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"YOU'RE ENTITLED TO AN OPINION: The high times & many lives of Tony Wilson, Factory Records & The Hacienda" by David Nolan (John Blake 2009, £18-99)

Tony Wilson is a man who won't need any introduction in Mudkiss' North-western heartland, or anywhere else musically aware, for that matter. Not only does he have the amazing Factory/Hacienda legacy, but through his day job, working for Granada tv in various guises, he was a familiar character to anyone growing up in the region during the 70's. David Nolan knew Tony as a friend & colleague, & this - combined with first hand expert knowledge of the Manchester scene - gives real insight & empathy to a fascinating biography.  He's also written books about the legendary Pistols Free Trade Hall gig & a Bernard Sumner biography, so he really knows the Manchester music scene. Sure, the story has been told elsewhere - by Tony Wilson himself in his "24 Hour Party People" book, or Colin Sharp's "Who Killed Martin Hannett?" & Simon Reynolds' 80's writings- and the recent "24hour Party People" and  "Control" films - but David Nolan's personal insights into Tony Wilson give this book the edge. It certainly doesn't seek to glorify Tony, & acknowledges that he could be infuriating, unreliable, pretentious,&  hopeless with money (especially other people's).

I have to declare an interest here. I met Tony when we were students in the early 70's & became close friends. Alas I'd lost touch with him by the time of his great musical ventures, but always followed his career closely. Every so often, I'd think "Must get in touch with Tony again", but never got round to it - and then he died two years ago. This is one of the biggest regrets of my life & a real lesson to 'Seize The Moment' - something which he always did. This book really has the "feel" of Tony as a person, which could only come from someone who'd been close to him. It feels just like the guy I used to know, how he spoke, & the familiar Wilson stories, theories & wind-ups. There are some really funny anecdotes here (particularly a rather unrepeatable one about his trademark fur coat), & for me anyway, a few reach-for-the -kleenex moments.

David Nolan's spoken to all the main figures in Tony's story who are still around, & backed this up with some serious research, trawling through all the media for facts & opinions.  I found the account of early days, growing up in Salford & Manchester really interesting - this was something he didn't talk about much, & from reading this I now know that what he did say wasn't true! But that's typical Tony - if the legend's better than the truth - and you'd (nearly) always forgive him. So he went to De La Salle school, not Manchester Grammar, & his parents' shop was in a comfortable suburb rather than Moss Side. I certainly didn't know his father was gay! Its this depth of detail that makes the book special. There's some really interesting chapters on the many complexities of Tony's various marriages & relationships.

Photos: Above and below from Den's personal collection

Although he's remembered mainly now for the Joy Division/New Order/Happy Mondays connection, then Factory & the Hacienda, his television career was always hugely important to him. Of our student group of friends, he was the one person  who had a clear idea of what he wanted to do & went out & did it. People who only knew him thru tv or music could mindlessly dismiss him, usually as "prat" or "wanker".  When people did meet him in passing, they'd often come away with the impression that he was arrogant. So its fascinating to see how he was loved & respected by all his tv colleagues - for his innovative ideas, irreverence, ability to laugh at himself, & his professionalism. Tony's politics were always very Left Wing - a concern to the Granada bosses, especially after a disastrous interview with Thatcherite hardman Keith Joseph - and this was something he put into practice with his colleagues. Anyone he worked with was part of the team & was treated as an equal - unlike other tv personalities, who turn on the charm for their adoring public but treat studio staff like dirt. Its amusing too to read how nearly all the people who ended up on Factory or at the Hacienda knew him as "that bloke from the telly" & his tea-time reports when they were kids. I've tried to imagine Reginald Bosanquet opening the Roxy or starting Rough Trade & failed dismally.

I remember watching programmes of his like "So It Goes" - first time the Sex Pistols played on TV - at a time when there was next to nothing in the way of non-chart music action or even much late night TV, for that matter. Programmes like this really opened the doors for 80's music shows like "the Tube", & broke away from the BBC formats of "Whistle Test" &  "Top of the Pops".

The musical side of the Tony Wilson story is probably the best known part of his life. Although Tony claimed to have been at the legendary Buzzcocks/Pistols gig in June 76, David Nolan suggests that this wasn't quite the case. However, the punk explosion was to be the inspiration that led to the discovery of Joy Division, & given Tony's fierce regional pride, there was no way they would be allowed to go South & get sucked into the London-based music biz. The rest is history, as they say, as the group produced two of the most influential albums of the last 30 years. Tony's contribution to the Ian Curtis legend/legacy is examined closely, showing his tendency to go from passionate concern one to day to "business as usual" (a trait which continued during a harrowing personal episode in the '80s). That they then became New Order was a huge bonus, and was to have a major influence on quite a few lives. Factory's last great pay days came with the Happy Mondays. I was amazed when I heard Tony say Shaun Ryder was on a par with Bob Dylan, John Lennon as a lyricist, as the group always came across to me as a bunch of chancers who got lucky. But some of the most perceptive views on Tony in the book come from Shaun's brother Paul Ryder. Tony's decisions & choices tended to be arbitrary & spontaneous, & the track record above suggests that he was often justified. On the other hand, the label missed out on the Smiths & the Stone Roses, & other groups, like OMD & James, made early exits from Factory for big sales elsewhere.

The chapters describing Tony's death from cancer are a harrowing read. Its an unflinching account of the gradual decline of his health, & the absurdity of post code based funding for potentially life-saving treatments. There's a real sense of anger, as well as sadness, in this part of the book.

In the last chapter, David Nolan takes the bull by the horns, partly by examining Tony's legacy - to the scene in general & to Manchester in particular - & also looking at how he could divide opinion with different people's reactions to him. This book - coming not long after his death - could easily have been a eulogy to Tony, but David Nolan doesn't duck the awkward issues in the story. There are quite a few people who take the view that he was very good at using other people's ideas but had few of his own, or that he made a habit of using people & moving on. And of course there are Peter Hook's often-aired money grievances. However, the views of OMD's Andy McCluskey are more representative, in his gratitude to Factory for giving the group their start, & Tony then arranging a better deal for them on another label!

David Nolan points out that there's a perspective in which the whole story looks a lot less rosy than the Tony Wilson version, in which the label got incredibly (or tragically) lucky when Joy Division records started to sell by the lorry load in the wake of Ian Curtis' suicide. That led to the forming of New Order, and their global success, riding the MDMA wave that would later float & sink the Hacienda. Apart from these two & Happy Mondays, the rest of the Factory roster sold poorly. He also shows that the "24 Hour" film opts for entertainment over accuracy in telling the story, with Steve Coogan playing Tony Wilson is strictly for laughs.

The author is particularly frank about the Hacienda - where he was a paying punter for years - and how disastrously it was mis-managed. He suggests that Tony was to realise in later years that the Hacienda had been a bad move & he'd got way out of his depth there when the party stopped & the gangs & violence moved in. For all his perceived "arrogance", I'd say no-one was more aware of his mistakes than Tony. Particularly, the decision to ignore Martin Hannett's request to buy a Fairlight Synthesizer for the studio,a new piece of gear then which would be crucial to the development of sampling in 80s music, & could have really put the label ahead of their rivals.  Martin Hannett never really forgave Tony for this decision, & this was the beginning of his estrangement from Factory. A couple of years later he was dead. The decision to go for the more "fun" idea of running a club & staffing it with all their best mates was too alluring for Tony & the other Factory main players like Alan Erasmus & Peter Saville.

Regarding the charges of "arrogance" & "pretentiousness" levelled at Tony, usually by people who didn't know him, I can see how he could come across that way - particularly his love for dispensing learned quotations - but I'd say this was generally a façade. When he'd sometimes come out with an absurd generalisation or opinion, he'd be disappointed if no-one challenged him (that was usually my role) & engage in some "dialectic" (a favourite Wilson word) and banter. He'd set himself up to be knocked down - he knew he'd be back up straight away.

This is an excellent book, & demonstrates that Tony's greatest talents were as a catalyst & unifying force,bringing diverse people together, throwing out ideas, & always doing things in a "Why not?" spirit. He was never a businessman, & personal profit was the last thing on his mind. It was never about the money for him. Equally, he wasn't an artist or musician himself either, but his love for music, in every aspect & detail, is something I recognise from the old days. & like his enthusiasm for cannabis, it was something he never lost. It’s also a fascinating account of one of the most intense bursts of musical & cultural action of recent years.

There are also some excellent photos in the book - in fact, the book would be near-perfect if it weren't for a couple of publisher's failings: some dodgy proof-reading "Rob Gretton, New Order manger", anyone? - and (here I go again!): as in Zoe Street Howe's great Slits book, No Index! Come on guys, this is the proverbial "ha'porth of tar" job - when you've got a non-fiction book with loads of characters and places, an index is essential. Publishers, you know it makes sense!

Apart from "You're Entitled to an Opinion", David Nolan has also written "Bernard Sumner: Confusion: Joy Division, Electronic & New Order Versus the World", "I Swear I Was There: the gig that changed the world" - about the legendary Sex Pistols gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4th, 1976 - and co-authored "Damon Albarn: Blur, the Gorillaz & Other Fables" with Martin Roach.He's been good enough to answer a few questions from Mudkiss.

Can you tell us a bit more about yourself & how you got into music & writing?

I've been a journalist all my working life - left school at 16, straight onto a magazine. Apprenticeship stuff. Like everyone else I was fired up by punk. I started going to see bands at 14, started forming bands the following day ... same as everyone else. It wasn't until I started working at Granada that I was able to combine work with music by making music documentaries.

Are you still working in TV or writing full-time?

Neither really - I write a bit, lecture at Salford University a bit, do TV training work a bit. Don't want a proper job - I've had one, they're overrated.

How did you first meet Tony Wilson?

At Granada. I interviewed him for an arts show. Obviously I'd grown up with him same as everyone else. The book isn't written from the perspective of "Here's a book about my bezzie mate Tony." If I'm honest I didn't really like him. I started from scratch because most of the stuff done previously wasn't right. You can blame Tony for that. He was economical with the truth.

Any stories of your times going to the Hacienda? How old were you then?

I was 17 when it opened - I got a membership & lied about my age, like half of Manchester did. I started going the week it opened. I thought it was a better place to take girls than just some rammy club. Lots of bands on - it was a gig venue after all. Bow Wow Wow, Birthday Party ... people smoked draw, took LSD & poppers. Like any other club. It was just one of the places you went if you were a clubber ... Legends on Thursday, Pips on Friday, The Hac on Saturday. The hands in the air MDMA stuff came much later. Not for me. I hate dance music.

Any projects - writing or otherwise - you're involved with now?

I have nothing to plug, that must be a first for Mudkiss. There will be a paperback of the Tony book to work on at the start of next year, but I've done four books in four years. That's enough. That's more books than some people READ in that time.

Any particular favourite music books or biographies?

I love music biogs. I collect them. I've got a wall full. I love "Chalkhills & Children" which is a biog of XTC. They're my favourite band, but its a good tale, it doesn't matter if you like the music or not. The tale will bring you with it. The Gary Barlow one is great - not my kind of music but great book. I'm reading the Gary Kemp one at the moment. "I Swear I Was There" was recently named as one of the top 50 rock books of all time by GQ magazine. Odd that - when it first came out everyone said it was rubbish!

What music do you like now?

I like metal - it's one of the few things that hit the spot like punk did. But I'm not averse to a bit of folk. I went to see Richard Thompson the other month. Going to see Clive Gregson soon - he used to be in Any Trouble. There's one for the old skinny tie brigade. 

Review & interview by Den 04/10/09

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