The Tony Wilson Experience

AS WE approach the first anniversary of Tony Wilson’s death, I thought this might be an appropriate time to publish a longer version of a piece I wrote about the Tony Wilson Experience, a ’24-hour conversation’ organised in Wilson’s memory by his friends.

It took place in Manchester from Saturday to Sunday, from noon on June 21 (the longest day) to noon on June 22, in front of a specially invited audience of young Manchester creatives.

Stupidly, I volunteered to cover the whole thing on my own.

* * *

11.45am: We’re in a white tent that looks like a small big top. The circus is in town.

What will be variously described as ‘a yurt’, ‘Tony’s tepee’, and more properly, ‘Manchester International Festival’s Stephenson Bell pavilion’, has landed next door to Urbis for the Tony Wilson Experience, a non-stop 24-hour marathon of intelligent conversation in honour of the great Salfordian entrepreneur who died just over a year ago.

“The Tony Wilson Experience is for the next generation of creative talent,” say Manchester City Council leader Sir Richard Leese and Peter Saville, the city’s creative director and Wilson’s colleague and friend for many years in the event programme. “We hope it will inspire, stimulate and encourage them and help them to unlock their own creativity an future potential.

“It is our way of paying tribute to Anthony H Wilson.

“A remarkable man”.

A voice bubble saying ‘Reification’ hovers above a couple of Habitat sofas on a small stage. Hacienda-style yellow and black vinyl stripes cover the floor and string quartet Litmus’s gentle reworking of Love Will Tear Us Apart plays over the PA system. I wonder how my backside is going to cope with sitting on these unforgiving wooden seats.

The longest day is about right.

12.09pm: Kicking off the event a very respectable nine minutes late, a tie-less Richard Leese, echoing Simon Bocock’s assessment that The Tony Wilson Experience was just about shambolic enough to be useful, says that today’s event is a no-lose situation: “Even if it goes wrong, it goes right.”

Peter Saville reminds us that Wilson consistently gave people opportunities to do their own thing in their own way, just like he did when Saville approached him as a inexperienced design student, almost 30 years ago to the day. Today is about continuing that idea of opportunity. “It’s not a 24-hour lecture,” he says. “It’s a 24-hour discussion.”

12.20pm: The first session finds Manchester International Festival director Alex Poots talking to Steve Coogan about how his hometown has shaped his comedy.

“There’s a forthright honesty and an economic, poetic eloquence that northerners, and especially Mancunians have,” decides Coogan. “It’s that thing of saying a few words and saying an awful lot.”

“Growing up in Manchester, Wilson was part of the landscape,” and he remembers the thrill of seeing the “slightly hippyish TV presenter with long hair” through the banisters at a family party as a child. And the music Factory released remains important to Coogan to this day.

The conversation turns to Alan Partridge, who, contrary to popular opinion, wasn’t particularly based on Wilson, and Coogan’s portrayal of the central character of 24 Hour Party People, “a flawed hero” who was very much based on Wilson. “I didn’t want anyone else to do it and fuck it up – not that I could get it totally right,” he says.

1.05pm: In the absence of official ‘interviewer’ Stuart Maconie, Simply Red manager Elliot Rashman – wearing a fetching hat – introduces Mark Radcliffe who is celebrating his fiftieth birthday today. Radcliffe says that Wilson showed that creative people don’t have to leave Manchester to achieve something, encouraging him to start his own career at Piccadilly Radio.

1.25pm: Maconie arrives, citing “cattle on the line at Stafford” for his tardiness and the pair begin comparing shoes. Eventually, Maconie sums up Wilson’s influence thus: “If you have an idea, even if you don’t know where it’s going, just do it. Put your head above the parapet”.

Radcliffe advises the assembled young creatives to aim high but be “prepared to look a bit of a dick – Tony Wilson was prepared to do this – and I speak as someone who removed two million listeners from the Radio One breakfast show.”

Wilson, he says, “seemed to breathe through his ears. The words never seemed to stop.”

“He was a smart Alec – in the best sense of the word – and proud of it,” adds Maconie.

2pm: Maconie and Steve Coogan return to further discuss the latter’s role in 24 Hour Party People – which he describes as “the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever done”. Director Michael Winterbottom originally envisaged the role of Wilson to be a bit part, “but in the editing process he realised that Tony was the lynchpin of the whole thing.”

It wasn’t a difficult role: “He was a larger-than-life character. He was very physical, he would wave his arms about. There was always an element of theatricality in everything he did.”

Was Wilson, asks Maconie, the architect of modern Manchester?

Coogan isn’t sure but he does know that “he’d probably hate that nomenclature”.

“There’s a dichotomy there. The regeneration of the city that we see around us, there’s a lot of glass and stainless steel but the creativity that Tony championed came from a dirtier and grimier Manchester.

“Manchester is different to other cities. There’s a maverick quality about Manchester, that idea of not believing something just because you’ve been told it, being defiant.”

Maconie begins to say that this is perhaps a trait the city shares with Liverpool.

“There’s a difference between being defiant and just complaining about things,” mutters Coogan, bringing the first big laugh of the day.

A discussion about the importance of the Hacienda prompts one young audience member to tell the pair that, at the age of 22, the Hacienda means absolutely nothing to him. Events take a slightly surreal turn when one old lad in the audience grabs the mic and randomly tells a long and involved tale about blacking up for an Al Jolson lookalike competition in East Manchester in the 1930s. “There wasn’t one bit of soot left in Gorton!”

3pm: Art and architecture writer Phil Griffin talks to Burnley Impressionist Liam Spencer about his work, which often features an all-too-familiar dark, rain-swept Manchester.

Spencer often finds his work being compared to that other great portrayer of the rainy city, LS Lowry but, he says, “most of the artists I get excited about tend to be French.”

From a painter’s point of view, says Spencer, Manchester has a lot of great buildings. Put simply, “if something looks good, in certain lights, at certain times of the day, I’m interested.”

In common with many of the creatives who found their feet in a city that had forever been changed by Factory’s gloriously shambolic progress, Spencer “didn’t expect to make a living as an artist. I did it because it was just something I had to do.”

4pm: More surrealism comes in the oddly-shaped form of Timperley’s favourite son, Frank Sidebottom, and a bontempi Love Will Tear Us Apart (“Me and Tony wrote this in my bedroom ..”), complete with audience singalong. A medley of How I Wrote Elastic Man and There Is A Light That Never Goes Out is followed by Frank’s tribute to the Factory boss, Tony Wilson Is Really Fantastic (” .. You know he is, he really is ..”)

4.15pm: Hacienda and Dry architect Ben Kelly, Tom Bloxham and Nick Johnson from Urban Splash, Peter Saville and journalist Emma Murphy discuss the regeneration of Manchester which began with Dry and continues to this day.

Bloxham says that, inspired by Ben Kelly’s robust, post industrial interior for Dry, the original aim of Urban Splash was to create “buildings I could be proud of, vibrant, sexy and interesting.”

Saville calls Urban Splash “an exemplary organisation. It doesn’t behave in the predictable company way. Their buildings feel like they’ve been made by people who care about them. The attention to detail is incredible.”

He enthuses about the idea of cities as “collages of time” where buildings of all periods sit alongside each other, while Nick Johnson puts forward the view that the energy of rock’n’roll can now be found in regeneration.

Asked about advice for someone who wants to the next Tom Bloxham, the man himself says that young entrepreneurs should regard every chance as a new opportunity. “People who are prepared to fail are the people who do exciting things. Don’t go into business to make money, go into business to do the best job you can. If you believe in something, and you’re good at it, focus and keep working at it.”

Johnson says that you should also be prepared to trust your naivety. “There are jobs we probably wouldn’t have taken on if we knew how difficult they were going to be.”

“We had no idea what we were doing,” agrees Saville.

Kelly answers a question about ‘things you wish you knew at 18’ with “Don’t be afraid to talk to men in suits”, while Bloxham says simply: “Think big, start small. And start today.”

5.05pm: In a break from the scheduled programme (“The Scousers are late ..”) Nick Johnson swaps roles to interview Wilson’s son, Olly. Christened at the Hacienda, babysat by Shaun Ryder, holidaying with New Order in Ibiza, Olly grew up at the eye of the Factory storm. He now works for one of the biggest rock promotion companies in the world, AEG, promoting the likes of Bon Jovi and Prince.

“I’ve seen the independent sector and what my father did,” he says. “It really fucks me off, he did so much work and put in so much .. he created this great legacy but, businesswise, it left a lot to be desired. I mean, he worked without contracts. All that makes working for a big operation very attractive.”

The Scousers turn up and Wilson leaves the audience with one last thought: “Today isn’t about the people on this stage, it’s about the people out there. So if there are a load of boring old farts going on about the old days up here, stand up and tell them to shut the fuck up. Get involved.”

5:30pm: Elliot Rashman talks to the Farm’s Peter Hooton and Jayne Casey, who is (with the possible exception of Phil Redmond) probably the closest thing Liverpool has to its very own Tony Wilson.

The difference between the two cities is, according to Casey, that Liverpool is a sea port “and it has that port wildness. There are a lot of people coming in and going out again. There’s a big Celtic influence there. In Manchester, it’s all about industry and mills and that Lancashire thing.”

“And,” she adds with a big grin, “Manchester bands are just supremely cool.”

Hooton points to the way differences in the ways bands from the two cities project themselves:

“There’s an innate romanticism of Liverpool groups. If you think about the Bunnymen, they were always photographed alongside great natural beauty, waterfalls, trees and that. In contrast to say Joy Division, who were always photographed in old factories.”

The rivalry between the two cities shouldn’t be over-played according to the former punk queen Casey, who recalls how the music of Joy Division and the Fall “shook you to the core”, albeit in very different ways. At the same time, nobody had more respect for Liverpool music than Wilson and Eric’s promoter Roger Eagle, both Manchester-based.

After making the startling confession that he spent much of his adolescence “tripping in Liverpool”, Rashman goes on to talk about the dark days of the 1980s, when, in his words, “Derek Hatton and Militant brought Liverpool to its knees”. An amused Hooton interrupts: “I think Thatcher had something to do with it as well”.

When Cream, which she co-founded and which had kick-started the regeneration of Liverpool city centre, closed its doors, Casey found herself booking warehouses to use as gallery space in the first Liverpool Biennial. “That first year I was dealing with Liverpool people who owned these warehouses. Two years later, I was dealing with Hong Kong banks. I thought to myself, Shit! They’re buying up the city”.

This process intensified when Liverpool’s city of culture status was confirmed and valuable cultural resources like the Picket began to be priced out of the city centre. Casey bought an old warehouse on Jamaica Street, styled it as Liverpool’s Independent Quarter and gave the Picket a new home. Her strategy was almost to embarrass the city into supporting the scheme: “I felt it was time to get proactive”.

Rashman uses this as an opportunity to complain about the sky-high rents businesses have to contend with in Manchester city centre. Perhaps, he suggests, Jane could set up an Independent Quarter in Manchester, prompting Richard Leese, having a drink outside, to pop his head in and ask: “How many warehouses do you want Jane?”

A question from the floor about the loss of such culturally iconic venues as the Free Trade Hall (now the Radisson) and the Hacienda (now flats) results in angry exchanges with the council leader (“We’ve created anarchy in Manchester,” says a gleeful Casey) but he acquits himself well, saying that the city shouldn’t turn into a big, cultural museum-piece. Unimpressed, the questioner tells him to fuck off anyway.

[At least, that’s what I thought happened. The guy concerned set the record straight on Confidential thus:

“This is a a rather odd account with respect to the ‘exchange’ I had with Sir Richard Leese around 5.30pm in the context of the cultural heritage of Liverpool.

Jayne Casey encouraged Sir Richard Leese onto the stage, he declined but proceeded to inform us about what we should be doing with the roving mic. As Sir Richard Leese exhorted [sic] the audience and how the council would respond.

I shouted ‘Reclaim the Radisson’. He retorted with his bizarre response about the Free Trade Hall having poor acoustics and [being a] 50’s rip-off building, no doubt believing I wished to enshrine some tacky memorial to the Sex Pistols or something, rather than the betrayal by the council in terms of ownership and meaning of Peterloo.

I did not direct any insults to Sir Richard Leese I simply said ‘fuck rock and roll – what about the history?’ He said something else… and I said [that] he had ‘sold out to capital’. He then turned his back… A wiser report of the exchange is in MEN and you can watch the video to support this account.

I’m still pretty annoyed about all of this but what can you do if people mumble?]

I’m suddenly struck by the thought that the only thing that is missing today is Anthony H Wilson himself.

6pm: A screening of the edition of So It Goes which brought the Sex Pistols to the attention of the wider world is followed by Clint Boon, one of the kids whose world was changed by the show, talking about the way Wilson’s presence legitimised the filth and the fury of bands like the Pistols.

“Your mum and dad would always say, what’s this rubbish you’re listening to? Tony added a bit of gravity to it. Y’know, he was a Granada newsreader.”

Boon recalls Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren’s tribute to Wilson. “He said that ‘Tony was the spirit of the outlaw’. He didn’t look like one, he didn’t talk like one, but he really was an outlaw. He broke the rules. He kicked against the pricks.”

Journalist and filmmaker Ray Gosling, himself a bit of a maverick, worked with Wilson at Granada and says that he took him to the Hacienda on just two occasions: “I disliked it both times. Dreadful music”. Wilson was, he says, “very posh and very modern .. He loved this great shout that came from the streets”.

“It was a terrible tragedy that he died when he did. He had so much more to contribute”.

Boon talks about the music blogs that have taken over the ‘breaking new acts’ part of Wilson’s mantle, and speculates that he would have been absolutely aware of and involved with them.

“I’ve just noticed that in this tent there are only two people wearing a collar and tie,” says Gosling sadly.

Byron Evans from Channel M gets up to talk about a competition to present an item about a new band on the station. “You chat shit, you,” says a voice from outside the tent.

Today could end up being a lot of fun.

7pm: Jim Hancock, veteran Granada TV executive and the architect of Liverpool’s winning Capital of Culture bid Sue Woodward, Mike Spencer, formerly of Multimedia Arts online video specialists, now of Bob Geldof’s Ten Alps, and Clint Boon talk about the future of Wilson’s beloved television.

“The big companies are trying to play catch up with everybody in this room. People download films, they upload their own films, they watch what they like, where they like, when they like. The genie is out of the bottle and the big companies have to deal with it,” says Woodward. Google’s ad revenue in this country, she reminds us, surpassed that of ITV a couple of years ago.

8.05pm: We’re a third of the way through and these seats aren’t getting any more comfortable. Control scriptwriter Matt Greenhalgh, Joy Division documentary producer Grant Gee, John Robb and Peter Hook discuss how rock’n’roll is treated in the movies. The swearing quotient rises considerably.

Greenhalgh says that his screenplay for Control was “fiction based on fact .. I’m still a New Order boy, I’m still a Hacienda boy. I just wanted to do the best job ever.”

Robb observes that Peter Hook’s character got many of the best lines in Control.

The real Peter Hook begs to differ: “I’m much fucking funnier than that”.

Hook says he enjoyed watching Jon Savage’s Joy Division documentary a lot more than Control. “The documentary felt part of you whereas Control felt more like you observing it.”

He spots a familiar face peering through the tent’s side entrance. “He should be up here – Alan Erasmus! He’s never told his story. Get up here”.

Erasmus makes a swift exit and Hooky goes on to say that after years of avoiding the subject, the two films forced him to confront his feelings about his friend’s suicide:

“I’ve been as upset about Ian’s death in the last year as I have been in the last 29 years,” he says. “You do wonder, if we hadn’t dragged him into the group, what would have happened.” The remaining members of Joy Division hadn’t actually discussed their feelings together in the aftermath of his suicide and watching Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris talking in the documentary “was a bit overwhelming sometimes.”

Sitting next door to Sharon Stone at Control’s Cannes premiere, Hooky says, “I knew it was a good film when only two people went up to go to the toilet. One of them was 75 and the other one was Bernard.”

“The interesting thing about today,” he decides, “will be whether it causes a ripple effect like that Sex Pistols gig ..”

An often hilarious question and answer session about the legacy of Joy Division produces a series of random observations from Hook: that Stephen Morris always dreamed of having Joy Division action figures, that he wanted their debut album to sound like the Ramones but producer Martin Hannett “stripped it apart and gave it depth”.

“Half Man Half Biscuit have got as song called Joy Division Oven Gloves,” says one member of the audience, before proceeding to sing the song in question.

Look! There’s Marshall Jefferson.

9pm: Paul Morley, who has a face like a smacked arse throughout, prefaces his conversation with Irvine Welsh by warning the audience that he is at the age where everything he says sounds negative and cynical, that the past is a better place and that there’s nothing worthwhile around now – when that isn’t necessarily the case. Having said that, “something terrible has happened to literature in this country.”

Morley answers a question from the floor about the cult of celebrity that gives Peaches Geldof an undeserved newspaper column with a terse: “We used to have exactly the same conversation about her mother, Paula Yates years ago, funnily enough.”

“We moved from a culture-based society to an entertainment-based society,” says Welsh, looking every inch the ex-pat boho. “There’s been a massive expansion of writing but it’s actually just an expansion of the entertainment industry.”

He goes on to talk about his feelings about his ‘greatest hit’ Trainspotting:

“First it was my book and then it was Ewan McGregor’s film and then it was Richard Branson’s train advert. I got very alienated by it all.”

A very smart question about repressive South America dictatorships leading to a flowering of non-linear literature somehow leads onto an expletive-ridden “30-second rant” by Morley about the idiocy of TV programmes complaining about “fucking chickens’ living conditions”.

“Why can’t we have an hour on television given over to the lack of free-range ideas?”

“It’s all a bit depressing,” says some old head in the crowd. “Everybody’s talking about Joy Division and all that. Forty-odd year olds, discussing bollocks. Whatever. And I’m surprised at me laddo there, with the bald head, sitting there, being comfortable about it all. What happened to the real creativity?”

“It’s just getting interesting,” observes Morley bitterly, “and someone over there holds up a sign saying ‘five minutes’. Fucking typical.”

10pm: Kevin Cummins, Ian Tilton and Karen McBride discuss the art of the music photographer.

“Where’s Hooky?” asks Cummins. “He thinks that every time someone reprints one of my Joy Division photos, he should get paid. I don’t understand that and I’d like him to explain why that is.”

Perhaps it’s just as well he isn’t around.

Cummins explains that he has to like the bands he works with, “or why would you do it otherwise? If you’re on tour with a band, you have to spend so much time with them. I might not take a single photo for the first couple of days.”

“I want the people I’m photographing to fall in love with me for 10 minutes,” he continues. “I don’t want them to respond to the camera. I want them to respond to me.”

10.25pm: Jayne Casey arrives and says that Cummins taught her that good pictures get you more coverage a long time ago, when she was in bands like Pink Military and Big in Japan. It’s knowledge she put to good use when planning the opening celebrations for Capital of Culture, which played to a global TV audience of 360million. “It was a strong image to give to the world,” she says.

11pm: Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris talk to John Robb about life as ‘the other two’ in New Order. Right from the start, there are a lot of good questions from the floor and Morris agrees that yes, “maybe in some parallel universe we really are Richard and Judy”.

Any advice for bands trying to make it now?

“You’ve got to be a bit different,” says Morris with one of his trademark shrugs. “It’s obvious advice. But if you give out CDs dressed as a panda, people will probably remember you.”

One of the invited creatives promptly steps up to the stage and hands Morris her CD. Disappointingly, she is not dressed as a panda.

Robb puts forward the view that, though Morris himself would never admit it, he is one of the most influential drummers in the world.

“And his bassist’s pretty good as well,” shouts Peter Hook from the back of the crowd. Morris invites him onstage: “Come on! Let’s reform!”

Someone asks Gillian Gilbert what it was like as the only woman in Joy Division. “Pretty awful,” she replies. “I just had sisters, no brothers. And then I went to an all-girls school. And then I went into Joy Division, which was an all-male environment. It was a bit weird but it was good fun.”

Morris: “The fart ratio went down a bit. But not much”.

The atmosphere in the tent is noticeably rowdier towards the end of the session. “I just think that women are completely brilliant,” slurs one audience member before losing track of what he was saying and inadvertently raising the biggest cheer of the day so far.

12am: Despite sitting around Urbis’s bar for a couple of hours beforehand, Mark E Smith seems to have decided not to take part in the next session, so John Cooper Clarke, music impresario Alan Wise and former Madchester It-Girl and Intastella singer and now actress Stella Grundy take us into the second half of this 24-hour marathon – without any input from the man who once called Factory “a big Situationist joke to make the working classes look stupid”.

It’s probably just as well.

Intastella, says Grundy, “had a chip on our shoulders. I remember getting photographed by The Face and the photographer asking me if you could buy The Face in Manchester.”

What would she do differently?

“Our first single was eight minutes long,” she replies. “Somebody probably should have told us, they won’t play that on the radio .. If you don’t want to die alone and skint, get a business plan. Most of the people who’ve made money from Manchester music don’t even come from here. Think about what you’re doing as a business that’s there to make you money – because that’s how people will think of you.”

“Are you advocating Class War?” asks Wise.

“Yeah,” says Grundy.

Being Salford’s most famous poet is, says John Cooper Clarke, “a millstone around my neck. People think they don’t like it, poetry. I wanted to be an all-round entertainer. I did a lot of folk clubs and a few jazz clubs but I really wanted to sell-out at the earliest opportunity.”

This is turning into the John Cooper Clarke show. He’s hilarious.

There may be more poetry events and slams, and even dedicated venues these days, but the poetry scene is “a ghetto”.

Wise asks him if there’s anything he wants to say to “the kids” in the audience? “Stay away from my car,” he replies.

A question about the violence that sometimes seems endemic to Manchester’s streets at the weekend gets a shrug of the alarmingly narrow Cooper Clarke shoulders: “Booze. What you gonna do?”

“My friend’s just fallen over,” observes Grundy. “Sorry about that.”

1am: A Certain Ratio are playing a gig in Urbis next door. Thirteen hours after the start of the day, fatigue is beginning to set in for your correspondent. My notes read: “ACR played Shack Up – brilliant! Denise Johnson is just fantastic”.

In-depth analysis, we got it.

2am: It’s all getting a bit chaotic. There are a lot of people stumbling around exhausted and a lot of people stumbling around drunk, while other strangely animated members of the audience are yammering away to each other like there’s no tomorrow. Everyone seems a touch confused in one way or another – apart from the ones who seem to be absolutely focussed on talking as much shit as possible.

A volunteer pops a stuffed Adidas logo onto one of the sofas to boos from the audience, only for the guy sitting on the sofa to pick it up and throw it behind, out of sight. People cheer, delighted. It turns out it is Gary Aspden, a Darwen-born Adidas enthusiast who has parlayed his passion into a high profile job at the sports apparel giant (one of the principal sponsor’s of today’s event).

This session, which looks at the relationship between music and fashion, begins with Aspden talking about football terrace fashion being about context and reappropriation. In Liverpool and Manchester, he says, “there’s a love of the Adidas brand that doesn’t translate anywhere else. Adidas recognise that people want retro trainers, so when we release a certain kind of vintage trainer, it will sell out very quickly in the North-West – but you can’t give them away in Italy.”

Aspden goes onto talk about his experiences in the early days of Manchester’s hip hop scene – a scene which remains undocumented to this day. “Nobody had mega-pixel cameras on their phones then,” he explains. “The only time we took photos was when we went on holiday.”

2.20am: Mosaicist Mark Kennedy, looking as stylish as ever, arrives onstage, a little late and possibly a little worse for wear too. John Robb asks: “Do you wear Adidas, Kenny?”

“I’ve got a pair,” he replies. “I’m not really a label man. I’ve got more interesting things to think about.”

Aspden takes a long drink from the glass of water in front of him.

“I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here,” says Kennedy. “Is this about fashion? I’m to fashion what Julian Clary is to boxing .. Fifty-year-old men wearing Adidas. What’s wrong with wearing a pair of Clarke’s shoes? They’re great.”

There are howls of laughter throughout the tent.

Talking about the removal of his Manchester icons murals from Affleck’s Palace, Kennedy says that “nostalgia is the death of hope. When the mosaics were taken down, I was miserable for a day and then I thought, fuck it.”

“Sing us a song Kenny!” shouts someone from the audience.

Kevin Cummins has a question for him: “You say that nostalgia is a load of shit, but those mosaics that you did for Affleck’s are all about nostalgia, aren’t they?”

“That’s why I realised it’s a load of shit,” answers Kennedy.

It turns out that Cummins wants to tackle Kennedy about what the photographer sees as the mosaic artist’s unauthorised use of his work as source material for several panels of the Affleck’s wall.

“Anyone can take photographs,” argues Kennedy. “If I had a camera, I could have taken their photos. It’s not hard. My mam’s got fucking hundreds of them. If you’ve got a dartboard and you throw enough darts, sooner or later you’re going to hit the middle.”

A clearly furious Cummins tries to argue his case but everyone seems to be talking – or shouting – at the same time and it’s difficult for him to make himself heard. A questioner from the floor, a photographer, asks Kennedy how he’d feel if the position was reversed?

“Well, I’d probably take a good picture and you’d make a shite mosaic.”

Order partially restored, Kennedy eventually tells Cummins: “I don’t value photography”.

“Yeah, but you’ll fucking nick it though,” says Cummins.

“Breakdancing! Let’s talk about breakdancing!” shouts someone in the audience.

3.10am: After introducing Bez as “the last man in the world to do speed”, there’s an awkward start to John Robb’s interview with the three remaining original members of the Happy Mondays. An uncomfortable looking Shaun Ryder, sporting a mohawk and very white teeth, gives a series of shrugs and one-word answers to his questions.

“I can’t be mithered,” he tells Bez over the top of Olly Wilson’s head.

“Shaun,” asks Robb, struggling on manfully. “Have you got any advice for any of the young bands in the audience?”


“Gaz, what about you? Have you got any advice for young bands in the audience?”

“Yeah. Don’t be in a band,” says Gary Whelan

Stella Grundy, sitting in the audience, has a question: “I just wanted to know if Shaun ever regrets ripping bands off and generally being a bit of a twat?”

Bez speaks up in defence of his friend and it quickly deteriorates into a very Mancunian slanging match. Grundy makes towards the stage, Ryder snaps, stands up and drenches her in the contents of a water bottle. Still wearing his stage microphone, he makes some very nasty threats to Grundy as she is hustled out of the room by a gaggle of friends and security.

Later, when things have settled down, someone in the audience asks about John Cale, the Velvet Underground founder and producer of the Monday’s first album, and his view that, though he’d worked with people who went over the edge, he’d never met anyone who didn’t even know where the edge was until he met the Happy Mondays.

He repeats the question just to make sure the people on stage get it. “Do you know where the edge is?”

Quick as a flash, Whelan replies: “He’s in Dublin, isn’t he?”

The guy repeats the question, yet again.

“I’m a serious musician,” says Whelan, deadpan. “And I’m quite insulted by that question.”

4.20am: I’m having problems holding a pen straight and my eyes keep going out of focus so I decide to give Elliot Rashman and Steve Connor’s talk on Situationism a miss (‘The Hacienda must be re-built’?), head home and come back in the morning.

5am: Matt Dennerly, 22, from Gorton, one of the invited creatives in the audience, describes what happened next:

“The open-mic session was fantastic. Basically, this guy who runs a dance company, a hip hop DJ, he got up and passed the mic about. There was this girl, bless her, all she wanted to do was read what she’d written on this piece of paper, she was getting so distraught because she thought that she wouldn’t be able to read it.

“And when she did – basically, it was about having a massive sense of civic pride, stuff like that – everyone who was left really connected with it. That kicked it off and everyone was interjecting and that. I got up, eventually, and said my piece, my poem, and it went down ridiculously well, actually. I was really surprised and extremely chuffed about it.

“After I’d one my poem, another girl got up and said her poem, then another girl said her poem and then Olly Wilson said, why don’t we get something done out of this? Some guy got up and said, well, I’m a doer, not a talker. Let’s do it. So the 12th of next month, he’s bringing a PA system and we’re all going down to Piccadilly Gardens, just to say some shit.

“You hear poetry absolutely everywhere, even scallies at the back of the bus rapping. What’s that except poetry? Alright, so it’s shit, but at the end of the day, it’s ubiquitous – but it’s remarkably quiet about something that’s ever present. It’s very much an undercurrent. So us getting together and going down to Market Street or Piccadilly Gardens or wherever, it’s fantastic.”

7am: David Derbyshire, Gary McLarnan, Elliot Rashman and Rose Marley make up the panel for a Business Breakfast With The Entrepreneurs. Readers who were there should let us know what I missed out on.

8am: That, unfortunately, goes for the session with Sir Richard Leese, Ian Bennett and Jim Hancock too.

9am: And the session with Simon Armitage, Steve Martland and Bob Dickinson as well, I’m afraid.

10:30am: Rested, fed and watered, I’m back in action and ready for anything. The wind has picked up considerably and a strong smell of greasy bacon comes from the café in Urbis. I suddenly feel a bit queasy.

What’s left of the original audience inside the tent has been refreshed by members of the public, who have free access again, families out shopping on a Sunday morning, curious to see what’s going on, OAPs, kids.

Creation Records boss Alan McGee seems to be saying that next Christmas could be the last time you’ll be able to buy CDs in shops, but I might have got that wrong.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Manchester-born, LA-based performance poet Belowsky delivers an obviously heart-felt tribute to Charlatans’ frontman Tim Burgess, who shares the stage with him and McGee.

“This is the most exciting time in your life right now,” he tells Burgess in an accent which is pure North Manchester Jewish camp. “You’re very content, you’re very happy, you’re one of the finest artists around …”

“Are you going to get married?” asks Burgess.

“Yeah, I met a girl. I’m just checking her bank statements.”

11am: A little girl who is sitting with her mum gets up and starts to dance as the Ting Tings’ That’s Not My Name plays over the PA. She looks very disappointed when it’s turned off for the final session of the Tony Wilson Experience, the Secrets of the Universe.

Fascinating though it is, I think I’m with the little dancing girl on this one. It’s a bit much for me at this time on a Sunday morning too.

Stephen Morris, Bob Dickinson and Peter Saville have the job of talking to Professor Brian Cox, the Manchester University experimental particle physics researcher (and former D:Ream keyboard player) who is helping to reveal the secrets of the universe in reality in his work on the CERN project in Switzerland, which he describes as “like taking a time machine and a camera and going back and taking a photograph of the start of the universe.”

At one point during a discussion about how Newton’s work on gravity led directly to Einstein’s theory of relativity, Cox says that he’d heard that Saville doesn’t find it easy to get up in the morning. The designer admits he has a problem getting up before noon.

“You can’t blame gravity for that though,” says Cox.

“I was hoping to.”

“That’s why it’s called relativity,” replies Cox with a laugh.

Saville, seemingly as fascinated by science as he is by art, sees creative processes at work within the sciences. “Until you prove something, it’s just a theory, a belief, and I think that’s interesting as a creative process.” As with artists, he says, there’s a degree of faith, of believing in something, in even the staunchest scientific atheist. Cox tells him about string theory:

“It’s driven by a belief that the universe is beautiful. And for some reason, it holds up. Why is beauty a guide for truth? Nobody knows. But it seems to hold up.”

“We’re getting into Michael Moorcock territory here,” says Bob Dickinson.

“Dr Who, really,” decides Morris.

12.02pm: After a short speech of thanks from Peter Saville, and a tribute to the invited creatives who stuck around for the full 24 hours from Olly Wilson, Mike Garry steps up to deliver a stirring eulogy to the man whose passions, interests and beliefs have so consumed our thoughts for the last day. It’s a beautiful moment.

But I’m very glad it’s all over.

“The first phrase I heard yesterday was shambolic enough to be useful and it couldn’t be more true,” an exhausted but exhilarated Matt Dennerly tells me. “It was strange, do you know what I mean? There were times when I was thinking to myself, I don’t see how I’m gonna benefit from this. At the start, there wasn’t much audience participation and as it progressed more and more people managed to pluck up the courage to say something. And that’s when it started to get interesting.

“There were some absolute geniuses there and I feel privileged to be a part of it. Early on, there was a lot of reminiscing about Tony Wilson but I suppose you can understand that. But I learned at least three new things from every speaker I heard. I’ve probably forgotten it all, because I’ve been up all night but still, what sticks, sticks.”

I know exactly what he means. A more fitting tribute to this remarkable man, I can’t imagine.

No statues required.

[This is a longer version of a piece which was first published on Manchester Confidential in June 2008]

See also: Unknown Pleasures & Closer by Joy Division



Filed under expletive undeleted, features

15 responses to “The Tony Wilson Experience

  1. This is great. Tony Wilson is hilarious, as is New Order.

    “I knew it was a good film when only two people went up to go to the toilet. One of them was 75 and the other one was Bernard.”

    Hook is hilarious as well as Bernard. I remember seeing Bernard calling Bono, “Bongo” in some video. Its funny to see the two fighting like two old men now.

    I also saw some old game show video of New Order. Someone asked, “who is the laziest member of New Order?”

    Hook replied, “Ian Curtis, I haven’t seen him do anything in years.”

    I also really like the work of Saville. Its awesome he is working with Manchester on their creative initiatives.

    Great blog also!

    Did you get to meet Tony Wilson at all?

  2. some of new order’s stuff like everything is a bit shit also. i want to see both those videos. have not gotten around to it.

  3. undeleted

    Thanks JR, glad you like the piece.

    Have you seen the movies – Control, 24 Hour Party People and the Joy Division documentary – they’re talking about? I haven’t caught the documentary but the other two are great and I’d definitely recommend them. Twenty-Four Hour Party People is the myth and Control is (kind of) the reality, but you get a certain sense of Manchester from them both.

    I did meet Wilson a few times and even interviewed him and Yvette about In The City. I’d love to say we were big mates but we never really got on, unfortunately.

    He was a brilliant man though. He made things happen. And even if some of the things he made happen were y’know, a bit shit, lots more of them were amazing and beautiful and innovative.

    Like they say, a remarkable man.

    (JR writes the Chicago Withdrawal blog, by the way. Click on his signature to read about life in the Windy City ..)

  4. undeleted

    There was a band on Factory called Northside who were quite popular at one point. I thought they were some kind of Spinal Tap-style Madchester parody but it turned out they were absolutely serious. I think he had a lapse of judgement the day he signed them but, to his credit, he defended them to the bitter end.

    Rent those movies. I think you’ll like them. The documentary is supposed to be very good too.

  5. Did this event really happen? Are you sure they weren’t filming a new Comic Strip?

    I can’t read it all now…just too much craziness to take in…but did I read in there somewhere that Shaun Ryder once babysat someone….anyone? Interesting choice…

    You’re right about ’24 hour…’ I expected to hate it but really enjoyed it. I’m not particularly a huge Coogan fan or a Manchester person (got lost there a few times) or a New Order fan (what does that Sroobius Pip say..’just a band’…true for everyone except Led Zep, man) but I really liked the film. In fact I’ve liked most Winterbottom films that I’ve seen. And taking that name into showbiz must be quite an achievement in itself.

    And on John Cooper Clarke…see… poets rule…well, some of them. Some of them are complete tossers.


  6. The best bits – in terms of arguments and barely suppressed violence, specifically Cummins vs Kennedy and Grundy vs Ryder – took place after 2am, so just skip straight to there.

    I love 24 Hour Party People but pretty much everyone I know in Manchester was in the bloody thing apart from me. It could’ve been my big break into showbusiness!

    I will have to sign up for Coach Trip or Come Dine With Me after all.

    Poets do rule. JCC especially. But some of them are big tossers, it’s true – Radovan Karadzic springs to mind.

  7. Did you ever get to talk to any of New Order at all before they broke up by chance? Sumner and Hook looked like they’d eventually clash at some point. I guess they are more like super stars in Europe than they are here. I think they are really big in south America and parts of Asia too. Middlewestern America didn’t really pick up on them too much with exception of maybe parts of Chicago and other midwestern cities.

  8. undeleted

    I interviewed Hooky once but that was when he was doing one of his solo things.

    I’m not sure about them being superstars in Europe though, in fact I’m not even sure if they’re superstars in Manchester .. The big test is my mum. She might recognise Hooky because he was once married to a famous comedian called Caroline Ahearne, but I doubt she’d be able to tell you the name of any of the bands he was in.

    And I wouldn’t take too much notice of that breaking up stuff. New Order will work together again, sooner or later. And if they don’t, hey, there’s always LCD Soundsystem …

  9. N.O. has a scattered audience, looks like all of these South Americans love them.

    Hooks interviews are hilarious

  10. You’ve got great insights about stand up comedian from salford, keep up the good work!

  11. As usual I’m late to the party – about two years late in this case but I like to to think of the internet as non-linear.
    Just wanted to leave a note saying that your report of the day’s events was nicely written and made me laugh out loud several times. That in itself, for me, is a nice way to remember TW who was an inspirational Man(cunian) to me.
    And I bet ACR were brilliant doing “Shack Up” too.

  12. Cheers. It was a really good day. Really long day too ..

  13. James

    “nostalgia is the death of hope”, Mark Kennedy
    That phrase has stuck in my head since I first read this piece on Manchester Confidential. I thought about it again this week with the Stone Roses news.

  14. Kenny made a very good point. To quote a very wise man: “Imagine the sea of balding heads at the Stone Roses gigs. It’ll look like a carpet made from ostrich eggs ..”

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