History > Power Suits, Corruption and Lies - NME article 25 July 1992

Power Suits, Corruption and Lies - NME article 25 July 1992; Tony Wilson photographed by Kevin Cummins
Power Suits, Corruption and Lies - NME article 25 July 1992; Tony Wilson photographed by Kevin Cummins

As Factory - one of Britain's greatest, most innovative, indie labels - is sold into the hands of The Man, what better time to speak to its suave, suited-up manipulator TONY WILSON? Swerving the Svengali's slaggers, DANNY KELLY checks his glorious past and finds him wondering who cares about indie anyway.

Perfect images: KEVIN CUMMINS

"He's a total and utter and complete bastard", howls one red-faced NME staffer, "the most smarmy, two-faced git I've ever met, even in this business..."

"You shouldn't even talk to him" pleads another in desperation, "he shouldn't ever be allowed in the paper..."

And who is causing this heartfelt hurricane of righteous indignation? Who is so evil that they shouldn't even be allowed on to pages that give the moronic likes of Deicide an airing? Hitler? The Yorkshire Ripper? Rupert Murdoch? Normski? No, this brimful vat of vituperation is being poured on the swaggering, arrogant even, but hardly executionable, form of Anthony H Wilson, label boss of the, periodically mighty Factory.

Wilson has always cut a controversial figure with the music press and The Kids. The designer cum matinee idol tresses and near-permanent tan sit poorly with the traditional notion of what the boss of an independent record chief might, or should, look like (leather jacket, mohican, Underworld pallor). And his day jobs as an earnest Granada TV Arts presenter and grinning ringleader of the worse-than-the-real-thing quiz tosh Remote Control haven't helped in this direction. No, Wilson has always looked distinctly like The Man. Or at least The Man's next door neighbour. Or cousin.

No has his label's relentless dedication to high-gloss, arty packaging, 'Situationist' publicity stunts (there isn't time to explain, look it up) and generally know-all style always fitted in with the various shades of the 'indie ethic' that have held sway over the past dozen or so years. And Wilson's habit of gleefully - and, in the fans' eyes, disrespectfully - puncturing the whole Ian Curtis / Joy Division myth (a mini-industry that has, after all, kept him in alligator shoes this last decade) gets right up the nasal tube of whole rafts of otherwise perfectly amenable punters.

The charges being laid on him by my outraged colleagues are rather more specific. They say, amongst other things, that he's an over-ambitious self-publicist who doesn't really give a flying fish finger about his label or his bands, that he's allowed the often wonderful Hacienda club to fall, at various times, under the thrall of undesirables and that, crime of crimes, he talks endlessly about Techno while giving none of the genre's local experts the kudos of being on one of the country's hippest labels.

Serious stuff. Surely not the whole story, though. OK, so Wilson's a bit of a scammer and a casually clever manipulator of the media, but so what? You want the world run by town hall clerks with 'Plain English' certificates? And while you can make up your own mind about the various other offences nailed on his door, there's definitely another side to that charge sheet. Hasn't he, strapped to the wheel of Factory this last dozen years, been fairly centrally responsible for some of the best music, vibiest bands and crackerjack schemes, some of the best downright fun we've had over this past decade? Yes he has.

In any event. whatever you think of him, this seems a hugely appropriate time to talk to the man. He is on all those shadowy committees that have been deciding what should and shouldn't happen in the wonderful world of indie and who have made this whole issue such a difficult but essential nettle to grasp. Equally, last week's sale to London Records of a large chunk of his Factory baby (ending month upon tedious month of music biz 'Factory's skint, gonna be sold to EMI / Virgin / Tesco / Lancashire Cricket Club / Saddam Hussein'-style speculation) has left him, for the first time in a decade, in a position to throw off the blinkers, to see the wood for the trees. If he wants...

Peter Saville, Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus standing outside The Factory; photo by Kevin Cummins
Peter Saville, Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus standing outside The Factory; photo by Kevin Cummins

FLASH WHISTLE, luxuriant locks, coppery skintone, carefully laundered intimacy, Media Manipulation Ray set on 'stun' yes, Tony Wilson is all present and correct as I ask him how he feels about having sold off a fair slice of his life's work and all of his independence. Did he shed an Agassi-like public tear?

"No," he begins in that always-promising voice (if nothing else, he's an entertaining tease of a conversationalist), I don't have any real problem with it. It's just the next stage of the European distribution deal we had with London.

"Maybe," he chuckles, "I don't have a problem with it because I've had so many problems over the past year!"

At this stage I must confess my own stance in this whole indie / major shebang. I have all the necessary campaign gongs - Hip Hop Wars Cross (with tremolo arm and cluster), 'C86' Distinguished Service Medal, Croix de 'Indie City', with bars - yet I don't feel that the indie labels should, as a principal, be given any more credence or Brownie points than the majors. After all, show me the Bob Dylan record on an indie... or The Clash, or The Byrds, or, erm, The Seekers. As the slogan of the greatest indie of all time, Tamla Motown, used to say - "it's what's in the grooves that counts."

That said, however, there's no doubt that over the past 15 years this country's indie labels have, in practice, served two vitally important functions. First, and obviously, they have put out a huge percentage of all the good music issued in these islands. Simple as that. Secondly, the have acted as the conscience of the majors.

By consistently demonstrating to their bigger cousins that there's always battalion upon battalion of new and brilliant talent out there, they have forced the majors to keep on seeking, nurturing and promoting that talent (even if Megabucks Records' scouting has often consisted of no more than poaching bands off smaller labels!).

By doing so they have delayed, perhaps forever, the day when the majors could, with a clear conscience, restrict their activities, as they sometimes give the impression of wanting, to releasing back-catalogue box sets and crap covers of soul standards by pouting soap opera lovelies. That, in anyone's book, must count as an heroic effort, one that demands forgiveness for most of the feeble rubbish and self-serving whining that has emanated from the indie sector with much the same frequency as from The Other Place.

Broadcast ends. Back to Tony Wilson. What, in the (dim) light of all that's been going on, does 'indle' mean? It's a question that causes him to screw his face through several contortions before embarking on an answer.

"This whole thing- 'what is indie?'- is tying people in knots, causing them to lose sleep. All it ever meant historically was independent distribution, following the example of the American indies. Yet we've spent months now agonising over the question, wrestling with it. What is 'indie'? What does it mean? I'm sure lots of people will tell me what it means in the next few months but I really have no idea.

In the mid-'80s and at its worst, 'indie' meant a ghetto for bands who weren't going anywhere. At its best,'indie' is this strange industry that flourished, and is still flourishing, in the aftermath of punk, and has made a half or two-thirds of all the most interesting music in the world .... mountains of good music.

"For four years now, I've avoided the word and called them 'small British labels' instead. It's like guys in Blackburn, those tiny Techno labels, they're pure indie."

Labelled with Love Tony Wilson's Ten Favourite Factory Experiences as recounted in the NME, 25 July 1992

1. The menstrual egg-timer: "By Linder. We never actually did it, but it was there..."

2. Re-doing the vocals for 'Love Will Tear Us Apart': "We were always going to do this when 'Ian got back from America', but of course he never went. We had to re-do the vocals electronically, using the originals."

3. 'Lazyitis': Because it's a round, you know, like a folk round."

4. The Disorder Party: in the basement of the Hacienda after New Order had played G-Mex, December '88.

5. Danny Kelly's review of the Pale Saints at the Town & Country Club (Aw shucks - Ed): "It said that the Pale Saints were OK but after Top of the Pops that same night, when the Mondays and the Roses had been on together, who gives a fuck. The wheel of history, I believed and the review said, had turned on..."

6. The first Acid warehouse party in Manchester, 1988: "In a metal box warehouse near Piccadilly Station. A very hypnotic moment."

7. A Certain Ratio at Hurrahs in New York.

8. Talking to Peter Saville about art: "A constant throughout the 12 years, still happening now."

9. Paul Ryder ringing after Elland Road and thanking me for shouting at the Mondays: "I shouted at them for fucking up America, for all behaving like dicks. They thanked me because they said that sorted them out for Elland Road and Elland Road saw them go from an arena band to a stadium band."

10. A sunny morning driving to London having just taken delivery from Martin Hannett of the mixes of 'Closer' and ACR's 'Flight': "That was just a great moment."

Knowing what he knows now, would he, I wonder, bother with all the hassle? Would he, if he was still an idealistic young whipper-snapper as opposed to a middle-aged young whip-cracker, still pour his scarce money and youthful energy into an indie label?

"Yes, of course I'd do it all again today, provided I had the music. You can always deal with the business side. but you have to have the groups. If you don't have great music, forget it I'd do it all again because of the opportunity to work with brilliant people, to get to work with Ian Curtis and Shaun Ryder.

"That's what's happened to me for 12 years. I've spent the last two weeks in negotiation with London, yet the most important and exciting thing going on was the seven-inch pop mix of the new Mondays 45 and doing their LP running order with Chris Frantz.

"That's what you set up the label to do. If you set up a label just to have a label ... I can't see the point of that."

The point may be just to make money. That's one of the criticism of the indie labels today (see Stuart Bailie's rant, page 13), that they're just hives of little capitalists.

"Maybe they are. Certainly in the early days at Factory there were a lot of things - hyping, plugging and the like - that we didn't do because that was what we thought an indie label was or was not. Then we felt like fools when we found out that we were the only ones that weren't doing it because we thought we were being cool."

Wilson has been in all those vegetarian-filled rooms where they've recently been giving the thumbs up (or, in the case of Clive Selwood's Strange Fruit label, an outlet as important in its own way as Morgan Khan's Street Sounds was in the early '80s, the thumbs down) to what should be in the indie chart. As the line between 'indie' and 'major' blurs (with major-financed labels like Hut and Dedicated being distributed by indie companies), does he, like some others, feel the answer lies in a generic indie chart, i.e. one compiled on the grounds of what the music sounds like (jangly / grungy rock, if we're being honest)?

"No, I don't. My memo, after four weeks grappling with this question, said that a generic chart would be crap. The danger? The danger is that it'd mean nothing. One wants to get music across to people, to give them an alternative to Sonic The Hedgehog. I'm a big Sonic fan, but I think it's an ultimately enervating experience.

"We need a chart for new groups, sure. In America they've got the 'Post Modern' chart which is made possible by college radio. But I just can't see it working here... Here the criterion has to be indie distribution.

"But that," he sighs heavily, "doesn't help Clive Selwood."

What of the doom merchants who say there's no need for an indie chart at all because there isn't enough good music coming out on these labels, however, they're defined and collaged to justify such a listing?

"I say people who talk like that should go fuck themselves! Fuck the 'death of talent' argument! We all look back on punk and think it was fucking great, which it was, but it was just like Techno is now. The only problem with Techno is that at the moment it only expresses on emotion... 'Give us an E' ... 'Give us an E'... 'Give us an E'..."

Call me an old duffer if you will but that, as only problems go, sounds quite enough to be getting on with for now, ta!

"Ah yes," he visibly expands, beaming face indicating that I'm about to partake of A Revelation: "but that's how Barney from New Order described the importance of what Joy Division did. For two years all punk could express was one thing - 'boredom'... anger ... fuck you!' - and we had now problem with that. Joy Division's greatness was that they took that musical form and started to express other emotions. I'm an academic and know all about the mechanics of rock history and all, but it took Barney to explain what Joy Division did and I've no doubt that, in the next year, Techno will start to express other, more complex, emotions.

"I don't think we're at the end of all this, we're in the middle..."

MORE GENERAL matters intrude. What has changed about the music industry in the 12 years that Wilson has been navigating its whitewater way?

"Fuck all," he beams, always ready with the considered quip. "It's still all about musicians. Musicians are still amazing and wonderful and infuriating. Musicians will still ring you up at 11 o'clock on Friday night looking for 300 quid for this or that... I don't think anything's changed at all..."

What other labels have you admired or learned from in your time as Factory Svengali?

"Mute and PWL," he grins, tweaking the Annoy The Kids knob around another notch or two. "Mute because of the way Daniel Miller has maintained the label's identity in a superb way. Labels are about human beings, people, and the way they love their music. Dones anyone know how much Pete Waterman loves music? The way Waterman and Miller love music is why their labels are great..."

What advice would you give to a snot-nosed enthusiast looking to set up his or her own label today?

"Just get on with it. Look at Creation. In the '80s, Alan McGee made every mistake possible but he came back from the dead. Now he's got a fantastic label. One Little Indian has great stuff. Just get on with it... all this lovely stuff goes on unabated.

I, NATURALLY, have a theory. My theory is that what we're going through, what's forcing NME to put out issues like this one, is not, as some would have us believe, a crisis... but more a crisis of confidence. And it's a crisis of confidence that Tony Wilson has been centrally involved in causing.

Explanation: In the late '80s, it was Wilson's club, the Hacienda (along with The Garage in Nottingham) that greenhoused the transformation of House into Acid House. And Acid House spawned - in addition to The Stone Roses and the best bits of the Happy Mondays - Techno. And it's Techno (so hard to work out where it's coming from next, where it's going, what it might mean for traditional ways of producing and consuming music, so hard to sell or write about) that has caused the confidence-bypass in the music biz. Ergo Wilson is at least partially to blame.

But my theory has a positive outlook. Techno, like all new musics, won't always be an uncatchable breeze, a difficult outsider. Somewhere soon a spotty oik in Wigan or Paisley or Porthcawl (unlikely, that last one!) will get to grips with it and use it just as Acid House was used.

One day soon there'll be a Techno Roses and a Techno Mondays: the papers and the clubs and the charts, however they're compiled, will be full of bright young things and bright young music and we'll wonder what all the soul-searching of these last few months was all about. We'll wonder, won't we Tony, what all the fuss about what is and isn't 'indie' was all about?

"Americans don't worry about indie and do you really think the kids buying records give a fuck? Like you said, the Pistols were on Virgin and Dylan was on CBS. Factory, too, will go on, believe me, and we'll be putting out the best two LPs of the next 12 months... The small British label will continue to be creative because there's a culture. I'm not sure if it's an 'indie' culture, but that culture will go on...

"I think the next year will be very interesting and we'll have to wrestle even more with this 'what is indie?' question. But I think I've already go the ultimate answer..."

His voice lowers to a stagily dramatic whisper: "Who cares?..."

Loads and loads and loads and loads of people care, Tony. This is where we came in...