Sunday, August 12, 2007

Tony Wilson RIP

How Tony Wilson changed music
By Ian Youngs
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Tony Wilson, the music mogul who has died at 57, leaves behind an enormous musical legacy.

He played an integral role in establishing Manchester as a cultural centre, signing bands such as New Order, whose distinctive sound turned them into a global success.

The Factory label and the Hacienda nightclub were two of his best-known projects.

However, he was also recognised for his talent-spotting ability and his foresight in predicting the popularity of downloaded music.

Here are five ways that Wilson changed the music industry.

Wilson, who had been working as a reporter at Granada TV, gave the Sex Pistols their television debut in 1976.

He had seen the punk pioneers' legendary gig at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall that June.

And he booked them for the second series of his Granada music programme So It Goes.

The audience also included future stars such as Morrissey, Mark E Smith and Mick Hucknall, who were inspired by the event to form their own bands.

Only about 40 people were in the crowd, according to author David Nolan, who wrote a book hailing the concert The Gig that Changed the World.

"What those Mancunians did was astonishing," he told the BBC last year.

"They sent club culture around the world; they sent the independent record scene around the world; they took a style of music around the world."

Joy Division, New Order and Electronic were among the acts on the roster at Manchester's Factory Records.

It has often been said that Wilson wrote contracts in his own blood, saying the artists owned everything and the label owned nothing.

Whether this story was true or not, the principle certainly was.

It was a powerful and revolutionary statement of creative freedom - but it was also financial suicide.

Albums were overdue and over-budget when they were delivered.

New Order's Blue Monday became the biggest-selling 12" single in UK history.

But Factory lost money on every copy sold because of the intricate die-cut design of its sleeve, which looked like a floppy disc.

Wilson also claimed that Factory was on the verge of signing Oasis and Pulp before it went bankrupt in 1992.

Rob Gretton, who was the manager of Joy Division and New Order, decided there should be a venue that played the kind of music he liked to hear.

The Hacienda was funded by New Order and Factory Records, and as well as being a magnet for clubbers, it also hosted gigs - such as Madonna's first UK appearance.

"The Hacienda changed Manchester forever," said Vaughan Allen, chief executive of the city's Urbis centre, which is currently hosting an exhibition about the club.

"It did 25 years ago what MySpace does today, bringing together creative people to create something new," he told the BBC last month.

The venue was officially opened by risque comedian Bernard Manning.

He departed quickly, however - some accounts say he left his fee behind because he was so unimpressed by the sound system, while others claim it was owing to the fact that his act went down badly with the crowd.

Set up in 1992, it is the UK's largest and most influential forum for finding new talent and discussing the future of the industry.

It allows the music industry to run the rule over the cream of the UK's new and unsigned bands.

And it has helped launch the careers of almost every major British act of the last 15 years.

Oasis, Radiohead and Suede played at the first In the City.

Muse and Coldplay appeared in 1998; Snow Patrol performed in 2000; and The Arctic Monkeys put in an appearance five years later.

Wilson was renowned as "one of the great spotters of music talent", said Alan McGee, who founded Creation - the home of Oasis and Primal Scream.

"He was a complete inspiration," McGee told the NME website following Wilson's death.

Wilson was one of the first people to realise the full implications of the illegal downloading revolution that Napster ushered in at the turn of the millennium, and to turn it into an opportunity.

Back in 1999 - four years before iTunes was launched - Wilson was preparing a site called Music33, which sold tracks from local labels for 33p each.

He said the 33p price-tag was based on an honest assessment of the costs of digital delivery.

However, the site failed to take off and the cost of digital music was set much higher by the major players in the coming years.

One of his finest moments.

Wake Up America, You're Dead!

'Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the New Music Seminar. The rest of the shit going on in the rest of this building is the Old Music Seminar. This is the New Music Seminar.'

Tony Wilson, TV host, club owner, entrepreneur, pauses for dramatic effect. The Brits in the audience smile. Some applaud. We scent a wind-up. The Americans, congregated this Monday lunchtime in the Astor Room of New York's Marriott Marquis, are silent.

'The New Music Seminar was founded in 1980 to reflect, as the title perhaps would suggest, new music,' Wilson continues drily, satisfied his outrage is having the desired effect. 'There is a new music now, however it is probably only reflected in this particular room in the course of this week.

'I'd like to begin with a quote. The quote is: 'The kids wanna dance'. That does not come from Manchester or Madchester 1989 or The Haçienda or Ibiza in 1987; it comes from the Family Dog in San Francisco in 1964. You used to know how to dance here. God knows how you fucking forgot.

'What people in America don't seem to know is that the music which has come out of Chicago and Detroit in the last 10 years has so changed British pop music-not only dance music but also rock music-that now, if you're a British rock group and you cannot play rock music in the style to which you can dance and with the rhythms that have come out of America but that have been ignored here, then you aren't a rock group that matters. You're dead.

'There are groups that American A&R men go berserk over - The Sundays, The House Of Love, people like that who, in England, are so marginalised that they're completely irrelevant. It's a strange situation to be living in a country like that and then to come over here-which is why this panel is called 'Wake Up America, You're Dead!'

Tony Wilson tells us his task today is two-fold - to recount the curious history of how American House music infected the British indie scene and started making so much money and to try and discover why, if it works in Britain, it's going nowhere in the States. To this effect he has assembled a panel featuring Robert Ford, formerly of Billboard, who virtually discovered rap music: Screaming Rachel, a Chicago House DJ now working in New York: Nathan McGough, manager of Happy Mondays: Paul Dennis, who runs London dance clubs: Derrick May, a Detroit House producer: and Marshall Jefferson, a foremost Chicago House producer of whom Wilson says: 'Things are so bad that personally I'm amazed to be sitting here with this man. He was suggested as a panellist on a producers' panel at this particular seminar. A very senior A&R person from the only American record company still owned by you fucking Americans said, "No no no, he wasn't that important. He should be a reserve panellist". That man should be taken out and fucking hung.'

Keith Allen is also here. He is introduced as Dr Keith Allen of the Post-Freudian Therapy Centre in Geneva and a world expert on drugs. There's an outbreak of muttering when Wilson says this and he doesn't miss the opportunity. 'It's so strange in America,' he says, beaming. 'You're so embarrassed about fucking drugs aren't you? It didn't do Guns N' Roses any harm.'

The early years of House are quickly recounted-how Frankie Knuckles, Farley Jackmaster Funk, Jessie Saunders and others created the music in under-age, non-drinking clubs in Chicago and how it struggled and struggles still because record companies see it as a producers' medium and are not willing to invest in what they consider to be a string of one-hit wonders. Then Wilson picks up the story, citing Mike Pickering in Manchester and Graham Park In Derby as the DJs who brought this music to Britain in 1986/7.

Dr Keith Allen is now called upon to explain the history and the effects of Ecstasy and a few bums start shifting uncomfortably in their seats.

'The basic psychology was,' Allen begins, 'in 1987 in a club called Schoom, I had a load of Ecstasy topped off with a little amyl-nitrate sort of sex-inducing vibe and I would give people one of these tablets and they would give me £20. That's psychology.'

There's much laughter and clapping from the British contingent.

'And we were both very, very happy. Now I should really put this into perspective because I'm now the father of eight children cos, as you probably know, when you get on one, as we say in England, you wanna chuck it about everywhere. And I did.

'It's really weird actually, I'm not a doctor of psychology. It's obvious. I'm an airline pilot.'

Rachel interrupts him: 'I'd like to say something concerning the drug. I don't wanna sound sick and wimpy but a lot of the Chicago people thought that Acid was this natural high that you got from listening to this music.'

Keith Allen laughs: 'I don't believe in natural highs. I think you should pay for it.'

Wilson sees the discussion's heading for trouble and pulls it back on line with a bit of history about how the Ibiza attitude came back to Britain with the holidaymakers and how they latched onto House as the hippest music around. Paul Dennis explains what a rave is for the Americans who don't know, and then Keith Allen chips in again: 'For any of you aspiring promoters over here, a really good way to make money, right, is to book telephone lines, okay? We do it with British Telecom. You book telephone lines and then you give out numbers for people to phone all night long so they're phoning these numbers at 40p a call. Now I take 20p of that phone call myself and, of course, there's no party! Hahaha! I've got 20,000 phone calls between eight o'clock and three in the morning man! I was making loadsa money! It's all part of the vibe, y'know?'

Wilson: 'I went into my club, The Haçienda, two weeks ago and one and a half thousand 18-year old kids were going mental, dancing like crazy to Northside, to Mondays, to Marshall Jefferson, to Derrick May, to Pink Floyd, to The Beatles... I've never seen anything like it in my life and I felt old for the first time. The wave is that strong.

'I think if we talk about the fulcrum moments, one was when the Balearic all-night Ibiza dance attached itself to house music in the beginning of '88 and the other great moment was when people like Ronnie and Paul Ryder, the drummer and bass player of Happy Mondays, began to be able to put the dance rhythms out of Chicago and Detroit into rock music. They soon became the first generation of British groups with the Roses and Inspiral Carpets and now there's a dozen or more.'

Nathan McGough is called upon to explain how that happened and he says: 'We're not really trying to play House music with your traditional rock instruments. It's more that House music became the backdrop and the setting for the club culture which then focused and determined the new attitude and the new culture of British youth which Happy Mondays then took and expressed as a group and, through that, became the focal point, the anti-heroes for the new youth culture. '

'So, in other words,' says Robert Ford, 'your boys are drug dealers, they're not musicians.'

'Correct,' says McGough.

Once more Wilson steps into the breach to realign the row he has so cunningly contrived. 'The point is, kids in Britain for the last few years and still today and tomorrow are having the time of their lives in the words of the 'Dirty Dancing' movie. I don't see any kids in fucking America having the time of their lives.'

McGough picks up the thread: 'Eighty per cent of our Top 40 British records, according to your Billboard, are dance records. They're all records which developed from this scene. I've always hated commercial pop music and now you ask me to list my 10 favourite records, I would guess eight of them would be in the British Top 40. They would be records you could hear on national daytime radio.'

'I think that is a prime thing to say to America, ' says Wilson. 'The New Music Seminar began about a whole host of American and English groups who were still marginalised. This was a cult thing, our music, y'know...The Cure, Joy Division, Talking Heads... they were still marginal things in 1980 when we began. This thing in England and Europe is not marginal. As Nathan says, they're the only records that fucking sell in large numbers in England and in Europe. This is what has happened, the music and the rhythms that you lot created have changed British and European pop music, it's changed Australian pop music, it's happening in Japan, all over the world. Do you find it strange that it isn't strong in America, or as strong as it obviously is elsewhere?'

Derrick May has had enough: 'Ma-a-a-n,' he says, 'let me tell ya something. Dance music has been fucked up. You've got all these motherfuckers who don't know shit about where the shit comes from, they don't have no fucking idea what the fuck is happening and they're making money and they're fucking up the scene. Dance music is dead. I hate to say it. I do it for a living. I love it. I do it as an art, okay: But I know that when I have to sit back and see some bullshit Adamski shit... that's bullshit. On the charts! Number F-ing One! Okay?'

Tony Wilson rises to the challenge: 'I'm sure The Rolling Stones and The Beatles sounded pretty shitty to the real R&B people but without The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, you'd never have even known you had R&B in America.'

'Well I don't know about that,' says Derrick. 'It took some particular bureaucrat to give a nigger a chance. That's the bottom line to that, okay? They say it's not a dictatorship, but it is. We can't do anything unless you tell us to as much as we try. We can kick you in the ass, but guess what? You gonna stab us in the fuckin' back! All right? So don't tell me.

'We - and when I say we, I mean blacks - we all do something and you'll come behind us and turn it around and add somebody singing to it or some sort of little funky-ass or weak-ass chord line or whatever and get some stupid record company that doesn't know jack shit about shit to put £50,000 behind it and you got a fucking hit because you stuffed it down motherfuckers throats. So, this group, y'know, has tremendous success and I don't know what to say, man. I've just been busting my ass, it comes from the heart y'know. They do it and they just take drugs!

'Obviously dance music has to progress in one form or another and there was always some sort of relationship between pop music and dance music. But, we as black people have always had to deal with the fact that we've had to be better because, since the beginning of time, we've had to walk into a white person's house and clean a white motherfucker's ass, okay? So don't tell me.'

This is too much for Keith Allen. He says: 'Listen Derrick, I might have white skin but I'm black for fuck's sake! Look at me Derrick - look at me - I'm black.'

Nathan McGough joins in: 'None of the stuff you're talking about the money, the record industry, none of that means shit. Records in England break on white labels without any money at all. You can press up 100 records and it will go. It can go Top 10, Top five. National Radio 1 will play white labels, they don't know who mixed it or anything but they know people wanna hear it.

'I understand what Derrick's talking about - a true, pure music which is pirated and bastardised and then the record industry comes along and puts a bunch of white kids in the way and shoves it down people's throats. In England, that doesn't matter shit. The major record labels were shitting their pants for the last 12 months because they'd invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in groups which they could no longer sell because it was dead music.

'The whole Ecstasy and House culture from 1988 was like year zero, Pol Pot. The same way as '76 with the Pistols and anarchy, year zero. Anyone who's like 14 years of age, 15, 16, that's their marker, that's where they start. That's day one, year one.'

Derrick May responds: 'In America, the club scene is in trouble and, yeah, in England you have the clubs and the people but you don't necessarily have the DJs. It's typical of the world, but your DJs are more or less followers - they're very intimidated by playing anything new. Our DJs are technically better than yours.'

'Bullshit. Let's talk about DJs right?' says Wilson. 'The Haçienda played Chicago seven nights ago, it was fine. We played Detroit six nights ago, it was a bunch of shit. Your Detroit DJs didn't have one record that was made in the last fucking six months and they wouldn't play one thing under 130 bpm. They're all stick-in-the-muds and they should get themselves fucked.'

'Guess what?' says Derrick, 'None of us were there. We didn't even show up for that. I don't wanna dog you but if you want me to, I'll dog you flat-assed motherfucker.'

Wilson laughs; 'I have a TV show in England. Would you like to be on it Derrick? Every week? You and Keith? Every show?'

'What does 'Flat-assed motherfucker mean?' Keith Allen wants to know.

Derrick says; 'You got one long-assed back.'

'Right,' says Allen, 'well the reason we've got a really big long-assed back is because we can actually take the weight of the world on it. D'you know what I'm saying Derrick?'

The insults are staring to fly thick and fast. Wilson throws open the floor microphone and a Midwest jock gets well uptight with Keith Allen over the E stuff. Egged on by Derrick May, another guy gets up and says white folks think too much about it all while blacks just do it. From where I'm sitting, this sounds a tad close to the ol' natural riddim argument. But May's well into it.

'Yeah,' he shouts, 'that's also the reason why white people can't play basketball.'

Keith Allen responds in kind; 'Yeah, but that's the reason why black Americans don't ride horses. You've got to remember the reason that white guys don't play basketball is the same reason black guys don't ride horses.'

Marshall Jefferson gets up and walks out in disgust. Rachel calls after him pleading with him to return.

'He's got a point,' says May. 'This panel is ridiculous because what you've done is turned it into intimidating warfare.'

'We have?' says Wilson, all astonished like.

'SHUT UP MAN!' screams May. 'GODDAMN! SHUT THE F-UP! YOU MAKING A FOOL OUTTA YOUR STOOPID ASS!' He calms down a little. 'Goodbye,' he says. 'I don't have to argue.'

'Thank fuck for that,' says Allen.

Derrick May rises to leave but can't resist one more volley into the mike: 'I don't have to stand up for my manhood. You can argue with yourself. You can pull out your little two inch penis and dog yourself, okay? I'll see you later. Good night. And thank you very much, crowd. It's been nice.'

Derrick starts to leave, Rachel shouting after him;

'Derrick! Marshall! Come on! Somebody's gotta stand up for America!'

Two nights later, at The Sound Factory on West 27th Street, The Haçienda presents 'From Manchester With Love'. The club is a cavernous warehouse without a bar. The queue outside stretches over a mile down the block. Thousands can't get in. The MM contingent sneaks in the back door with Shaun and Bez, who arrive in a limo.

Happy Mondays play at 1:30, after 808 State. Everybody dances. With any luck America may never recover.

Factory Records was one of the most influential labels in my early music collecting years... Tony Wilson was a major inspiration for me.


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