The Manchester Man

Mag North reviews an epic biography of the superlative northern propagandist, Tony Wilson
July 5, 2022

In Manchester, the largely popular Andy Burnham, a former Labour government minister, is well into his second term of office as elected Mayor. But wind the clock back a few years to the early suggestions that Manchester should have a mayor with real powers, like London’s, and a front-runner for the position would have been a maverick night-club owning, record company chief, journalist, broadcaster and highly vocal influencer (in the days before social influencers were invented).

Anthony H “Tony” Wilson was all of those, a fiercely independent, charismatic character who, it’s claimed, was a “metaphysical mayor of Manchester” with his schemes, ideas and creations. But Wilson died young, ten years before the actual mayor took office, and with him died a great many schemes and dreams, both practical and outrageous.

As Paul Morley sets out to show in his mammoth, epic biography From Manchester With Love (Faber), Wilson’s influence in Manchester over several decades was immense. The man who created Factory Records, and the legendary Hacienda club, in later life founded a coalition of local politicians and celebrities – the Necessary Group – campaigning for the devolution of the North West. Among them was one Sir Alex Ferguson. Wilson didn’t do anything by halves. His final grandiose plan was for Burnley and East Lancashire which he aimed to re-model as “Pennine Lancashire”, insisting that the initials PL would one day be as recognisable as LA.  

The wish list included allotment sheds, and a Fashion Tower in Burnley, building on the region’s textile history. None of it ever happened. But as Morley says, Wilson changed the world around him by the sheer force of his personality, taking centre stage in the cultural theatre of Manchester. He was given a posthumous Freedom of the City a few months after he died.

As a fellow Mancunian United supporter from a Catholic background I was always fascinated by Wilson, and his ability to become something else; as Morley puts it, always inventing new ways of keeping himself interested. The years when Madchester was ecstasy-ing at the Hacienda and the era of Joy Division was of less interest; my scene back then was – pretentiously – hanging out at the Free Trade Hall and the Bridgwater. And this is where Morley tends to wander off into his own nostalgia a little too self-indulgently, the book’s subtitle tipping towards The Life and Opinions of Paul Morley.

But there’s detail galore, and we’re never far from the images of this “visionary with inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm”. No saint, for sure. Wilson was far from being a perfect parent, and he treated women badly: “He needed a different wife for each part of his life”, and this is no hagiography, but Morley presents to us all the facets of the “forceful music impresario, the imposing, eloquent North West broadcaster, the superlative northern propagandist, the driven, unmanageable dilettante spinning yarns and truth...the crafty, charming, unflagging bastard relentlessly urging everyone around him to pay attention or else."

The book’s early chapters are a fascinating social history of post-war Manchester –and Salford, a beautifully-crafted history that’s descriptive, analytical, peppered with facts and love in equal measure, and Morley’s trademark elegantly long sentences. And Wilson made this Manchester his playground “complete with swings, roundabouts and sandpits.” (There’s also a wonderful description of Stockport’s fierce independence from Manchester, thanks to a railway viaduct, “within sight of the forbidding Pennines, biding their time until all this fussy, silly human interference passes”.)

Here, too, is riveting stuff about the early days of Granada TV, such a pioneering force of independent broadcasting with its “rare, exhilarating music shows that influenced local sensibility and excited national interest”, and where Wilson came to fame as an on-screen presenter. It’s clear, though, that he was never going to settle for this one-track career in the manner of Yorkshire’s late lamented Harry Gration. “Wilson was definitely the only early-evening newsreader on television in the mid-1970s who would announce to his viewers with breathless excitement, wearing over his shirt and tie a Bruce Springsteen T-shirt he’d bought in San Francisco, that he had just seen the future of rock n’ roll."

With clinical insight, Morley captures the essence of his subject: “Wilson’s main task in life, the work he committed to the most, his single act of authorship, was as a futurist custodian inventing and displaying a new Manchester that evolved out of an old, ambitious, creative, industrial and scientific Manchester and that placed the city into a wider history….Faced with a city that had lost its way after its industrial heyday and a shattering war, he was committed to recovering its future. It was a mad city, but its madness was gallant. A beautiful city but its beauty was grim."

But he also recognises the changes in that city itself, in the years since Wilson’s death, and even in the years since Morley himself started work on the book. “The difference between one era and another – between a striving post-industrial Manchester that Wilson had helped manufacture and a confident post-digital Manchester – became much more distinct.” Another Manchester instantly appeared, he says, after the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing. “Wilson inside this post-bomb Manchester was becoming a figure from the twentieth century in the way that the great entrepreneurs, inventors, scientists and artists from the nineteenth century saw their influence become more distant and less specific and visible during the twentieth."

And that name change, from Tony to Anthony H? So the story goes, Wilson queued up for an audience with Pope John Paul II who asked why he was using the frivolous diminutive version of the saint’s name. So he changed it because the Pope said so. 

Images from BBC4 Documentry on Factory Records