James Nice's history of Factory Records begins at the end, with the death of its principal founder Tony Wilson from cancer in 2007. Having outlined Wilson's circumstances – practically penniless, despite having sold millions of records by the likes of Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays – Nice gets on with telling the tale of a high-minded, anti-corporate, post-punk record label that reshaped the musical landscape and later buckled under the weight of its ambition and ineptitude.
Crucially, this isn't Wilson's story, which has already been told in books, documentaries and feature films, but that of a dizzying array of artists, musicians, managers, writers, music fanatics and chancers who helped to build up one of the most important labels in British popular culture.
Factory was born in 1978 in response to the rapidly growing music scene in Manchester. In keeping with punk's DIY ethos, Wilson, a local television presenter and indefatigable music lover, threw his life savings into the company that he called "an experiment in art" alongside the band manager and sometime actor Alan Erasmus.
Having already successfully provided a live platform for bands at the Russell Club in Hulme, the pair recruited producer Martin Hannett and graphic designer Peter Saville to help release records by Joy Division, the Durutti Column and A Certain Ratio. Rob Gretton, Joy Division's manager, would also prove a pivotal character in the Factory story, his ear for a promising band proving considerably more reliable than Wilson's.
Pieced together though archive interviews, old NME and Melody Maker reviews and latter-day conversations, Shadowplayers offers a meticulously researched year-by-year account of the label's beginnings, its triumphs and eventual dissolution. Nice brings an encyclopaedic zeal to his recollections of such fleeting musical oddities as Crawling Chaos, Swamp Children, Biting Tongues and The Wendys, alongside Factory's more famous players.
The author refuses to indulge in sensationalist storytelling – the suicide of Joy Division's Ian Curtis is dealt with in just three pages. And he seeks to put to bed some of the more outlandish stories, such as the rumour that Factory lost three and a half pence on every copy sold of New Order's Blue Monday.
This painstaking, no-nonsense approach has its drawbacks. Nice's insistence on including every showcase, support slot, recorded rarity and B-side in chronological order may make for one of the more reliable Factory accounts, but not always the most thrilling. Yet he does offer some intriguing snapshots such as the "folding parties" in which bands and associates would gather to help package the early Factory samplers, and the time Madonna was pelted with tin cans while performing "Holiday" at the Hacienda.
By the late Eighties, Factory was less a regular label than a multi-media empire comprising bars, shops, offices and the Hacienda nightclub. But even in its perceived heyday at the centre of the "Madchester" scene, the infrastructure was crumbling, the Hacienda had been hijacked by guns and gangs and the coffers were empty, leading to its inglorious collapse in 1992. Now, 32 years after it began, the story of Factory remains both an inspiration and a cautionary tale.
While Nice's book stands as a corrective to some of the crass mythologising, it might also act as a model textbook in how not to run a record label while changing the face of modern culture.Reuse content