Tony Wilson: It was the best party... ever

As a new film celebrates the cultural chaos of post-punk Manchester, Tony Wilson, the man behind Joy Division, recalls the music, the drugs and the madness - and admits that sometimes it's better to film the legend than the truth.

We are walking through the centre of Tony Wilson's beloved Manchester, and he is talking a mile a minute about how the north should house a version of the Bilbao Guggenheim, and how the building we have just passed was described as 'the greatest example of early-twentieth-century civic architecture' by A.J.P. Taylor, and how he once insisted on being called 'Anthony' to 'wind up all the people in Manchester who think I'm a flash twat', and how happy he is that the Hacienda, the club he owned that helped put the city on the late-twentieth-century pop-cultural map, is being torn down because 'nostalgia is crap', and, besides, they're building flats which will make Manchester one of the first 'truly lived in cities of the new millennium', and on and on, his long ragged ribbon of words flapping in the wind like his extensive trousers.

I'm trailing in his wake, not getting a word in edgeways, and marvelling that age has not mellowed him, nor the city's endless supply of 'cheap, abundant drugs' (a phrase he uses more than once) addled him, when he lets slip a snippet of information that speaks volumes about Tony Wilson's unique, and complex, standing in pop culture.

It concerns the forthcoming release of 24 Hour Party People, a sprawling, wilfully rough-hewn film by Michael Winterbottom about Manchester pop between 1976 and 1992 - a film that posits Tony Wilson, rather than Ian Curtis of Joy Division or Shaun Ryder of Happy Mondays, or Morrissey of The Smiths, as the single most pivotal figure in the city's emergence in the Nineties as a global pop capital.

'They're talking about a flyposter campaign,' Wilson announces, pointing at a multi-stickered lamppost we just happen to be passing, 'loads of small ones plastered all over the city. One shows Ian Curtis's face and says ARTIST! underneath, one shows Shaun Ryder's face and says POET!, and the third shows my face. Guess what it says underneath?' This is, of course, a trick question, but the answer pops out of my mouth before my brain can stop it. 'PRAT?' I venture, only half-jokingly.

He looks at me in mock astonishment. 'How did you guess?' he says, eyes wide, arms outstretched like a crucified messiah. Luckily, he doesn't wait for an answer. 'I mean, Jesus! That's a bit unfair, is it not?' I nod. It is. A bit. Then again, he only has himself to blame.

Part visionary, part entrepreneur, part idealist, part hustler, Tony Wilson is that rare thing in pop culture: someone who has attained semi-mythic status without shedding his reputation for utter pratdom. As one of his former accomplices put it, 'part of Wilson's charm is that he is the biggest, most pretentious, fuckin' full-on prat you'll ever meet'. And this from someone who likes him.

In a city as insular and unforgiving as Manchester, this unbridled pretentiousness is a cardinal sin; it makes him someone who seems too clever, too loud, too flash to be truly likable, never mind trustworthy; one of those people that everyone loves to hate. And, one of those people who thrives on that very fact. 'Maybe the worst thing is not caring what people think,' he says of himself at one point. 'That came from my mother. She was the biggest influence on my life. I remember once refusing to get on a bus with her because she was wearing a mink, and I thought we should be taking a taxi. She just said, "Who cares what people think?" and I remember sitting on that bus, being utterly embarrassed, but knowing somehow that she was totally correct.'

Back in the early Nineties, when the Hacienda nightclub was in its heyday, I worked with Wilson as a researcher on one of his many short-lived late-night TV shows for Granada. What I remember most was not the lunatic turnover of ideas - like all visionaries, he is impossibly impatient, and has the shortest attention span - but the shouts of 'Wilson, you're a c**t!', whenever we ventured onto the city streets. I remember, too, Wilson's mantra: 'As long as they're shouting, I'm doing my job right.' He was, and remains, a man on a mission, and that mission still seems to have as much to do with Tony Wilson as with Manchester or music.

In Michael Winterbottom's messy, uneven, and, in places, pointlessly fabricated film, Steve Coogan, plays Wilson à la Alan Partridge. In the process, he exaggerates both Wilson's prattishness and his vision. The prattishness is perhaps understandable: he is, after all, playing a man who, legend has it, once tried to instil some degree of temperance into Happy Mondays' ecstasy-fuelled idiot savant, Bez, by quoting chunks of Proust and Aquinas at him. ('Fook off, Tony,' was the not unsurprising response.)

The vision is perhaps unavoidable, given that 24 Hour Party People is an exercise in the creation of an already monstrous myth - the myth of Manchester and of Tony Wilson - and the simultaneous deconstruction of that same myth. That the film succeeds in doing neither, to a degree, in places, that borders on the offensive - the handling of Ian Curtis's suicide seems almost wilfully tasteless - is down to Winterbottom, but there is a degree of collusion on Wilson's part that is both intriguing and slightly off-putting.

'I can see that, for the film to succeed, they had to take the piss out of me on every page,' Wilson says, when I press him on this over lunch in one of the city's many trendy diners - which, as he points out, all sprang up in the wake of Dry, his early Nineties designer bar, 'But, my deal is, "do what you want". My public image is none of my business.'

Were you not, I persevere, embarrassed by the degree of prat tishness that Coogan bestows on you?

He actually pauses to think about this, which, in my experience of Tony Wilson, is a first.

'Well, yes and no. It was embarrassing and it was flattering. Initially, I tried to convince Frank [Cotterell-Boyce, the scriptwriter] and Andrew [Eaton, the producer] to make Ian [Curtis] the focus, but then I heard Coogan was turning up at script meetings and I thought, he wants a vehicle.'

The head is thrown back in nervous laughter, then, in typically Wilsonian manner, he adds, 'That said, Coogan's pieces to camera are my favourite things about the movie. He gets me, the way I walk and talk, the phrases, the pretentiousness. What he doesn't get is that, underneath, I'm basically a nice ordinary Salford Catholic boy who was surrounded by this maelstrom of madness. That's the real story of my life. I had the virtue of wanting to hang out with people who were more talented than me. I can't write songs, I can't perform, I can't design clubs, but I was an enthusiast. My gift was that I said yes to everybody.'

Wilson, whose parents, like Margaret Thatcher's, were shopkeepers, grew up in Salford, and attended De La Salle Christian Brothers' school. 'He was smart and well-liked - a typical, well-behaved, middle-class boy, in fact,' remembers a fellow pupil, the photographer Kevin Cummins, who adds wryly: 'Little did we know.'

After attending Cambridge, Wilson worked as a producer, then a presenter, for Granada, where he often fronted World in Action and the local news round-up, Granada Reports. 'He was not your typical presenter,' remembers Cummins, 'He would do things like slag Liverpool FC off in the news, and immediately alienate half his audience. He once appeared wearing a Bruce Springsteen T-shirt over his shirt and tie, saying "I have seen the future of rock'n'roll". Being cool was never an issue for Tony.' He was, though, an enthusiast, as he says, and convinced Granada to give him a late-night, arts-based show called So It Goes in 1975. On the look-out for new talent, he went to the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 4 June 1976 to see a London group who called themselves The Sex Pistols. He was one of 42 people in an audience that also included Peter Shelley and Howard Trafford, soon to become Howard Devoto, who would immediately form the Buzzcocks, as well as Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, who would later form Joy Division. (Also present was Mick Hucknall who, inexplicably, as if punk never happened, would later form Simply Red.)

'It was,' says Wilson now, 'nothing short of an epiphany.' He immediately booked The Pistols on the last show of So It Goes. The second series, which ran the following autumn, and was also shown in London, became the only place on British television where you could see this strange new music. 'The twats at BBC Music just didn't get it,' he chirrups, still savouring this small, but important, victory over his rivals.

Since then, one feels, Wilson has trusted his instinct. Punk came and went in a blur of anger and passion that was unsustainable, but its legacy was far-reaching. Its do-it-yourself ethos begat Factory Records, which Wilson and his partner, Alan Erasmus, launched with the last of Wilson's savings. And Factory Records begat Joy Division, Wilson's second great epiphany. 'Punk was Stalinist,' he elaborates, his arms waving wildly in emphasis, heads turning in the restaurant, 'It tore away the dross but all it could say was, "fuck you!". Joy Division came along and said something much more dark and complex. They said, "we are lost".'

Joy Division only recorded two albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, and a handful of singles, but they remain the most mysterious, and most mythic of all Mancunian pop groups. At the heart of the myth is the death of Ian Curtis, the disturbingly mesmeric lead singer, who killed himself in May 1980. In the film, though, what is disturbing are the scenes that follow his death: the gratuitous, lingering shots of Curtis in a coffin; the grotesque conceit of having his death announced by a town cryer; the suggestion that Wilson brought a journalist into the morgue to view Curtis's corpse.

'Look,' says Wilson, shaking his head, 'It's like when I sat down to write the book of the film. I had problems with every single scene. What do I do - tell the truth, or go for the myth? It's a big formal problem. But, this is a film, so my instinct was go with the myth every time.'

Does he have any reservations about the film?

'None... OK, loads. I mean, give me a break! It's all true, it's all not true. It's not a fucking documentary. My partner doesn't like the scene where I get off with the prostitutes in the back of a van, but that never actually happened. My first wife's been trying to sue them for a year. My second wife, Lindsay, is pissed off. Shaun Ryder's narked 'cos nobody's paid him for the title. I mean, certain people are upset by it but, you know, that's hardly surprising.'

The film does manage to capture what Factory's designer, Peter Saville, once called 'the aimless serendipity' of the organisation. Formed by Wilson, Saville, Erasmus, New Order manager Rob Gretton, and the late maverick producer Martin Hannett as, in Wilson's words, 'a new kind of creative partnership', Factory was, like its main mouthpiece, a mass of contradictions. Its attitude to the artist-company relationship is encapsulated in a key scene in the film in which a major record-label boss attempts to buy the label's back catalogue, only to find that Wilson's contract with New Order consists of one sentence promising them total artistic freedom. It is scrawled in his own blood on a paper napkin.

The truth is less dramatic, but almost as cavalier. 'The deal was 50-50, but we didn't own the publishing,' says Wilson, 'Mad! It was the greatest deal any band ever had. Everyone says we were idiots, and in a way, I guess, we were. We had a heroic attitude to artistic freedom, and we thought normal contracts were a bit vulgar - somehow not punk. But that was the whole point - we weren't a regular record label.'

Did he ever sign anything in his own blood?

'Yeah, the budget for Unknown Pleasures. It was the sort of thing you had to do back then.'

In many ways, then, Factory was a success despite itself. Take the example of 'Blue Monday' by New Order, which remains the biggest-selling 12-inch single of all time. Unbelievably, it cost Factory Records two pence every time someone bought a copy.

'That's the perfect metaphor for the whole operation,' Wilson grins, 'We thought, it's in this new 12-inch format, it's not going to sell, so it may as well look good. It was an utterly contemporary and utterly timeless piece of design, and it was hideously expensive because excellence always is. It looked so good, it actually cost us money to sell it. Which is fine when you're talking a couple of hundred copies, but a bit of a problem when you hit 100,000.'

Nevertheless, buoyed by New Order's success, Factory made it through the late Eighties, expanding, via the the opening of the Hacienda, various offices, and the launch of the Dry bar, into a multimedia operation. The coming of acid house and ecstasy culture in the early Nineties saw the Hacienda transformed into a temple of dance music and hedonism. Again, Factory caught the tenor of the times, signing local band Happy Mondays, whose Day-Glo hooligan swagger said as much about post-Thatcher Britain as Joy Division's intense, brooding sound had said about the late Seventies. Then, suddenly, things went awry.

'For Factory to go down,' Wilson says now, 'everything had to fall apart'. And that is exactly what happened. The first sign of the impending chaos was the death of Claire Leighton, a 16-year-old from Cannock, who, as Wilson puts it, 'bought an ecstasy tablet in Stockport, took it on the A40, but died in our club'. The venue survived the moral outrage that attended this, the first ecstasy death but then the club became a focus for drug dealers from rival gangs carrying out a bloody and fitful feud in Moss Side and beyond. There were shootings outside, and inside, the club. Punters began to stay away. In their place, the wrong sort of punters began to turn up. In desperation, the club even recruited gang members as security men.

As if aping the city that spawned them, Factory's newest charges, Happy Mondays, were on their own arc of self-destruction. Holed up, at great expense, in Barbados, ostensibly to record their second album, the group self-immolated in an orgy of crack cocaine, crashed cars, broken limbs, and bitter in-feuding. (The album's co-producer, erstwhile Talking Head Tina Weymouth, once remarked of Happy Mondays: 'I grew up in New York in the Seventies, and I've seen a lot of people who live life on the edge, but I've never before seen a group of people who had no idea where the edge is.')

New Order, too, were way off course, recording an album that arrived two years too late, and way over budget. Then, as the bottom fell out of the property market in the mid-Nineties, the company discovered that three buildings it had bought for £4 million were suddenly valued at £600,000. The Hacienda closed in June 1997. ('Where did the buck stop?' I ask Wilson at one point. 'There was no buck,' he replies, 'we weren't the Ministry of Sound, we were fuckin' situationists.') Soon after, to all intents and purposes, Factory went bottom up as an independent.

'It was a nightmare,' sighs Wilson.

What, I ask, is your biggest regret about it all?

He thinks for a moment. 'I wish I'd gone to Barbados.'

It is difficult to find anyone who will go on the record regarding the fall-out of the Factory adventure, or Tony Wilson's role in it. He has fallen out with Alan Erasmus, a fracture that seems to cause him genuine regret. 'Alan was the spiritual heart of Factory. When it all went down, I betrayed him a bit because I took a job in London Records just to earn some money, and maybe I should have said, "it has to be me and Alan". When I saw the film, it hit me that two of my partners are dead - Martin [Hannett] and Rob [Gretton], and that Alan and me are estranged. It's weird when you see versions of them up there on the screen.'

Erasmus, he says, 'will probably hate the film'. This is probably true. Everyone else I talk to off the record hates it, the words 'a joke' and 'a travesty' being employed more than once. Some of this is good old-fashioned Northern negativity, of course, but most of it is real disappointment. 'The whole Joy Division/New Order tale was epic and inspiring,' someone (who insists on anonymity) says, 'and it has been diminished and sold short to accommodate Wilson's inflated sense of self-importance. He really is the original spin doctor. He has spun his version of events so much that I think he actually now has difficulty differentiating the truth from the myth.'

Whatever the truth - which, to be fair, is not a concept Tony Wilson has much time for - he remains bloody but unbowed. With two marriages behind him, he is currently partnered by a woman he refers to as 'the beautiful Yvette', an ex-Miss UK, who is 'the one person I've met who has more great ideas than me'. He runs the annual music business conference, In The City, and still hosts a political show on Granada. He remains, he says, 'a journalist at heart. I'm a middle-class guy who never gave up the safety net of a day job'.

This, one has to conclude, has been part of the problem with Tony Wilson. He wants to be a all things to all men: a journalist and a pop mogul; a hero who is only too happy to play the buffoon; a visionary who never gave up his day job. 'I would love to be thin, intense, dark and serious like Prince Andrei in War and Peace ,' he remarks in typically pretentious fashion, 'but I'm Pierre Bezukhov - a wally enthusiast'. You said it, Tony.

24 Hour Party People opens on 5 April


Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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