Twenty-four-hour party person

 

 

Tony Wilson, who died in 2007 aged fifty-seven, from a heart attack following a diagnosis of cancer, was a music entrepreneur and intellectual maverick who helped to make Manchester the cultural “global player” it is today. As the co-founder, in 1978, of Factory Records, Wilson was among the first to recognize the importance of local post-punk bands such as Joy Division, A Certain Ratio and Happy Mondays, and he promoted them tirelessly through his Andy Warhol-like pop culture projects. Not least among these projects was the Haçienda nightclub in Manchester, a canalside acid house and rave venue that Wilson opened in 1982, and which became the prototype for the Ministry of Sound in London and a host of hedonist techno clubs in Ibiza.

 

 

Paul Morley’s exceptionally detailed, often wildly digressive biography of Wilson puts the Factory enterprise squarely in the tradition of the idealistic impresarios and industrialists who turned Manchester into an archetypal modern city in the nineteenth century. Just as the Victorians built silk mills and viaducts in Castlefield and along the Macclesfield Canal, so Wilson and his Factory disciples saw opportunities for renewal and gain in the marginalized north. Wilson’s genius, argues Morley, was to see how Manchester in the mid-1970s, with its detergent-tainted waterways and grim brownfield sites, might be modernized anew.

 

 

Wilson’s success was tied to the success of Joy Division and their dark, hymnal incantations to doomed love and breakdown. Album sales increased dramatically for the band after the suicide in 1980 of their cultish lead singer, Ian Curtis, and with the proceeds Wilson was able to float other ventures, not least the Haçienda. Peter Saville, Factory’s minimalist-inspired graphic designer, reckons that the transformation of Manchester’s industrial edgelands into clubs and venues in the early 1980s was made possible by Wilson’s investment in Factory and the capital that was Curtis’s brief life. (He died at the age of only twenty-three, and the remaining members of Joy Division reformed as New Order.)

 

 

To his detractors – and there were many – Wilson was a mouthy, intellectually pretentious huckster who had perfected the art of blagging. (In Wilson’s view, blagging was a Manchester virtue.) When not talent-scouting for new bands, he worked as a presenter for the Manchester-based Granada Television; his good looks and trademark floppy hair were familiar to thousands of viewers across the north-west. Wilson’s “near-priestly” televisual communication skills were partly what drew Morley to him.

A future New Musical Express journalist, Morley first met Wilson in Manchester in 1977. What he found was a carefully manicured renegade persona (Wilson openly took drugs and loved to swear in public), who was nevertheless dauntingly well-read and knowledgeable about pop culture. At Cambridge University in the late 1960s Wilson had come under the influence of the Welsh socialist and cultural theorist Raymond Williams, who understood the significance of the new mass communications landscape and the “anti-elitist” levelling effect of television. (“Society”, Wilson lectured Morley one day, “is a battleground of representations”.) From early on, Morley was Wilson’s “elected choice” of biographer; he repeatedly told Morley that he was “the greatest writer of his generation”, though Morley was wary, as Wilson used flattery to get his way. Almost in spite of himself, Morley became Wilson’s Boswell, and dutifully noted down all he said.

 

The biography is 600-odd pages long and dense with allusions to counter-culture luminaries such as J.G.Ballard, William Burroughs and the French Situationist philosopher Guy Debord, as well Nietzsche, Milton, Horace, Laurence Sterne and the Manchester-born Anthony Burgess. Morley’s prose is heavily adjectival, and sometimes lavishly baroque. Typically, he describes Wilson’s birth by caesarean in 1950s Salford in cod-Joycean terms. (“New little Wilson appeared, at bloody speed, out of nowhere… missing the trip down the birth canal, dramatically, wetly, loudly, mouthily plucked from oblivion” – which is too much.) For all its bagginess, From Manchester with Love is a fascinating cultural biography, however, as Morley adroitly charts the forces that shaped Wilson’s extraordinary career. Having attended De La Salle Catholic Grammar School in Salford (the alma mater of the literary theorist Terry Eagleton), Wilson won a scholarship to read English literature at Jesus College, Cambridge. The story of how a middle-class boy from the North came to host the Sex Pistols on Grenada TV in 1976 is one of the highlights of this generous biography.

 

This review first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 10 JUne 2002