Friday, October 29, 2021




The Factory Box Set (Rhino) 

The Word, February 2009 

by Simon Reynolds 

Not long before his untimely death, Anthony H. Wilson opined: "In the North-west it rains and it rains and yet we managed to produce the industrial revolution, the trade union movement, the Communist Manifesto and even the goddam computer. Down south, where the sun never sets, you took all our money and what did you produce? Chas and fucking Dave." 

It's a snappy little put-down, its well-executed formal structure of build-up and punch-line triggering a chuckle even from a Home Counties boy like myself. A second's scrutiny, of course, and the edifice of argument collapses in a cloud of brick dust. (Put aside the specious Manchester versus London music/culture comparisons… the remark isn't even meteorologically accurate). 

Just one of countless classic quips from A.H.W, the comment cuts to the essence of the man and the record label made in his image. Full of shit (80 percent of the time, anyway) but always stylishly so. Electronic's "Getting Away With It (All My Life)" --a song whose can't-be-arsed enervation enacts its title perfectly--really was Factory's national anthem. 

Let's get indisputable truth out of the way first: Joy Division, one of the greatest rock groups of all time, seals Factory's place in History. Furthermore, late Seventies Manchester, like other Northern cities of the era, roiled with so much postpunk talent that a fair amount plopped into Wilson's lap. I tend to see A Certain Ratio as more of a sketch towards a great idea than the fully realized thing, but their finest four moments--the drummerless "All Night Party", their emaciated version of funk obscurity "Shack Up", the dankly miasmic disco noir of "Flight" and "Knife Slits Water"--are all present on this four-disc box. Then there's Durutti Column, a vehicle for the spidery virtuosity of Viny Reilly, the most gifted guitarist Morrissey would ever work with and someone who could have had a long, productive career at ECM if he'd refrained from (occasionally) singing on his own records. 

But even during the postpunk wonder years Factory also housed such enduring legends as John Dowie (present here with "It's Hard To Be An Egg"), X-O-Dus (a decent-enough local reggae band whose "English Black Boys" is really only of historical-sociological interest), and Crispy Ambulance (bizarrely over-rated--by Factory cultists, anyway--but a classic instance of that label syndrome of signing up acts who sound like your most successful act but aren't one tenth as good.) One wonders too about the missed opportunity of that long gap where The Fall didn't have anybody prepared to put out their music (until London hippies Rough Trade scooped up Manchester's equal-first group of the era and released their most sustained stretch of recorded genius). 

There's likeable moments and compelling curios all across the Early Years of Disc One: pleasing power pop from The Distractions, Crawling Chaos's hysterically lewd "Sex Machine," and Section 25's "Girls Don’t Count," which grinds and pummels like the rockier first side of Closer. But overall, you can see exactly why it was that, at Factory's London showcase of 1980 at the Moonlight Club, Joy Division headlined every bleedin' night. 

Factory grew steadily out of step with the times in the early Eighties, when one half of postpunk crossed over into the mainstream as New Pop, while the other half turned into "indie". Failing to talent-spot The Smiths, the label instead issued a long grey streak of what could charitably be described as "late postpunk": Tunnel Vision, The Wake, Stockholm Monsters, Biting Tongues, Royal Family and the Poor. 

The few bright spots on Disc 2 and 3 stem from the label's unlikely infatuation with New York club culture: New Order, obviously, but also Quando Quango's gawky but boisterously percussive "Love Tempo" and the thrilling synth-shimmers of "Cool As Ice" by local black electrofunk outfit 52nd Street. Cabaret Voltaire, who cropped up first on this box with The Factory Sample's creepy "Baader Meinhof," reappear with a "Yashar" retooled by Manhattan mixologist John Robie. (Then again, they're another Northern band whose classic releases came out on a--spit--Southern label, Rough Trade once more.) 

By mid-decade the Factory aesthetic is all over the shop: Wilson's A&R ear fastening one minute on jazzy-souly-Latiny duffers like Swamp Children and Kalima (bands just made for a half-page featurette in The Face circa 1984), the next on shandy-weak C86 also-rans Miaow and Railway Children. To be fair, Wilson did shrewdly see seeds of some sort of greatness in two local oddities. James, in their early days far more intriguing than their later stadium-singalong incarnation, plied a semi-improvised folk-pop of delicate but diamond-hard purity, heard here with "Hymn From a Village." And Happy Mondays: "Freaky Dancing" and "24 Hour Party People" can hardly be said to prophesy rave, but their cack-handed lumpen-funk, midway between Can and Bohannon, does entrance. 

And then came Ecstasy and house music to fill up the hitherto deserted dancefloor of the Hacienda. While the Mondays built an audience for their hypno-grooves by peddling pills to the punters, Wilson peddled ideology: a distinctly slanted version of recent pop history in which Manchester invented rave culture (try telling that to the London deejays who holidayed in Ibiza in '86/'87, to the M25 orbital ravers and East End warehouse bods). Even dafter was the notion that "Ecstasy got the white man to dance" for the first time, a Factory party-line touted by everyone from New Order to Stone Roses in blithe disregard of discrepant precedents like jazz funk, Northern Soul, the mods, and trad jazz (whose beery middle class student fans had actually been the first to be slurred "ravers," by the Daily Mail, back in 1962). What the absurd claim really meant was that a certain coterie of grey, overcoat-clad Fac-heads had finally gotten on the good foot. 

Yet strangely the label didn't sign up any of Manchester's house music talent, like A Guy Called Gerald or 808 State. As a result, apart from the Happy Mondays tunes that make up a full third of its contents, the post-Ecstasy Factory of Disc Four is a dead zone: a once-great label puttering into insolvent oblivion with New Order side projects Revenge and The Other Two plus the band proper's desperately unmemorable "Fine Time" and cheesy chart-topper "World In Motion', the sub-EMF nothingness of Northside, a Cath Carroll remix… "Sadchester" is more like it. No doubt every ounce of the label's energy was being swallowed by the black hole of the increasingly troubled Hacienda. 

I've deliberately exaggerated my opinion here, just like A.H.W would do. But I do genuinely think it's a peculiar thing, this mystique surrounding Factory. You can't imagine anyone making a movie about Rough Trade or 4AD or Mute, labels whose respective bosses were never as colourful or charismatic or relentlessly quotable as Wilson for sure, but whose actual output outclasses the Facc lads over the long haul. 

Still, the sleeves always did look really, really nice.


reposted apropos of nothing, honest...

bonus Factoryism

24 Hour Party People

(director’s cut, Film Comment, summer 2002)

by Simon Reynolds

No British city has a greater sense of self-mystique than Manchester. Populous enough to swagger convincingly as a counter-capital to London, yet still eclipsed by the latter’s concentration of political, financical, and media power, Manchester has developed a retaliatory superiority complex: Northern suss and spirit versus those smug, effete "Southern wankers." Near the close of 24 Hour Party People--Michael Winterbottom’s lightly fictionalized movie about Factory, the legendary Manchester post-punk record label---TV presenter and Factory CEO Tony Wilson explains his motivations in terms of "civic pride". This peculiar provincial patriotism is the heart of the film, but like so much in Party People, it’s so thinly fleshed out it’s hard to see how someone not familiar with A/ the Factory story and B/ Britain’s class-inflected regional antagonisms, would even notice it.

Along with its damp climate and post-industrial grey decay (much improved since the 1976-92 period covered in Party People, thanks to urban regeneration funding), Manchester is justly reknowned for music: a series of epoch-defining bands, from Factory’s own Joy Division (and its successor band New Order) through The Smiths to Stone Roses, Happy Mondays (the other legendary Factory group), and Oasis. 24 Hour Party People’s cardinal flaw is its failure to convey what made Joy Division and Happy Mondays special, why they transcended local cult status and captured the national imagination.

Music qua music has always been a challenge for the rock movie, which is why they tend to stick to the ‘Behind The Music’ dirt ‘n’ drama of interband conflicts, mismanagement, drug abuse; the dream of fame-and-fortune achieved only for it to turn nightmare. Neither music’s germinal mysteries (jam sessions, the intracranial moment of inspiration) nor its raptures (the solitary listener’s bliss, the crowd’s collective fervor) lend themselves to narrative.

Nonetheless, for a good thirty minutes, Party People seems to have pulled it off. The reconstructions of the Sex Pistols 1976 performance at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall (attended by a scant 42 people, who became the kernel of the local punk scene) and of an early Joy Division show transmit the real rush of rock’n’roll history in the making. And the film seems to have struck an inspired balance between docudrama realism and postmodern self-reflexive wit. Wilson, played by the brilliant British comedian Steve Coogan, addresses the camera Alfie-style, narrating his own story and helpfully pointing out when things have been distorted or made up for extra mythic impact.

Almost immediately after Joy Division enter the picture, though, Party People begins to unravel. The group’s vocalist Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) was worshipped at the time as a seer who tapped into the currents of dread and anomie pervading post-punk Britain. In Party People, you get no real sense of this complicated, troubled figure. Approaching Wilson for the first time at a punk gig, Curtis greets him with the words "you’re a cunt". For no explicable reason, the movie leaves out what he said next, "’cause you haven’t put us on television": a reference to Wilson’s So It Goes, at that time the only TV show featuring punk bands. So instead of demonstrating Curtis’s ambition and hunger for stardom, the movie creates the impression of aimless, loutish aggression. Similarly, Curtis’s epilepsy (a latent trait he seems to have somehow harnessed for the convulsive trance-dance of his stage performance, only for it to get out of control) is not set up at all, and his suicide is botched, appearing as a seemingly impulsive act. In a typically pointless gesture of historical fidelity, we see Curtis watching Herzog’s Stroszek’s on TV a few hours before hanging himself---just about the only hint of Curtis’s true artiness. As a result of all this, when Wilson gazes at Curtis in the chapel of rest and declares "that’s the Che Guavera of rock there," the eulogy seems comically overstated and utterly unsubstantiated by what we’ve seen so far. Still, Curtis fares better than Joy Division’s other members, who aren’t even formally introduced by name.

As for the label's other two geniuses, Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis), the maverick producer who had so much to do with the eerie spartan Factory sound, comes across as little more than a foul-tempered drunk, while not a single shred of evidence is mustered to sustain Wilson’s repeated (and absurd) claim that Happy Mondays’s singer Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham) is the greatest poet since Yeats. What is actually depicted--sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rave’n’roll--makes the Mondays look more like a Mancunian Motley Crue.

Wilson hogs the screen, with much time devoted to an initially hilarious but steadily diminishing running joke about the trivial stories he’s obliged to cover on his TV show (midget zoo keepers, a duck who can round up sheep). Yet Wilson’s own complexity is sold short. Cambridge-educated Wilson was steeped in the renegade canon of anarcho-surrealist literature and politics, peppering Factory output with allusions to Lautreamont and naming his nightclub The Hacienda after a Situationist slogan. The movie gestures at Wilson’s underlying seriousness, but only in a mocking, borderline anti-intellectual way. Mostly he comes over as an odd mix of buffoon and visionary, a naif-with-integrity whose contracts (signed using his own blood) declared only that the bands retained ownership of their music and were free to leave whenever they pleased.

Party People jumps swiftly from Curtis’s 1980 death to the reign of Happy Mondays as house band at The Hacienda, during the 1988-91 "Madchester" period when the club was an Ecstasy-soaked mecca for ravers across the land. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Factory is how it survived for so long given the sporadic nature of Wilson’s A&R skills (he passed on The Smiths, for instance, and between JD and Mondays signed an awful lot of undistinguished bands—Kalima anyone?) and his lack of business acumen. New Order’s 1983 hit "Blue Monday" was the biggest selling 12 inch single of all time, but lost Factory a fortune because its lavish Peter Saville cover cost more than the label’s profit margins. When it comes to Factory’s eventual collapse (partly caused by Happy Mondays’s profligacy), the movie glosses over the real pain and humiliation this must have involved. Instead, we see Wilson closing down the Hacienda with a massive shindig and inviting the revellers to ransack the offices for computers and other strippable assets.

Like so many post-Trainspotting Brit-films—think especially of the ill-starred rave flick Human TrafficParty People is relentlessly lively, as if convinced that the youth market will not stand for stillness or sombreness (essential, surely, if you wish to convey a sense of Manchester’s Ballardian desolation in the 1970s, so crucial to Joy Division’s atmosphere). Characters are constantly shouting and swearing, and there’s barely a scene that doesn’t involve drink or drugs. On the plus side, the movie has plenty of gags, energetic hand-held camera work, and some striking set-pieces---like the scene where the teenage Shaun Ryder and brother poison three thousand pigeons on top of an apartment block. It’s quite possible, especially if you have absolutely nothing invested in the idea of Joy Division or the whole post-punk era, that you’ll find 24 Hour Party People highly entertaining---a feel-good movie about suicide, drug fuck-ups, and business failure, yay! Then again, to actually follow the film on even a basic narrative level, you’d need to know a lot about Factory already. Here is Party People’s paradox, its Achilles heel of "negative crossover": the movie is sure to irritate the only people truly equipped to watch it, while those with no real emotional connection to the subject will most likely be confused and leave the theater having gleaned little sense of what was at stake in Factory’s struggle.  

even more bonus Factory-ism 

CONTROL - Joy Division on film

director's cut, The New York Times, October 19 2007

by Simon Reynolds

 The mystique surrounding Joy Division has always been way out of proportion to their record sales. While other far bigger artists, such as The Clash, David Bowie or Pink Floyd, are still waiting to get a biopic, the postpunk cult from Manchester have two to their name. The first, 2002’s bright, hyper-active 24 Hour Party People couldn’t be further in mood from the lustrous monochrome and stillness of Anton Corbijn's new ControlParty People wasn’t entirely devoted to Joy Division (its focal character was Factory Record co-founder Anthony H. Wilson, the band’s patron and tireless champion). But it’s hard to imagine that movie getting made without the gravitas and international name recognition supplied by Joy Division.

 Crucial to the group's dark magnetism at the time and its abiding allure ever since is the charisma of doomed frontman Ian Curtis. This manifested itself in everything from the relatively small number of photographs (many taken by Corbijn himself) that have kept the singer's cool ageless in black-and-white, to Curtis's lyrics with their combination of unflowery directness and mysterious poetic depths. Like Morrissey (except without the latter’s Wildean wit), Curtis’s despair has a perennial appeal to sensitive teenagers confronting for the first time the possibility that life is meaningless. But to describe such a worldview as adolescent is condescending and misleading. After all, it could be that the stark perceptions granted during that emotionally raw-skinned period of our lives are actually correct, and that these insights only get blunted by the arrival of adult comforts and commitments.

Joy Division suits the big screen in part because of the narrative shape provided by Curtis’ suicide.  Rock biopic makers love an early death (that’s why there’s a film about Brian Jones, but not about the Stones). Well before his dramatic exit, Curtis was already being treated like a seer, a postpunk equivalent to Jim Morrison. The suicide transformed that charisma into a martyr-like aura. This idea of Curtis as a fallen savior was later played up in Corbijn’s 1988 video for the re-released single “Atmosphere,” where a procession of cowled, monk-like figures carry a gigantic placard depicting the singer--an out-size religious icon, essentially.

In some ways, Control  is Corbijn’s belated sequel to (or massively expanded remix of)  that black-and-white, Ingmar Bergman-esque promo. But a full-length movie can’t rely on the power of pure imagery the way a video can. Corbijn was always going to have to try to “explain” Joy Division. One obvious approach would be to situate their music as the product of a time and place. The place: Manchester, a declining industrial city in the Northwest of England, where annual rainfall rates are even worse than the rest of the country.  The time: the late Seventies, when Britain was gripped by a dreadful sense of malaise, with labour unrest, rising unemployment, and a resurgence of Far Right militancy on the streets. Yet the band’s impact all over the world and across subsequent decades shows the limits of that approach. Joy Division’s songs were never topical in any crude sociopolitical sense and a history lesson is no more required to understand “Shadowplay” or “Disorder” than an understanding of 11th Century Scottish politics is necessary to be gripped by Macbeth.

While unstinting in its attention to period detail, Control barely references what’s going on in late Seventies Britain. Instead, Corbijn opts for a different but in its own way equally reductive perspective: biography. The "truth" of Joy Division’s songs is presented as Ian Curtis’ increasingly out-of-control life: the disintegration of his marriage shortly after the birth of his daughter, accelerated by his affair with a glamorous Belgian journalist, and the conflicting pressures of impending fame versus a rapidly deteriorating epilepsy condition.

Curtis’s woes makes for a gripping story, but as a prism for understanding Joy Division the approach has its limits. The singer’s lyrics are rarely straightforwardly depictions of an individuals’ life. Crucially, they are existential rather than autobiographical. Curtis stripped away the concrete, everyday details that a more observational songwriter would use to impart a sense of lived reality. Sourced in his private hell as they often are (especially on the posthumously released second album Closer), there’s an element of depersonalization. The singer inhabits these songs as a sort of EverySelf confronted by the big dilemmas and impasses of the human condition, the conflicts and quandaries of trust, doubt, betrayal, dread, claustrophobia, futility. Ordinary life achieves an epic grandeur (hence its perennial fit with the wounded narcissism of adolescence). But there’s no bombast or emotional theatrics, but rather a modernist starkness as pared down as a Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter play. “Existential” is the right word, because the canon of existentialist literature (Kafka, Conrad, Camus, Dostoevsky) was massively influential on postpunk bands like Joy Division and their equally angst-wracked contemporaries Josef K and Magazine.  (It was a hyper-literate time when singers went around with Penguin Modern Classics poking out of the pocket of their long black overcoats).  Curtis’s words are all the more effective through being framed by music that had the hard-rocking power of The Stooges but was too repressed to actually rock out. This inhibited, at times disjointed quality, which owed a lot to Steve Morris’s inventive circular drumming patterns, enhanced the group’s aura of modernist severity. It also aligned them with Mittel Europa and the decidedly un-American electronic rock of Kraftwerk. By Closer they were dabbling with synthesizers, a penchant that would blossom in New Order.

 The other problem with situating Joy Division’s meaning in the specifics of Curtis’s life is that during the group’s lifetime, hardly any of this was public knowledge. Virtually nobody outside the Factory Records milieu was aware of Curtis’ marital problems and few knew that he suffered from epilepsy. It’s really only since the 1995 publication of Touching From A Distance, the memoir by his widow Deborah Curtis on which Control is largely based, that the truth has become more widely known. The foundations of the group’s enduring cult were laid during a 15 year period in which Curtis truly was an enigma, a mystery man whose reasons for departing this mortal coil remained cloudy.

 Facts, once learned, are hard to dislodge from your mind, though, and as soon as you’re acquainted with the back story, Curtis’s suicide seems logical, even over-determined. Yet there’s one key factor mentioned in Touching From A Distance that Control chooses to ignore: Curtis’s romantic fascination with rock stars who died young, their legend inviolate from the ravages of artistic decline and physical decay.  As Deborah Curtis wrote, “[Ian]  told me that he had no intention of living beyond his early twenties.”

This apparent death-wish suggests that amid the depression and confusion, there was an aesthetic component to his fatal decision. Much is made of the supposed paradox that Joy Division were ordinary, unassuming lower middle class lads who liked a beer and a laugh. But just a glance at just their song titles, let alone full immersion in their music, shows they were also aesthetes who looked to art as an escape from and triumph over the soul-crushing dreariness of real life.  From his teenage infatuation with glam rock (evoked with vivid economy in Control) through his love of modernist literature to the attention he and his band-mates paid to the records’ cover design, Curtis clearly appreciated the power of gesture. Effectively terminating the band along with himself (they’d vowed to drop the name Joy Division if any member quit), Curtis’s suicide ensured that the group’s body of work would be compact and near-immaculate.

 Right from the start, Curtis was driven by a fierce ambition to become precisely the kind of edge-walking rock shaman/savior that he ended his life as. The manner of the ending sealed the deal, giving Joy Division’s music an appalling gravity and--for better or worse--an undeniable authenticity.   Because the suicide preceded the release of both Closer and the group’s most famous single “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” it determined their reception and their resonance. It could be that Curtis planned it that way. He played a major role in choosing Closer’s cover, a photograph of a sculpture tableau in a Genoa cemetery of the dead Christ surrounded by mourners. And he had already made one attempt at killing himself a few months before recording Closer.

Myth is what rock music is all about, despite the attrition of facts and over-exposure wrought by historians and gossipers alike.  It’s at this mythopoeic level that Control succeeds. Corbijn made his name as a rock photographer with the pictures he took of Joy Division. With this tone poem of a movie, he continues what he started in those photographs: the creation of a visual language that uncannily paralleled what Joy Division did with sound, which was to assimilate the desolation of their surroundings and  dislocation of their era while simultaneously aestheticizing it, transfiguring it into somber glamour.  The barren beauty of that landscape of sound was an exteriorization of how lots of people felt inside at that late Seventies moment--the dawn of the Thatcher-Reagan era, a freshly frigid Cold War with renewed anxiety about armageddon. But tension and dread are far more the norm than they are the exception, which explains the time-defying and endlessly renewing appeal of Joy Division's records.

While there’s plenty of their music in Control, the way it bursts out of the subdued near-silence of the rest of the movie makes it seem like a force of nature, rather than a product of human effort. Control  keeps the music shrouded in mystery. The storyline leaps straight from the band’s decision to form to the group waiting nervously to go onstage for the first time. We don’t see how the group gradually arrived at their sound (a painfully slow emergence from the coarse chrysalis of the punky-sounding Warsaw). We don’t learn anything about how Steve Morris came up with those unique gyrating drum patterns, or the genesis of Peter Hook’s unorthodox bass-as-lead-melodic-instrument style, or where the implosive violence of Bernard Sumner’s guitar playing originated. Martin Hannett, the producer who played a huge role in shaping the uncanny spatiality of Joy Division’s recordings, makes only the briefest appearance.

This isn’t unusual for rock biopics, which invariably focus on  the things that music brings--drug problems, bad management, love entanglements, fame going to the artist’s head-- while avoiding music-making itself. And maybe that’s understandable, given that the nitty-gritty of band life is either uncinematic (the mundane graft of rehearsals, jamming out songs, recording sessions, tour buses, soundchecks, etc) or unfilmable (the flash of inspiration inside the songwriter’s head). Control is in some ways better for avoiding the demystifying hum drum of workaday musical practice, although it did make me wonder why there's never been a rock equivalent to Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh’s film about Gilbert and Sullivan and the D’Oyly Carte, a movie that shows the craft and collegiality of collective musical creativity.  (The closest I could think of was the Southern hip hop movie Hustle and Flow, where we actually get to see the group write a crunk track, albeit with implausible ease and swiftness). But in addition to scanting on Joy Division as musicians, Control  imparts little sense of the music’s impact outside the Factory circle, the way that by early 1980 the group had assumed a hallowed, central role in postpunk culture. 

 Fair enough, perhaps, given that Corbijn has pointedly stressed that this is a film about Ian Curtis, not Joy Division. Still, it seems off-balance if only because of the enormity of music in Curtis's life.  And ultimately it's the music that keeps any of us still enthralled, nearly three decades on.  There is a sense in which music and cinema can never coexist happily because they represent realms of sensory experience that are in competition. It’s telling that Joy Division were about sound (this was rock at its hardest, but without any of metal’s macho bombast) and vision (Curtis’ unflinching lyrics), but not so much about visuals. Photographs of the band appeared on none of their releases, a conscious choice (a bid for timelessness) made by the band as much as by Factory designer Peter Saville. So perhaps the ultimate Joy Division movie will always be the one playing over your closed eyelids when you listen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was watching the South Bank Show special on The Smiths, last night.

This special was, as you'll be aware, broadcast around the time of their split in 1987. Aside from confirming that, at one point, Morrissey did seem like a nice enough young man, it was interesting to learn that Johnny Marr had no truck with punk rock
(he was too young and too musicianly). He also mentioned how determined The Smiths were NOT to sign to Factory, eager to forge an identity away from the Manchester scene.

The Stone Roses always had a similar civil distance view of Factory/The Hacienda - It wouldn't have worked, anyway.
Factory was a modernist label, The Smiths and The Roses were classicist.

There also seems to have been a perception of Factory, for all it's achievements, as too cliquish. Not just among local bands, either. When The Hacienda first opened in 1982, the greater number of Mancunians seemed indifferent to the place.