This was written in a little under ten minutes on 22nd May 2017, in direct reaction to news of the bomb attack at Manchester Arena, a senseless and cowardly attack aimed at what was primarily a large group of children who had committed the terrible theological crime of wanting to see Ariana Grande sing a couple of songs. What I didn’t know at that point was that the victims included Martyn Hett, an unlikely ‘Twitter Celebrity’ who had become that purely on account of his keen eye and descriptive flair for the joy in life. We’d never met and only sporadically interacted online but it seemed especially sad that his voice had been taken away in such circumstances, and – just as with Jo Cox – it’s that bit more difficult when a terrorist act touches your real life.
This wasn’t the only way the attack touched my real life, though. I grew up a short train ride from Manchester, and although I am apparently supposed to have some sort of weird geographical enmity towards the city, I honestly could not even begin to estimate how much time I have spent there socialising, dating and, well, attending concerts. Then of course there was Granada Studios, famously home to a man who, whatever the world threw at him, stood his ground and fought back with humour, optimism and an inclusive spirit. Someone I thought about a lot back then and, if I’m honest, am thinking about a lot right now too. I originally only made one attempt at this and took the deliberate decision to publish it in its unedited form with typos and repeated words intact as my reaction needed to get straight out as it was with no concessions to slick presentation. That’s what Tony Wilson always did, after all.
I did however later rework it from a more personal perspective for Can’t Help Thinking About Me, which you can find in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. Because Tony Wilson would have got a plug in too.
“Tony Wilson, who around this time was regularly featuring punk and New Wave acts on his Granada Television arts show So It Goes, was well known for his aesthetic tastes, interest in futuristic design, and fervent belief that Manchester could become a leading city on a global platform, and Factory’s output and indeed general outlook inevitably began to reflect his obsessions, with its eclectic and cerebral roster of artists encompassing arty funk outfit A Certain Ratio, classically-influenced guitar pop band Durutti Column, and confrontational stand-up comedian John Dowie, whilst the label’s musically diverse releases were given a unifying style by the minimalist and industrial-influenced designs of artist Peter Saville, and in turn by Wilson’s insistence on appending ‘FAC’ production codes to every project from album and single releases to the purchase of new office equipment; given his political sympathies, the absence of the second part of the word may not have been coincidental. By the early eighties, now with Joy Division’s manager Rob Gretton and producer Martin Hannett as partners, and a recently-acquired nightclub, The Hacienda (FAC 51), as a base of operations, Factory was both as successful and as influential as an independent label could hope to be, particularly following the release of New Order’s acclaimed 12” only single Blue Monday in 1983″
When I think of Manchester, I tend to think of Tony Wilson. True, if you grew up in the Granada region, where he kept on fronting regional news and arts shows even when operating on a national and even global platform, and had a liking for the bands signed to his Factory label (yes, even Northside), this is hardly exactly a shocking revelation, but there’s a little more to it than that. During some pretty dark and directionless times when the city was struggling every bit as much as any of its industrial neighbours, and beaten down so much that in many ways it had started to fight itself as much as it was being fought, he never ever lost his faith or his vision. The art, culture, inclusivity and rich creative and industrial history of the city, he argued, would always win out – the people would always win out – and one day Manchester would become an example to the entire world.
Although this never quite happened in the way he envisaged, and the numerous false starts and near misses must have frustrated him deeply – although the early nineties bid for Manchester to host the 2000 Olympics was both entertainingly over-ambitious, and a worthwhile show of strength and defiance towards those that preferred to write off Manchester and its neighbours as grey, derelict relics of a bygone age full of uneducated flat-capped Neanderthals; it’s also entirely possible that the London 2012 bid might not have been quite so successful without its example to go by – there’s a sense in which, way way beyond ‘Cool Britannia’, the nineties saw the entire UK become something at least vaguely in line with what Tony Wilson always believed Manchester to be. Not that he would really have conceded that, though. As nor indeed would Liam or Noel Gallagher, but we’d need to go too far into the history of alternative music to explain that.
From the collapse of Factory, which he breezily told fellow Granada presenter Bob Greaves would “come back and carry on, but maybe not in the form everyone’s expecting” (and in a sense it did with Oasis, which really wasn’t what anyone was expecting), to his own later health struggles which he used to highlight the problematic and seemingly arbitrary allocation of NHS treatment funding, Tony Wilson faced pretty much anything that was thrown at him with optimism, practicality and wit, never suggesting there were easy answers to difficult questions and strongly believing that it was incumbent on all of us – including him – to work towards addressing issues that the authorities seemed unable to. Most of all, though, he loved to root for his hometown, and recent events have underlined just how much he and several others like him are missed in the social media age. There are modern-day equivalents around, of course, but they really don’t get the exposure. It’s them we should be listening to, though, rather than furious didactic combatants for the coveted ‘Green Jumper’ award for being Best At Being Right-On 1983, braying weasel-word Watch With Mother puppet bigots in suits that would shame someone drinking Special Brew on a bus at 10am, or shrieking car alarms salivating about how many comments they will get on their ‘thinkpiece’ the next morning.
Shaun Ryder, whom most eighties record companies would not have allowed past reception but whom Wilson was convinced was a ‘poet’ and didn’t care who laughed at that, once recorded a song for Factory that ended – at least in its superlative 12″ reading – with an exhortation to “think about the future”. Which is what we should all do, frankly, and leave the shock value hatemongers famous and non-famous who’ve bored us senseless for too long now where they belong, and where too many people once thought Manchester itself belonged – the past.
Credit to Kevin Cummins, who took these amazing photographs that say more than fifteen thousand words could; you can find more of his work, and his book of nineties rock photography While We Were Getting High, here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.