Use Hearing Protection: celebrating the early years of Factory Records
Jan Hicks has a particular, distinctive memory of growing up in the early 80s. “I remember Blue Monday being played on Piccadilly Radio, being in the kitchen at home and telling my mum and dad and brother and sister to shut up because this sound was coming out of the radio speaker, this drum beat that I had never heard anything like before.”
Hicks is now the archive manager at Manchester’s Science & Industry Museum. “I joined in 2003 and one of the reasons that I wanted to work at the museum was because of the Rob Gretton archive collection that’s held here. Factory is really personally important to me.”
For the uninitiated, Rob Gretton was the legendary Wythenshawe-born manager of New Order and a partner with Tony Wilson in Factory Records. Hicks says: “Rob had kept an office at The Haçienda and when it closed, he moved into a building in Knott Mill round the back of Deansgate station. Then, when he got booted out of there in the late 90s, half of the stuff went to his house and half of it came to the museum. What came here was a lot of A&R material because that was his role at Factory. More recently, we’ve brought in the other half of Rob’s archive on loan from his family. For about 11 years, we’ve had an archive of Tony Wilson’s papers on loan from Tony’s family as well.”
This last detail is particularly intriguing, as Wilson always chose to present himself as unsentimental. The fact that he even kept an archive feels like a revelation. “It is surprising,” Hicks admits. “Tony’s collection was just kept at his family home in Didsbury and even his family didn’t know that it existed until he died. When The Haçienda closed, Tony always swore blind that everything had been destroyed, that he’d got rid of it. Then when his kids came to look through the house, they found all this stuff stashed away that they’d never seen before. It’s been a bit of a journey of discovery for them as well, I think.”
These archives have been available for visitors to look through by arrangement, but now they’re set to form the basis of a major exhibition of which Hicks is lead curator. Use Hearing Protection: The early years of Factory Records will run at the Science & Industry Museum for six months from July 2020, with a stated aim to ‘celebrate the initial works of this seminal record label and its fundamental role in Manchester’s music revolution’. Hicks says: “Factory is really important to me as somebody who is interested in music and professionally it’s important to me too, because it’s a different story for the museum to tell. We tell stories about Manchester’s traditional industries and about the science and technology of the city really, really well. This is a story I think that people might be surprised by us telling, but it’s a valid story that we are in a good position to tell.”
As well as the Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson collections, the exhibition will draw from other sources.
“We’re also borrowing from individual collectors, people who have a passion about Factory and have their own materials relating to it. We recently acquired, directly from Jon Savage, his private collection of memorabilia about Joy Division that formed the basis of a number of projects that he’s worked on, such as his contributions to Control and Grant Gee’s Joy Division documentary and his oral history book that was published last year. We’ve got that collection permanently at the museum now. We’re also borrowing from a Burnley company, AMS Neve, who are really important in the history of electronic and digital technology in music recording. They worked with Martin Hannett to develop something called the Digital Delay Line which was used on the Factory Sampler and on Unknown Pleasures. We’re borrowing an example of one of those really early units from them. I’m still developing the content of the exhibition and securing a few loans, so there are some things that I am excited about, but I can’t talk about at the minute.”
An embryonic version of the exhibition ran for a few weeks in London’s Chelsea Space last Autumn, but, fittingly enough, the Manchester version will be the proper deal, roughly four times bigger than the London incarnation and with a very different tone and emphasis.
“The show in London was tiny, so for people who saw that, this is going to be much bigger. It’ll be in our temporary exhibition gallery, taking up something like 400 square metres. One of the things that we are doing that’s different is that we’re bringing Manchester into the exhibition. It’s about the first five years of Factory, 1978 to 1982, so it predates the story that usually gets told. It talks about the key personalities involved in setting Factory up and what their influences were, things like the Situationist International and the punk movement. It talks about Manchester’s industrial heritage and the fact that in the late 70s, traditional industries were heavily in decline, but Factory were still influenced by them. To a certain extent they tried to use as many of the surviving industries as they could. They worked with foundries to get things cast, they worked with local printers, so we’re telling that story of Factory helping existing industries to find a new outlet.”
Not only that, but the exhibition also seeks to explore Factory’s relationship with newer, less traditional industries in the region.
“What many people might not know is we had a thriving live music industry. There were organisations like Music Force, who booked venues as well as fly-posting and hiring out equipment to the bands and the venues. Tosh Ryan and Martin Hannett were involved in Music Force and that led to the founding of Rabid Records, an early independent label in the city which directly influenced the way that Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus wanted to go with Factory. There was a nascent graphic design industry, too. There was a really good graphic design department at Manchester Polytechnic, out of which came Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett and Linder Sterling. They were really important in developing profiles for bands. You had Malcolm working with Buzzcocks, Peter working with Factory and Linder working generally across the punk and post-punk scene.”
The exhibition covers roughly the same period as the first 50 items to be assigned a FAC catalogue number, taking in Joy Division’s entire original discography, early releases by A Certain Ratio and The Durutti Column, John Dowie and The Distractions, plus assorted Factory posters and badges and Linder Sterling’s prototype menstrual egg-timer. Items lined up for inclusion for the exhibition include documents detailing Joy Division’s live stage gear requirements, a Factory club night poster designed by Sterling and a private letter from Gretton to Wilson thanking him for plugging Joy Division on his Granada TV arts showcase What’s On (“after all the praise that you gave the EP, I’ve finally persuaded the lads to release it”) . According to Hicks, “these items are absolutely new for the exhibition and have almost definitely never been seen in an exhibition setting before”.
Of course, there remains an argument that Manchester shouldn’t get too bogged down in looking backwards and that endless veneration of the Factory era could prevent the city’s culture from moving onwards. Inevitably it’s in the nature of any exhibition to highlight the past, but Hicks suggests that in this case, the past might actually help us to look forwards.
“That’s what I’m hoping that this exhibition does, because I really strongly feel that it shouldn’t be a nostalgia-fest. It shouldn’t just be that same story and the same people coming to look at it and just wallowing in their past, because we’ve done that to death across the city. I’m really interested in the fact that last year, the Greater Manchester Music Board was launched here at the museum and this is an opportunity for us to look at what has happened in the past, to look at Factory and what followed on from Factory. But it’s also an opportunity to think about how the city has changed and how society has changed, how the way we do things is different now and how can that earlier story inform the way we do things in the future. It’s not that Factory needs to be preserved and frozen in time, it’s that it’s something that happened once and we need to question, can it happen again? Should we be doing things differently?
“It’s important not to forget about Factory completely. It had this independent, radical spirit that’s fundamentally important. It’s why Manchester is the city that it is now.”
Images courtesy of Manchester Science & Industry Museum
Use Hearing Protection: The early years of Factory Records will run at the Museum of Science & Industry from July 3, 2020 to January 10, 2021.
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