published: 24 /
'Communications 1978-1992' is a new four CD box set dedicated to Factory Records. Anthony Dhanendran examines Factory Records' massive influence and its history
Where the late Anthony Wilson is concerned, it's easy to over-contextualise. His label Factory was, after all, just another record company, wasn't it? And yet there's no shortage of punditry on the subject of just how seminal the label was – how much it contributed to the British musical landscape of the 1980s, and how things would have been so different without it. The comedian Adam Buxton skewered this attitude recently with a television sketch featuring his own father's 'cliched memories of punk': “Everyone who was at the [Sex Pistols'] Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall gig went on to start a band: Pete Shelley, Bernie Sumner, Morrissey, Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe, Bono, Suggs, Lolly, Billie, Scooch, Robbie Williams...”
That in itself was a pastiche of one of the early scenes in Michael Winterbottom's Wilson biopic '24 Hour Party People', in which Steve Coogan, playing Wilson, said pretty much the same thing in sincerity. Winterbottom's was a film that managed the remarkable, contradictory feat of being a warts-and-all hagiography of Wilson, who died last year of cancer, tragically and before his time.
But '24 Hour Party People' also seemed to capture the strange, carefree, anarchic spirit of Wilson's label's 14-year existence, which is also chronicled in the new box set 'Communications', out on Rhino.
With track selection by punk chronicler Jon Savage, design by Factory's original designer Peter Savile and liner notes by (natch) Paul Morley, 'Communications' has an impressive pedigree. The track selection covers the entire history of the label, as the subtitle suggests, beginning with Joy Division's 'Digital' and ending, 62 tracks later, with the label's final release, Happy Mondays' 'Sunshine and Love'.
The first disc covers the early material, with four Joy Division tracks, New Order's 'Ceremony', three from A Certain Ratio and a beautiful Durutti Column number called 'Sketch for Summer'. Lest you worry that it's all about the big names, there are also tracks from New Order-related techno-types Section 25, comedian John Dowie ('It's Hard to be an Egg', which is an entertaining tribute to the heavy-working life of the average egg), Minny Pops and even 'Deaf' by the legendary Crispy Ambulance. OMD also feature with the original cut of single 'Electricity'.
There's at least one monolith on each of the discs: a record that stands out by being whatever the musical equivalent is of a household name, and in this case it's Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. Savage thus neatly walks the tightrope between pleasing the purists (and ignoring the fact that the label had big hits, which will by their nature skew the balance of the compilation) and ignoring the numerous smaller acts who made up the more intriguing part of the label's catalogue.
To that end there are two other unlikely gems on the first disc: 'Time Goes By So Slow' by the Distractions, a jangly indie-pop number that wouldn't have been out of place on Rough Trade or Creation at the time (although, admittedly, it predates the latter by a few years); and 'English Black Boys' by X-O-Dus, a low-slung reggae tune with lyrics bemoaning the far-right rhetoric of repatriation that was relatively common in that time (and, in fact, in this time).
With disc two we're definitely into the 1980s with New Order's second single (or the double-A side thereof) 'Everything's Gone Green'. Songs on this disc come almost exclusively from 1981 and 1982, with a couple of later recordings bringing up the rear in the form of Quando Quango's 'Love Tempo' (1983) and 'Talk About the Past' by the Wake (1984). The former is one of the first successes by the disc jockey Mike Pickering who went on to form the successful 1990s dance act M People, while the latter featured a young Bobby Gillespie, before he was asked to leave and moved on to the Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream.
In fact, similar names keep cropping up throughout this and other discs, the main offenders being Joy Division and New Order manager Rob Gretton, and Vini Reilly of the Durutti Column. It's something that's common to all successful but small indie labels: people come along because they know other people, and that's the way the industry works.
There's a definite 1980s feel to disc two, and not just because of the slap bass to be found on some of the songs. The tracklisting neatly segues between the rougher sound of the early tracks the label released and the smoother, dancier recordings for which it was starting to become known by this time. Royal Family and The Poor's 'Art on 45' is one of the more interesting of the lesser-known tracks. It's kind of Brit-funk, which sounds terrible but has its own definite charm, sharing more than a little with both Ian Dury and the electro music that was coming across the Atlantic at the time. Cabaret Voltaire's 'Yashar,' in a John Robie remix, is similarly trans-national, coming across something like an early Coldcut or Double D and Steinski track, with heavy use of samples and synths but retaining the flavour of this country.
'Cool As Ice' by Manchester's 52nd Street, on the other hand, has almost nothing of Britain about it, being pretty much an entirely-American-influenced electro-funk track, which has its endearing qualities but which has dated too. It's not helped by being followed by this disc's monolith, 'Blue Monday'.
New Order's 'Confusion' opens disc three, and there are more familiar faces shortly afterwards. Marcel King was the lead vocalist with the northern soul (as opposed to Northern Soul) group Sweet Sensation who had a brace of hits back in 1974 and 1975. By 1991 he was planning a comeback with the help of New Order's Bernard Sumner and A Certain Ratio's Donald Johnson, the three of whom teamed up to record 'Reach For Love', featured here.
It hasn't aged well – stuck in 1991, it evokes memories of nothing so much as classic-period Eddie Murphy films, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your view. Its presence, though, does help demonstrate Factory's commitment to other kinds of music than what it was already putting out, after some initial misgivings.
It was that spirit that led to the handover of the title of Factory's Biggest Band: as New Order's star waned, one Shaun Willie Ryder was ready to take the reins with his band the Happy Mondays, and their acid-influenced songwriting (not that the other acts weren't already being influenced by acid and ecstasy by this time, but the Mondays were among the first to put the drugs up front, as it were).
Another long-term Factory face pops up next – New Order/Joy Division producer Martin Hannett, who lent his talent to Stockholm Monsters, whose 'All At Once' is a jumpy, danceable number that is hard to ignore because of its sheer enthusiasm. James (of 'Sit Down' fame) also make an appearance, with 'Hymn from a Village'. Happy Mondays close the disc, with 'Freaky Dancin' and 24 Hour Party People, and there's another New Order monolith in the form of the always-excellent 'True Faith'. Between those are a couple of pleasant Smiths-alike C86 indie songs, Miaow's 'When It All Comes Down' and 'Brighter' by the Railway Children. There's also the oddly meditative funk-dance of 'Compressor' by Biting Tongues, featuring Graham Massey, who went on to found 808 State.
The final selection also kicks off with a New Order song, 'Fine Time', a tune that reflects the pure dance stance the label and its bands were by now largely taking. In that vein are the Mondays' spectacular 'Hallelujah' and 'Getting Away With It' by Electronic (the supergroup-of-sorts consisting of New Order's Sumner, the Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant and Johnny Marr of the Smiths). Then there are the really big tracks: the Mondays' 'Step On' and 'Kinky Afro', and New Order's spectacular England football anthem 'World In Motion'. Explicit about drug use (its opening lyrics and chorus are the letters “LSD”), Northside's 'Shall We Take a Trip' is emblematic of its time, although in retrospect the same group's 'Take 5', also here, is the better song.
Reassuringly, though, Durutti Column's 'Home' ploughs the same lonely furrow as before, a welcome presence in amongst the monster hits and the smiley yellow faces that most of the songs on this last disc evoke. It all comes to a close with the lively 'Tasty Fish' by The Other Two (Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert of New Order) and a Lionrock remix of the Happy Mondays' 'Sunshine and Love', a B-side of the label's final release. It's not a classic, but that fits the sad way in which the label petered out under the burden of its debts (a deal with London Records famously fell through when the buyer realised that, because the label didn't sign contracts in its early days, it didn't own New Order's back catalogue).
Not much of this stuff will be new to Factory fans. Just under half the tracks featured on the 1991 compilation 'Palatine', released only a year before the label imploded. And anyone who was following the label closely at the time will find plenty here that they've seen before. Then again, there's a lot here to enjoy. All the Joy Division tracks are landmarks, all the New Order tracks are huge, all the Durutti Column tracks are beautiful and all the Happy Mondays tracks will make you smile. And then there's the bulk of the compilation, which is made up of the interesting, enticing and intriguing smaller names from the label's catalogue.
In fact, the main thing missing – at the time of writing, at least – from 'Communications' is a Factory catalogue number – with Wilson having issued numbers to the Hacienda (FAC 51) and the Factory cat (FAC 191), to the office Sellotape (FAC 136), to '24 Hour Party People' (FACDVD 424), and, posthumously, to Wilson himself (FAC 501) surely it's not too much to ask ?
The only major musical omission is ESG, who were apparently excluded because of licensing problems. And then there's Wilson, whose ghost haunts this box set (though, in fact, his Factory co-founder Alan Erasmus doesn't appear to have been involved either). Not having known him, it would be solipsism for us to ask whether Wilson would have approved of, or enjoyed the exercise. But although much of the music here is known to Factory followers, or was featured on the previous compilation, 'Communications' is very much a fine, fitting tribute to – let's not over-contextualise – a fine British record label.