Factory flaw: hunt for stolen 1977 sign that put Manchester on pop music map

The very first Factory club night was advertised with this poster. Now its designer wants it back to complete a major archive

The hunt is on to locate an object that truly qualifies as “a sign of the times”. In 1977, the first Factory club night in Manchester was advertised with a poster using the now-famous symbol of a health and safety warning, urging workers to protect their ears from loud noise. But the original sign used in the artwork is missing.

The acclaimed designer Peter Saville was a young student at Manchester Polytechnic when Tony Wilson, the TV presenter and promoter behind the city’s burgeoning music scene, asked him to create an advert for the event. Luckily, inspiration was near at hand.

“There was a yellow, laminated, stick-on sign on the wall at the poly, something I’d been looking at every day,” said Saville this weekend.

“I had a romantic view of Britain’s industrial past, afforded to me by my comfortable, middle-class upbringing in leafy Hale, so I felt it had a certain ironic beauty and would suit the name Factory. I took it down one night to trace it for the poster.”

Public Image Ltd played at Factory’s club.
Public Image Ltd played at Factory’s club. Photograph: Duncan Bryceland/Shutterstock

The club, a precursor to the Hacienda nightclub, a regular spot for Joy Division and the venue for an early Public Image Ltd gig, was the birthplace of a celebrated moment in British music. As a result, the poster later appeared in a show at Manchester’s gallery and art venue Cornerhouse, now Home.

“I lent it to the exhibition back in the 1990s as a kind of ‘patient zero’ gesture,” recalls Saville. “Unfortunately, someone took it off the wall, as I had done, and I was sad I didn’t get it back. Now, over 40 years later, I feel it belongs in the British Pop Archive at John Ryland’s Research Institute in Manchester, so if anyone comes forward, that’s where it should go.”

The story came to light as author Andy Spinoza researched his new book, Manchester Unspun: Pop, Property and Power in the Original Modern City, published by Manchester University Press next month. Spinoza, a co-curator of the Cornerhouse exhibition, points out that ephemera from that era is now valuable. Fac 1, the poster, was the starting point of a sprawling catalogue of Fac artefacts that now runs to more than 500 records, books and images.

“That poster set the course for the entire Factory aesthetic,” Spinoza said this weekend. “It would be nice to think that whoever took what many fans see as a holy relic was an ardent admirer of the label. Hopefully they can now help complete an archive with perhaps the most personally meaningful item of Peter Saville’s entire design career.”

The pop archive is curated by Professor Jon Savage, a veteran of the era, who holds out some hope that the inspirational sign will be recovered.

“The story of British pop music is incredibly important because it is a fantastic gateway to understanding our social history,” he said.

“Our archive, which includes Ian Curtis lyrics and Tony Wilson’s archive, is open to the public. We opened last May and began with Factory. I moved to Manchester in 1979 because Tony, who was working at Granada TV, wanted a journalist on the ground to cover his bands, chiefly Joy Division. It was a depressed, post-industrial area at the time, and Joy Division seemed to me a great response to that.

“The club nights were not always full, and the venue, which smelled of burgers, only held around 250 people anyway. It is extraordinary that we are still talking about that moment now. I would never have believed it then.”


Vanessa Thorpe Arts and Media Correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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