. He was the host. The audience was mainly made up of young Manchester designers attracted by a panel that included Ian Anderson (Designers Republic) and Ben Drury (the Mo'Wax designer). Wilson presided over the discussion. He did it with his usual flair and well-practiced exhibitionism. But I noticed the audience growing restless with his anecdotal references to Factory's glorious past. And although I was still in awe of his louche and foppish charm, the locals took a more critical stance: it was not uncommon to walk down the street with him in Manchester and for locals to roll down their car windows and shout abuse at him. It never seemed to bother him: quite the opposite.

As a keen, pop culture anthropologist, Tony Wilson will have known during his last days that nothing improves a reputation like a premature death. He will have known that his greatest act of myth-making was his own death. Anthony H. Wilson, RIP.

Posted in: History, Music

Comments [8]

It's dismaying how one often only realises the importance a person has in your life only after they're gone. Tony Wilson seemed to have been in the background for me--either in person or as a subtle influence--from the time I was a teenager in the north of England, watching him presenting local news on Granada in the mid-70s. Soon after that he was presenting a punk music show and then--unlikeliest of all--forming a record label. That last act always seemed a key moment, it was so...bizarre. Imagine, I dunno, Anderson Cooper announcing that they're starting an avant garde music label inspired by Situationism while continuing their day job. These things don't happen yet Wilson was the kind of man who not only had the desire to do such a thing but could bend reality enough to make it work.

It was impossible to escape Wilson's influence in Manchester in the 1980s. When I moved here in 1982 I was living just by the defunct Factory club (which turned out to be little more than a shed surrounded by slum flats). I immediately became a Hacienda member (you needed a special membership card in those days) because William Burroughs was giving a reading there. That club was another bizarre and unlikely manifestation even though it often seemed too big and empty in its early years. It seemed that everywhere you went, Wilson or his cohorts had been there before you ("here's the bridge in Hulme where Kevin Cummins photographed Ian Curtis", "there's the spot by the Cenotaph where Joy Division sat for another photo"). Elegant Hacienda posters with their distinctive hazard stripes covered any available wall space. Later on I was living just round the corner from the old Factory Records HQ on Palatine Road. Manchester is a small city compared to most places so this isn't too surprising but what mattered was that Wilson (and Peter Saville, Alan Erasmus, Martin Hannett and all those musicians) had put the city on the map, made it internationally known. Kudos to Wilson then for staying here when he could so easily have moved to London. He was always scathing about those who made their name then immediately decamped to the capital.

Despite his apparent ubiquity I only encountered him once in 1988 when he stood behind me in a queue at Tesco's. I didn't have the nerve to speak to him, thank god, I'd only have made a fool of myself. That ubiquity and visibility around town inspired those "Wilson, you twat" catcalls he received from our charmingly articulate populace. People often complained that he was pompous or pretentious, which usually meant they didn't get the references to Ivan Chtcheglov or know what one of his favourite words--praxis--meant. They seemed to forget that while they were complaining he was making things happen. And speaking of Ivan Chtcheglov, I've just noticed that immediately after his words "the hacienda must be built" he wrote:

"All cities are geological. You can't take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends."

Which pretty much says what I've spent too many words stating myself. Tony Wilson wasn't a twat and he was far more than a local hero.
John Coulthart

Durrutti Column after the Spanish anarchist, nou Durrti,ffs.

Great article. The "Factory myth" played an important role in my adolesence. I was a huge New Order and Joy Division fan, and those record covers always held a certain aura and mystery to me, which coincided well with the music. Factory Records is probably the only organization to whose fan club I wanted to belong.

At the time, all of it (the visuals and the music) was hard for me to decipher, though it both resonated and created another world for me. I desired to decode its music, language, and style. Since my only access to that world was the music and its packaging, and not the real scene or place itself, it wasn't hard to imagine a mood and world around the music.

The cover to "Unknown Pleasures" was dark and mysterious, the abstraction of transmission paired with the classicism of the typeface, and the poetry of the title. It matched the darkness of the music well, which seemed like a voice from a world more desperate and disillusioned than the one I was growing up in. That album has never felt fully accesible to me. "Power, Corruption, and Lies" seemed an interesting amalgamation of classical, modernist, and technological voices that at the time of buying the album, I was way too unsophisticated to understand. But it begged decoding (literally). Not listing any hard information on the cover matched the cool, poppy distance of the music, and New Order's tendency to word titles in ways that didnt correspond to the lyrics of the named track.

I'm glad to have learned at an early age that pop music and graphic design could transfer me to another world that was complex, layered, and authentic. It's strange to think that doors are closing on a movement that was once a huge influence in my life. RIP Tony Wilson.


It's Hacienda with a regular c, without a cedille. And it's Durutti Column, misspelled after Buenaventura Durruti.


Actually, Hacienda DID have a cedille so that the C and the I began to look like the number 51, as in Fac 51 - The Hacienda. Check this picture out please.

Jonathan Deakin

To many of my generation, who reached record buying age at the end of the 70's and beginning of the 80's, Factory records seemed to have invented design. I was a hormonal teenager when the cover for Unknown Pleasures was elevated to pride of place on my bedroom wall, next to a poster of Debbie Harry in a silver dress. I didn't know what graphic design was and I certainly didn't know what those 'mountainy' things were, but they were cool and mysterious and they didn't look like anything else. It says a lot that I didn't even particularly like Joy Division's music, the records were worth having for the covers alone.
I hope the popular design media take time to reflect on the impact Tony Wilson had on our industry. Without him no Saville, no 8VO, and without them, what?
simon case

Cravan's spelled with an a, not an e.

Thanks for the post. A very inspiring man.

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