It may seem overly sentimental that every year I remember Tony both on his birthday and particularly on the anniversary of his death, because that day I felt as though someone had pulled the plug on Manchester. First let’s get all the clichés about Tony out of the way. So It Goes on Granada TV, Factory Records, Joy Division, New Order, The Hacienda Club, Madchester blah blah – tip of the ice berg.
Manchester is now one of the biggest tourist attractions in the UK. Millions of visitors a year, second only to London in England and possibly only London and Edinburgh in the UK. But somehow I have an uneasy feeling that Manchester’s success has been somewhat hi-jacked and that six years on, it’s almost as if Tony Wilson has been written out of that history, because he’s very much the reason that Manchester is what it is today and if he’d still been around it would have been a much more Mancunian flavoured Manchester and unashamedly so, could it be that some people bathing in the reflected glow of glory of Tony’s legacy are after all the glory.
Tony almost single handedly put us on the cultural map worldwide and also kept the ferocious inward debate over what was and wasn’t relevant burning in Manchester. He always had an idea or an opinion, sometimes hi-jacked, sometimes pure sophistry and hyperbole about what, who and why something happened and what was coming next around the corner and how Manchester should always think of itself as a world City and not just a place up north with the thankless task of playing second fiddle to the unthinking cultural metrocentricity amongst London’s cognoscenti. Tony made us write our own history and that’s still happening and that’s why Manchester is so special and unique in so many ways in terms of world cities never mind UK cities.
To Tony our awkwardness as Mancunians, our constant questioning and deflating of egos and often grudefulness at each other’s achievements he saw as a positive force. If all we were doing was moaning, he’d sort of challenge you to do better, think bigger. Given the amount of vitriole Tony often put up with from his fellow Mancunians and Salfordians, and I was very much a constant in that sizeable crew , he chose to stay and enjoy the frisson rather than go off to London and carve out a different path where he could put the doubters and grudgers behind him , but his sheer strength of personality ego and huge self belief wouldn’t allow him to do that – I suspect ultimately he wanted to be President Wilson of The North – and as far as I’m concerned he was.
Tony set the confrontational tone for Manchester; he had a charm and persuasiveness that meant he could go from the nun to the whore. He was annoying to many , , ‘Who does he think he is’ – ,someone well known in Manchester music circles more or less said that a year or so before Tony died – I said ‘who wants to know’, a polite (not like me) way of saying, ‘what the fuck have you ever done’.
So here’s the Tony Wilson I knew. A volcano full of constantly erupting ideas, an intimidating amount of confidence, a sort of fearlessness, never on time, never stuck around for more than thirty minutes unless on home territory, always had time albeit it transient, always engaged with people on a one to one basis, always positive even about ridiculous ideas at times, always encouraging – even about other people’s ridiculous ideas, always loved an argument, rarely bore grudges and a hide like a rhino.
He was to all intents and purposes exactly what we needed in Manchester and need now more than ever. He was a figurehead and a walking coconut shy at the same time. Everyone had an opinion about Tony, like his beloved Manchester United he was hated, adored yet never ignored. He was sometimes wrong and would admit it – eventually – but he always had an opinion and that in itself was exciting and different a charismatic arrogance that was so un-serf like that it was hypnotising to us working class kids in Manchester and very attractive, there’s nothing as life sapping as someone without an opinion, it’s a form of laziness, like they can’t be bothered engaging with life, that was never the case with Tony. So after all this waffling – what exactly did Tony do that made him so special. Well here we go.
Tony’s door was always open; he’d always engage, take a phone call and give a helping hand or even some unhelpful advice. When I was first presenting The Word on Channel 4 I was feeling frustrated about the number of arguments I was having to have to get certain bands and guests I wanted on the show – everything it seemed to me had to go through that Home counties posh kid media prophylactic and if what they put on was shit, I felt that was damaging my ‘brand’ as they’d call it now. I rang Tony – and asked him ‘Tony when you’re the presenter of a TV show – how much say should you have in the programme content’ – Tony paused for a minute , and then quite solemnly said ‘Hmm 11.5% , that’s exactly it , 11.5 % I’d say’. I found myself mesmerised and dumbfounded and said ‘Thanks Tony ‘ and hung up and then thought ‘what the fuck does that mean’. Oh yes, he was exacerbating all the time
Tony could do and excel at anything , he was a brilliant TV presenter – I used to sort of hate him when he did So It Goes and Granada Reports as a teenager , but I was fascinated by him , like he saw where I lived yet through double rose tinted spectacles, he’d bring bands on that were different and introduced me to The Sex Pistols, Ian Dury ,Iggy Pop, Elvis Costello , The Clash and more importantly for us Mancunians a band we already knew about (I was at school with the drummer) Buzzcocks , he made where we lived seem exciting , then he’d interview people like Anthony Burgess and intellectualise about the nature of Mancunians and working class people and our place in the world and the worthwhile contributions we could make . He wasn’t telling me what to think, but almost challenging me and others about how I thought. I’d watch and think posh twat, then carry on watching and tune in next time – fascinated.
Manchester has just had its third International Arts Festival – no way would that have happened without Tony Wilson , nor would the Commonwealth games- so even City fans enjoying the stylish comfort of the Etihad have to thank a United fan for that , although then we should also never forget the contribution of Tony’s Partner in crime at Factory records and the devil on Tony’s shoulder the late Rob Gretton , as true a blue as ever existed and still sorely missed and totally under- appreciated in Manchester .The Commonwealth games came from Manchester’s cheeky failed bid for the Olympics , an idea that came from Tony who basically told the Council , you’re in charge of a big City start acting like it . Now we have numerous arts, literature and music festivals on in Manchester throughout the year – Tony’s In The City , International Music Seminar in Manchester taught the council that these events brought money into the City and Manchester Council were very quick learners in that respect .
You talk about City centre living and how it can feed the culture of a City, it was Tony’s vision after visiting New York and seeing loft apartments in old warehouses and mills , would it work in Manchester and elsewhere – just ask Tom Bloxham of Urban Splash. Walk through most City centres or trendy areas nowadays and look at the names of the bars, all one word names. The first in Manchester to do that was Dry – originally it was going to be called Dry and Hungry on two levels , a bar on the ground floor to get a drink when you were ‘dry’ and a restaurant on the second floor where you could eat when ‘Hungry’. Factory ran out of money and decided they couldn’t afford the restaurant so just used half the name @Dry’ and after that everywhere in the Northern Quarter became one word bars , Blu , Common, Cord, Trof and it went the same way outside of Manchester – genius branding cooked up from the mind of a true genius. As for Tony’s own ambitions, yes he wanted and deserved recognition, he should have had his own show on Channel 4 or BBC 2 looking at the Arts, I groan inwardly every time I see Yentob and his ilk – the sons of privilege trying to communicate the world of ideas to a general audience that they have never moved amongst. As for Tony , thanks to him there have been films made about the Manchester Music scene , 24 Hour Party People, Control, Spike Island Made Of Stone – 4 big music films all set against a backdrop of 12 years of the Manchester music scene between 1978-1990 – and numerous books about Manchester bands and the Manchester music scene , and it’s big , is there a kid in the country nowadays who picks up a guitar and doesn’t start off by learning how to play Wonderwall by Oasis – culturally and historically that sort of stuff is like an atom bomb.
Manchester has a history and generations will absorb and remember and add to it, that was Tony’s vision and its mission accomplished but where’s his official memorial, where’s his statue in town, where’s the street or building named after him. If you live in Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Belfast, and any so-called provincial working class City – don’t you wish you had had a Tony Wilson – don’t you ever imagine what a difference that could have made to where you lived and grew up? It’s been six years and I’m still waiting for an official Anthony H Wilson memorial and it worries me , because as we all know ‘success has many fathers but failure is an orphan’ so let’s give Tony the credit that he truly deserves ,six years is too long and it’s starting to look like he’s being purposefully overlooked and forgotten.
John Cooper Clarke
Mike Garry – St Anthony Poem