Never mind the omissions, here’s a great retelling of the Factory story

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Score 4

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Various Artists – Factory: Communications 1978-1992
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Factory’s catalogue has become drowned out by the clatter of mythologies: stories of contracts signed in blood, of producers falling asleep under mixing desks, of shitfaced singers taking master tapes hostage. For Paul Morley, in his 2000 memoir Nothing, Factory was not so much a record company, “as a state of mind, an organisation in constant graceful disarray, a company of free-thinking sub-maniacs… a combination of villain, pantomime dame, benefactor, wicked stepmother, clown, love, butler, coach, pervert and performance artist”.

So it comes as a surprise to find that Factory also managed to release rather a lot of fine records, and not just by Tony Wilson’s successes Joy Division, New Order and the Happy Mondays. Many of them are collected on this handsome 4-CD set.

Box sets are usually linked by a single voice or genre. Here, the link is that every track inhabits a similar sonic space, one pioneered by producer Martin Hannett. Hannett helmed most of the tracks on disc one of this box set and his presence has hovered over much music made in Greater Manchester since punk. Where, say, Liverpool’s music of this period seemed to respond to recession by clinging to the security blanket of the 1960s, Manchester’s leapt into the future, leaping on the innovations of black music and putting them through a drizzly Mancunian prism. The basslines were wiry and hypnotic; the drums neurotic and soaked in gated reverb; the vocals deadpan; the guitars edgy and brittle. Even Factory’s non-Mancunians (Sheffield’s Cabaret Voltaire, Birkenhead’s OMD, Glasgow’s The Wake, Tyneside’s Crawling Chaos and Benelux outfits Minny Pops and The Names) seemed to succumb to the Hannett sound after a few hours in Strawberry, Revolution or Cargo studios.

This box shares about a third of its tracks with Palatine, the 1991 box set that was Factory’s last throw of the dice before going under. This time, curator Jon Savage has arranged tracks chronologically, starting with Joy Division’s brutal “Digital” and closing with the Lionrock remix of Happy Mondays’ 1992 swansong “Sunshine And Love”. Like Palatine it is weighted towards Factory’s success stories; of the 63 tracks here, seven are by the Happy Mondays, four by Joy Division and eight by New Order (plus four more from solo projects Electronic, Revenge and The Other Two). But it doesn’t ignore the more bijou names airbrushed out of the 24 Hour Party People version of history: A Certain Ratio are represented by five tracks, Durutti Column four, plus there are two each from Section 25, Cabaret Voltaire, Quando Quango and Northside.

Labels often seek to replicate their most successful acts, and many on the Factory roster represent alternative interpretations of the Joy Division/New Order continuum. You could be forgiven for thinking that ACR’s drummerless debut “All Night Party” (before Donald Johnson transformed them into an industrial jazz-funk outfit) was some rare Joy Division session; likewise Section 25’s “Girls Don’t Count” or Tunnel Vision’s “Watching The Hydroplanes” (imagine Ian Curtis’s dour baritone pitch-shifted up an octave). The mutating time-signatures and whooping siren sounds of Crispy Ambulance’s extraordinary “Deaf” suggests Joy Division stuck in a studio with Henry Cow; and Quando Quango’s “Love Tempo” sounds like New Order produced by Stock Aitken & Waterman. Even the stranger tributaries never stray that far from the Hannett template, such as the verbose, anarchist hip hop of The Royal Family And The Poor, or the rain-soaked Latin-jazz of the Swamp Children and Kalima (described, by Wilson, as “Sade two years too early”).

Interviewed not long before his death, Wilson ruefully opined that “nothing has ever come out of Manchester in terms of black music and that’s a tragedy”. Even ignoring the obvious exceptions (the Johnson brothers from ACR and Quando Quango), the black Manchester represented here more than holds its own. 52nd Street’s “Cool As Ice” is a fantastic slice of electrofunk that predates acid house by several years; while “English Black Boys” by X-O-Dus is an interesting retort to Rastafarianism’s “back-to-Africa” rhetoric. Best of all is Marcel King; 11 years after his New Faces group Sweet Sensation topped the charts with “Sad Sweet Dreamer”, the Michael Jackson of Moss Side recorded “Reach For Love”, a proto-house masterpiece that Shaun Ryder declared Factory’s finest release.

One obvious oversight is ESG, whose Hannett-produced single “You’re No Good” was FAC 34. However, all other key omissions – the dreamy pop of The Wendys, the Latin-gospel of Jazz Defektors, the thrilling digital rai of Fadela, and the Factory Classical releases by Graham Fitkin and Steve Martland – are forgiveable as a necessary streamlining of the Factory narrative. As a result, this collection flows perfectly, and indie connoisseurs can enjoy all four discs without once resorting to the fast-forward button.

JOHN LEWIS

Q&A: Stephen Morris from New Order

Is there anything you don’t like on this box set?

Amazingly not. There’s some stuff I hated at the time – like Miaow – but even that sounds great now I’m not so cynical. Actually, I’d completely forgotten much of this stuff existed. I’d forgotten that Cabaret Voltaire were signed to us! I’m also reminded that nearly everyone here supported us at some point. I love box sets – it’s an old bloke thing, isn’t it? – especially all those West Coast American ones that Rhino do, like Nuggets, So to see all this stuff, which passed me in a blur at the time, so beautifully packaged is amazing.

Did Factory ever consciously sign bands who sounded like you?

No! I think they got a lot of tapes from bands who thought they sounded like New Order or Joy Division, but we never signed them. It’s a complete and utter mystery how we signed people. Rob [Gretton] and Alan [Erasmus] sometimes spotted bands, but we never went looking, really. Often they were friends. Sometimes bands would turn up outside the offices on Palatine Road and Tony would let them make a record to get rid of them.

Is Praxis going to get a FAC number?

Ha! You had to go to Tony to get your FAC number. If there’s one thing he WAS in charge of it was giving out numbers! Without Tony’s seal of approval maybe it’d be bogus. It is a shame that he didn’t live to see this. But then he was always looking forward. He was never into exploiting Factory as a historical thing, he felt it was something that was always going onwards with him.

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