by carl wilson

Guest Post: A Canadian Remembrance of Tony Wilson

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Canadian readers will probably know Kim Clarke Champniss (above left) from his days on MuchMusic and his other TV appearances as a figure on the national music scene for decades. He got in touch the other day and said that he'd written up this appreciation of the late Tony Wilson (above right), the newspapers hadn't bitten, and might I be interested in putting it up online? So here it is. While for many readers it might be retreading some overly familiar subcultural ground, I like its evocation of the new-wave era of Kim's youth in Vancouver, and its reminders about the roots of things like Nettwerk Records which would go on to be institutions. Hope you enjoy it. - C.W.

I was saddened to hear that Tony Wilson of Factory Records fame died of a heart attack brought on by kidney failure. I'm sure the British music press will be all over the story singing the praises of one of the most important men of the new-wave scene of the 1980s and the "Madchester" scene of the 1990s, one of the most influential men on the British indie scene, who broke such bands as New Order and The Happy Mondays. But his importance, or more accurately, his record label's influence on the worldwide scene was crucial. Even here in Canada, Tony Wilson influenced our musical heritage.

I am a case in point. Tony Wilson released Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart on Factory Records. That song, that band, that wonderful artwork, changed my life forever. It caught a moment in time, never to be repeated. And I was not the only one profoundly affected by the music and the art. At the time that record was released in 1980, I was living in Vancouver and a deejay at the notorious new wave nightclub, The Luv-a-Fair, arguably the most influential new-wave club in North America at the time.

The international music scene was in the post-disco, post-punk period. Joy Division, the flagship band of the fledgling label, had a dark, romantic sound. The graphics on the album, designed by Peter Saville, and the whole packaging of Factory Records product, were an artistic statement in themselves. Coupled with the mysterious, brooding music and lyrics of Joy Division, they were a profound statement. Every transmitter needs a receiver, and Tony Wilson, who was overseeing this music and art of his label, connected with many of us in the Vancouver scene.

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My deejay partner at the Luv-a-Fair nightclub was Steven R. Gilmore, now a renowned artist who contributed to The Lord of the Rings and provided graphic design for such artists as Skinny Puppy. Steven was deeply affected by the artwork and music of this Manchester label. He and I would purchase Factory Records product just because we trusted the musical direction of the label. The packaging was exquisite. The music was insightful and inspirational and somehow had its finger on the dark, brooding isolation that many of us were feeling.

One of the main music stores to sell the imported Factory Records product was Cinematica on Vancouver's 4th Avenue. The manager of the store, and the individual that ordered the music, was Terry McBride. Terry has since become an international music success story running Nettwerk Records and Management Company. Today he manages such artists as Avril Lavigne, Sarah McLachlan and the Barenaked Ladies. But back in the early '80s he sold records to Steven and myself hoping that we would make them hits at the Luv-a-Fair. Terry knew that many of the club's patrons, like Steven and me, were captivated by the myth of Factory Records, so he would monitor what we were playing and order extra copies, not just of Joy Division, but of other cool acts like A Certain Ratio and (after Ian Curtis's suicide) New Order, and get a jump on the competition.

In 1981 I stepped down from the deejay booth to manage a young Vancouver band called Images In Vogue. These five musicians, pioneers of the Canadian electronic scene, were also influenced by Tony Wilson's musical savvy. The band would christen their music publishing company "Edition Divisionale" as a tribute to Joy Division, and the band’s first EP, Educated Man, which was designed by Steven R. Gilmore, was reminiscent of Peter Saville's graphics on Factory.

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Four years later Terry McBride, along with two other partners, would launch Nettwerk Records. Steven was recruited to design the album graphics for the label's three simultaneous releases - the Grapes of Wrath, Skinny Puppy (featuring the former drummer of Images in Vogue), and Moev - which were, of course reminiscent of Factory Records. Steven was also commissioned to design Nettwerk's logo. For inspiration, he examined the stylized "f" of the Factory Record label and designed the "N" of Nettwerk in such a fashion. That logo remains to this day.

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The triple release by Nettwerk in 1985, with gorgeous graphics and cutting-edge music supplied by the three bands, had a major impact around the world. A myth built up around the Nettwerk record label, similar to Factory Records, which of course was the whole point.

In 1986 MuchMusic hired me and I left Vancouver for Toronto. Part of my on-air duties was to host the alternative music show City Limits. Needless to say, I featured many videos by Factory artists like New Order, who had fused rock and dance music to become a hugely successful band, and the Happy Mondays, who had plugged into the whole British ecstasy scene. The heart of that rave culture was Manchester, Tony's hometown, which came to be known as "Madchester." The number-one club in the city was the Hacienda - owned by Tony Wilson and members of New Order. So MuchMusic dispatched cameras and I traveled to the Factory Records head office to obtain Tony's view on what made Manchester a great music town, and why he and Factory Records became so influential: Passion, he would say.

Tony, who was like me also a pop-culture TV presenter, reverted to his classier birth name Anthony Wilson in the mid-'90s. He organized the Manchester music convention "In the City," and would often attend Canadian Music Week as a guest speaker, influencing yet another generation of music folk. That's where our paths last crossed in 2005.

The story of Tony Wilson, Factory Records, and the Manchester scene, has been immortalized in the brilliant mockumentary 24-Hour Party People, a must-see for any music fan. It documents how Mr. Wilson famously made no money - "but made history." Despite the appreciation and nurturing of pop art and its artists, Tony Wilson was not a good businessman. Factory Records never owned its recordings' master tapes. It existed only as brand, a vision of its passionate owner. The Hacienda, as well, despite its legend, made no money.

In 2006 Tony Wilson was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He was told that the drugs to treat his cancer would cost 3,500 pounds a month (over $7,000). He did not have the means to cure the illness. Possibly, in the long run, he regretted the decision to put art above commerce.

When I read of his passing it brought back memories, and the remembrance of that music, of that golden period which shaped my life. A copy of Love Will Tear Us Apart still hangs, beautifully framed, on my wall - a reminder of how a single song changed my life, a single piece of art that showed me a direction when I was rebelling against a predictable Canadian music scene. It renewed my belief in the power of popular music.

Tony, you did make history. Many roads lead back to you. This is my way of saying thanks. - Kim Clarke Champniss, Toronto, August 2007

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Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, August 16 at 1:14 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

COMMENTS

This piece reminds me of the wealth of knowledge Kim has about music and it's historic origins. It also reminds me how much of a fan of music he is. It also makes me think about my first entry into the Manchester/UK subculture in the early eighties. My first imported LP was Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures (FAC 10) and I bought it at the Record Peddler, one of the few places you could buy UK imports in those days in Toronto. At the time it was located right next door to CityTV on King Street East. I remember being attracted by the textured cover and minimalist artwork...for similar reasons the music was a revelation and continues to be (I just played it again after getting my turntable set up in my home after too long a hiatus last year). Thanks for giving this piece and Kim's more reflective perspective a voice.

Posted by Phil on August 17, 2007 12:04 PM

 

 

awesome post. a few pieces of luv-a-fair's music library ended up in my record collection and i'm happy to see them in a new light.

Posted by david b on August 17, 2007 11:18 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson