Friday 10 July 2015

Known pleasures

The fun factory

When mavericks ran riot, greatness was made, then they went bust

We all have an attachment to the music of our youth, perhaps because it represents the time when you came out of your parents’ shadow, slowly finding your own taste, trying new things and getting slightly obsessive.

Looking back thirty five years, a band from Manchester released an album that seemed extraordinary. Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division remains uncomfortable but it was the announcement that punk was over and the interesting stuff was coming next.

Punk was just the sound of a brick being thrown through the cultural window. Loud and frightening, it achieved the rock and roll thrill of upsetting parents – and challenged every aspect of the music and culture industry.

There were two features that came together in the dying days of an inept Labour government, because in one of the great re-writings of history, punk was an anti-Labour movement. It’s portrayed as being against the Conservatives, especially Margret Thatcher, but it was all over by then and this first great post-punk album was released three weeks before her 1979 victory.

Another underplayed part was that much of this change in musical culture came from the north of England. While the Sex Pistols were raking in the cash from major labels, Manchester’s Buzzcocks were breaking new ground, by releasing their first record on their own label, without the music industry, selling by mail order and with the help of friendly record shop owners.

It also took some devil may care visionaries, such as Terry Hooley of Belfast’s Good Vibrations, Bob Last of Edinburgh’s Fast Product and, of course the only record label boss to be played by Steve Coogan, Tony ‘call me Anthony H’ Wilson and Factory Records.

The album was produced by the deeply strange Martin Hannett and album had the sound of Manchester’s post-industrial desolation, the ideal soundtrack to driving around Moss Side and Hume at night.

Matching this was the cover, originally in a textured sleeve, as black as tarmac with a sparse white graphic, rumoured to be an ECG trace of an orgasm, it showed the pulses recorded by the first pulsar star to be discovered and first published in 1971, republished six years later in an encyclopaedia of astronomy, where the band’s drummer first saw it.

It was a remarkable mix of creative and individual talents that couldn’t have happened in the mainstream industry, apart from anything else, the expensively packaged album sold at a cut price, part of Wilson’s egalitarianism.

Not only that, but a couple of tracks not included in the album were given to Bob Last to issue on a compilation from the Fast Product label.

The album sold well, without troubling the charts and the band went on to produce Atmosphere a monumental song, a second album that was a step further but all of this was overshadowed by the suicide of the singer, Ian Curtis a year after their debut was released, brought on by increasing epilepsy and reactions to medication as his personal life fell apart.

After that, the band changed into New Order and changed their sound. One thing that didn’t change was Wilson’s business methods. The successor band’s released another groundbreaking record, Blue Monday that once again redefined their sound for a new time.

Not all was different, the record had such elaborate packaging that each record cost more to make that it sold for. Wilson thought it would be fine because it wouldn’t sell. It became their biggest success.

That’s not how you make music or run a business, but it was how greatness was made.

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