Factory Records was a fiercely independent and experimental Mancunian record label started by local news presenter and post-punk enthusiast, Tony Wilson. Though it closed down in 1992 its influence on Manchester and the UK music scene is undeniable and continues today. The history of its creation and philosophy reveals why Factory Records remains legendary in the collective conscience of Manchester.
Factory Records life began as a club night, called “Factory Nights”, at The Russell Club. It attracted predominantly punk bands but became a staple venue for alternative up-and-coming bands touring the UK. Local bands such as Joy Division frequented Factory Nights and it became known as one of the most notorious “Norther” venues from which to begin a successful musical career. Due to its success, its creators Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus decided that this small venture could be expanded into something far larger and more influential, and with this idea Factory Records was born.
Wilson already had a successful career in television and music, owing to his hosting of the music show So It Goes on Granada TV, which showcased the best of the alternative music scene. Wilson was known to have hated “prog rock” which dominated mainstream music consumption in the mid to late 70s, and so he set out to bring edgy and exciting music straight into the front rooms of the public. He hosted bands that would become household names, like The Jam, The Clash, Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and The Stranglers. After seeing the Sex Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, he booked them to play the last episode of the first series of the show. He described the experience of seeing them as “nothing less than an epiphany,” which revealed to him that not all popular music was dull and with this the seed that would become Factory Records was planted. Sadly, So It Goes was cancelled in 1977 following a profane appearance from punk legend Iggy Pop.
In 1979 Factory Records was established, based at Erasmus’ flat in West Didsbury. Tony Wilson recalls, in his bathtub interview in New Order’s 1984 film Play at Home, that Factory Records was an experiment in philosophy put into practice. He stated that he had no hopes or intentions in starting a record company, instead intending for Factory Records to be a project of passion, one he could reminisce on for years to come. Therefore, it seems that Wilson never intended to form Factory Records simply for success, but in the pursuit of some higher philosophical goal.
The label quickly expanded with the signing of Joy Division and the Happy Mondays, who eventually became Factory Record’s two most successful bands. However, the label was nearly derailed after the suicide of Joy Division front man Ian Curtis on the eve of their first American tour. Nevertheless, the rest of the members went on to reform, becoming the successful band New Order. Wilson’s first wife, Lindsay Reade, cited this moment as Factory Records’ turning point in the music scene. Following Curtis’ death, Love Will Tear Us Apart hit the UK record charts, reaching the Top 20, which projected the label and band out of obscurity and into the limelight.
Factory Records is perhaps best known for its co-ownership of The Hacienda night club, based in an old textile mill on Whitworth West Street. The club became a Manchester legend in itself, attributed with the “acid house” and “rave phenomenon” of the late 80s and early 90s. The club generated almost no profit but it became famous for its anti-establishment values, along with its influence in the rise of the recreational drug ecstasy, which became synonymous with its success and later downfall. The first instance of ecstasy-related death recorded at The Hacienda was when 16 year old Clair Leighton collapsed after taking the drug. The entry fee and bar prices, which were exceptionally low compared to competing venues, were too low to cover the maintenance and operating costs, despite its popularity. Many people have fond memories of The Hacienda and remember it as a genuinely exciting club.
In 1992, Factory Records filed for bankruptcy after many years of sustained financial woe. Before his death in 2007 Wilson remarked that owing to Factory Records and its subsequent offshoots he was the only man in music who “never made any money”.
In contemporary Manchester, the club and music scene remains influenced by the legacy of Factory Records. FAC 251, known by the locals as Factory, co-owned and created by Peter Hook (bassist of Joy Division and New Order) and Ben Kelly (the original designer of the Hacienda interior), is one of the biggest clubs in Manchester. It hosts club nights and live music, continuing the memory of Factory Records.
The vitality and influence of the Manchester music scene would almost certainly not be the same as it is today without Factory Records and the Hacienda. Other than launching the UK rave and acid house scene, the label gave a platform to now legendary bands whose songs have entertained the UK and abroad for many years. It is unlikely that many music fans will be unfamiliar with songs such as ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ by Joy Division, and its historical influence is undeniable. Factory Records helped place “Madchester” on the map and generated a cultural revolution in the UK music scene and has been exported globally.