Tony Wilson, Canonised Yes – A Brand No

Courtesy of Paul Wolfgang Webster

Courtesy of Paul Wolfgang Webster

Eight years after his death I’m happy that the late Tony Wilson is still very much a spiritual presence in Manchester and about to be celebrated and talked about more than ever thanks to the Mike Garry poem , St Anthony, being released on Monday , a poem that Mike crafted back in 2007 that I still think was beamed to him from another dimension by Tony Wilson. The St Anthony poem is basically an A-Z list of Tony and Tonyisms , his interests , achievements and his place in our hearts as Mancunians. It’s one of my proudest boasts that back in 2007 , desperate to do some kind of real tribute on the radio to Tony I managed to get 5 hours of air time on Christmas day night off BBC Radio Manchester and then plunged myself into a hellish 3 weeks of working until 5am most days and managing on 3 or 4 hours sleep a night interviewing and editing and mixing for a series of tributes to be pushed together and beamed out there. I felt I owed Tony that , but the programming was in 3 segments so I wondered how to link the segments , so I thought some poetry and then spotting Johnny Vegas , I got him to do a rant about Tony Wilson.

The poets I asked to write poems about Tony Wilson were Julian Daniel and Mike Garry. At the time I thought Julian’s would be the better poem as Julian had briefly met him , but after reading Mike’s book ‘Gorton Girls know all the Words to Songs By Chaka Khan ‘ I thought he’d perhaps bring something wordier and more epic and Julian’s was good, but Mike Garry’s was an epic beyond expectations and I was stunned , it just was so Tony . Finally that epic poem has been set to an orchestrated version of New Order’s Your Silent Face by Joe Dudell and there’s a video with some old looking Mancunian faces on it too and it’ll be all over the Guardian and the rest of the media over the next few weeks. I’m sure much of the coverage will be an adoption by some of ‘brand Wilson’ but I’m just happy that there’ll finally be some recognition in the media for Tony’s anniversary this year , the first time really since he died 8 years ago and I chuckle to myself that I’ve played a part in Canonising intellectual atheist Anthony H Wilson ( his ex wife Lindsay Reade recently asked me why Tony as an atheist would want the last rites , wasn’t it hypocritical . I told her us Catholic boys took a peculiar comfort from the smells and bells and the rituals and that Tony was after all more paradoxical than most)

It doesn’t matter to me that Tony’s perhaps being adopted by some as a fashion accessory , he’d probably seen that coming in his crystal ball and no doubt chuckling at the fact that so many people are still dancing to his tune but it does anger some people that they feel his legacy and what he was really about is being given a corporate make-over.

Tony had a Jedi like talent for understanding Manchester as a force and understanding what it needed or maybe that should be making it understand that what it needed was his ideas . As a City it’s a euphemism free zone and we’re not very good at mawkish sentimentality but it contains a bottled up energy that can fizz and explode and Tony liked to keep shaking that bottle up with ideas and popping the cork every now and then .

It was always interesting for me having worked on a variety of different radio and TV shows how different Tony was to his contemporaries. I’ve been with ¬†other recognisable ‘show biz’ names who’d visibly wince and shrink when someone shouted out ‘Oy you wanker and worse’. Tony seemed to revel in those types of comments , and accept them like you would a cheery hello. I always admired that and the way he’d often go out of his way to encourage it. Looking back now I wonder if it wasn’t to encourage that lack of deference for so-called respectability and fame , after all what could be more ridiculous for a human being than looking up to or admiring someone just for being on TV or radio and what could be more pathetic than expecting to be looked up to for saying lines into a camera. Tony was all about inspiring and encouraging even if that meant just being something for people to kick against.

He once gave me a lift from The Hacienda to Piccadilly Radio in his jag , I commented that he must have a few quid and he bemoaned the fact he was broke. I said so is it all fur coat and no knickers then Tony and he replied along the lines of it’s a very tatty fur coat on HP but the knickers are paid for. I’m still working that one out. I also asked him once – as a Catholic boy like myself , if he ever went to Mass , and he said , only if I’m in New York , it’s better there – I just nodded as if I understood what he was on about , flummoxed by his Jedi mind trick.

Tony felt it was the job of Mancunians to annoy everyone else and I did find this appealing often to my personal cost but at the same time it’s kept me grounded and plugged into the real world and that’s the area Tony , for all his S J Perilman , Menke and Chomsky quotes occupied fully.

There’s an old Irish saying often used about an Irish characteristic and getting big ideas , where someone is often dismissed as having ‘more plans than the town hall’ . Tony did indeed have more plans than Manchester town hall and they’ve come to fruition , even though many were carried out not in a way he’d approve of or for the benefit of the people he’d want them to. Tony was really about working class Manchester not middle class hippies turning ideas into a few quid. I’d hate to think how he’d feel about ex Bullingdon club member George Osborne using his name in vain while talking up the idea of a Northern Powerhouse and all those sterile art grant hoover uppers in their hipster beards .
I’m glad that there’s now Factory at the Granada Studios and a Tony Wilson Place . I knew Tony enough to know he’d have sighed and looked up on it as some cultural Sodom and Gomorrah or even worse , as a pale imitation of London , where’s the ideas where’s the grass roots , where does the real Manchester that danced for so long to its own tune belong in this plan. The idea was never for Manchester to become another London , another cultural theme park , it was against all that , it was about energy and looseness and something , that like Tony and his ideas , couldn’t be so easily pinned down .

Tony could do the corporate thing but it wasn’t for him and he understood that it wasn’t for Manchester. Let’s continue celebrating annoying and cajoling into the future , let’s make our own rules but let’s avoid becoming culturally sterile and just like any and everywhere else.Share This!

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Gary Barker says:

    When I was a kid Tony Wilson was the one person whose opinion on what was worth looking at I valued. People seem only to remember him for music now and besides his 80s and 90s shenanigans So It Goes was ground-breaking and set the way for shows like the short-lived Revolver and The Tube. But he was much more than just about the music and his What’s On slot on Granada Reports was essential viewing for anyone interested in the arts. For me he particularly excelled as a film critic and kicked the backside of Barry Norman every day of the week.

  2. Michael Herbert says:

    …a great deal of truth in this…Manchester City centre has became largely a sterile zone (not to say sterilised zone as the Council pursues the homeless camps with injunctions akin to the 1834 Poor law). The so-called “Factory” planned for the old Granada site ,well, words fail me. I would say Tony’s spirit lives on in places such as Moston Miners Art Centre and Islington Mill

  3. sue copp says:

    Amazing. Can’t read these without getting all choked up. A true friend you are

  4. This sums up Tony Wilson very well. At times, I’d be shaking my head violently in disagreement as to what he was saying, knowing that was exactly what he wanted. Like a classic Mancunian (alright, he was from Salford but you know what I mean), he was a contrary bugger and a classic wind up merchant. His endorsement of Martin Edwards stewardship as United chairman was classic Wilson and as a United fan, brave too. It’s a mark of the man that he could speak so positively about Edwards, yet still retain his credibility amongst Reds. He also had some big moments in Liverpool too. Telling Scousers outside the Liverpool Empire that Bill Shankly had retired and the look of shock on their faces was incredible television. Another seminal moment was him wearing a Bruges rosette on the night of the 1978 European Cup Final, sending parts of Liverpool (who hadn’t travelled to Wembley) into apoplexy.

    Eight years later, when the Thatcher government were trying to strangle the city, Wilson sent down three prominent Mancunian bands to play a gig at the Liverpool Royal Court in solidarity with the Scousers. Even the Mickies grew to like him.

    I used to love watching him read the news on Granada with Lucy Meacock. She always had a half amused, half look of dread on her face as to what he was going to say next, yet she very clearly enjoyed working with him.

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