The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Factory Records
Communications 1978-92 Mick Middles , January 20th, 2009 07:37

The truth is in here. A box set which nakedly offers proof of this pudding. As Simon Reynolds recently noted, the 'duds' of the Factory roster are many and utterly swamp the fleeting glimpses of perfection.

As such, the cinematic and literary myth surrounding the label can seem rather odd. Whereas more focused labels - and labels that operated a genuine policy of perceptive A&R - could never hope to find themselves the central element of films, books and the kind of Chinese whispering that, year after year, sees legions of young bucks from Portsmouth and Suffolk heading into Mancunia to live amid the echoes of a cultural history.

The irony, of course, is that the myth lies in the defeat, however gloriously that may be presented. In the intelligent waxing of Mr Wilson Factory had a true PR gem, even through times when the NME asked questions such as "When will someone shut the fucking place down?", one still felt a fondness for a label that so fearlessly married graphic elegance to clunky and lumpen post-punk.

They were nothing if not unique, however. Despite passing on such lame ducks as Oasis, Soft Cell, Stones Roses and, frankly, God knows who else, Factory would feverishly cling to the aesthetic trudging of Section 25 (who have improved with age), the warped avant-funk of Crispy Ambulance, Stockholm Monsters and Thick Pigeon.

But there are diamonds amongst the debris. The Distractions' 'Time Goes By So Slow' cements a moment in Manchester when this most intriguing of pop bands - far beyond 'power pop'- would add the counterbalance to the darkness of Joy Division. The Distractions were fascinating, a whole messy tumble of sexual dynamic that filtered into their short, sharp songs. Factory couldn't hold them and they departed to make one shockingly produced album for Island before being dropped, legend tells, in favour of a certain Irish rock band.

A Certain Ratio are captured in ramshackle embryonic glory with four sublime outings. 'Shack Up', 'Knife Slits Water', 'Flight' and the prophetic debut, 'All Night Party'. In those days the band struggled to live up to their manager's (AHW) dream. "They are the Sex Pistols," he once told me. Clearly they were nothing of the sort. Stylishly in short back and sides and baggy grey suits, they were chasing a music beyond their means, their most obvious influences - Funkadelic, Ohio Players - screaming from beneath their early musicality. It was always a great shame that, come the day ACR started to fulfill their musicianly promise, Tony Wilson had closed his ears. ACR would surge through a career that continues a shadowy greatness to this day. They remain curmudgeonly... and groovy to the few.

Mike Pickering's rise through the Factory hierarchy, as booker/esoteric house DJ at The Hacienda through to a post Factory life as superstar at the helm of M People is one of the strangest Factory stories. He is represented here by Quando Quango's 'Love Tempo', which, given its crossbreed funk breakbeat backbone, has dated to interesting effect. At the point of release, with Quando Quango touring as support to New Order in the States, they really did seem like the correct place to linger. Looking back at the bare bones of a half-band that existed on the other side of Pickering's remarkable career, both in the esoteric and in the mainstream, their sound now seems strange prophetic. (Mike Pickering had survived time alongside Martyn Fry in the pre ABC Sheffield funksters, Vice Versa),

Throughout the core of Factory, falling in and out of love with Wilson along the way, are Durutti Column. The mesmeric delicacy of Vini Reilly's guitar becoming increasingly enhanced by Bruce Mitchell's intelligent tub-thumping. Yet the four Durutti Column songs presented here are a mere spit in the ocean.

Disc Two is a largely a joyless affair, although it's great to re-acquaint with Wigan's The Railway Children and the unlikely re-emergence of ex Sweet Sensation popster, Marcel King, whose 'Reach For Love', in some way, enjoyed the musical area that ACR were merely dreaming of. (Happy Mondays, the saviours of mid/late Factory, could also claim to be walking in the shoes left by ACR and, one has to admit, they are probably Factory's most astute signing). Northside too, with their charismatic surging footy anthems, will always remind me of fond damp Tuesday nights in Moston, lingering beneath the yellow lights... Northside held an impish beauty and should - they really should - have pushed on to a success beyond supplying Granada the soundtrack to their Soccer Nights.

Other notables might be 52nd Street's infectious elektro-funk on 'Cool as Ice' and the drifting summer jazz strumming of the underrated Kalima. Despite the pleasure one finds in unearthing these joys, ploughing through much of the sad, witless and clunky music on disc two serves as a reminder that while Factory Records could fleetingly stand for genuine inspirational artistic release, more often than not it stood for precisely the reverse. A good deal of the unlistenable cuts here are precisely the reason why sleeve note writer Paul Morley turned his attention away from post punk to concentrate on primal coloured 80s pop. As an antidote, one always sensed, to the stifling music of the grey raincoat.

Foe a short while it seemed that a funny little folksy band who wore shoes that looked like Cornish pasties might save the label, Didsbury and the world. That band, James, would eventually fade to a rather tedious success but here, on this box set, they still glisten with fabulous rawness of possibility.

However, we still return to the notion that it was the wholly obvious nature of Factory's flaws (who in their right mind would release the hollow drabness of Tunnel Vision's 'Watching the Hydroplanes'? Well... we know who).

But for all that, or because of all that, we still have to love Factory. Even following the fake swell of sycophantic Wilson worshipping that has swept through Manchester since his untimely death, I have to admit to harbouring a fondness I never felt for, say, Cherry Red or Beggars Banquet.

The packaging, of course, stays true to Savillian Factoryesque tradition and, alone, makes this something to own. An artefact bereft of a FAC number because, it has been said, only Tony himself could hand those out. That stated, it is a rather conservative looking affair replicating the very label's first release, A Factory Sample.

But, for the serious Factory collector, what is there here that might be termed 'new'? Paul Morley's sleeves notes are a brilliant illumination, as one would expect even if every line seems well-trodden. Compiler Jon Savage has skilfully avoided controversy although one is left believing this to be the final - surely?- update of the more stylish 1991 set, Palatine.

Throughout, the lifespan of these tracks - 1978-92 - still presents me with a problem. In order to take a more holistic view, which a box set begs, one has to have been hovering around the Manchester scene during that period and it's impossible to do that without thinking back to some of the great local music that never found itself projected onto the Factory roster. Had Factory's insular A&R policy been open to the vibrant charms of, say, Johnny Dangerously in the mid-80s (Later to emerge as I Am Kloot's John Bramwell) or The Chameleons, Yargo, Inspiral Carpets, Easterhouse, The Blue Orchids and any one of several incarnations of The Fall just to grab a random handful, then one realises just how immense and true to the flamboyant heart of Manchester talent this box set could have been. As is its...too many dirges in the dark.

Much too much here is simply mundane. While that remains a shame, it was still a label postulating with brittle personalities and rampant egos. It STILL managed to remain strangely fascinating.