Factory: Manchester From Joy Division To The Happy Mondays, BBC4

by | Sep 21, 2007 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

An elegant, elegiac, if impromptu, tribute to the late (An)T(h)ony (H) Wilson but suffered slightly because such a monumental tidal wave of music originated from such a small cultural ripple, which has been probed from every angle many times before.

What was good about it?

• Inevitably much of the music was divine. The notorious Blue Monday was an obvious entry point for those not versed in the celestial works of Factory’s best bands – but it was followed by obscurities that are nevertheless some of the best songs ever recorded: Heart And Soul, She’s Lost Control, Digital, The Eternal, WFL, Sunrise, Hallelujah, Truth and Atmosphere. But it wouldn’t be Factory without something shoddy to sit next to the sublime, and so we also heard some aimless noodling from A Certain Ratio, and a hugely inferior version of Joy Division’s Transmission.

• And it was this version of Transmission that gave credibility to Paul Morley’s assertion that in the hands of unhinged producer Martin Hannett, Joy Division were treated as “a boy band” as Hannett gave them “a sound”. A “sound” that they initially hated as it extricated them from their dreary punk roots.

• Bassist Peter Hook noted that it didn’t matter how long a band had been together, once in the studio with Hannet he “would soon have them at each other’s throats in two days”. It was also revealed Hannett antagonised drummers the most as he thought they would hit harder, thus sounding better.

• The sage words of Manchester chronicler Paul Morley, whose undying devotion to Joy Division wasn’t dimmed even after Ian Curtis threatened to kill him in an argument over the running order in a local battle of the bands. But reassuringly, even the peerless eloquence of Morley became mired in nebulous, intractable, strained descriptions of Manchester that Joy Division could capture within a verse of the manic industrialism of Shadowplay or Interzone – “The street lights didn’t make things lighter [in Manchester],” observed Morley, “they made things darker.”

• The very worst excesses of glamrock were held up for mockery as the catalyst that inspired punk (along with prog rock). It is also curiously anachronistic, and rather quaint, that the gig attended by almost everyone who became someone in late 70s Manchester (even Mick Hucknall) wasn’t captured on film, camera or phone and posted on YouTube. A few grainy pictures of Johnny Rotten snarling (what else?) were shown, and it’s not even clear if they were taken at the Free Trade Hall. It didn’t matter, though.

• Even from beyond the grave Tony Wilson remains as defiantly waspish as ever. Congratulating himself for the number of bands he put on TV, he also lambasted the “538 bands I didn’t put on TV – and I was right about every single one of them. Boomtown Rats – f**k off!”

• We know it’s a trite comparison, but the inspiration that punk gave to downtrodden youth around the country stands as infinitely favourable to the vile X-Factor. New Order singer Bernard Sumner said of punk: “Three chords – crap singer – that’s a band!” That philosophy has pretty much kept much of British music afloat in the past 30 years while X-Factor has made Simon Cowell rich and distilled teenage dreams of making wondrous music into a three-album deal with BMG (who have the option to cancel after one album of cover versions). The hope is that X-Factor, along with the pop-up advert malcontent of The Enemy, the disgraceful collusion of the NME and the style-is-music narcissism of Razorlight will act as similar inspiration this generation.

• Fresh examples of the haphazard credo of Factory, such as Peter Saville’s iconic sleeve design for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures for which the title and band name were omitted to set “the product apart from the process of industry”. And Tony Wilson’s ‘situationist’ notion that to give a Durrutti Column album a sleeve made of sandpaper so it would degrade the albums placed next to it on the shelf. “Bollocks!” observed New Order drummer Stephen Morris. Bernard Sumner claimed: “Factory only got into trouble when it came into contact with the real world.”

• Members of New Order putting more flesh on the bones of the Hacienda fiasco, during which time they, sometimes unwittingly, pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds into keeping the dysfunctional nightclub open. Peter Hook recalled how he was so poor he even had to work on the door of a club he owned and by the mid-80s his band had funded to the tune of about £600,000. Paul Morley called it “the punk equivalent of the Millennium Dome”.

• Tony Wilson fixing a battle of the bands contest in favour of the originally last-placed Happy Mondays puts into context the crushing irrelevance of someone losing their job because they didn’t name a Blue Peter cat in accordance with the democratic wishes of the viewers. Sometimes idiots need to be protected from the consequences of their own stupidity and naivety.

• Although the documentary itself wasn’t averse to that abhorrent trend in TV of massaging history to fit in with the narrative. “1988 – the second summer of love. The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses ruled the world!” No they didn’t. The Roses were regarded as pretty much of a rambling bunch of chancers right up to the release of their first album in 1989, while the Mondays didn’t hit the big time until Step On the following year.

• Shaun Ryder not sounding like a drug-addled carcass when doing a hilarious impression of a posh London record executive.

What was bad about it?

• Any TV documentary about Joy Division will always be crippled by the paucity of TV footage of the band. A few appearances on Tony Wilson’s music shows, the Love Will Tear Us Apart video and the posthumous Atmosphere video are all the visual moving evidence the band existed at all. And even the Atmosphere video had to play a similar trick to this documentary of using black and white photographs of Ian Curtis looking miserable to offer a visual accompaniment/ unnecessary distraction to convey the beauty of the songs.

• Bernard Sumner is starting to metamorphose into Sir Alex Ferguson given the deepening crimson shade of his nose and cheeks.

• While they would be heinous omissions, too many of the classic Factory anecdotes that exemplify their bloody-minded genius and their equally crass incompetence have already been detailed to death – the mess over the sleeve for Joy Division’s Closer (released shortly after Curtis’s suicide) depicting Jesus Christ being mourned in his tomb; another sleeve farce with Blue Monday losing money on every copy sold (and it shifted a couple of million) because of Saville’s elaborate design; and the bewildering stupidity of sending the heroin-happy Happy Mondays to Barbados “crack central” where they wrecked hire cars, gave away studio equipment and ultimately broke Factory.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles

21/09/2007

Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!

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