Danny asks: How do you deal with a problem like nostalgia?

Danny Macmillan 7 February 2008

Last Saturday night, for the first time in ages, I ended up in by myself. Poor planning on my part, a shut college bar and the thought of an impending Kilimanjaro of work led me to the conclusion that a night in, industriously getting stuck into an example sheet, would do the trick. Of course, I ended up watching the telly and stumbled across a wonderfully compelling documentary about Factory Records and, to a lesser extent, its co-founder and key driving force Anthony H Wilson. It’s a great story, one that artist Peter Saville described as probably the last true story in pop.

For those of you don’t know, Wilson was instrumental in transforming Manchester into a major hub of British popular culture. After graduating from Jesus College, Cambridge with an English degree, he returned to his native Manchester where he presented a music programme called So It Goes, notable for providing the first televised appearance of the Sex Pistols.

Soon enough he and Alan Erasmus, an out-of-work actor, were putting on gigs by local groups like Cabaret Voltaire at a club they called The Factory. The artwork was done by Peter Saville, who became the third major partner in the venture. In the DIY spirit of punk, recordings were later released as an EP (catalogued as FAC 2 – everything put out by Factory was given a similar number and this became part of the label’s image).

The first deal signed was with Joy Division, the conditions being that Wilson would own none of the music, the musicians would have total freedom and profits would be split 50/50. These ideas of musical freedom and non-corporate ethos would be cornerstones of the label. Its first album was Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, produced by Factory’s in house man Martin Hannett, and more followed.

It was with New Order, Joy Division’s successors, that Factory Records bought a disused yacht workshop and turned it into Britain’s most famous nightclub. The Haçienda (FAC 51) did not get off to the greatest of starts. In its first year it was reported to be losing £10,000 a month. This, along with the release of the best selling 12” single of all time – New Order’s Blue Monday – which still allegedly lost money on each copy due to being so expensive to manufacture, cemented a reputation for being able to make fantastic angst-ridden art-house records, but managing to squander bucketloads of money anyway.

However, the success of Factory’s new big signing, The Happy Mondays, saw it become the centre of a burgeoning rave scene, and Peter Saville has described it as the birthplace of the 90s. This got me thinking; if punk was the 1970s, new wave and post-punk were the 1980s, and rave was the 1990s, then what have the Noughties been? It’s hard to think of anything that can follow rave as the last great youth movement. One might say that if someone fell into a coma 10 years ago and woke up tomorrow they could be forgiven for thinking that not much had changed. Last year’s groundbreaking album was by Radiohead and the gig everyone was talking about last year was by the Spice Girls. It seems that at the moment our popular culture is rooted in some deep-seated nostalgia.

I’m not sure why this is, but maybe it’s because, with music just a few clicks away, we become more inward looking in our tastes and don’t connect with each other in the same way as people used to. Sadly, the greatest ever promoter of new music, John Peel, is dead, and Tony Wilson’s coffin is now in the ground too (FAC 501, the last entry in the catalogue). Our generation, who haven’t managed to manufacture a popular culture movement, need a Tony Wilson-like figure to show us what can be really done. With a bit more intelligence, and a feeling that we’re all in it together we can produce our own punk rock, our own wonderful independent labels like Factory or Rough Trade. I reckon that should knock some nostalgia programmes off the schedules, and the early 21st Century can finally begin to move away from the 20th.

Danny Macmillan