"It was curiously appropriate that on the day of Tony Wilson's death his beloved Manchester suffered an earthquake, rocking buildings, shaking doors and rattling windows," observes The Sunday Times. By common consent a lousy business operator, and so arrogant that he was hailed throughout the city as "Wilson, you twat", he remained the biggest single influence in Manchester's transformation from depressed "post-Cottonopolis" to a major modern city with its radical traditions intact.
Although lionised in the musical press, Wilson was never a household name in the south. But in the northwest he was ubiquitous first as a local television presenter and then as the music entrepreneur who put Madchester' on the map. His Factory Records label signed such iconic groups as Joy Division, New Order and the Happy Mondays and Wilson then founded its infamous spin-off, the Hacienda nightclub. Fans loved his "erratic flashes of wit and wisdom", says The Daily Telegraph, but detractors saw him as a "smug, preening and pretentious loudmouth". Wilson couldn't care less. "The more people reviled him, the more he purred with pleasure", never more so than when he was parodied by Steve Coogan in the semi-fictional 2002 film, 24 Hour Party People. "Wilson walked the line between his own highbrow preoccupations and those of the thousands of young working-class people who thronged his club and bought his records." Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, put his success down to his ability to approach everyone in the same way, "never dropping the intellectual stuff on the assumption that the plebs might not get it".
Wilson used to claim he'd always been in the right place at the right time, says The Guardian. Born in Salford to a family of jewellers, he was "in the school playground when the Beatles happened", reading English at Cambridge "when the revolution in drugs [and anarchic politics] happened", and in a successful TV career with Granada (he began as a news reporter) when the Sex Pistols played Manchester in 1976. He immediately booked them onto his music show. Two years later, he formally entered the music business, opening the Factory Club to showcase local talent; the label quickly followed. Wilson was ahead of his time in "taking pop culture seriously as a social and political force" and his label was like no other, with "a reckless anarcho-capitalist verve and an indifference towards profits that verged on performance art".
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In 1982, he opened Britain's first superclub, the Hacienda, in a former yacht sales room. Wittily designed, "it looked like something you found only in New York" and anticipated a bold new 21st-century Manchester, gaining international fame as a rave Mecca.
In later life, with a few defunct businesses under his belt (see box) and his ambition of reviving Manchester seemingly accomplished, Wilson began dabbling in politics again, with an "only slightly ironic call" for northwest self-government. To Liverpudlians' horror, he fancied himself "chairman of the north". That ambition was thwarted by kidney cancer and the heart attack that killed him last week at the age of 57. Mancunians are notoriously cynical, especially in the face of death, notes The Guardian. But the tributes were heartfelt. The greatest accolade came from the Manchester Evening News, which described him simply as "Mr Manchester".
"You either make money, or you make history"
For all his varied music interests a Napster-style website, a redevelopment company, a revived record label as well as his broadcasting work (which he never gave up) Wilson was famously naive with money, "having neither a head for figures nor any particular aspiration to serious wealth", says The Daily Telegraph. In 1983 New Order's Blue Monday became the top-selling 12-inch single of all time; yet Factory actually lost 2p on every copy sold because of its ruinously expensive sleeve design. Nine years later the label went bankrupt, with debts of £2m, because Wilson had signed such generous deals with his musicians. In 1997, The Hacienda imploded after being shut down by order of the police, and was converted into a block of flats. "You either make money,"' Wilson once shrugged with typical portentousness, "or you make history".
Yet, for all his lack of financial finesse, Wilson's peers considered him the ultimate visionary entrepreneur. Without him, Creation Records boss Alan McGee (who signed Oasis and Primal Scream) told the NME, "there would be no indie labels... he established the template". The story that Wilson signed contracts in his own blood may have been "tongue-in-cheek fabulism", says The Guardian. Even so, his guiding principle was startling enough: "artists owned everything and the company nothing". Factory became a haven for unknown artists making complex music that would not have found a home elsewhere. So few were surprised when it subsequently went bust. But the loss of this "bloody-minded" label, and now its founder, leaves the music industry a poorer place "a branch of the arts that worries mainly about returns on investment and has too little room for real creativity".
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