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BIG WILSON & LITTLE GOD

 

by Phil Thornton

 

 

 

In the cult sci-fi film, Seconds, Rock Hudson plays a slick marketing executive who is given an opportunity to escape the stultifying world of corporate squaresville by becoming an entirely new person who delves headlong into the drugs n� sex underbelly of the hippy counterculture. The name of his character is Tony Wilson and at one point he�s asked �Who is the real Tony Wilson?�

 

In 24 Hour Party People, the film loosely based on the Factory head honcho and local TV reporter, Tony Anthony H Wilson's life, Paddy Considine playing New Order manager and Factory Records director, Rob Gretton tells Steve Coogan's Wilson

 

'Your problem is that you don't know what you are.'

 

'What am I?' Wilson asks.

 

'You're a cunt' Gretton replies.

 

Wilson has the last word though as ever.

 

'See I DID know that!' he mumbles.

 

Tony Wilson WAS a cunt. He knew that. But what a fantastic cunt he was. In the marketing posters for the fantastic 24 Hour Party People, the chief protagonists, Ian Curtis, Shaun Ryder and Wilson himself are respectively described as 'a genius, a poet and a twat.' Tony Wilson WAS a twat. But what a magnificent twat he was.

 

I remember drawing a cartoon for a fanzine that I did in the early 90s that showed an unshaved Wilson looking ragged in one of his two grand Commes Des Garcons whistles begging for change on Whitworth Street. A placard behind said 'TV personality and inventor of youth culture needs you help' and on the wall was a poster for a Madchester revival night featuring Wayne Fontana and Mad Bez.

 

I did an accompanying piece on the Great Man himself and sent it off to via Factory and he returned it with various sentences underlined and a few red inked 'lie', 'bullshit' notes. In this piece I accused him of destroying what could have been one of the great musical revolutions 'the acid house/Madchester scene' by cravenly attempting to usurp the scene for his own ends. He had previously recently hijacked the New Music Seminar with his propagandist 'Wake Up America You're Dead' debate, pissing off Derrick May in the process. That fact that May, Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins and the other Detroit techno Godfathers were producing music light years ahead of anything on Factory Records was neither here nor there. Madchester was HIS scene, centred around HIS club and HIS label. The future was HIS even though he�d only stumbled across this movement rather than nurturing it. 

 

Once Madchester became about �rock� bands, it was over. Madchester happened despite Factory and indeed the Hacienda not because of them. It was a scene centred around house and techno, a scene fuelled by ecstasy and coke, a progressive scene, a modernist scene. Once it became about the Roses, The Charlatans, The Inspiral Carpets and even the utterly fantastic Mondays, it was just another karaoke rock n� roll circus. It became about personalities and �stars� and all that corporate cheese. For all the hype, Manc-techno terrorists, 808 State were far more representative of the real Madchester vibe than any Factory act.  

 

Sadly my prediction came true. The Mondays became a self-parody, a �Madchester� cabaret act on the �rave on� nostalgia circuit and Shaun and Bez became stereotypical TV drug-fools when once they were the coolest cats in the yard. Factory imploded under the weight of its own pomposity. And Tony Wilson, far from becoming another Epstein, another Loog Oldham, another Warhol or even a McLaren was reduced to performing the same kind of regional TV dross lampooned in 24 Hour Party People.

 

His �In The City� concept provided an outlet for his musical, cultural and political ideals yet was routed in the rock-ist traditions of the past. His time had come and gone. In the grand scheme of things, he had failed and was now living on past glories. With the release of 24 Hour Party People he was back in his element. At the press conference for the film, I was one of the assembled hacks asked along to the audience with assembled cast members (John Simm, Steve Coogan etc), production suits and ofcourse Wilson himself, who was centre stage, as usual, directing the action, calling the shots. He was never gonna be a peripheral figure.

 

It was the day after the filming of the re-created Hacienda interior club shots at Sankeys, before the film had even been edited never mind screened, yet somehow this was meant to be some kind of momentous occasion. I should�ve been covering the Hass filming the night before but the mag I was doing the piece for fucked up so I went along to the press conference instead.

 

United were playing Leeds that day and I wanted to get out to watch the game but couldn�t resist winding up Wilson with a few snide questions. As he went around the hacks asking them to introduce themselves I was the very last one and told him I was from The Runcorn Weekly News and we were running a four page spread on the film. That got a laugh. Wilson wasn�t laughing though. He seemed irked that the big hitters within the media weren�t present so I drove in another rusty nail for good measure.

 

�What era haircut was Coogan rocking?� � it was the late 80s �Other Side Of Midnight� centre-part by the way.

 

Isn�t all this just a little bit I Luv The 80s?�

 

�Tell us about your ludicrous 13 year cycle theory Tone!�

 

That kind of thing.

 

Wilson finally snapped and yelled �I�ve got an opinion, you�ve got an opinion, but your opinion�s shit!� At that the PR gonks wrapped it up and I chuckled as did John Simm who I passed out on the way to more important matters; United�s early kick-off against West Yorkshire�s finest. At the premiere of the film itself, Wilson was on hand to witness the character assassination of him by writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce and actor, Steve Coogan.   

 

If he knew what was coming then he took it remarkably well. Coogan played Wilson as a pompous oaf, a confused mass of contradictions; a mainstream TV reporter with avant garde pretensions ambitions, an iconoclast but nevertheless a member of the media establishment, a working class �Salford� lad who loved to boast about having been to Cambridge, a businessman who�s maverick aestheticism bankrupted his record label and clubbing empire.

 

All that was true and although I went into the movie expecting to hate it, I enjoyed the typical Winterburn/Cottrell-Boyce/Coogan playfulness with myth and reality, with the blurring of folklore and historical accuracy. It was half an hour too long and dwelt far too much on the character of Wilson himself (even though he maintained it was a film about Joy Division and the Happy Mondays rather than himself), but even so, the script was hilarious, the performances superb (apart from some disastrous pieces of mis-casting. Ralph Little as Peter Hook?) and the direction was visually stunning. Then there was the music; how could a film about Manchester during this era go wrong?

 

This is Wilson�s real legacy. Forget the TV work, even though at his best he was one of the most gifted broadcasters of his generation. Forget the wind ups directed at scousers, Londoners, the intellectual mafia and the Americans. Forget even, the Hacienda and Dry Bar, these are just buildings. And forget Factory Records, a label whose quality control would�ve put the Railnet to shame. Tony Wilson was symbolic and indeed the spearhead of a wider phenomenon; the transformation of his home city from a gloomy Victorian wasteland to perhaps the most vibrant and creative city in Europe.

 

Who was the real Tony Wilson? Maybe he didn�t know the answer to that one himself. He was the engineer of his own enigma. A man in love with the idea of himself more than the mundane reality. Aren�t we all? Whichever facet of Wilson�s complicated multi-personality was on display, the very least you can say is that he made Manchester, Britain and indeed the world a more interesting place in which to live. There aren�t people you can say that about.

 

 

 

 

 

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