Factory Records: Food For Thought

Lots of people thought that Operation Julie was a bit of an anachronism. Who, in the late Seventies, could be dropping all those tabs? It almost certainly isn’t the folks at Factory Products, but MARY HARRON knows it’s no accident that they called their company after Andy Warhol’s legendary Sixties sweatshop. Is granny taking trips all over again, this time in Manchester?

HUNDREDS OF groups, a surge of independent labels, dozens of quirky, experimental singles – there may be more going on now in the north of England than at any time since Merseybeat.

But the differences between the two eras are more important than the similarities. Merseybeat began a cycle and created an audience; it came forward on a groundswell of teenage frenzy and was, despite the innocuous lyrics, very much about sex. The new music is the second part of a cycle that began in 1976. It is carried by the momentum left over from punk, and tends to be sexless, introverted and complex.

The cycle begun with Merseybeat ended up with psychedelia, in a vast dayglo wreckage. The question now is whether we are seeing history repeat itself, with a new version of psychedelia. No answers on offer here, just a look at the evidence – in this case Factory Records, an independent label in Manchester’s Hulme district.

FACTORY RECORDS began as a partnership between Alan Erasmus, an actor, and Tony Wilson, a presenter on Granada Television. Wilson was responsible for So It Goes, the first television programme to champion new wave. Disappointed by the hostile reaction to So It Goes, Wilson decided to use his undoubted talent-spotting ability on the business side. He and Erasmus began by promoting concerts at the Russell Club in Manchester, which they re-named The Factory. They stopped promoting in October 1978, to start their own label. Erasmus is the organiser; Wilson provides the finance and chooses the bands.

Stylish, adventurous, and occasionally irritating, Factory Records now have 13 products listed in their catalogue. The list includes three posters, one EP, four singles, two albums and a film called Factory Flick, made by 20-year-old Charles Salem, which will be shown at the Scala Cinema in London later this year. There is also an arty object called “The Factory Egg Timer” that has yet to make an appearance.

The packaging and production are exquisite. “We’re only a small label,” says Wilson, “but we have one of the best designers, and one of the best producers, in the country.”

The designer is Peter Saville, who became involved with Factory after leaving art college in Manchester last year. Each of his record covers is based on information supplied by the group – the graphic on the Joy Division album is, in fact, a graph of the radio waves emanating from an imploding star that guitarist Bernard Albrecht found in a science book.

“Everything on Factory is designed, as opposed to decorated,” says Saville. His primary concerns are typography and the arrangement of information: the results have a clarity and elegance that you won’t find on the records put out by any of the major labels.

The producer is Martin Hannett, a.k.a. Martin Zero. Once described to me as “an acid casualty of the heavier variety, but a very brilliant man,” Hannett is obviously very sharp, beneath his vague, stoned manner, and his productions are immaculate. Hannett’s past credits include Spiral Scratch, Jilted John’s first hit, most of John Cooper Clark’s records (he also manages Clark), and a forgotten album by Belt and Braces which was, he says, “unintentionally, the greatest comedy record of all time.”

Hannett, Erasmus and Wilson are all in their late 20s, and come from a different culture to the bands on Factory records, who are all in their late teens and very early 20s – just too young to have experienced the Sixties.

I asked Tony Wilson if he thought the present movement was a move back to the psychedelic era. He replied: “No – I just think it’s going through the same process. A youth culture happens, and the music is entirely dependent on the vibrancy of that culture, right? The present music culture has been vibrant ever since June 2, 1976, when the Sex Pistols first played. Now the previous culture lasted about seven years, from 1963 to ’70, before it bombed out and everyone lost that vibrancy – for the simple reason that that was a group of kids and that’s how long their liveliness lasted. I would imagine that it will happen in the same way again. I think we’re at about 1966.”

THE GROUPS on Factory Records have inherited the audience created by the Buzzcocks and other punk groups. Joy Division started at that time, three years ago, playing under the name Warsaw. Ignored in their early days, they are the fashionable group of the moment. Their album, Unknown Pleasures, received rave reviews for its power, authority and searing vision. I found at least half of it to be turgid and monotonous, and the vocals heavy and melodramatic – Jim Morrison without flair. But what was really unsettling was that the obscurity of the lyrics, and the whole atmosphere of vague fears and approaching doom, seemed to hearken back to the late Sixties, when people lived ten feet off the ground in a mixture of ecstasy and acute paranoia.

The songs are a series of disconnected images; Ian Curtis says he writes the lyrics to an imaginary film. The purpose of this surrealistic montage is not to convey a message, but to arouse strange feelings.

One clue to Joy Division lies in their album’s title. Another is the description given by Martin Hannett, who calls them “dancing music, with gothic overtones”. Unintentionally, Bernard Albrecht gave an excellent description of “gothic” in our interview, when describing his favourite film, Nosferatu. “The atmosphere is really evil, but you feel comfortable inside it.” All the fear and excitement of a nightmare, with the comfort of being awake.

19th Century gothic tales used ruined castles and vampires as symbols of vague subconscious terrors. Joy Division are 20th Century gothic, and their images of assassins, imprisonment, pursuit, draw off the modern nightmare. To me, it’s the totalitarian state.

But when I asked if the images were about Nazi Germany, they seemed quite taken aback. “That’s what is suggests to you,” they said. If Joy Division were trying to get a message across, the fact that I saw something that they don’t would be a failure in communication. As it is, the songs act as a kind of Rorschach test, where you look at the ink-blots and see your own fears.

There is nothing wrong with what Joy Division are doing, I just don’t think they succeed often enough. A few lines connect brilliantly: “And she turned around and took me by the hand, and said ‘I’ve lost control again’,” has the mysterious feeling of tenderness and loss you find in dreams. If there were more moments like that and if Joy Division were really playing gothic dance music – as on ‘Shadowplay’ and ‘She’s Lost Control’ – instead of gothic dirges, they could be wonderful.

Joy Division are Factory Records’ critical success. Orchestral Manoeuvres and the Distractions are their chance to make the charts.

Orchestral Manoeuvres and Andy McClaskey and Paul Humphreys. On stage they are three with McClaskey on keyboards and synthesizers, Humphreys on bass and vocals and a tape machine on percussion. This sounds very modern and electronic but their single ‘Electricity’/’Almost’ has an earlier feel. If this small, perfect record has a parallel, it’s as a less sinister version of Love’s Forever Changes – light, pretty, eerie music, floaring out of nowhere.

The band started by accident last November, when the two booked a night at Eric’s in Liverpool, to try out some of their ideas. They couldn’t find a drummer, so they used a tape instead.

“I don’t consider us to be electronic, as such” says Humphreys “It’s just that with only the two of us, we had to use a bit of gadgetry to make it all work. And that kind of stuff is interesting. But once we get bored with synthesizers, we’ll find something else.”

Orchestral Manoeuvres are one of the few experimental groups I can think of who are best experienced on record. Their stage act is uneven – it’s not easy, timing yourself into a tape – and spoiled by Humphrey’s pop star antics, which distract terribly from the music’s cool fun. But they do have a wonderful sense of melody, and you can’t help but like a group who claim their main influence was ‘Telstar’.

Tony Wilson thinks the Distractions are like one of the early psychedelic bands that sprang up in Austin, Texas in 1966 – the ones found on the Nuggets albums – but I think he’s letting his theory run away with him there. They are much more of a new wave version of Merseybeat. Mike Finney, the lead singer, says: “When we started, everyone saw us as post-Hamburg Beatles, but we didn’t intend it to be that. We hoped we were doing something original.”

On stage Finney looks like an engaging junior bank clerk, in his glasses and three-piece suit; the bass player, Pip Nicholls, looks like Tina Weymouth’s kid sister. Seeing them perform in Manchester was a reminder of how different the atmosphere is in clubs up North. There, unlike in London, you find the true Saturday night – the undercurrent of excitement that comes from dressing up for the week’s evening out. On the dance floor, a group of teenage boys went through a strange, ritual scrimmage – pretending to attack but touching only lightly – like cubs play-fighting.

The group have only been playing for a year, and the inexperience shows. The first half of their set was clumsy and boring; the second half confident and exciting. At their best they are full of energy and charm, with only one danger ahead: if they get any more charming, they will be cute.

The Distractions are the only group on Factory Records who can say, without hesitation, what their songs are about: “They’re all love songs, ranging from disappointment to hatred.”

Guitarist Adrian White explains that “everyone has this perfect image of love. It’s like an image of paradise that can never be. And when it doesn’t work out, you hate it.” Mike Finney adds that “in real life – which none of us know much about, apart from signing on – there’s no way you can make love last forever. But it would be nice if it did, which is why we sing about it.”

Their modern love songs include ‘Waiting For The Rain’, about bi-sexual love, and ‘One Way Love’ – “When we sing that, everyone thinks it’s about this imaginary girlfriend. Actually it’s about masturbation.”

What makes the Distractions more than just charming, and more than a revival, is the rawness in their music and the fact they deal with aspects of life that the early boy/girl songs wouldn’t touch. ‘Pillowfight’, the B-side of their new single, is a song about infidelity that manages to pack a whole range of conflicting emotions – jealousy, hurt, curiosity, pity, resentment – into a few words:

What did you waken up to find lying next to you
Just a man whose taken up your time is that really you
Did you fall for sympathy made you easy game
Is he your kind I bet you don’t know his name.

AFTER THIS single, Factory Records expect the Distractions to sign with a major label, and hope the same for all their groups, as only the major companies can pay musicians a living wage. Factory sign no contracts, and say that so far mutual trust has worked out.

But there is one group that is actually managed by Factory. This is A Certain Ratio, whose single, ‘All Night Party’, is, so far, the least successful of all the label’s releases.

It’s a terrible record, with a doomy voice intoning “significant” lyrics, saved somewhat by a nice guitar thrash. Part of the criticism, in reviews, was directed towards the record jacket, which displays Factory’s tiresome fondness for in-jokes. The picture is an Andy Warhol style silk screen of a photograph of the dead Lenny Bruce. This is a play on Warhol having called his New York studio “The Factory”. The cover is laid out like a page from a pop art book, with a description of the work: “Paper and vinyl construction in an edition of 5,000”. All very interesting, once someone has explained it to you.

A Certain Ratio chose the photograph of Bruce for the cover because they felt it related to their lyrics in some way, as a comment on the callousness of society. As you might guess from that, they are a young band – 17 to 21 – and take themselves very seriously indeed. Riddled with identity crises and adolescent angst, they are Factory Records’ most likely candidates for pretension. However, right now, like Joy Division, they aren’t making great claims: “None of our songs has any specific meaning.”

They do have an endearing side. Like the way they used to write letters to George Clinton, one of their heroes, asking him to produce them. In the early days, they say, “we couldn’t play at all, so we just made weird noises. We liked weird noises. We used to carry on the songs for 15 minutes – turn up the amps, put whistles in our mouths and just go crazy”.

That was before they had a drummer. Now they have Donald Johnson, who trained in funk and jazz. The interesting thing is that he has fitted into the group, without changing his style.

“That was the intention. We liked the Velvets and a lot of James Brown, so we sort of crossed them,” they say hopefully.

That sounds like James Chance and the Contortions, although I doubt if A Certain Ratio have ever heard of them, and they have none of Chance’s splenetic passion. But having Johnson on drums has caused a change of direction that looks like their salvation. The singer now does funky little dance steps; less self-absorption, more willingness to entertain. The band have started to play more coherently. Now, slouched over their instruments, they look obsessive instead of just depressed.

TONY WILSON says: “What happens is that after the first, naive stage of the music, the kids mature. And as they mature they begin to want more and more from it. And, hopefully, the bands that have grown up with them will give them more – like the Beatles moved from ‘Please Please Me’ to ‘Strawberry Fields’.”

Personally, I would rather listen to ‘Please Please Me’ than ‘Strawberry Fields’. As with the Sixties, this second stage is not necessarily an improvement on the first, but it is inevitable. The old dynasty must go, new things must be tried.

History never repeats exactly. But there is one important parallel here: apart from the Distractions, all the Factory groups have turned away from daily life, towards what in the Sixties would have been termed “inner space”. What the Sixties groups achieved was no more than what Joy Division achieve – a series of thrilling sensations. But because this exploration was done through drugs, they thought they were discovering cosmic truths.

Without drugs, today’s explorations are private and bewildered, which at least is honest. And if the Eighties version of LSD and apocalyptic fervour reappears, if groups start pointing to their lyrics with a look of radiant understanding and say, “It’s there but you just can’t see it”…ah well, then we will have something to worry about.

© Mary HarronMelody Maker, 29 September 1979

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