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‘F*** the truth, it’s the legend that counts’

Chasing the dragon, screwing prostitutes in a van, and why Coldplay are ‘utter middle-class shite’: the life and times of the late, great Tony Wilson.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Tony Wilson, the music mogul of Manchester, died on Friday night, aged just 57. As a tribute to one of British culture’s more colourful and outspoken characters, spiked is republishing editor Brendan O’Neill’s interview with Wilson from March 2002. On the eve of the release of 24-Hour Party People – the loud and colourful epic feature film about Wilson’s life – O’Neill talked to Wilson about punk, prostitutes, acid and Joy Division, and why playing fast and loose with the facts is okay when it comes to rock’n’roll biopics. Wilson liked the published interview and said that, unlike some other publications, spiked had the nerve to ‘get my swearword count just right’. He will be sorely fucking missed.

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‘I was flattered, bemused, anxious. But mostly I was thinking, “Who the fuck’s gonna play me?”’

It isn’t every day you hear that somebody is making a sweeping, epic feature film of your life, and for Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Records, professional Mancunian, cultural commentator and self-confessed ‘pretentious git’, the news came as a bit of a shock. ‘I was saying, “What, like Boogie Nights with me as the Burt Reynolds character?”. And they were going, “Yeah, like Boogie Nights with you as the Burt Reynolds character”.’

The film, 24-Hour Party People, opens in British cinemas on 5 April 2002. Directed by Michael Winterbottom and written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, the team behind Welcome to Sarajevo and The Claim (1), the movie takes a drug-fuelled trip through the Manchester music scene from the dawn of punk in 1976 to the death of acid in 1992, and stars just about every northern celebrity under the age of 35: Ralf Little of BBC1’s The Royle Family, hairy comedian Dave Gorman, John Simm of BBC2’s The Lakes. And who’s playing Wilson? Steve Coogan – comedian, actor, Mancunian, ah-ha.

Why has the film made Wilson its big story? No offence, Tony, but when you have a crop of Mancunian rock legends to pick from, why put the record company boss centre stage? What about Ian Curtis, the jerky, robotic (and dead) frontman of Wilson’s first big signing, Joy Division? Or Shaun Ryder, the womanising, cocaine-snorting lead singer of Wilson’s other big find, the Happy Mondays? Or even Bernard Sumner of New Order, another of Wilson’s ‘Factory bands’: Sumner might not be as interesting as Curtis or Ryder but he is at least a rock star (well, of sorts). Instead, the film puts the behind-the-scenes guy in the frame and lets the other stuff happen around him.

And as a Manchester cab driver said to actor John Simm: ‘You’re telling me they’re making a fucking movie about that wanker Tony Wilson, and he’s the main part? Oh he’s going to fucking love that, isn’t he?’ (2)

‘I did think about all that’, says Wilson: ‘Why me? There are two great stories to be told: the story of Ian Curtis and the story of Shaun Ryder, and I wanted the movie to be about that. But the production guys said to me, “In order to stick all these different characters and stories together, do you think we could use the idea of a local independent record label as the central hub?” And I said, “Yeah, you could.” Then they said, “And would you mind if we called the boss of the record label Anthony Wilson?” And then I twigged. I’m in there as the person who ties the two periods – punk and acid – together.’

In this sense, the film couldn’t have been about anybody else. Not for nothing is Wilson known as Manchester’s ‘Mr Music’. In 1976, as presenter of So It Goes (Manchester’s answer to the BBC’s saccharine Top of the Pops), Wilson was one of the first to ‘bring punk to the masses’, as he puts it, showcasing groups and performers such as the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks and Iggy Pop. As founder of Factory Records in the late 1970s, he got post-punk off to a good start with the dark, fatal tones of Joy Division, who later became New Order after lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980. And as his Manchester nightclub the Hacienda took off in the 1980s, Wilson was a driving force behind acid’s ‘second summer of love’, as epitomised by the Happy Mondays. (Wilson didn’t always get it right, however: one of his greatest regrets is turning away a weird, skinny young man who approached him in the early 1980s saying he wanted to start a band. The young man’s name was Steven Patrick Morrissey.) Between 1976 and 1992, punk burnt out, Ian Curtis hanged himself after watching Werner Herzog’s Stroszek, and the Happy Mondays collapsed in spectacular style…but Wilson was the one constant throughout.

‘I suppose that’s true, but it still feels a bit weird, being the subject of a film and all’, says Wilson. ‘The way I see it, the more they tell the story of punk and acid, and the less they tell the story of me, the better the movie will be.’

So how well does the film tell the story of punk and acid? It seems like a tall order: to capture not just one ‘youth revolution’, but two; to cover everything from the anti-hippies of punk to the second-wave hippies of acid – not forgetting all that electronic stuff in between. And rock biopics and biographies are notorious for getting it wrong, at least in some people’s eyes (think of Johnny Rotten’s denunciation of the film Sid and Nancy as ‘a load of bollocks’, or everybody else’s denunciation of Albert Goldman’s studies of Elvis and John Lennon as lies, lies, lies). So has 24-Hour Party People got it right?

‘Oh no, it’s completely untrue’, says Wilson, with surprising aplomb. ‘It’s all lies. I never screwed two prostitutes in the back of a van, but that’s in there. Somebody else didn’t screw somebody else in that particular place, but that’s in there. There are drugs where there weren’t drugs and sex where there wasn’t sex. There are lots of untruths. But hey, what do you want? There’s that line about the choice between truth and legend – always pick the legend. And that’s what they’ve done.’

Wilson is right. Who wants to know the truth about rock stars? There are more than enough TV exposés and ‘shockographies’ telling us that our pop heroes weren’t as great as we thought they were. And ITV’s Popstars and Pop Idol showed that the ‘reality’ behind the rise to fame gets a bit boring after a while. But did Wilson ever feel obliged to correct any of the untruths?

‘There were some things that were a bit too much’, he says. ‘There was one scene of Shaun Ryder in a backroom shooting up. I was like, hello, no way, absolutely not. Shaun never ever shot up. He did chase the dragon. Everywhere. Including in the back of my car on the way to do fucking Juke Box Jury one mid-afternoon driving along Shaftesbury Avenue in London. But he only chased the dragon; he never shot up.’

Wilson even asked the producers to take out some of the ‘mounds of cocaine’ – not because it might be a bad influence on younger viewers, but in the interests of historical specificity. ‘In the original draft, everybody was doing lines of coke all the time. So I had to point out that if cocaine arrived at all in Manchester it wasn’t until the 1990s. It wasn’t really part of our lives, except for the odd occasion in New York where it’s obligatory. Also, like us or loathe us, we did inadvertently achieve lots of things, and much as one can enjoy drugs you can’t achieve a lot when you’re up to your eyeballs in coke. So I asked them to take some of the white stuff out.’


Wilson’s life and times

1950: Born in Hope Hospital, Salford, England.
1968: Studies English at Jesus College, Cambridge.
1976: Sees the Sex Pistols at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall, and describes the experience as ‘nothing short of an epiphany’.
1978: Founds Factory Records, whose signings include Joy Division, New Order and the Happy Mondays.
1980: Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division, commits suicide.
1982: Wilson sets up The Haçienda nightclub and live music venue in Manchester, where The Smiths, Oasis, Blur and many more performed. It also hosted Madonna’s first-ever UK gig in 1984.
1988: The Haçienda gives rise to the ‘Madchester’ scene. Its acid house club nights herald the rave era.
1992: Wilson sets up the annual In the City conference, the UK’s largest forum for finding new talent and discussing the future of the music industry.
1997: Following a drug-related death and some shootings, the Haçienda is forced to close.
2002: 24-hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom’s film of Wilson’s life, is released.
2007: Wilson dies aged 57 from a heart attack while undergoing treatment for kidney cancer.

But forget the film’s sex, drugs and more drugs storylines. There was one part of the script that Wilson took offence to, something that was ‘really horrible, really offensive, which I found very difficult’: ‘The way they overdid me as a cultured, educated, pretentious git.’

‘On every other page they had my character saying, “I went to Cambridge, you know”. I thought, hold on a fucking minute, I know they’re playing me as a pretentious git and I know everybody thinks I’m a pretentious git, but that’s going a bit too fucking far. Okay, when I’ve got my back against the wall, when I’m defending one of my bands, I do sometimes say, “Listen sunshine, I studied English at Cambridge, I’m a trained art critic, it’s the only fucking thing I know, and I’m telling you this is the greatest fucking band in the world”. But the script had me saying it every minute, so I rang up the producers and complained. But that bit actually stays in. Some things stay, some things go. I can be precious…but it’s their film.’

And it didn’t take Wilson long to realise that the film wouldn’t get very far if he flinched at his character’s every flaw: ‘The only way they could make sense of it all is by taking the piss out of me, and that’s fine. They say it’s affectionate, but I’m not sure it is. Who knows?’

The film might have more sex, drugs and pretension than existed in reality, but Wilson prefers this untruthful version of the truth. ‘There are lots of wrong facts, but that’s great. Because as soon as something’s wrong then no one is taking it as a documentary, or a rockumentary or whatever the fuck they call those things, and no one can be upset.’ And the important thing is that the film ‘captures a moment’: ‘There’s one scene with Jon the Postman [played by Dave Gorman], a Manchester character who used to jump on stage and sing Louie Louie after punk gigs, and the camera pans around the back of him and you see all these kids leaping up and down and fucking hanging and banging and beer flying out of their cans, and I thought, “Fuck, this is exactly how it was in 1976 and 1977”. And if they have captured in the Hacienda scenes the feeling of acid house, which apparently they have, then they will have caught a glimpse of two youth revolutions. Fuck the truth – it’s those moments that really count.’

This untruthful version of the truth does sound better than those films that try to tell the ‘reality, man’. But isn’t this just nostalgia? Isn’t this an attempt to make ourselves feel better about now by looking back to a time when there was some decent music in the charts and some edginess in yoof culture? In today’s nostalgia-ridden society, punk is positively ancient history, and even acid in the early 1990s is ready for a trip down memory lane (remember BBC2’s I Love the 1980s and I Love the 1990s nostalgia-fests? What’s next: I Love Last Week?). And my generation of twentysomethings is as guilty of nostalgia as the rest of them: I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard mates say, ‘We had real music in my day, the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays…’

Wilson denies that the film is ‘about the fucking past’. ‘It’s about the fucking future, man. The point is, we’re about to have another youth revolution, it’s right on our doorsteps, it will be along any minute now. So to have a film showing those other two moments, punk and acid, is not retrogressive, but might help point today’s kids to the future.’

Hold on. Another youth revolution on our doorsteps? This is where you have to understand Wilson’s ‘13-year-cycle theory’ – his belief that there will be a youth revolution every 13 years. So there was The Beatles in 1963, punk in 1976, acid in 1989 – meaning that our next youth revolution will be this year, 2002. I venture that there isn’t much evidence of a brimming youthful revolution – and Wilson agrees that today’s pop music is ‘total bollocks’. (Coldplay? ‘Utter middle-class shite.’ Craig David? ‘If I hear any UK garage or Craig David again I will fucking throw up.’ Robbie Williams? ‘They’re the dead generation, all of them.’) ‘But this is the calm before the storm’, he says.

‘It’s always like that before a youth revolution. The charts in 1974 and 1975, just before punk, were full of shite – as they were in 1986 and 1987 just before acid. I know; I’ve watched Top of the Pops in those periods and I’ve been afraid, very afraid. But the youth revolution comes along and strips all that shit away. And I’m telling you it happens every 13 years. This isn’t even a theory, it’s a fucking fact of life. 2002 will be the year.’

Let’s hope Wilson is right – otherwise we’ll have the ‘dead generations’ stalking the charts for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, all you fortysomething ex-punks, thirtysomething New Order fans and twentysomething ex-acid freaks: the chance to relive your youths, coming soon to a cinema near you.

This interview was first published on spiked on 26 March 2002.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Alex Hochuli commented on the wisdom of Noel Gallagher. Mick Hume questioned whether Live 8 was an effective political protest. Emily Hill asked what’s so good about Glastonbury? Or read more at spiked issue Music.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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