Obituary: Rob Gretton
Thursday 20 May 1999
From his early days as a DJ at Rafters nightclub to his involvement as a major shareholder in Factory Records and subsequently the Hacienda club, Gretton's benevolent presence and sharp wit made him as important to his charges as Brian Epstein was to the Beatles. In the space of 20 years with Gretton, Joy Division and subsequently New Order went from alternative local heroes to international act, with over 25 British hit singles along the way. They also influenced a myriad other bands from U2 to Primal Scream via Happy Mondays and today's big beat acts such as the Chemical Brothers and Fat Boy Slim.
Gretton was born in Wythenshawe, a suburb of Manchester, in 1953 and from his early twenties was heavily involved in the Mancunian wing of British punk (The Fall, Buzzcocks, Slaughter and the Dogs). In 1977, he saw a group called Warsaw play Rafters. "Warsaw was just different," he later recalled. "I thought they were the best band I'd ever seen."
At the time Gretton was the manager of the local act the Panik who pinched Warsaw's drummer Steve Brotherdale. They also had their eyes on the manic singer Ian Curtis but he wouldn't leave his bassist Peter Hook and guitarist Bernard Sumner. In fact, having recruited Stephen Morris on drums, Warsaw made some headway. In April 1978, they appeared at Rafters again, in a battle of the bands organised by Stiff and Chiswick Records. Warsaw, by then renamed Joy Division, were drawn last and, though they didn't win the judges over, they impressed a local television presenter Tony Wilson. Gretton also wangled an introduction to Wilson.
Having dumped the Panik, Gretton took over Joy Division's management but instantly ran into problems because of a restrictive deal the group had signed with RCA. The contract offered no advance and minimal royalties and Gretton's solicitor looked over the agreement. When RCA refused to improve the terms, the band offered to buy back the master tapes from the record company. Gretton's bluff worked and Joy Division were released from the contract; he was determined not to jump into bed with a huge corporation too soon.
Tony Wilson, who was managing the Durutti Column with the actor Alan Erasmus, had started a club night called the Factory and Joy Division played there in June 1978. This club night evolved into a record label, with the release in January 1979 of A Factory Sample, a double EP featuring John Dowie, Cabaret Voltaire, The Durutti Column and Joy Division. By then, Joy Division had made its London debut and impressed journalists with their intense performance.
A John Peel session followed and Warner Brothers offered the band a deal through its subsidiary Radar. Joy Division seemed to be following in the footsteps of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, who had already moved from Factory to Virgin, until Gretton intervened.
Tony Wilson explained in Dreams Never End (1995), Claude Flowers' book on New Order and Joy Division:
There was a general acceptance that small labels being a nursery for the majors was okay. And suddenly Rob Gretton turns to me one night and says: "Hmm. Tell you what, obviously we'll go to Warner Brothers and Radar soon and sign up but, before going, why don't we do the first album with you on Factory?" I said: "That's an idea. Are you sure?" I thought it was kind of funny. I figured Rob was doing it as an experiment, but he was doing it to see if it would work. Which indeed it did. And of course, Joy Division later became successful. It then set the reverse mode which is you don't want to sell to the majors.
With the experimental producer Martin Hannett at the helm, Joy Division completed the album Unknown Pleasures (1979), which was released to great critical acclaim and steady sales. The group supported the Buzzcocks on tour but the single "Transmission" didn't become the radio hit they had anticipated. They did make inroads into continental Europe and America, building fan loyalty with a limited edition free flexi-disc, another example of Factory's erratic business approach.
Ian Curtis's private life was becoming increasingly complicated and this, coupled with his epilepsy and the pressures of the band, led him to commit suicide, on 18 May 1980, just before an American tour. "Love Will Tear Us Apart", the melancholic anthem he left behind, entered the UK Top Twenty the following month. Shellshocked, the three remaining members and the manager took stock while the album Closer climbed up the charts. Gretton's determination steadied the nerves of Hook, Sumner and Morris. "We just wanted to take it easy, to work out what we were going to do," explained Gretton. "I remember A Certain Ratio were a little surprised when we showed up to play as their support."
Gretton suggested a new name for the band which turned out to be as controversial as Joy Division (named after the prostitute wing of a concentration camp). He was supposedly reading a Situationist book entitled Leaving the Twentieth Century. "A passage about a new order of architecture stuck in my mind. At the time, I thought it was a very neutral name," he declared, maybe to further incense the media who had often decried the Nazi connotations of Joy Division. The mischievous Gretton sometimes changed the story, claiming he'd seen a News At Ten report or a newspaper article saying that the Khmer Rouge had been renamed the New Order of Kampuchean Liberation.
Gretton invited Gillian Gilbert, Stephen Morris's girlfriend, to join the band full-time on keyboards and guitar. New Order's first shows as a four-piece, in early 1981, proved emotional affairs, but the sound more than lived up to expectations. As the manager famously remarked: "From now on, it's gonna be like the Pink Floyd."
After Movement, their debut album as New Order, the band and Factory parted company with Martin Hannett. Hannett sold his share in the label to the others for pounds 40,000. The sleeve and poster designer Peter Saville thus held a minority 6 per cent share while Gretton and Alan Erasmus each had 31 per cent, Wilson having the upper hand with 32 per cent.
Most Factory artists had no contract with the label but received a 50 per cent royalty rate. Slowly but surely, New Order became the cash cows financing fanciful plans like Factory designer stationery and the setting- up of the Hacienda in 1982 as the Mancunian answer to New York's Danceteria. Madonna appeared there and the "Madchester" phenomenon, launching the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, spread from the nightclub, but it was always a costly vanity venture.
The hypnotic "Blue Monday", created with the New York producer Arthur Baker in 1983, should have helped New Order's finances but, in typical Factory fashion, the 12in single had such an expensive sleeve design that 2p was lost on every copy sold. Given the 600,000 units shifted in the UK alone, the loss proved considerable, although the track confirmed the band's status and their shift to a more danceable sound.
In the late Eighties, following the success of the single "True Faith" and the No 1 album Technique, New Order took a well-deserved break. Hook launched Revenge, while Sumner joined the ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr in Electronic and Morris and Gilbert became the Other Two. These side- projects distracted the musicians and manager who should have been trying to sort out their business affairs and stop Factory squandering money.
In June 1990, "World In Motion" became a British No 1 single and the World Cup anthem, as the footballer John Barnes and the comedian Keith Allen rapped with England New Order, as they were renamed for the occasion. Soon after, a take-over of Factory by London Records was mooted and, rather than feed the whole operation and guarantee debts, the group jumped ship and signed directly to London. In November 1992, Factory Communications Limited went into receivership, leaving many creditors unpaid.
New Order had a narrow escape and, the following year, returned to the Top Five with "Regret" and the album Republic. They made up for lost earnings by fully exploiting their back catalogue whose rights had reverted back to them.
Following another four-year hiatus, the group reunited last year to headline the Reading Festival and appeared at the Manchester Evening News Arena and at Alexandra Palace. More recently, Gretton had launched his own label Rob's Records (on which Sub Sub scored a No 3 hit with "Ain't No Love" in 1993).
Rob Gretton's gambling instincts remained legendary throughout the industry. He famously bet each member of New Order pounds 250 that "Fine Time" would make the Top Ten in December 1988. The single peaked at 11. The following year, another bet on a No 5 chart position for "Round And Round" led to Tony Wilson's resignation as Factory chairman when the track only reached No 21.
Robert Leo Gretton, music manager: born Manchester 15 January 1953; (one son, one daughter by Lesley Gilbert); died Manchester 15 May 1999.
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