Tony Wilson: F4 Records: Fourth Time Lucky

Craig Johnson

‘Wilson ya wanker!’ is a statement that has been bandied around Northern England for thirty years now. The Wilson in question, the original media facilitator Anthony H.Wilson, is a self-proclaimed wanker, but he don’t care. One of the most important record label bosses to grace the history of rock and roll, his story has been told on countless occasions. From regional television news presenter where he sported a punk-green streaked barnet , via his discovery of Joy Division, the Hacienda nightclub, New Order through to acid house and Happy Mondays, Wilson’s been a powerful catalyst within many great pop-cultural moments in the last 25 years. He’s been part of a story that’s involved the birth of post-punk, suicide, insanity, liquidation, narcotic excess and converting football thugs to the rebellious French thought of Situationism and dancing. By creating Factory records on Palatine Road, Manchester in the late 1970s, signing bands he saw and thought were important to the progress of rock and roll, he’s always promoted an unequalled passion and energy for music, culture, the dynamic city of Manchester and British youth culture. He may be a bit of a wanker, but he’s also played a part in changing modern music forever.

Way back in 1978 at the Rusel Club in Moss Side, Wilson organised a spectacle where Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire shaped the sound of post-punk. Ever since he’s been a magnet for creative expression, with a truly survivalist instinct, gusto and resolute desire to find the next important thing. Fast forward nearly thirty years and a new band have been found with an even newer sound of British hip-hop in the form of Raw-T. Signed to the latest instalment of his mythical record label Factory Records, now entitled F4, the Mancunian collective have the element of danger and experimentation that has always attracted Wilson. Listening to their debut album one is confronted by deep digital shuffles, slick raps that talk of a British urban way of life that is sometimes tragic, always real and other times amusing. The point is that Wilson has found another gem and he’s not resting on the laurels of his glory years; the man of passion is still searching and using his media clout to highlight what he feels to be important to music and life. Great rock and fucking roll kids!

Asking Tony Wilson a question is easy, extracting information even easier. Ask him something as simple as the time and you’d receive a cultural pontification about the lines of the Meridian and the way it effects the Northern psyche. Respectively finding himself lost in Swindon and taking his nutcase New Order dog for a walk on the two occasions we spoke, he was distracted many times during the conversation. But due to the sharp thinking of the man, he managed to keep a solid thread through out and spouted long, detailed soliloquies about his iconic past, his hip-hop present and things that’ll kick off in the future.

What do you say to people that shout “Wilson you wanker!”?

I just keep walking and have always ignored it. Funnily enough I’ve got to go to Chorlton in about an hour, because Harry Goodwin the original rock and roll photographer of the Sixties has a show which he asked me to go to. But Chorlton I despise with a passion. I come from Salford, then lived in Marple, went to school in Salford, went to university when I was 18, went to London when I was 21 and aged 23 came back home. I’m on television as a local reporter and putting music on television, just soundtracks really. I thought my generation will love this, we children of the Sixties, but who in the early Seventies were all solicitors, young teachers and trainee accountants in Chorlton and it turned out they utterly despised me. Just like all those people who shout “wanker”.

I remember going to a Rory Gallagher gig in 1975 at the Free Trade Hall and there was two thousand people and one thousand one hundred and ninety-nine people fucking hated me. And I just thought ‘What the fuck have I done to these fuckin people? What shits they are.’ And then about a year and a half later along came punk and suddenly I’m at The Circus and all these kids are like ‘Hey Tone, thanks for putting Costello on, thanks for putting Iggy Pop on.’ I realised I found my generation and they weren’t my fucking generation. So people shouting abuse has happened for a very long time and I find it kind of amusing and irrelevant.

What sort of bands are you looking for to add to the F4 roster?

A band that’s going to sell a lot of records because they’re important. The most innovative is always the most commercial at the end. The Mondays did sell a lot of albums, they sold a couple of million albums which I think is reasonably good, but if they hadn’t had the self-destruction they might of sold some more.

What made you want to start a new label?

I’d never really stopped I suppose. I had a two year layoff between the bankruptcy which led to London Records buying Factory, that awful period of Factory Too ended and I had to walk away, and when I finally got tired of the Space Monkeys we stopped again. It was always a question of the next time we sign a good band we’ll start again. We started again with King Rib and they found a wonderful lead singer, but they became Simian which are not my cup of tea. I went to see The Music in Leeds: I was taken out by their manager and fell in love with them and I spent six months arranging the new label around The Music, and at the last minute their two managers who were friends of mine brought a third manager in who was a complete twat, he wanted a bidding war and in the end signed for lots of money to Hut. It was very depressing and I was outraged for about two years. [The Music weren't that good though Tony]. No, The Music were that good and they had that potential, but the way their managers took them was completely fucking wrong and ended up taking them nowhere. If we’d have put them in the right environment then they’d have created a far more important second album. So the wrong environment has just fucked them. In fact I heard someone within their camp say that to some one the other week, so yes that’s what I think about them.

And as I say it’s never stopped, it’s always if I ever see a great band.When I saw Raw-T live at In The City I was blown away, there were several major labels there who were also blown away. I presumed that my job with Raw-T would be to bash them around the head when they started behaving like twats, and instead the majors all offered them crap singles deals, no one offered them a real album deal and suddenly the rest is history.

Who’s designing the imagery for F4?

I have a graphic designer who I’m very fond of called Jason Nichols who does In The City’s stuff and in it’s great having him move on from that to do the record sleeves. He did the F4 thing and I’m very happy with that. We were originally going to be called Red Cellars and there was a very clever designer called John Walsh designed a Red Cellars logo and was doing the whole thing. I took him to meet Raw-T and he met them and experienced them and got a logo from one of their boys, took it away to work on and a month later had been too busy to do it because he had more important work on. To which after a few days I exploded in a very unpleasant manner and said, ‘Fine, the most important thing in the fucking world is Raw-T so you can fuck off!’

Strangely the reason it’s not called Red Cellars is not just that my partner thinks it’s a good idea cos it relates to Factory and it avoids a fifteen minute explanation of why it’s called Red Cellars. But it was when I was lying in my bunk in the Amazon rainforest doing drugs, the very night Raw-T’s first single had to go to press, and I thought if I call it Red Cellars I’m going to have to use John’s logo and I’m so angry at John for being too busy to do Raw-T, and so utterly outraged I refused to use his logo. So I needed to think up a new name, and finally thought F4. That was out of a fit of anger at one of Manchester’s best designers for having been too busy to do Raw-T. I always say to people that the portrayal of me by Coogan as an affable fool is very sweet but in fact my daughter who is next to me will testify, I’m a truly horrible person. And you have to be to get things done.

Would you ever start a new nightclub again?

Yes I would but it’d be very difficult. I’d love to have somewhere like The Castle in Oldham where Raw-T go and play, it’s like a cross between an Oldham pub and 8Mile by Eminem. I’d love something like that, but then again that’s a fucking nightmare anyway, so maybe not. I’d love to do that personally but I can’t imagine it happening, I now have so many other little jobs in my life and it gets complicated but who knows maybe one day.

What band in musical history do you wish you could have signed?

Everyone wishes they could have signed their own Velvet Underground; that’s the history of the interesting side of rock and roll. We all would have liked to have our own Velvet Underground and that’s about it really. I got Joy Division, I got the Mondays and now I’ve got Raw-T and I wouldn’t complain for one moment.

What were you talking about when you mentioned that music culture was based around 13 year revolutionary cycles?

I used to think that there was a thirteen year cycle, but then the revolution I expected in 2002 didn’t happen. I always think that what happens is that English kids absorb American rock and roll and regurgitate it with English irony and sell it back to them. But this time it didn’t happen, it was Welsh kids, one could argue that Lost Prophets and Funeral For A Friend were in some way that kinda thing I was hoping for, but it didn’t happen so I’m quite happy to accept that.

But at the moment I’m very lucky to be involved with Raw-T who are following in the footsteps of Dizzee Rascal, Wylie and Mike Skinner, in that British hip-hop has found its own voice which is a pretty peculiar thing to happen. I got accused on The Culture Show of jumping on a band wagon that was already happening, this was from Q magazine or N.M.E. Whereas the guy from Hip-Hop Connection was fantastic, as in someone who actually knew what he was talking about. It hasn’t really happened yet, it’s just beginning I think.

How important has Situationism been to you?

I was just a fan having been introduced to it by my acid dealer who happened to be the main translator of The Revolution Of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem in Britain. I was a fan and therefore referred to it a lot in terms of naming things and various bits and pieces. Although when you look back on it in the end I think the way we did it, by, as Peter Saville once said, in the entire fourteen years of Factory not one decision was ever taken, EVER with an eye to profit. And that was entirely true actually! So in some way we behaved properly. There was a contract and the contract said we own nothing, the musicians own everything, That was a mistake, but it was very nice at the time and very idealistic, but looking back on it fuck the musicians I say.

We actually I’d say, were responsible for removing the world’s greatest rock and roll writer for about fifteen years, which is Greil Marcus, from rock’n’roll. He got a copy of our first record and stuck a Durutti Column sticker on his deck and looked at it for two years thinking “What the fuck is this?’, and finally discovered it was a Strasbourg (Andre Bertrand) political cartoon at the end of which he got completely involved in it and became buried in it and became the world expert on Situationism. Which is bit of a shame because it took him away from writing until he wrote his Elvis Presley/Bill Clinton book which I adore that he really came back to the fold. The greatest book on rock and roll is Mystery Train by Greil Marcus by a million miles.

Tony Wilson

What’s your involvement in the upcoming Joy Division film?

I’m a producer on the movie and in a way I think that’s because it makes it more official having me involved, (stupidly) and it does reflect to a degree what was their concern about the rival film. The rival film has now completely fucking gone, thank god. There’s always only been one project, the film which is based on Debbie Curtis’s book (Touching From A Distance) and that always been how it’s approached. The people making the film are two American guys; there was an American man and woman from New York that were making the film called Double A Films, however they fell out and also the woman fell out with Debbie Curtis. An option on a book has to be renewed, and they didn’t renew the option otherwise they’d be still be making the film, but I presume they kept promising Debbie they were renewing it. Some of these Americans have so much money they don’t know what it’s like for us over here. No money was paid, the option ceased at which point these two guys Todd Eckert and Orian Williams, who had been friends from school years decided to step in and take up the option. Todd is a Pittsburgh guy, and Orian works out of Los Angeles, so it’s a Pittsburgh/Los Angeles pairing that are doing this. They had actually talked to Sophia Coppola who is a Joy Division fan, there was interest from her, but in the end they chose Anton Corbijn which I think is a great idea.

So their choice of Anton mirrored my own choice because I realised that when I had to make a video for Atmosphere in 1988 I would have to use the old photographs, and therefore it seemed logical to use either Kevin Cummins or Anton. There was only two photographers who took the great photographs of Ian and for whatever reason I chose Anton even though I’ve just recently done a photo shoot with the beloved Mr Cummins, who moaned at me. He said ‘If I do a photoshoot for you, will you stop bad mouthing me? At the press conference for the Ian Curtis film you were bad mouthing me.’ I said ‘I wasn’t bad mouthing you. I said you’re a miserable twat Kevin. You are a miserable fuckin twat.’ To which he laughed and accepted it, because he is totally a miserable twat.

Anton’s lovely, and I’ve met Anton a few times and obviously he did that video, and the strange thing about that video is, Greton hated it and told me the whole fucking group hated it. For 15 years I was under the impression that the group hated it, but it turned out the group loved it, only Rob fuckin hated it. So if they hadn’t have brought Anton in to do this I’d have never have found that out. It’s my double revenge on Rob really. "Atmosphere"’s a perfect video, but you can see where Rob comes from, who though it was over-egging the legend of blah-blah-blah. Fuck that anyway, to me anyone else touching it who wasn’t there at the time, it would have been immoral. Whereas because Anton had taken the photographs, he was fucking around with his own pictures and to me there was always going to be integrity. So now choosing Anton for the film is a great great move. And secondly choosing writer Matt Greenhalgh (Burn It) who is number three in the Red Productions school of rock and roll, the top T.V. drama company in Britain. Its number one writer is Russell T. Davies (Dr Who), number two writer is Paul Abbot (Shameless), number three writer is Matt Greenhalgh. So as far as I’m concerned at the moment these two American boys have done a fantastic job of choosing the right director and writer. Obviously the casting will be something of an issue, but I have nothing to do with it.

I did recommend one actor who could play the part he played in 24 Hour Party People, he could play me, he could play Ian, he could play Martin, he could play anybody in this film and I was with him the other night when he won best actor at The Empire Awards. He’s Britain’s best actor he’s called Paddy Considine who played Rob in the film. I kept going to London going “Fuckin hell man, there’s a guy playing Rob!’, and they’d go ‘Didn’t you know that John Simm is the second best young actor in Britain?’ As in everybody who works in movies knows that Paddy Considine is the best actor in Britain. His first film that made him famous was Romeo Brass, obviously he was amazing as Gretton. My only input on actors is that Paddy could play anybody.

Martin Hannett; tell me about his genius.

I could talk about Martin Hannett for days so don’t start me. What’s very strange I think is that most great producers go mad because they only ever find one sound. Whereas groups can find two or three sounds in their career and go through various changes. William! Sorry beg your pardon. William! [Interlude of Tony sorting out his puppy that is trying to play with another dog. Sounds of apologies to another dog owner]- Every interview I do these days is interspersed with this. You stupid dog!! He’s a "Blue Monday" dog. The dog from the New Order video. I have no time for dogs whatsoever, but my partner knew that many years ago I worked with Bill Wegman on the Blue Monday ’88 video and fell in love with Wegman and his Weimaraner dog.

Last November my partner said two things: Number one you should sign Raw-T, number two I’m buying you a dog for Christmas. They are obviously the most beautiful dogs in the world, but no one told me that in the dog world they are famous for being the most loopy, fucking stupid off-their-head nutcases, so I’ve got this complete idiot dog now! He’s actually had the snip but that would never calm him down, and has got me in a lot of trouble with Peter Saville because his girlfriend used to think she was a wolf when she was a teenager, loves dogs and wolves, and I got into a lot of trouble from Peter for having giving William the snip and it’s made no fucking difference whatsoever.

Back to Hannett. All producers go mad because they normally only find one sound in their life. In fact Martin Hannett found two sounds, and he even came back a third time when he was just having a laugh with the Mondays, so I think he did pretty fucking well. If you want to go through the history of Martin very simply. The early phase where he was learning about the studio with Manchester Animation company, which he did the soundtrack for. Then he pioneered punk with "Spiral Scratch" and "Cranked Up Really High" [Buzzcocks]. Then unbeknown to me until I found out years later, he goes and meets these guys in a carpark on the moors above Burnley and tells them the sound he’s imagining in his head, off his head on fucking drugs and he drives back to Manchester at midnight, they drive back to their shed in Burnley and they build the world’s first digital delay machine, the AMF digital delay which is the most important outboard equipment of the last fifty years. And it was fifteen years later when some guy stopped me and said, ‘I want to thank you, one of your partners changed my life.’ When I realised it was AMF I went ‘No, you changed his life by giving him that equipment.’ He said, ‘Don’t you know where it came from?’ And I had no idea it came out of Martin’s head. The first time he ever worked with that Digital delay machine was on the song Digital. And that was on the Factory Sample, his first day with Joy Division. And then of course he used it on Unknown Pleasures and it changed the way drums sound forever, he used it on ESG and everything else. So the first thing is he changed the drum sound of the world forever by the Digital Delay.

But then what he’s not given credit for, because "Blue Monday" is given the credit for being the first great modern music track which uses computers. In fact although I would never try and cross Bernard because he’s extremely clever, (well New Order got the credit), but if you look at Bernard’s production of Marcel King at the same time, and the 52nd Street band, Section 25 then it’s obviously Bernard who was doing that. But Bernard learnt it all by watching Martin. In fact the most important track of all is "Everything’s Gone Green". If you listen to it, is the beginning of modern music, and "Temptation" takes it one stage further. And then Martin and New Order break up and they go off to do "Blue Monday" as the next record, that’s the one that quiet rightly is seen as this incredible break through, but nevertheless the important song is "Everything’s Gone Green".

So Martin created that music and then were it not for the utter stupidity of Alan Erasmus, Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson he would have created the next music because he was desperate to get a Fairlight. It was a synthesiser computer keyboard, and basically what Martin, Stephen and Bernard were doing with soldering irons in 1980, suddenly by 1983 there was a machine that did it called a Fairlight. We had no idea what one was, what we knew was that it cost thirty fuckin grand and we were running the Hacienda and you could fuck off. So we used to row about this all the time. ‘I want a Fairlight. You can’t have a Fairlight. What’s this piece of shit you’re building? Where’s my Fairlight?’ He never got a Fairlight, Trevor Horn got a Fairlight and the rest is Frankie Goes To Hollywood and the rest is history. I’ve very recently begun to claim that we created Trevor Horn, by stopping Martin getting a fucking Fairlight. And then the big fight and they go and fall out with each other and it’s the lawsuit and stuff, and suddenly the genius of Erasmus and Nathan, the Mondays manager, getting him to produce the Mondays’ Bummed album which was fantastic."

****

And yes, Bummed is a fucking fantastic album. Along with Unknown Pleasures, Technique, the first singles from New York’s early 1980s all sister rap band ESG and other great works of A.H. Wilson Associated. It could be said that Mr Wilson likes the sound of his own voice. It could be said he’s arrogant. It has been said he’s a twat. And he probably is. Who gives a fuck? The point to Wilson apart from the usual record mogul/twat tag is that he’s added spice and swaggering art to the British music scene, he’s that way because of that drive to spread his gospel on what he likes about music and culture. A question I forgot to ask him was: has it all been down to luck? What has been his secret, if there has been any? It will be interesting to see where Raw-T and his record label F4 end up in the grand scheme of musical things.

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