Key Acts: Joy Division, New Order, the Happy Mondays, A Certain Ratio, the Durutti Column
Factory Records wasn’t simply a record-label, per se. Fuelled by the conceptual beliefs of founders Tony Wilson, Alan Erasmus, and graphic designer Peter Saville, Factory was founded more as a ‘laboratory experiment in popular art’ than anything else. Never signing any of their artists to contracts, Factory had the feel of a multi-disciplinary collective long before the corporate world got hooked on ‘diversification’.
As well as giving the world Joy Division, Factory opened a nightclub, the infamous Haçienda. They turned every record into mini artworks, packaging them as elaborate artefacts. And they gave everything they ever did a catalogue number, from their first flyer, to Haçienda house-wines, a lawsuit filed against the label by producer Martin Hannett, a dental bill for New Order’s manager Rob Gretton, and finally Wilson’s coffin when he passed away in 2007.
Oh, Manchester, So Much to Answer for
Factory was originally born as a club night in Manchester in 1978, to be promoted and booked by Wilson and Erasmus. The industrial city’s local music-scene had been kickstarted by a Sex Pistols show in 1976; two years on, the first wave of post-punk bands were starting to bud in Manchester.
When Gretton, then manager of the nascent Joy Division, decided he wanted the band to record for a local label —thereby bypassing the music industry’s once-unassailable London-centricism— Factory, the record label, was founded, taking up headquarters in Erasmus’ flat.
The first-ever album to be released by Factory turned out to be one of the most important and influent LPs in music history: Joy Division’s 1979 debut Unknown Pleasures. The band’s spartan instrumentation, the ghostly production of Hannett, and the sorrowful moan of singer Ian Curtis captured the imagination of a generation.
Yet, one year later, in the lead-up to the release of the second Joy Division album, 1980’s Closer, Curtis was dead: taking his own life at just 23. The three remaining Joy Division members would continue on as New Order, and their embrace of electronic music would categorize the label’s evolution.
The Haçienda Must Be Built!
In 1982, Factory and the members of New Order combined to embark on a costly venture: the opening of the Haçienda. Built in a former yacht showroom, the nightclub was established as a shrine in downtown Manchester; the beginning of Wilson’s dream to reinvigorate the industrialised inner-city. Lavishly designed by Ben Kelly, the Haçienda was initially a money-pit, operating at huge losses through its early years.
Yet, by the mid-’80s, the burgeoning interest in dance music and drugs —and the popularity of New Order and new signings the Happy Mondays— repositioned the Haçienda as the centerpoint of the acid-house movement.
Despite the massive success of New Order and the Happy Mondays, it was Factory’s flair for the grandiose aesthetic gesture that would eventually be its undoing. In 1990, the enterprise finally moved out of Erasmus’ house, into a renovated factory-space that’d been two years in the making.
After having sunk so much money in their building, Factory hardly needed to have their former cash-cows leech them dry. But, the lavish recording of New Order’s Republic, and the drug-addled disaster behind the Happy Mondays’ Yes Please! reportedly cost the label in excess of 1 million British Pounds. Not surprisingly, in 1992, Factory filed for bankruptcy, leaving behind a peculiar, near-legendary legacy of refusing to follow record-label protocol.
In 2002, a decade after their demise, Factory’s ridiculous history was sold to a new generation in the form of Michael Winterbottom’s comedy 24 Hour Party People. Based on the recollections of Wilson, the film happily played with notions of narrative ‘truth’, revelling in the oft-disputed claims of Factory mythology.