Shaun Ryder: “Tony Wilson made history”

How best to remember Tony Wilson 10 years on from his death? Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder says the much-missed Factory Records boss would still be a game changer

It’s 10 years since music was robbed of the brilliant Tony Wilson following the Factory Records impresario’s horribly early death at just 57. Wilson launched Happy Mondays to fame in the late 1980s and frontman Shaun Ryder formed a lasting friendship with him. Ryder laughs when asked for an abiding memory of Wilson, and recalls something suitably irreverent.

“The thing I think with Tony is he gave me one of the worst pieces of advice ever,” he reflects. “And it was: you wanna share the money equally with all the other band members. Share the writing royalties, share it all equally, because it’ll all go a lot smoother if you do.

Tony gave me one of the worst pieces of advice ever..!

“So I did that, and do you know what? It was the biggest fucking mistake I ever made. That makes me laugh, that – but that was Tony trying to do good.”

Wilson was a Cambridge-educated intellectual, trade unionist, Situationist, Granada TV star and post-punk record-label co-founder. Ryder was a street urchin singer and songwriter with an appetite for drugs so ferocious he once infamously sold his clothes to buy crack (he’s now several years clean).

Despite both hailing from Salford, the two should probably never have crossed paths, much less worked together and formed a deep and long-lasting bond which once saw Wilson describe Ryder’s slice-of-life, vernacular-heavy lyrics as being “on a par with WB Yeats”.

That was the brilliance of Wilson, who died after complications from renal cancer. He had a natural gift for spotting, nurturing and promoting talent that cut across boundaries. “Tony loved us because he thought we were like this gang of mates, and he liked us as people,” remembers Ryder, who continues to tour with a reformed Happy Mondays, and recently released a new album with his other band, Black Grape.

Tony Wilson

Wilson was many things to many people. Broadcasting iconoclast. Situationist
agitator. Flawed entrepreneur. Creative visionary who arguably changed the face of the British music industry forever. “Twat”, according to posters for Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 Factory Records biopic 24 Hour Party People (which Wilson played a major part in helping shape).

But above all things, Wilson was motivated by a deep love for Manchester and Salford, and their people. His “heroic flaw”, he once claimed, was “an excess of civic pride”.

That said, all roads would have eventually led south for Wilson if he were still with us, according to a man who knew him better than most. “I think if Tony were still alive today he probably would have made that move to London and become an even bigger success in television and chat shows and everything else,” reckons Ryder.

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“As much as he loved Manchester, he eventually would have had to go and I
think probably move to make some money. He wanted to stay in Manchester. He believed passionately in Manchester and Salford and what you could do from the North. He had a really, really good go at it. He made history. But I’m sure if he were alive today he’d be in London.”

Wilson nor anybody else ever really made any money out of Factory (pictured below), where hippy idealism, fancy aesthetics and cultural significance always tended to trump financial expediency. Many artists never signed proper contracts with the label and were allowed to retain full ownership of their music, ultimately leaving Factory without any rights to its catalogue when the label failed in the early 1990s.

Staff at Factory Records, 1989
Staff at Factory Records, 1989

Factory lost 5p on every copy sold of New Order’s massive 1983 hit Blue Monday on account of its over-elaborate – albeit beautiful – die-cut sleeve by designer Peter Saville. And for all its significance as a mecca of the acid house movement, the iconic Haçienda nightclub that Factory founded in Manchester in 1982 was poorly run and haemorrhaged money.

Ironically, cash became a matter of life and death for Wilson towards the end, as he struggled to afford a £3,500-per-month bill for medication which the NHS refused to fund. Speaking just weeks before he died, Wilson tragicomically remarked: “I used to say ‘some people make money and some make history’, which is very funny until you find you can’t afford to keep yourself alive.”

Irrespective of his dissatisfaction with the financial advice Wilson gave him all those years back, Ryder – who spent 12 years in receivership repaying an ex-manager up until 2010 – doesn’t doubt for a second that the music industry would be better, or at least more interesting, were Wilson still a part of it.

“Of course music would be better if he were still involved in it,” he opines, “because Tony would  still be doing the same sort of thing, in a very different way. If Tony were involved now he probably would be pushing the grime scene or something.”

In 24 Hour Party People – a wilfully mischievous merging of fact and fiction – there’s a scene in which Wilson, played with Alan Partridge-esque comic flourish by Steve Coogan, has a gun pulled on him by Ryder in a dispute over the Happy Mondays’ ill-starred 1992 album Yes Please! sessions in Barbados, which were so drug-addled, drawn-out and expensive they ultimately bankrupted Factory.

If Tony were involved now he probably would be pushing the grime scene or something

But Ryder brushes off the suggestion that there was ever any real animosity like that between them. “When the Mondays split up, we had a little bit of a disagreement, but that was like for an hour and that was it,” he says. “He knocked on me door and said, ‘You fucked up’, and I was like, ‘Come on Tony.’ And that was it, it was finished with.”

Asked for a memory of Wilson that makes him laugh, Ryder chooses one from their common appreciation of narcotic indulgence. “I remember how he used to drive around Manchester in his Jag, and he’d built a special little contraption near his steering wheel where he used to skin his joints up and do lines [of cocaine]. You’d see him driving past on his way from one studio to somewhere else, where he was doing the news or whatever.

“I do miss him,” says Ryder of his old friend, who he still thinks about often, including recently surrounding the One Love Manchester concerts held in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombing. That outpouring of love and solidarity for the city and its music would, thinks Ryder, have appealed greatly to Wilson’s “civic pride”, not to mention his enjoyment of oratory flourish. “He would definitely have been stood up next to Ariana Grande making some big speeches.”

Black Grape’s new album Pop Voodoo is out now