Download: Tony Wilson, 1950-2007
I wonder how Wilson felt about this ugly-ass movie-poster
1. Joy Division: "She's Lost Control" Preview/Buy from iTunes
Most of what I know about Tony Wilson, the famously motormouthed founder of Factory Records, comes from 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom's alternately great and infuriating Wilson biopic from a couple of years ago. The movie is really good at creating a character for Wilson; Steve Coogan plays him with a weird mix of self-deprecating con-man smarm and starry-eyed idealism. But I'm not as crazy about how the movie deals with the actual music; anyone going on the flim alone would have no idea what the big deal about the Happy Mondays is, say. But my favorite scene in the movie is a music scene. Wilson has just started Factory Records and hired Martin Hannett to produce Joy Division, and he's sitting there in the studio watching his money trickle away while Hannett gives the band all sorts of inscrutable directions: "faster but slower," that sort of thing. Then Wilson and the band drive around listening to the finished song and have a piddling argument about David Bowie. But in that scene, "She's Lost Control" sounds like an evil, slithering piece of devilry, all inscrutable menace and barely-contained venom. Wilson wasn't a musician, and the movie casts all his greatest moments as total accidents, products of entropy and confusion. But in putting Hannett together with Joy Division, Wilson is directly responsible for some truly forbidding, powerful music. "She's Lost Control" became my favorite Joy Division song pretty much immediately after I saw the movie; the bit where Peter Hook's seething surf-bass riff slides onto the soundtrack while nighttime Manchester unfolds outside the car windows has been tattooed on my brain ever since.
2. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: "Electricity" Preview/Buy from iTunes
Tony Wilson certainly wasn't a born label-exec; for its entire existence, Factory Records hemorrhaged money, and Wilson only kept it going with the money he made as a cheesed-out British TV host. It certainly could've been a lucrative enterprise if Wilson had been more business-minded; Factory put out plenty of big records. But he treated the label as more of an ongoing art-project than a for-profit concern; most of the Wilson obits that have come out in the past couple of days mention the legend that New Order's "Blue Monday" twelve-inch was so elaborately packaged that every unit sold actually lost money for Factory. Wilson never wrote up his contracts, only making handshake deals, and so Factory bands were always free to move onto bigger labels whenever they wanted. OMD, who would eventually create one of my favorite synthpop songs ever ("If You Leave" is so getting played at my wedding reception), passed through Factory really briefly, releasing one single on the label (their first) and then never working with Wilson again. Even from the beginning, Factory had a definite in-house aesthetic: desolate, minimal post-punk with lots of empty space and simple endless-repeat drum-tracks that picked up some of their throb from dub and disco. It's really intriguing hearing how OMD's glossy, swoony synthpop came out of that Factory aesthetic. "Electricity" is a fun, airy dance song, but it also carries with it plenty of echoes of Joy Division's bottomless thump.
3. Cabaret Voltaire: "Yashar" Preview/Buy from iTunes
Cabaret Voltaire had been a going concern for years before releasing this, their only Factory single. But "Yashar" didn't have much of the screeching proto-industrial clangor that the band had been known for. "Yashar" isn't exactly a pop record, but it definitely fits with the stuff Factory was doing at the time: an eerie fake-Middle Eastern synth-riff, a hollow drum-track, a creepy vocal sample repeated over and over. It's a mutant-disco song, more or less, and it totally could've been a missing link between Joy Division's dark throb and New Order bright ripple. I don't know how much credit Wilson is due for creating the Factory aesthetic, but that aesthetic certainly couldn't have been an accident. I wanted to include a song from A Certain Ratio on this playlist, but the only ACR tracks available on the iTunes store are a few tracks from the Live at Leigh Rock Festival 79 compilation, and they sound like total ass. When they were recording for Factory, ACR were a sometimes-great funked-up Joy Division ripoff. When they weren't, they were apparently muddy dogshit. Non-Factory bands suddenly sounded like Factory bands when they recorded for Factory, which is a pretty powerful testament to the strength of the label's in-house sound.
4. New Order: "Everything's Gone Green" Preview/Buy from iTunes
I can't imagine how the members of Joy Division decided that it would be a good idea to keep playing music together after their frontman hung himself or that they should gradually drift toward light, pretty dancepop, but I might actually like New Order better than Joy Division, so those decisions work for me. I especially love the stuff New Order was doing when it was still finding its legs, moving slowly from smudgy postpunk night into bright electro day. "Blue Monday" would be the obvious choice here, especially given its seismic importance, but nobody really needs to hear "Blue Monday" again, and "Everything's Gone Green" is just a perfect song, its chattering synths playing gorgeous counterpoint to Peter Hook's demonic bassline. Around the time New Order rose out of Joy Division's ashes, the latent disco and funk influences in a lot of Factory stuff evolved into really overt electro influences, which helped Factory stay relevant while postpunk burned itself out and acid-house sprang into life.
5. Quando Quango: "Love Tempo" Preview/Buy from iTunes
Embryonic rave-culture was really important to Factory and to Wilson; along with New Order, he opened Manchester's Hacienda nightclub, one of the first clubs to embrace and popularize acid-house. Still, Factory didn't release much that could accurately be called house music; this song, from Factory A&R guy Mike Pickering's early-80s dance project Quando Quango, is about as close as they ever got. "Love Tempo" probably sounds more like Tom Tom Club than anything else, but it's still a pretty fascinating example of what happened when guys from punk's arty first wave started fucking around with dance-music.
6. Miaow: "When It All Comes Down" Preview/Buy from iTunes
So this song is total twee British indie-pop jangle, and it has, like, ironic yodeling on the chorus. It should be horrifying, but it's not; it still totally sounds like a Factory records single. There's something about the echo on those drums and the chilly interplay of the instruments that marked just about every rock and dance record they put out and rendered it listenable. (Factory also released jazz and classical records pretty often, and most of them didn't exactly sound like Factory records, but I'm going to ignore those because I don't much like what little I've heard of them.)
7. Section 25: "Looking From a Hilltop" Preview/Buy from iTunes
Factory's the label's transition from postpunk to electro-pop took years and years, most of the label's existence, and it produced a whole lot of truly fascinating tracks like this one. "Looking From a Hilltop" is an icy and mysterious synthpop track not all that far removed from, say, Berlin's "The Metro," but it also has a reverbed-out sparse suppleness that places it directly along the same lineage as Joy Division, and not just because Bernard Sumner produced the song. One of the things I really like about this Wilson playlist is that it covers a whole lot of ground but also fits together beautifully when I listen to it straight through. Probably only Wilson knows whether that general sense of cohesion was an accident or whether it was a result of his grand and overarching vision.
8. Electronic: "Getting Away With It" Preview/Buy from iTunes
This song, from Sumner's side project with the Smiths' Johnny Marr and the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant, is as sugary and sunny a pop song as Wilson ever released; its string-section sweep borders on schmaltz. But even this sounds like a Factory track, mostly because of the icy reserve in Sumner's vocal. Every member of New Order released side-project records on Factory; Wilson trusted all of them enough to let them follow their divergent muses. If Steve Coogan's portrayal of Wilson in 24 Hour Party People was any indication, Wilson was perpetually in awe of the artists whose records he released; he gave his bands the room they needed.
9. The Durutti Column: "Otis" Preview/Buy from iTunes
The Durutti Column was pretty much a solo project for the guitarist Vini Reilly, who mostly recorded introspective, noodly instrumentals over ethereal synths. This was indulgent stuff, but Wilson released a ton of his records over the years, and every so often he ended up with something great. "Otis" is built on a ghostly sample of an Otis Redding vocal. Reilly subtly weaves elegant guitar-runs over a quiet pulsating synth while Otis's disembodied vocal floats in and out, and the end result is a weirdly and indefinably moving piece of music. Wilson released a lot of weirdly and indefinably moving pieces of music.
10. Happy Mondays: "Step On" Preview/Buy from iTunes
Wilson's tendencies to love and trust his bands really came back to bite him in the ass when Shaun Ryder came along. A notorious unreliable fuckup, Ryder almost singlehandedly bankrupted Factory when the Happy Mondays spent tons of Wilson's money and took years to record a follow-up to their breakthrough album. But Ryder was also responsible for songs like this, a deliriously joyous piece of utopian dance-rock nonsense. For his part, Wilson never seemed to feel bad about his patronage of Ryder. The Happy Mondays turned out to be the last of Wilson's artists to have any sort of cultural impact. After Factory went bankrupt, Wilson tried to relaunch the label a couple of times, never finding much success. Wilson kept on hosting British TV shows and championing unknown bands until he died on Friday of a heart attack, possibly the result of kidney cancer. He'd been fighting the cancer for years. He was only 57 when he died, and he obviously wasn't yet ready to go. There's no silver lining here.