Factoryphiles Unite!

South Florida has plenty of 24 Hour Party People too, you know

The August 30 local premiere of the British film 24 Hour Party People, which chronicles the rise and fall of Factory Recordsand Manchester's brief tenure as the sonic center of the universe, was one of the musical events of the year. In attendance at the Friday-evening event in Sunrise was Chris Moll, pop tactician behind the New Times award-winning See Venus (and before that, his happy, bouncy band 23), who has always copped to a love of Factory's biggest groups, Joy Division and New Order. The following night at the Billabong, the film was among the discussion topics for Bandwidth, drummer/impresario Steve Copeletti (of Whirlaway, New Graduates, and Poptopia fame), and Ed Artigas, owner of Miami's Spy-Fi Records.Astute readers with intact dendrites will remember Artigas's multiband tribute to Joy Division and New Order ("Joy to the World," December 12, 2001). Even as they chatted, Artigas and Copeletti ran around setting up equipment and doing door duties at the 'Bong, commandeering their own teeny but formidable scene.

That's essentially the story of 24 Hour Party People: Anthony Wilson, a visionary who is tired of abiding Manchester's second-city status, creates his own niche where cool collects like condensation. Wilson may not have been a musician or a businessman -- he was just an overgrown fan-boy -- but in 1979, he found himself in a fortuitous position for setting up his own empire. Factory and the subsequent "Madchester" renaissance couldn't have happened without a unique collision of circumstances and personalities.

The film depicts half-crazy producer Martin Hannett as the genius he was. Despite a cantankerous disposition and prodigious alcohol and drug intake, Hannett produced albums for Joy Division and Happy Mondays (which figure heaviest in Party People's summation of Factory) that gain much of their power from his erratic yet infallible sonic sense.

Wilson also had the foresight and luck to enlist Joy Division as the centerpiece of his new label -- a band the likes of which come around only every hundred years, if that. With Joy Division's pair of albums and smattering of singles -- which came to essentially define Factory -- a legacy was born.

Over here, we Yank record-store junkies soaked up the lavish packaging and obscure sounds of each Factory release (available only as high-priced imports). We didn't have a clue about Manchester's drug scene or the Hacienda, the nightclub sinkhole in which Mssrs. Wilson, Hook, Gretton, Saville, Erasmus, et al. lost so many quid. When Joy Division singer Ian Curtis hanged himself in May 1980 on the eve of the band's inaugural U.S. tour, the news didn't even warrant a two-sentence mention in Rolling Stone's "Random Notes." Factory was, and still is, a very English thing.

24 Hour Party People too briefly touched upon one of the essential elements in Factory's success: the art design of Peter Saville. With ideas lifted from Italian Futurism and Constructivism and an exquisitely sharp feel for what to leave off an album sleeve, Saville created simple, iconic beauty to match the contents. Factory's records stood out in the racks to such an extent that they had to be investigated -- and that's successful design. One Party People scene ably illustrated how Factory's long-range vision could manifest itself with crippling nearsightedness: Saville's sleeve for New Order's monumental "Blue Monday" was designed to look like a floppy disc -- not exactly a recognizable totem in the year 1983. Each record cost 79 pence to make, but Factory could recoup only 77 pence a copy, so the more copies sold, the more money the label lost. And as it turned out, "Blue Monday" went on to become the biggest-selling 12-inch single of all time.

Factory lacked promotional finesse as well. Both in Europe and America, the label relied almost entirely on word of mouth to push its products. The records in their stately Saville sleeves would be duly shipped to shops, but rarely if ever were promotional copies sent to journalists or radio stations. Factory didn't even have a record licensed in the United States until Quincy Jones signed New Order in 1985. The legend was inversely proportional to sales -- there was an inexplicable cult of obscurity that, unlike, say, that of the Residents, did not serve Factory well. Regardless, the attitude and contrarian approach to the mainstream music industry made Factory Factory.

Mick Middles, whose 1996 book From Joy Division to New Order: The Factory Story was the template for Party People, called the label "profoundly, aesthetically aloof; arrogantly self-centered... a mess of indecision and squabbling; an accountant's worst nightmare; a resting home for aesthetic waifs and strays; a breeding ground for unlikely genius; a graveyard for the trendily uninspired."

That last label I'd gladly affix to Happy Mondays, the band that made a career (and a few decent records) of being drunken, stoned, E-riddled buffoons. As Party People shows, the Mondays included one member whose sole purpose was to dance about like a goofball, and their excesses helped pull the label into bankruptcy. But for better or worse, the Mondays came to typify the exuberant energy Mancunians felt when their music seemed to be the whole world's soundtrack. Their mythic messiness and unreliability were no charade: I still have a pair of tickets to a Happy Mondays concert in July 1990. The band blew off its show that night at the I-Beam in San Francisco to stay in L.A. and party with Soul 2 Soul.

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