At its best, Manchester’s Factory Records was the triumph of caprice over calculation. In a landscape in which the glass towers of the latter increasingly hold sway, it doesn’t hurt to take a detour through the backstreets of the former.

Dave Haslam’s final instalment in his Art Decades series of pocket journalism rounds things off with an understated flourish. Pivoted around a brief encounter between singer Grace Jones, her star in the ascendant, and post-punk band A Certain Ratio, more earth-bound by comparison, it traces the trajectories that led to their odd Stockport coupling, taking in New York, Hulme Crescents and several points in between. On the way, it has a lot to say about disco music and discotheques, chart pop and pop art, clothes shops and shopping centres, and the transience which cements their permanence. A Certain Ratio and Grace Jones also get a look-in.

Perhaps inevitably, it’s Jones who emerges the more vividly. For all that she reputedly admired the cut of their hair, A Certain Ratio were never styled by the likes of Jean-Paul Goude. Nor, for that matter, did they ever have the opportunity to take umbrage at being ignored by a chat show host on prime-time television. The daughter of a preacher man, Jones had already wended her way through spells as a go-go dancer and associate Hell’s Angel before finding her groove as a singular singer and model. She was a habitué of Studio 54 while A Certain Ratio, by way of contrast, were discovered playing Manchester’s Band On The Wall; an estimable establishment but one with little room to swing a white horse.

The flame that soldered their circuitry together was Warm Leatherette, the album Jones recorded to establish her post-disco identity. Among its cover versions was her own detached and distracted embodiment of A Certain Ratio label mates Joy Division’s She’s Lost Control, one of the sparingly few occasions on which a performer has been able to hold a candle to an Ian Curtis original. From there, they were only a transatlantic flight and a Martin Hannett-produced backing track away from collaborating on a cover version of Talking Heads’ Houses In Motion, a notion that – following a meeting between Jones and A Certain Ratio in a Stockport bar – remained only notional.

Haslam’s achievement is to relay the tangle of the artists’ parallel timelines with an enthused clarity that only a churl could resist. The opposite of a pub bore, he is deft enough to side-step being mired by the depth of his knowledge into workaday pedantry. Instead, he’s more akin to a disco evangelist, proselytising for the romance of the ground beneath one’s own feet, whether it be a Paris boulevard or the Merseyway Shopping Centre.

Rather than another paean in the Factory hymn book, these days a cottage industry in itself, Haslam’s slender artefact has the catwalk aplomb to resist easy categorisation, celebrating instead the virtues of straying from the desire lines of received wisdom, tracing new constellations from the familiar coordinates of popular culture, whatever one’s vantage point. Capricious by design, it values the curiosity that will inform the next conjunction of the apparently unlikely, and the stories that will foretell.  

By Desmond Bullen


Strawberry and The Big Apple: Grace Jones in Stockport, 1980 by Dave Haslam will be published on April 11, 2024. For more information, click here