From Manchester With Love: The Life and Opinions of Tony Wilson, by Paul Morley
Faber & Faber, 2021
Anyone with more than a passing interest in the English music scene during the years around 1990 would have been well aware of the presence of Tony Wilson. If you’d grown up in the environs of Greater Manchester, you (and your parents and your nan) would have already known him as the avuncular yet detached man on the telly, the tea-time presenter of Granada Reports. If you were into New Order and the Happy Mondays, both positioned as major festival-sized acts by this point, you’d have noted Wilson as the opinionated, conspicuously intellectual motormouth behind Factory Records, freighted with its back-story of Joy Division and the incantations of Ian Curtis. If you’d been one of those inclined to make the pilgrimage to what had become, for a gloriously strange while, the world epicentre of dance and acid house --the Hacienda nightclub-- you would have dutifully filed past Wilson’s framed face above the reception, benignly radiating down like the Mona Lisa on all crossing the threshold. You would, most likely, have harboured a fair amount of respect for Wilson’s achievements; admired his tireless championing of the North; and probably also have thought him a bit of an arse. Most people did, and he appeared completely fine with this, wearing it as a badge of pride. The late eighties/early nineties was the reputational and cultural zenith for Tony, Anthony H., and all the other editions of Wilson that came bound up in one person. As so poignantly documented in Paul Morley’s massive and sprawling biography, this was pretty much as good as it got.
Wilson-the-man-on-Granada-TV should not be downplayed. He really was an instantly recognisable local celebrity, in people’s living rooms most days, known like a friend of the family by people who had no idea about his other lives. Morley inspects these parallel threads at length: the Cambridge student who came back, would-be Situationist prankster, putative attendee of that Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall… the list goes on, or, to use a phrase often pressed into action by Morley (and also the title of a Wilson TV show), So It Goes. One of the numerous charming tales in the book describes how Wilson, already stealthily mentoring the young Morley (that is, bending him to his will), visits the family home. Morley is out; Mum is stunned and besotted as Wilson, no longer on the box but living and breathing in her house, tackles minor plumbing issues and holds forth on mashed potatoes. “My mum smiled about the day Tony visited for the rest of her life,” he writes. It’s significant that Morley also talks about how hard it was to ever feel relaxed or communicate normally with Wilson. “I wasn’t sure if he was playing a game I didn’t know the rules of.” Time and again we feel that this was exactly how Wilson liked it, though it was never a game intended to break people, rather one in which both sides could win – in accordance with Wilson’s terms. Richard Madeley, who emerges as one of the book's unlikely stars, recounts Wilson at last conceding defeat in a long, awkward, and ultimately trivial row, and then moments later declaring the whole thing a draw. Vini Reilly describes the oeuvre of the wonderful Durutti Column as music that he made for Tony to play when driving his car.
These characteristics feed into a wider pattern of what can sometimes look like simple mischief, at others wilful sabotage. It’s part of Factory lore that Peter Saville’s sleeve for New Order’s futurist mega smash Blue Monday, apparently the highest selling twelve-inch single ever, ensured that the label lost money on each copy sold. So, frankly, what on earth was that all about? The tale noticeably supports Wilson’s curated image, with boring old financial defeat smashed into the long grass by the victory of artistic purity, a note that sounds repeatedly (at varying volume) in the Factory story. However, there’s something else at play too: Wilson the old-fashioned, weed-infused, hippy-ish rocker who, having narrowly predated the full-on cult of the DJ, found himself the face of cutting-edge UK clubbing cool, and yet who really wasn’t into the music at all --which explains why the biggest open goal ever in the history of the record industry was voluntarily missed. It isn’t hard to think that Wilson harboured distaste for the notion that Factory, an art-design-philosophy experiment as far as he was concerned, should ever deign to make and sell those common records that made the nightclub on Whitworth Street the last word in late 1980s youth culture. As Morley says: “he’s upstairs at his large desk listening to James Taylor. He’s publicly displaying himself as one thing, but he’s something else.”
Morley opts not to belabour the Sex Pistols’ 1976 Lesser Free Trade Hall gig story, merely pointing out how few people were actually there, and that he doesn’t remember Wilson in attendance even though the man himself claimed that he was. This is not a dig: Morley knows that it doesn’t really matter. Of course, one of Wilson’s favourite remarks was that, when faced with the mundane truth versus the compelling myth, he went with the myth every time. What seems totally believable is Morley’s theory that the Pistols' visitation diverted Wilson, a trained newsreader, from a path that would have ultimately ended at some sort of Paxman-esque national treasure status, and instead ignited ideas that led successively to the Factory club in Hulme, the label itself, the Hacienda, and then a wider mission to promote and modernise the entire city of Manchester. While Mancunians on the street openly mocked Wilson as forever the rather plummy man from the telly, they knew deep down that he was one of them. He was on their side.
From Manchester With Love appears to be the only serious treatment of Tony Wilson’s life since his death from cancer in 2007 --serious being the word, because it takes a certain open-mindedness and application to stay engaged for six hundred pages that can challenge both in terms of content and style. It would not be novel to remark that Morley is an idiosyncratic writer, but we often find ourselves flying away on extended trips to civic history and industrial heritage, sojourns that feel a little close to outstaying their welcome until we realise that, in the end, these pieces make complete sense. The overall tone --pun intended-- is relevant to the subject of Wilson: a romantic, talkative, digressive person who liked to assume that you were (almost) as intelligent as him. Morley’s book is the same.
Wilson, the elusive Alan Erasmus, and Peter Saville are painted by Morley as the new Victorians, looking around at a grim 1970s Manchester and seeing not decay nor failure, but new horizons. Wilson and Factory were inarguably part of the catalyst --if not the whole catalyst-- for modern, reborn Manchester. It's touching to reflect that one of this movement's bedrock foundations was the initial success of Joy Division, whose tortured visionary Ian Curtis was enabled to record his music by Wilson --back then viewed with extreme scepticism and mockery on the scene due to being ‘the bloke off the telly’-- stumping up the money left him by his mother.
Morley points out the inevitability of this book. Once started it took ten years to complete, but really it’s something like a forty-year project all but commissioned by Wilson himself. A young Paul is confused and shaken at being driven to Macclesfield to see Ian Curtis’s body laid at rest. “I remember him saying to me in the car, ‘of course, I’m doing this because you’re writing the book.’” We’re shown the contradiction in Wilson feeling empowered to go off to Cambridge, yet falling out with Morley over the writer’s decision to move to London for work. But for all the awkwardness, bad communication, and games between the two of them, Morley’s done Wilson proud in the end. The book, its digressions into Lawrence Sterne (notably the clanging echo in the title of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy), its pretensions, repetitions, romantic emotions, and channelling of the deceased Wilson's very voice, is most assuredly What He Would Have Wanted. “There is this ghostliness to Tony at Cambridge,” said Morley. “Whenever I did find any filmed evidence, Tony didn’t seem to be in it. He had some film of him just walking around in a ghostly way, a ghostly picture of him graduating.” You can ponder whether Wilson wanted to be a Gilbert and George-style living work of art; a businessman; a toking tour bus manager in the classic rock blueprint; or a serious and conventional political influencer. Morley gives us the obvious answer: he was all of them, and about twelve other people as well.
The real person was in there somewhere, spinning the plates, and the juncture when everything (“all the Wilsons,” as Morley puts it) had appeared to dock and glide nicely into place was actually the moment when the crockery began to smash. When things felt perfect, the point of perfection had gone. Factory was skint, with no artists under contract, which had once seemed such a wizard Situationist wheeze. Turf-war gangsters were invading the Hacienda, a predicament badly mishandled by the club’s management. After a legacy of Joy Division, New Order, and the Happy Mondays, Morley describes how Wilson felt pressure to find the next big thing. “I think that frustrated him. He’s trying to use some of his greatest hits. Saville’s involved, Philippe Starck is involved. But the world had moved on and he can’t find a place. He’s running out of places to go and running out of Wilsons to be. Every time I had a conversation with him he was always grumbling about talking too much about the past, he wanted to talk about what he was doing, what he was up to. There was a tragedy about him, to some extent.”
The end of Factory isn’t the end of Wilson, yet at the same time, in classic Wilsonian fashion, it is exactly that, --and then it isn’t again. Wilson drifts into the new century, searching for projects and meaning. There are the ‘Factory Too’ and the ‘F4’ labels, the revelation of his drug use as a bigger issue than most ever thought, haphazard intentions to regenerate Burnley or do something with the Pennines...and so it goes. Morley appends the heirloom of Tony Wilson Place to his book, a sort of brains trust fever dream, apparently a Mancunian tribute to Wilson’s great civic pride and something that –the author points out with superb irony– needed Wilson’s guidance more than anyone’s. At Tony Wilson Place there is an art centre. Engels has been shoehorned in somehow. If it all sounds a bit mechanical, it is hard to know what to think of a development that came with the self-evaluation 'Grade A,' apparently to facilitate the strap-line “Your neighbours are Grade A too.” But perhaps even this is what Wilson would have wanted. The extended title of Morley’s exhaustive, exhausting, moving, and deeply striking book certainly is: Aka Anthony H. Wilson: Written in 51 Sections That Prove How All Dramatic Truth Contains Fiction.--Neil Jackson