The Manchester music scene has long been the stuff of legend. It survives on the life stories of its two greatest egos if nothing else – Tony Wilson, the industry svengali whose reckless intelligence was responsible for transforming a moment in mancunian musical culture into the cult of Madchester; and Ian Curtis, ill-starred Joy Division frontman and the antihero of the hour. At the epicentre of the legend was a haphazard industry based on the musical whimsies of Wilson and his Factory confederates.
Factory was never grounded in a solid business ethos, and this, in many respects, was its undoing – even Wilson had to resort to charity to pay for his cancer treatment towards the end of his life. Yet this ill-advised label formula, directed almost exclusively by profitless passion for indefinable genius, was the magic of Factory. As a truly spirited independent it gave a voice to the dark pneumatics of Joy Division and the unhurried, inflated rattle-shake of the Happy Mondays, all of which rotated around the centrifugal cultural cyclone of the Hacienda nightclub.
2008 marked Factory’s 30th birthday – an anniversary commemorated by the release of ‘A Factory Box Set’ this month (January 2009). The box set comprises of four CDs of chronologically ordered Factory history from the fuzzed opening bassline of Joy Division’s ‘Digital’ right through to Happy Monday’s ‘Sunshine and Love’, the last ever Factory release. Many of Factory’s highlights feature here – from the apogee of New Order ingenuity in ‘Blue Monday’, to Joy Division favourites ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and ‘Transmission’, and Happy Monday’s ’24 Hour Party People’, the song that later gave its name to a highly fictionalised film about Factory’s heyday.
While the box set isn’t definitive, there’s enough here to thoroughly educate those with an interest in the label whilst satiating fanatics with meandering detours through the lesser known back-catalogue – including one-off appearances from James, The Railway Children and Miaow, to name but a few. Notable Factory exceptions include ESG, the post-punk/house Bronx sisters who played the opening night at the Hacienda, but who couldn’t be featured due to licensing problems.
Wilson’s favourite Factory track, Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’, is also omitted. But then, maybe that’s because Factory was about more than the self-stylised career of Wilson, a career that was increasingly dominated by an obsession with techno in the latter, ‘madchester’, era of the label. It’s indisputable that when Tony Wilson died in August 2007, a lot of the Factory spirit died with him – just as Ian Curtis’s death was the loss of Factory’s boy-wonder, in a tragedy that pre-empted the lurching inspirations of the entire Factory venture.
There’s still plenty to be gained commercially from stoking the embers of the burned out Factory phenomenon if 2007’s monochromatic ‘Control’ is anything to go by. In its crudest form, the Factory box-set does little more than just that. And yet, as the music industry limps forth into 2009 trailing the wreckage of countless bought-out and gone-bust independent dreams, now may be a more important time than ever to remind people of the wondrous woolly mammoth that was Factory – a financially shot musical empire built on the fucked-up musical fanaticisms of Manchester’s party people.