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Factory Records: A Brief History Of The UK’s Most Important Indie
In Depth

Factory Records: A Brief History Of The UK’s Most Important Indie

Arguably the most influential indie label ever, Factory Records’ history is a tale of excess, innovative music and thwarted ambition.


In the 80s and 90s, the most pioneering and voguish music groups weren’t from London, Berlin or further afield places like New York and Los Angeles; they hailed from a post-industrial town in the north of England: Manchester. And chances are they were signed to Factory Records, an independent label whose impact still resonates on a global level.

Tony Wilson, punk rock and the gig that started it it all

Born in Salford and educated at Cambridge University, Factory Records founder Tony Wilson made waves in the mid-to-late 70s as the host of So It Goes, one of the few regional arts and culture television programmes to champion the UK’s punk rock movement. But though the show featured seminal performances by The Clash, Siouxsie & The Banshees and Buzzcocks, to name a few, it was another band that really changed the Manchester music scene.

On 4 June 1976, at the city’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, a concert put on by Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley (later of Buzzcocks) featured local band Solstice and a brand-new punk outfit from London known as Sex Pistols. Attended by only 40 people, the gig’s legendary status came not from how many people were there, but who those people were: studio engineer Martin Hannett, who later produced albums by Joy Division, Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses; three lads by the names of Ian, Bernard and Peter who would immediately form Stiff Kittens before renaming themselves Warsaw en route to finally becoming Joy Division; future Smith Steven Morrissey (before he dropped his forename); Mark E Smith, soon to be frontman of The Fall; and, finally, Tony Wilson.

Blood bond: launching Factory Records

This then led to the inception of the Factory nights, held at The Russell Club in a Manchester suburb, Moss Side. Staged by Tony Wilson, local actor Alan Erasmus and promoter Alan Wise, the nights featured live performances by bands like The Durutti Column, Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire and The Tiller Boys. The poster for the first event – subsequently catalogued as FAC 1, in line with Factory Records’ policy of giving everything it produced a catalogue number – was designed by Peter Saville, who delivered the poster after the concert had happened, because he was perfecting the colour.

The A Factory Sample double-EP followed. The first release on Factory Records, which had been set up a few months earlier by Tony Wilson, Alan Erasmus, Joy Division’s manager, Rob Gretton, and producer Martin Hannett (fresh from running punk label Rabid Records), it featured a collection of songs by artists who had played at the Factory events. What Factory Records had (well, technically didn’t) was a lack of formal contracts between the artists; the only legal document the label drew up was a statement declaring that any artists they worked with had complete ownership of their music and artistic direction. It was written in Tony Wilson’s blood.

Love will tear us apart: Joy Division

Joy Division began recording their debut album, Unknown Pleasures, at Stockport’s Strawberry Studios in April 1979, during which the madness of Martin Hannett cemented itself into the Factory Records legend. Drum kits were completely dismantled and reassembled on the roof of the studio; Ian Curtis’ vocals were recoded down a telephone line; the sounds of smashed bottles and sound effects captured in a toilet located in the building’s basement were all part of Hannett’s masterplan to bring an end to the punk production styles that he viewed as sonically conservative.

Unknown Pleasures showed a side of Joy Division that had not been seen before. Renowned for their loud, punk-inspired concerts, Hannett’s production created a moody piece of music that reflected what life was like in Manchester in the late 70s: bleak. Though the album sold half its original production run of 10,000 within a fortnight of being released, it took a further six months for the group to shift another 10,000 copies, consequently failing to chart. A year later, on the eve of what would have been Joy Division’s first American tour, and after having spiralled into depression, Ian Curtis committed suicide.

Joy Division’s impact is second to none: they ushered in the post-punk movement of the late 70s and early 80s, and paved the way for new wave artists. The group did achieve commercial success in the end, as their second – and final – studio album, Closer, reached No.6 in the charts. In the decades that followed, Joy Division’s songs would be reissued in compilations, re-pressed countless times, and be understood to have marked a monumental turning point in the history of music. It’s rare to find a band that caused an awakening in its listeners which has been passed down through generations, let alone one with an album whose cover is instantly recognised all over the world – the iconic pulsar signal that adorns Unknown Pleasures – to become a mainstay in pop culture.

Ceremony: New Order

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, and after coming to terms with not only the loss of their lead singer but also their friend, the remaining Joy Division members formed New Order. In search of a lead singer, each member tried out and it was decided that guitarist Bernard Sumner would sing. Ceremony, a song written by Joy Division in the weeks before Ian’s death, and which was played at their last gig, became the new band’s first single. In July 1980, Gillian Gilbert joined New Order on keyboard and guitar; they then released their debut album, Movement, which was essentially a continuation of the Joy Division style.

It wasn’t until the release of Blue Monday that New Order broke away from their past. A drastic departure from their post-punk sound, and one of a number of groundbreaking 12” singles the group released throughout the 80s, the song was inspired by the Italian disco music the band had been listening to, to try and cheer them up. Peter Saville’s sleeve design was so intricate it ended up costing more to produce then what the record was priced at, meaning that Factory Records stood to lose 5p on each copy they sold. The label overlooked this, think the single wouldn’t be that big… Then Blue Monday became the best-selling 12” single of all time. The album that followed, 1983’s Power, Corruption & Lies, shot to No.4 in the charts, finally giving New Order the mainstream commercial success they deserved. They would go on to release three more albums with Factory Records before it shut down, and even had a No.1 song with World In Motion, recorded for England’s 1990 World Cup campaign.

Mad for it: The Haçienda and Madchester

It’s impossible to talk about New Order without mentioning what their success led to: FAC 51, aka The Haçienda, which opened its doors in May 1982. The brainchild of Rob Gretton, the club was jointly financed by Factory Records and New Order – not that the deal was entirely harmonious. Martin Hannett quit the label after finding out the club cost £450,000 (taken out of Factory Records’ recording budget).

Despite hosting major acts such as The Smiths, The Stone Roses and Madonna, The Haçienda was rarely full, and little more than an average club (albeit one with stunning interior design, by Ben Kelly). This all changed in 1986 when a new music phenomenon swept the UK: acid house. Sounding unlike anything before it, acid house utilised repetitive rhythms and bass lines courtesy of the Roland 808 and 303 drum machines. With the ability to control the whole club from a raised booth that looked over the dancefloor, DJs such as Dave Haslam, Bobby Langley, Mike Pickering and many more became the heroes of this new musical movement.

Helping to usher in rave culture and the “Madchester” movement of the late 80s and early 90s, The Haçienda inadvertently led to its own downfall – and that of Factory Records. Acid house and Madchester went hand in hand with the new party drug: Ecstasy. Since everyone was on “E”, no one bought drinks at the bar, which lead to massive losses. As the Madchester movement came to an end, drug crime became more prevalent, spreading from the streets to inside the club. This and, financial concerns, led to the closure of The Haçienda in June 1997. The building was turned into luxury apartments in 2002.

Wrote for luck: Happy Mondays

It’s often been said that New Order built the Factory Records empire. If that’s the case, Happy Mondays tore it all down. The Mondays burst on to the scene in 1987 with their debut album, Squirrel And G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out), and followed a year later with Bummed, which was produced by Martin Hannett who, though no longer part of the Factory team, continued to produce a number of albums for artists on the label. The Mondays’ early recording sessions were drug-fuelled affairs, and even Hannett was supplied with narcotics in order to keep him from drinking.

It was not until their Madchester Rave On EP of 1989 that the group received their first Top 20 hit. Alongside The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays helped create a new style of music that would influence the industry for years to come. After being part of the team of DJs and producers who remixed the Madchester Rave On EP, Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne were called in to produce Pill’n’Thrills And Bellyaches, working up an ingenious fusion of dance music and guitar-based indie rock which, paired with Shaun Ryder’s chemically-enhanced lyrics (as compared by Tony Wilson to the work of Irish poet W.B. Yeats) on tracks like Step On, led to their third album, Pill’n’Thrills And Bellyaches, peaking at No.4 in the UK charts.

With Happy Mondays and Factory Records on top of the world, the Mondays were packed off to Barbados to record their fourth studio album, Yes Please! The idea was to keep Shaun Ryder and his brother Paul, the group’s bassist, off heroin as there was none on the island. (Shaun planned to bring enough methadone to last him four weeks, but his stash was smashed at Manchester Airport.) With no heroin available, the band ended up getting hooked on crack cocaine, leading to Bez breaking his arm after crashing a car, and the Mondays selling their furniture and studio equipment to fund their habit.

Upon their return to England, Shaun Ryder took the master tapes “hostage”, demanding that Wilson paid him for them (the 2002 biopic 24 Hour Party People portrays this event as a gun-toting, drug-fuelled debacle that ended with Wilson paying £50 for the tapes). Upon listening back to the album, Wilson realised that Shaun hadn’t recorded – or even written – any lyrics for the album, and their Barbados effort was a waste of time. By the time the album was finished and released, in 1992, it flopped: Madchester was all but done. Alternative rock led by the likes of Nirvana had taken over.

Don’t walk away in silence: the end of Factory Records

During this time period, Factory were approached by London Records, who wanted to buy the ailing label out. Initially resistant, Wilson realised Factory was losing money at an alarming rate (The Haçienda and Yes Please! setbacks aside, it didn’t help that they were frivolous spenders who thought nothing of dropping £30,000 on a table) and began the negotiation process. The deal fell through when it transpired that, thanks to their blood-inked contract, Factory didn’t own most of its artists’ music, including New Order’s. Factory Records was declared bankrupt on 22 November 1992; the Hacienda closed its doors on the 28th of June 1997.

Arguably the most influential independent record label in history, Factory Records became a cultural institution. After its innovative, indulgent 14-year run, it left behind countless tales that have been passed on through generations. Run on sheer civic pride and faith in the music, Factory Records revolutionised the industry and changed the way generations of musicians think.

As Tony Wilson once said, “I’ll just say one word: ‘Icarus’. If you get it, great. If you don’t, that’s fine, too. But you should probably read more.”

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