PRINT Summer 2002


Matthew Higgs on 24 Hour Party People

IF YOU GREW UP in the North West of England in the late ’70s it was hard to avoid Tony Wilson, by day an anchor for the local television news, by night the host of So It Goes, one of the few television programs, anywhere, to both embrace and actively promote the emerging punk scene. Equal parts Dan Rather, Malcolm McLaren, and Oscar Wilde (at least in terms of his immodesty and penchant for foppish attire), Wilson had a vision: to see rain-sodden Manchester reborn in the manner of Renaissance Florence. Early to seize on punk’s potential, Wilson (along with his friend Alan Erasmus, graphic designer Peter Saville, and record producer Martin Hannett) would launch Factory Records and introduce Joy Division, A Certain Ratio, and the Durutti Column to a largely unsuspecting late-’70s public.

A complex character deftly played by British comedian Steve Coogan, Wilson occupies center stage in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, a lovingly observed, beautifully shot, fictionalized screen account of the rise and fall of the Cambridge-educated punk impresario’s empire. An eternal optimist with, in his own words, “an excess of civic pride,” Wilson saw Manchester’s relative social and economic isolation as an opportunity not an obstacle. If punk was to change Manchester, then Manchester would change punk. Rejecting conventional business practices, Wilson and company ran Factory Records like an avant-garde art movement: With its groundbreaking graphic design and cryptic references to the Situationist International, it would forever change the landscape for independent labels. With Joy Division/New Order and, later, the Happy Mondays—Factory’s star turns—it would ensure that music never sounded the same again.

There is a telling moment early in the film that distinguishes Wilson’s grandiose vision for his beloved city from that of his coconspirators. In the scene, Erasmus and Wilson and Wilson’s then wife, Lindsay, arrive outside the Russell Club, a fortresslike bunker on the fringe of one of the city’s seediest housing estates, with a view to starting up a weekly club night. As they muse over possible names for their venture, “The Factory” is suggested. “Very Andy Warhol,” opines Wilson. “Very L.S. Lowry,” Lindsay caustically retorts. (For those not familiar with the work of L.S. Lowry—certainly Manchester’s and quite possibly Britain’s best-loved twentieth-century artist—you could do worse than imagine a kind of machine-age Douanier Rousseau. Famous for his faux-naive paintings of the lumpen proletariat at work and at play in the shadows of the nearby Salford mills, Lowry depicted factories that were as far removed from Warhol’s eponymous studio as the Russell Club was from the hedonistic excesses of Studio 54.) Undeterred, Wilson dreamt on.

A comedy of sorts, the film is ultimately a parable sketched along the lines of the story of Icarus, and it’s populated with deaths, demises, and falls from grace. Party People’s only real failing is that perhaps it tries to say too much. Two hours long, it spans some sixteen years: from the Sex Pistols’ Manchester debut, in 1976, to the temporary closure of the Haçienda—Factory’s architecturally (and ideologically) extravagant nightclub—due to increased drug use and gang violence at the tail end of the Acid House craze in 1991.

Throughout that decade and a half of chaos Wilson was stoic, or perhaps just oblivious to the signs that his world was collapsing. The death of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis by suicide, at age twenty-three, in 1980, should have been a warning. The breakup of Wilson’s first marriage and the subsequent death of Hannett—Manchester’s very own Phil Spector—from a heart attack might have suggested to a lesser mortal a spot of trouble at the mill. Yet Wilson, who in the midst of all the madness continued to work in local television, remained blinkered, seemingly unable, or unwilling, to grasp how dire the situation was.

By the early ’90s Factory, now ensconced in ludicrously expensive, overdesigned offices and without any records to promote, was hemorrhaging money. The Haçienda—“our cathedral” in Wilson’s words—a financial black hole from the moment it opened in 1982, was little more than turf to be fought over by rival drug gangs. The Happy Mondays were in a chemically induced creative free fall, their best work behind them.

The film ends on a final ignominy: the sale of Factory—or at least the sale of its few remaining assets, primarily its back catalogue—to a major label, London Records, a scenario that provokes one of the film’s most illuminating exchanges. Rob Gretton, Joy Division and New Order’s long-suffering manager (who would also die prematurely), confronts Wilson over the sale. Wilson asks him, “What’s wrong with London Records?” Gretton pauses. “Well, the name, for a start.”

London, or more specifically its absence, is in many ways the subliminal subtext of Winterbottom’s film. Despite a failed attempt to relaunch Factory in the late ’90s, Wilson continues to talk of a new Manchester, reborn phoenixlike from the embers of Factory’s second flameout. Given his track record, I for one wouldn’t bet against him.

Matthew Higgs is curator of art and design at the CCAC Wattis Institute in San Francisco.