God bless Tony Wilson – he helped us all to love our city


It’s a dirty dozen years since Tony Wilson died. There’s still a Wilson-sized hole in Manchester – and it’s hard to imagine when there will be a time when there isn’t.

Everything we have now seems to have been inadvertently inspired by Tony and the group of people he worked with – Rob Gretton, Alan Erasmus and Martin Hannett.

So here’s the Tony Wilson I knew.

A volcano full of constantly erupting ideas; an intimidating amount of confidence; a sort of fearlessness; never on time; never stuck around for more than thirty minutes unless on home territory; always had time albeit transient; always engaged with people on a one to one basis; always positive, even about ridiculous ideas at times; always encouraging – even about other people’s ridiculous ideas; always loved an argument; rarely bore grudges; and a hide like a rhino.

He was to all intents and purposes exactly what we needed in Manchester and need now more than ever. He was a figurehead – and a walking coconut shy at the same time.

Everyone had an opinion about Tony. He was hated, adored yet never ignored – just like his beloved Manchester United.  He was sometimes wrong and would admit it – eventually – but he always had an opinion. That in itself was exciting and different – a charismatic arrogance that was so un-serf like that it was hypnotising to us working class Manchester kids – and very attractive. There’s nothing as life sapping as someone without an opinion.

It’s a form of laziness, like they can’t be bothered engaging with life. That was never the case with Tony. So after all this waffling, what exactly did Tony do that made him so special?

Here we go.

Tony’s door was always open. He’d always engage, take a phone call and give a helping hand – or even some unhelpful advice.

When I was first presenting The Word on Channel 4, I was feeling frustrated about the number of arguments I was having to get certain bands and guests I wanted on the show. Everything, it seemed to me, had to go through the Home Counties posh kid media prophylactic. And if what they put on was shit, I felt that was damaging my ‘brand’ as they’d call it now.

I rang Tony and asked him, ‘Tony, when you’re the presenter of a TV show, how much say should you have in the programme content?’ He paused for a minute then said quite solemnly ‘Hmm 11.5%. That’s exactly it. 11.5% I’d say’.

I found myself mesmerised and dumbfounded and said ‘Thanks Tony’ and hung up – and then thought ‘What the fuck does that mean?’ Oh yes, he could do that, a sort of Jedi mind trick that had New Order pouring all their money into the Hacienda for 15 years.

Tony could do anything – and excel at it. He was a brilliant TV presenter. As a teenager, I used to sort of hate him when he did So It Goes and Granada Reports but I was fascinated by him.

He saw where I lived but through double rose tinted spectacles. He’d bring bands on that were different and introduced me to The Sex Pistols, Ian Dury, Iggy Pop, Elvis Costello, The Clash, and – more importantly for us Mancunians – a band we already knew about – Buzzcocks.

He made where we lived seem exciting. He’d interview people like Anthony Burgess and intellectualise about the nature of Mancunians and working class people and our place in the world and the worthwhile contributions we could make.

He wasn’t telling me what to think, but almost challenging me and others about how I thought and actually making it cool to know stuff and to read books.

I’d watch and think ‘posh twat’ then carry on watching and tune in next time, fascinated and determined to expand my reading at least.

Manchester has just had its latest international arts festival.  No way would that have happened without Tony Wilson, nor would the Commonwealth Games.

So City fans enjoying the stylish comfort of the Etihad have to thank a United fan for that, although we should also never forget the contribution of Tony’s partner in crime at Factory Records and devil on Tony’s shoulder, the late Rob Gretton – as true a blue as ever existed and still sorely missed and totally under-appreciated in Manchester.

The Commonwealth Games came from Manchester’s cheeky failed bid for the Olympics, an idea that came from Tony. He basically told the council, ‘you’re in charge of a big city, start acting like it’.

Tony’s In The City international music seminar in Manchester taught the council that these events brought money into the city and they were very quick learners. Now we have numerous arts, literature and music festivals in Manchester throughout the year.

You talk about city centre living and how it can feed the culture of a city. It was Tony’s vision after visiting New York and seeing loft apartments in old warehouses and mills. But would it work in Manchester and elsewhere? Just ask Tom Bloxham of Urban Splash.

Walk through most city centres or trendy areas nowadays and look at the names of the bars. All one word names. The first place to do that in Manchester was Dry. It was originally going to be called Dry and Hungry – a bar on the ground floor to get a drink when you’re ‘dry’ and a restaurant on the second floor for when you’re ‘hungry’.

Factory ran out of money and decided they couldn’t afford the restaurant so just used half the name. After that, every bar in the Northern Quarter had a one word name – Blu, Common, Cord, Trof – and it went the same way outside Manchester. Genius branding cooked up from the mind of a true genius.

As for Tony’s own ambitions, yes he wanted and deserved recognition. He should have had his own arts show on Channel 4 or BBC 2.

I groan inwardly every time I see Yentob and his ilk, sons of privilege trying to communicate the world of ideas to an audience that they have never moved amongst. As the old Irish saying goes, ‘Those in power write the history, those who do the suffering write the songs’.

Thanks to Tony, four big films have been made set against a backdrop of the Manchester music scene between 1978-1990 – 24 Hour Party People, Control, Spike Island, and Made Of Stone – and numerous books about Manchester bands.

Is there a kid in the country nowadays who picks up a guitar and doesn’t start off by learning how to play Wonderwall? Culturally and historically, that sort of stuff is like an atom bomb. Manchester has a history and generations will absorb and remember and add to it.

That was Tony’s vision and it’s mission accomplished. God bless you, Tony, wherever you are. You helped us all to love our city.


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