- 10 Aug 20
13 years ago today, Tony Wilson (pictured, centre) passed away, aged 57. To mark his anniversary, we're revisiting our original 2007 tribute to the music icon.
Tony Wilson, founder of the archetypal indie label Factory Records and former owner of the Haçienda nightclub which gave birth to rave culture, has died aged 57. Wilson, who had been suffering from kidney cancer, underwent emergency surgery in January to have the kidney removed. Following an ineffective course of chemotherapy, he died at the Christie hospital on Friday August 10.
The man who signed seminal Manchester bands Joy Division and the Happy Mondays to his fledgling Factory label will be remembered as the person who did more than any other to transform the image of Manchester from a bleak, industrial northern city to one which was at the forefront of youth culture in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
A Cambridge graduate, Wilson started a long and distinguished broadcasting career in 1971, notably presenting the influential music programme, So It Goes, which handed the Sex Pistols their first TV appearance. In fact, Wilson was one of the attendees at the Pistols’ legendary Lesser Free Trade Hall gig in Manchester in 1976. Amongst the tiny crowd that turned out to see them were future members of the Buzzcocks, The Fall, Joy Division/New Order, The Smiths and, ahem, Simply Red.
His endearingly romantic attitude towards musicians ensured that Tony ran Factory as if it were a family, decreeing from the outset that there would be no contracts and all profits would be split between the artists and the label 50/50.
Wilson often proclaimed that he had no talent, but that is to sell short his uncanny knack for spotting and nurturing talent. Joy Division and the Happy Mondays, two of the most influential, original and downright brilliant groups of all time, were spotted, nurtured and encouraged by Wilson. In the case of the latter, Wilson signed these drug-addled, petty criminals after they came last in a Battle of the Bands competition.
"We were working-class scumbags and he was from Cambridge, but it was a wonderful collaboration," reflects New Order’s Bernard Sumner. "He saw himself not as a record company owner or businessman but as a patron of the arts, darling. He was wonderful at encouraging you. It had a bit of anarchy about it all. The plan was to have no plan."
Those sentiments are echoed by John Cooper Clarke who notes that: "Tony was very into giving things a chance. He always had the next big thing in his sights. Just the other week he was talking to me about Enter Shikari, how amazing they were, how they were the new Sex Pistols. He would walk miles to see a new band if he had to."
Also remarking on his childlike enthusiasm is comedian Steve Coogan.
"There was an Alan Partridge quality to him, an unselfconsciousness when he was being a bit of a prat," Coogan proffers. "But the way he was different from Alan Partridge is that he was aware. He didn't mind – people would shout 'Wanker Wilson!' and it didn't bother him. He was a civic champion, never went to London, never sold out."
In an interesting footnote, it turns out that Wilson had a life-long friendship with former Meath Gaelic Football manager, Sean Boylan. Meeting in Manchester when Boylan was 7, they struck up the most unlikely of friendships that lasted until the very end, with Boylan by his side when he passed away. Even at the very end, the man was full of surprises.