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Achievements of Tony Wilson and why it's not the end for 'Mr Manchester'

By the 1980s, when Tony Wilson was in his 30s, he had already achieved more than most of us will in a lifetime. Here is my list of his achievements and I discuss why the spirit and personality of Tony Wilson are alive and well.

Achievements of Tony Wilson

Tony Wilson gained a degree in English from Cambridge University, though it was only a 2.2, something of an under-achievement.

With his unique style of delivery, he gave a new edge to the early evening local magazine programme on Granada television in the early to mid 70s.

After famously changing his mind on his way to a tv job in London, he returned to Manchester and presented the music and popular culture show So It Goes, which began in 1976. With his edgy presentation style and risky choice of performers, So It Goes was like nothing previously seen on regional television.

In 1978 he extended his activities from tv personality to music impresario by founding a venue to promote new bands. it was the Factory Club in Hulme, housed in a social club next to the infamous Crescents, now demolished. Many bands from the cutting edge of music performed here. I saw gigs by Joy Division and Magazine at the Factory Club or Russell Club.

Tony Wilson fostered Joy Division and their lead singer Ian Curtis. After Curtis committed suicide in 1980, New Order emerged, and were also promoted and encouraged by Wilson.

Together with fellow Catholic grammar school boys, and others, Factory became a record label and struck an entirely new note both in the style of artists on its register, and the remarkable design of the record covers, many designed by Peter Saville.

In 1982 Tony and associates opened the Hacienda club on Whitworth Street West. It set new parameters for a night club. It was the visible expression of an attitude and philosophy that had never been seen in Manchester before. Tony Wilson's photograph near the entrance to the Hacienda was testament to his already legendary status.

In the late 80s Tony Wilson presided over the emergence of the 'Madchester' scene, with bands Happy Mondays and others leading a hypnotic and quintessentially Mancunian dance movement. It combined musical influences from the States with an irreverent northern English sensibility.

Tony Wilson championed the cause of Manchester, and helped to raise its profile on the national and international stage. He became known as 'Mr Manchester' and used every opportunity to play up the city. We often forget that many people at the time used to be down on Manchester, which had suffered through economic decline and the British 'north-south' divide. Tony always believed in Manchester.

He achieved a high popular profile in Manchester and nationally, being recognised, liked and disliked by people of all ages. He was one of the few people high up in the media and industry, who would regularly be sworn at by punters passing him on the street. And unlike other distinguished local businessmen, he had no hesitation in swearing back at them.

In 1992 Tony, together with his partner Yvette Livesey, founded the In The City music convention and festival. I have had the privilege of taking photographs at In The City for quite a few years. In The City is the UK's number one music industry festival, and has attracted many visitors each year to Manchester and the other cities where it has been held, including Liverpool and Dublin.

Through his work at In The City, and his involvement with Factory Records and the bands they promoted, Tony has earned the respect and close friendship of many of the most senior figures in the music industry on both sides of the Atlantic.

After the bomb of 1996, Tony Wilson and others took a constructively critical stance on how Manchester was being promoted. He helped to develop a vision of the new Manchester, which has largely come to fruition and continues to be developed. Modern Manchester is widely perceived to be dynamic, creative, forward-looking, confident international in its aspirations, with a strong local sensibility and attitude that sets a counterweight to London. These are all personal qualities of Tony Wilson. He encapsulated the new Manchester.

Things that didn't quite work out:

The management of Factory Records and the Hacienda was less than business-like. Factory fell apart in 1991 with debts of two million pounds. He was so passionate about music and artistic freedom, the normal contractual agreements didn't apply. Despite his colossal influence, he didn't achieve the riches he deserved, though I believe his financial situation was improving in latter years. Though he didn't conform to the role model of a conventional businessman, he became a sought-after speaker and was regarded as being on a par with other 'captains of industry' in the north west.

In the interview I did with him in 1998, he told me about his 13 year cycle theory, according to which a new wave of music or popular culture would come around every 13 years. There was one due around 2002 but it failed to materialise.

He attempted to repeat previous successes by fostering a rap band from Moss Side named Raw T. I saw them perform at the Hay Festival in 2005. They failed to achieve widespread success.

Tony Wilson advocated the setting up of a North West regional assembly, and around 2005 he actively campaigned in advance of a referendum. He asked me to take a photo of the North West flag designed by Peter Saville. Unfortunately, the North West referendum idea was scrapped due to lack of support in the North East and it will probably never come to fruition again.

The spirit of Tony Wilson lives on

In my opinion, the most successful aspect of what Tony Wilson set in motion is the music convention In The City. The huge momentum of this event, and the fantastic reputation it has achieved among music industry people are not about to die away. Tony Wilson may not be there to direct, interview, inspire and swear, but co-director Yvette Livesey will continue things as before. In The City may well prove to his most enduring achievement.

The spirit and personality of Tony Wilson are very much alive. He was and remains the most famous Mancunian. His voice and image are stored on countless hours of audio and video recordings. His rebellious spirit is a part of the local psyche, his voice and face are burned into the minds of most Mancunians. Through the media, people can continue to be informed, inspired, entertained and irritated by Tony Wilson. He will still be having an influence many many years from now.

Please let me know if I have made any errors, and suggest more of Tony Wilson's achievements worth highlighting

For an insightful though not entirely accurate account of the Hacienda and Madchester years, and Tony Wilson's involvement in them, take a look at the film '24 Hour Party People'. Read my review here.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-08-14

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