- Tony Wilson »
"This is not my story, I'm not Prince Hamlet, nor was ever meant to be. This is not a book about me. I'm a minor character in my own story. Truly Dickensian hero, bit of a wally, bit of a cipher, surrounded by bizarre and larger-than-life characters. This is about the music and the people who made the music, Ian Curtis and Shaun Ryder and Martin Hannett."
True - Curtis, Ryder and Hannett would be central to any account of the rise and fall of Factory Records, but let nothing fool you - first and foremost '24 Hour Party People' is the story of Anthony H Wilson, a celebration of civic pride, financial recklessness and philanthropic dedication to art.
A 'novelisation' of the screenplay for the film of the same name, the book is subtitled 'What the sleeve notes never tell you', and like the movie, it blurs the boundaries between truth and fiction, with a combination of narrative passages ('Pieces to camera') and surreal flashbacks. We pick up the story in 1976, with Wilson - the dubiously-coiffured presenter of Granada Television's local news - among the forty people at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall watching The Sex Pistols.
Punk is happening, and Wilson gives the Pistols and many other new acts their first TV break on his music show, 'So It Goes' - Granada's answer to 'Top Of The Pops'. Having caught the rock bug, and fuelled by his apparent ability to spot fresh talent, Wilson and his actor friend Alan Erasmus decide to stage their own band nights. They call their weekly events 'The Factory' ("Very L S Lowry"), enlist design student Peter Saville to create promotional artwork, and befriend Rob Gretton, manager of local band Warsaw.
As Warsaw become Joy Division, Gretton's fierce anti-London stance causes him to spurn the advances of the capital's major labels in favour of putting his band's first few releases out independently, with the help of Wilson, Erasmus, Saville and maverick producer Martin Hannett. Factory Records is born. An '"experiment in human nature", there is only one contract, written in Wilson's own blood: "The musicians own everything. The company owns nothing." The rest is music industry history.
But this just wouldn't be a true product of the Factory stable without a hint of non-conformity. Fac 424 (the Factory cataloging system is still alive and well) is written in an irreverent, pretentious, at-times-irritating, at-times-appropriately quirky manner, and like the film that spawned it, is often contradictory. Instead of chapters, the book is divided up into 66 segments, and is split into two parts. Events are not always treated chronologically, and the prose is littered with digressions by Wilson that make him appear both self-depreciating and arrogant, a confusing cocktail of a man with a skin thicker than that of a rhinoceros.
No matter how ridiculous he or his many 'theories' may seem, Wilson's redeeming characteristics are his boundless enthusiasm for music he believes in (the book recounts his undying commitment to marginally successful artists like Vini Reilly of The Durutti Column, and complete nonentities such as Stockholm Monsters and Crispy Ambulance), and his willingness to put his - and other people's - money where his mouth is in order to bring ideas and concepts to life.
The most famous example of Factory's suicidal business policy is detailed here. Peter Hook recently suggested that the label never fully recovered from the financial damage done to it by New Order's 'Blue Monday' single. Insisting the record was only released on 12-inch format, and indulging another beautiful (and expensively-produced) Peter Saville sleeve design, Erasmus calculated Factory would make a penny profit form every copy shifted. Out of this small gain, they would then have to pay the 4.5p publishing costs, meaning each time 'Blue Monday' sold, Factory lost 3.5p. "Exactly, exactly, but, first, it's a thing of beauty, and second, Alan," Wilson preached, "we're not going to sell any." 'Blue Monday' duly became the biggest selling 12-inch in the history of the UK record industry.
The written version of '24 Hour Party People' clarifies some of the more confusing sections of the screen interpretation, and likewise, the film is more accessible if you've already read the book. If a comprehensive, detailed, TRUE account of these events is what's required, then Mick Middles's 'From Joy Division to New Order' is far more exhaustive. Tony Wilson's story, rather like his record label, is never quite so straightforward.