A Mythic Thing
I'M SITTING IN A CONFERENCE ROOM AT Le Meridian Hotel, waiting for Tony Wilson to show up for the press cattle call promoting 24 Hour Party People. I've just finished reading the e-text of the "novelized" version his L.A. publicist sent me, and I'm psyched to meet the main man of my old hometown, the affable goof and cutup who describes himself in print as "a has-been altar boy . . . a minor celebrity in the northwest of England . . . the biggest wanker in the history of Manchester."
He's a few minutes late, so I kill time ruminating, fidgeting, sketching out some ideas: By the late '80s, Manchester -- on the verge of midwifing the worldwide electro-dance-drug culture explosion -- had eclipsed even London as the epicenter of all things groovy in the U.K. Earlier in the decade, the doddering, white-haired city fathers -- keepers of a sprawling, 700-year-old abandoned Roman-fortress province whose last serious make-over had been in the 18th century, when a revival craze for reconstructed ("mock") Gothic architecture swept the city's churches and public buildings -- had finally conceded that the city's image needed an update to qualify as any kind of European travel destination. And there (made, as it were, to order) was Tony Wilson, the local King of All Hip Media, regional TV omnibus show host and PR spinmeister turned entrepreneur, creator of Factory Records and the world-famous Hacienda Club. Standing in precisely the right place, at exactly the right time, holding all the right cards.
It was a duh-brained conclusion for those old geezers: Why fight tooth and nail to suppress recreational youth culture when the local economy could be benefiting from all the "dosh" young people would spend at the slightest encouragement? Their dole money was green too, after all, a truth that had already been learned in the '60s, when Wall Street and the marketing vampires first began to recognize youth as a massive untapped spending force. Yet somehow Manchester had missed it.
This time around, however, they were ready. In the shadow of the Hacienda, they appointed a city official -- the so-called Minister of Fun and Entertainment -- who got them to relax their draconian zoning and building ordinances. The banks began lending at low interest rates. The city cops, redneck yobs for the most part, were told to clean up their act and chill on antagonizing the young and the exuberant. All of this designed to stimulate a million new club and café entrepreneurs in what came to be known as "Madchester," both in the sense of "getting totally mental" (read: whacked out on E and thrashing around in hideous baggy clothing to house music and strobe lights) and "being mad for it" (read: horny). Music, dancing, drugs and sex, all prioritized, of course, according to individual taste.
Unfortunately, this '80s version of the hallucinogenic Garden of Eden, like its late-'60s predecessor, quickly degenerated into drug addiction, despair, suicide, guns and street-gang madness . . .
A little after my allotted 12:30 p.m. time slot, the PR guy ushers me into another room, away from the elaborate hospitality holding tank. And suddenly, there he is, again, Tony Wilson, today tucked into a bizarre pair of Gaultier samurai trousers. He gushes his way toward me, profusely apologizing for being late. ("In my book," I tell him, "less than 10 minutes isn't really late.") We shake hands, and I notice his left pinky nail is painted gold. Hmm. Expensive designer threads, I think, plus a little glam-dandy flourish, but without being all that committed to it. Weird, really, but then again, très cool . . .
"Did you see the movie? It's a great pack of lies, isn't it?" Before I can reply, we are interrupted by a knock on the door. "Come in!" Tony shouts hoarsely. A waiter comes in with a tray of coffee and orange juice. Tony motions him to set it down on a table as we both slump onto a huge couch. As Tony puts his feet up on one end of the table, I say, "'Fuck the facts, print the legend' -- that's what your character says in the movie . . ."
"Yes, we learned that from Hollywood," says Tony the charming klutz, before reaching across the tray for a glass and somehow overturning the whole thing. Cups and glasses tumble everywhere. We both reach for napkins to soak up the dripping libations and begin to straighten up the fallen beakers.
"God," says Tony. "It was a late night . . . I love Los Angeles! It's so fucking great to be here!"
Over the next half-hour, I make the acquaintance of an enthusiastic nonstop pop-culture theorist with a slight Northern accent, "cultured" at Cambridge, where he read . . . I forgot to ask what. At 52, still with a decent sandy-red hairline, he's a cross between a hippie-enlightened (in the good sense) public schoolboy (in the good sense) and a "Manky lad" (in the good sense). His enthusiasm is endearing rather than annoying, as he deftly parries or deflects any question or observation that would erode his case for the canonization of Joy Division and the early Manchester punk scene. To his admirers, Wilson -- apart from being a hard-working modern-day media whore and family man (wife and two kids), a sport, a good egg -- is, now and forever, the Big Wanker Who Gets the Job Done. (He is, after all, the man who first put the Sex Pistols on British telly in 1976, when they were still just a rumor in London.)
The following is a blending of two separate conversations, one by phone from Manchester, the other live at Le Meridian.
L.A. WEEKLY: All right, Tony! Okay, let me see . . . just so I know who I'm talking to . . . Are you for City or United? Red or Blue?
TONY WILSON: I've been going to Old Trafford [Park] since I was 8. In fact, tomorrow morning I'm doing a TV essay for the BBC on my love affair with United, so yes, I think you could definitely say I'm Red.
Red all the way. All right.
All the way. Manchester United is a mythic club, a mythic thing -- rather like the movie. Very similar.
Were you born in Manchester?
I was and I wasn't. I was born in Salford. When I was a young nipper, I always used to go "Fuck off, I'm from Salford," which is different from Manchester. It's like Minneapolis and St. Paul. Salford is the working-class city adjacent to Manchester's business center. Salford has many famous children -- Alistair Cooke, Graham Nash, and a couple of actors like Ben Kingsley and Albert Finney.
How would you describe Manchester, and the northwest of the U.K., to Angelenos?
Think Chicago. We are very Chicago, very hospitable, very open. Which is why we are the one city that opened its arms to the black music coming out of America in the mid-'80s when the rest of the U.K. and mainstream America was ignoring it . . .
As in house music?
House music completely transformed British pop music, and transformed dance music around the world, and still does today.
All the music that came out of Chicago and Detroit was filtered through Manchester first, and now it covers the world, including the United States and Canada. The U.S. even gave us the fucking drugs. I was force-fed Ecstasy when I visited Texas in the early '80s.
I think a lot of people in the U.S. still think of E as this weird drug that was invented by grizzly old raver hippies in Ibiza or something . . .
No, no, no. E came from Texas, but because Ibiza is a famous drug island historically, it began to appear there around '84, '85. During the summer of '86, the people working there, the DJs and stuff, started taking it at night, and by '87 everybody was taking it. Texas was the one place in America where it was still legal. Whenever you hit Texas, you'd come back with stories about this wonder drug, this sort of watery LSD. Suddenly it was re-imported back to America from Ibiza, but it also went to Amsterdam and Manchester, where it transformed youth culture in the way that LSD did in the '60s. I still find it odd that it never took off in its home territory . . . I mean, it's obviously taken off in the U.S., but not on the same massive scale as in other parts of the world.
So when did all this start to kick in?
Winter of '87 into January '88. Britain was cold, so fucking cold, and dance music was still all about Cyndi Lauper! How could you dance to that unless you were pissed out of your skull? There was already this huge new international underground drug culture in the works that was looking for its own music, and it was our dance floor that found it. Although it had been played for two years beforehand, no one except DJs and hardcore aficionados were into it. The Hacienda created "Madchester," a confluence of music, dance, magic and mind-altering drugs, in exactly the right place at precisely the right time.
So then, the E-driven acid-house dance-club scene blew up in Manchester at your club, but even more amazingly, the local live-band indie-rock scene eventually merged with it . . .
At Factory Records we signed this rock band, Happy Mondays, for no reason that we understood -- we just loved them. We had no idea what they were doing, but we knew they had something special. I remember traveling around America with the Bummed album trying to get territorial licensing deals going, and every person I knew in the industry on both coasts when I offered them the album, made me feel like I was holding out a piece of shit. Only Bob Krasnow and Howard Benson at Elektra got it. So anyway, this incredibly strange band got into E very early, and it is arguable that it was one of their people -- who shall remain nameless -- who first imported, and continued to import, Ecstasy into Manchester.
What kind of things were they into besides dealing E?
I remember visiting the Mondays in a recording studio, and they were all lying on the floor of the rec room in the dark, listening to house imports from Chicago and Detroit. They took the rhythms, the new gay black dance rhythms of America, and applied them to British working-class rock & roll and indie punk. That's what created the acid house scene. Every other band in Britain worth its salt copied it.
To backtrack a little, why do you think [Joy Division lead singer and songwriter] Ian Curtis topped himself? What's your personal theory?
Ian knew he was hurting his wife, his daughter and his lover. I think he may have thought it was a case of pure romantic, altruistic suicide. He once dated a sociology student, and through her influence he'd swotted up [i.e., studied] a little on [French sociologist Émile] Durkheim, who defined many different types of suicide, including what he termed "altruistic suicide," where the despondent individual is so far subsumed into a group or collective that he thinks he's ä serving that group's best interests by sacrificing his life.
So you think Ian may have been thinking what better way to help everybody out than removing himself from this bizarre love triangle?
Yes, I do. Stupid bugger. Barney [Joy Division/New Order's Bernard Sumner] thought it was because of his epilepsy medication. [Joy Division's late manager, Rob] Gretton never said what he thought.
So . . . back to this acid house thing, which came a few years after Ian's death. I was raised in Stockport and Manchester during the '50s and the '60s. I knew people whose families had not moved in literally 700 years. I tell people here when they ask me about Manchester, I think that the acid house phenom literally changed 700 years' worth of culture. It changed the entire perception of Manchester in the North.
I don't agree. We've always been an entertainment capital, for 200 years. We've always been big on clubs in the city. When I was a kid in the '50s, it was the workingmen's-club city of Britain.
The '50s and '60s were horrible in Manchester, Tony. Those workingmen's clubs were ghastly places for young people. "Stewing joints," we used to call them, where working people drank themselves blind and legless, every night. Did you ever get beaten up by Manchester cops just for having long hair and strange, non-prole clothes? I did. Twice. Manchester cops were a bunch of drunk-on-duty swine back then, I absolutely assure you . . . Piss on 'em . . . They were swine!
[Chuckles.] No, I never got smacked around, but I got shouted at a lot. It was an old, crumbling city with a degree of pride, but then, by the '70s and early '80s, people began to stay in Manchester, to invest in the city -- unlike the Beatles fucking off to London as soon as they got their hands on the prize. Nowadays people stay here. Business types thought we were nuts when we took the cash from [the New Order 12-inch] "Blue Monday" and built a glamorous New Yorkstyle nightclub in our city. They thought we were being loopy, investing all of our money into the Hacienda, but by the mid-'80s the city fathers used our international rock & roll supremacy and world-class design as the first step in rebuilding Manchester.
And writing a whole chapter in rock & roll history to boot . . .
A lot of small cities have their moment in rock & roll history: Memphis, San Francisco, Liverpool, Seattle, Bristol. They all have this moment where they change history, but it lasts three years and then when it's gone, it's gone . . . it's over. Nowadays it's hard to imagine how bad it was in the early '70s, just as it's hard to remember how fucking awful rock & roll was in '74 or '75.
How bad, exactly?
Terrible. British rock & roll had become overblown keyboard crap by people like Rick Wakeman. In London, it had become pub rock. I saw a band called Sherbet from '76 singing "How's That" on some Top of the Pops rerun the other week, and I said to my son, "Look at that, look how bad it was!" Remember, nowadays we're all used to rock & roll reinventing itself periodically, and in the early '70s it had already reinvented itself several times, through Elvis and the Beatles and then Hendrix and the Dead, but then it descended into this hideous cocaine crap in the '70s, and all our heroes weren't doing shit anymore. It was so far gone this time, we didn't know that it could ever renew itself. That was the real shock of the Sex Pistols. They pulled off the impossible. They were a true oracle who literally kick-started rock & roll back into life. Now I'm sitting here waiting for it to renew itself again. I'll admit I'm getting a bit desperate, but it is going to happen.
Any sign of it happening in the U.K. again, or is that too much to ask after everything Britain gave back to rock & roll for 35 years?
Those who think it's happening are large numbers of 15-, 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds wearing hoodies with Korn T-shirts. The fogies always say, "How could this be a revolution? How could English kids be buying Korn and Slipknot albums?" I say to them, "Yeah, you're right, what would be the point of a Liverpool kid buying Chuck Berry albums and Buddy Holly albums? What would be the point of living in Manchester and buying Iggy Pop albums in the mid-'70s? What would be the point of buying Marshall Jefferson and Derrick May records in the '80s?"
So what's the answer?
The answer is, we have always done this. Our kids have always absorbed and loved something out of America and created something new from it. It's very interesting that all the new little rock bands -- none of them have been signed yet, they're all still playing in basements, and almost none of them has a DJ or a rapper. The bands are playing in the format of a punk band playing intelligent metal, and their core influence is Nirvana, delightfully.
I wanted to ask you a question about Goth music. Do you think that was rooted in Manchester? You know, with Joy Division . . .
I was never really interested in that. I think Siouxsie, who was kind of one of the underpinnings of Joy Division in terms of musical history, veered towards Goth.
Siouxsie out here is a huge Goth icon, and as a matter of fact, Joy Division is kind of regarded that way too. Not Goth in the fashion sense of putting on white pancake and black lipstick, but soundwise, like the Low/Lodger dark Bowie Kraut-rock thing.
Barney thinks that when punk came along it blew away all the shit with simple instrumentation and all the high energy and the anger, but in the end, that energy, anger and instrumentation could only say one thing: "Fuck you." Sooner or later, punk was going to want to express something more complex, and the first group to use punk to express a more complex emotion was Joy Division, and then U2 followed them, and that is what post-punk is. Sooner or later, someone would want to say, "I'm fucked."
Was the early Hacienda scene concurrent with the Blitz Club in London?
No, no. The early Hacienda was concurrent with nothing. It was concurrent with everything getting a bit boring again after the first four years of punk had raged itself out. It was concurrent with the rise of the Smiths. We always ignored those faddy fashion cultures in London like the Blitz thing. That was just a waste of fucking time.
It's hard to see Boy George and Steve Strange getting any play with the Mancy homeboys.
Much too poncey for Manchester, too London . . .
Your word has become like the Word of God in northwest Britain -- or might someone dispute that and say Tony Wilson's version is full of shit, this is what really happened?
They would say Tony Wilson's version is full of shit, but they'd also say it's true. In England they had a picture of the actor playing [Happy Mondays front man] Shaun Ryder with the caption underneath saying, "Poet." They had a picture of the person playing Ian Curtis, and it said, "Genius." Then they had a picture of Steve Coogan playing me, and underneath it said, "Twat." It's just part of my public persona, I suppose.
I wanted to ask you about Manc humor. I was once introduced to Mark Smith in Los Angeles. I was seated in this fast-food restaurant, and he asked me where I came from, and I replied Stockport, and he snorted, "So that's why yer eatin' alone!" The person who introduced us was horrified and later was profusely apologizing. She thought he was being a dickhead to me. I said, "Nah, in Manchester you have to just roll with it, or learn to hit back."
Manky humor is flat, slack, dead-end irony. Howard Jacobs, a Manchester Jew, is a lecturer on the comic novel and talks about doing comedy for a living. He said to me the day after seeing the film, "Bloody hell, Tony, I've always thought my humor was Jewish. I saw your film and realized that it was Mancunian."
Can you give an example?
When I walked out in a stadium to introduce New Order recently and got booed by 35,000 people who I know are all fond of me, that's Manchester. But as soon as I'm offstage, I'm immediately surrounded by people, and they're all shaking my hands and being lovely.
Tony, you'd have to be pretty thick-skinned to tolerate getting booed by 35,000 New Order fans!
[Chuckles.] One time Irvine Welsh came to town to do a book reading, and I was scheduled to interview him for a TV show. He was getting a rock star's attention from all the Trainspotting acclaim. I walked onstage to introduce him to the crowd at the Hacienda, and 2,000 people cheered. I said, "It's a great pleasure to have you here, Irvine." He goes, "Tony, I'd just like to say I love this club, man, and I love you. The things you've done for this town are fantastic." There was dead silence. I said, "I'm sorry, Irvine, we don't do that sentimental crap here. This is Manchester, and I'm a public wanker," and immediately 2,000 people go, "Wanker!"
God, it's ferally anti-sentimental, isn't it? I love the line that Steve Coogan told some reporter, that he was Manchester's second-biggest wanker playing the role of its first! Anyway, what's your biggest accomplishment in all the years in the music and television businesses?
My one talent is that I'm driven to hang out with people who are more clever than I am. My big accomplishment, and I admit that it's probably overreflected in the film, is the fact that my enthusiasm glued together this amazing dog pile of remarkable human beings.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.