As a youngster, I grew up in a Manchester cut off from aspiration and inspiration, our lives and expectations as narrow as the streets we lived in.
Suddenly there’s this madly enthusiastic bloke on the telly showcasing The Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols and Joy Division, telling us that where we lived was beyond mere cool. So we’d go to all the punk gigs, and Tony would be there, sticking out like a sore thumb in his suit, being universally slandered, yet he opened a window on a different world for us.
He was our man off the telly demystifying that elusive world of possibilities that beckoned.
I first met Tony Wilson back in 1978. A gobby inner-city teenager haranguing a TV presenter to put more reggae on his So It Goes TV show. The mere fact he engaged with me for five minutes gave me a thrill.
He didn’t try to be all Manchester council estate; he remained the arty Cambridge graduate and didn’t pull any punches. I thought he was a bit poncey, especially as he called me ‘darling’, but I was fascinated by his passion for our city, a fascination that never diminished in almost thirty years.
The abuse Tony would get meant he was like a walking coconut shy, opinions bulldozing through sensibilities. Nevertheless, he pushed for it all at nightclubs, bars, city centre apartments, and redevelopment; he made Manchester attractive to the creative industries and the young talent who would work in them.
It was beyond cool. It was saying here’s a city that doesn’t care about where you’re from, show us what you can do, and we’ll respect you because here we’re not about making mere money; we want to make history.
Back in 1982, I got my first presenting job and a nightly music magazine show called Barbed Wireless on BBC Radio Derby. I wanted it to be opinionated, accessible and use to boost the local music scene.
When I got a tape off a good band, I’d naively ring Tony up at Granada. He hardly knew me, but he’d always pick up the phone and chat, telling me stories and giving advice. That radio show won two consecutive Sony awards for the best specialist music show, and I did get the locals focusing on creating their own scene. But it was just me aping Tony and trying to recreate a mini-Manchester in Derby.
In 1986, he suggested to the Manchester Evening News editor that he should do a page covering the Manchester music scene. It was Tony’s Machiavellian way of getting more exposure for the bands on his Factory label, but it worked out for everyone on the local music scene.
A music page in the Evening News, in turn, created a demand for dedicated shows on local radio covering Manchester music. That page was known as The Word, and I took it over in 1989. It would ultimately be where bands like The Stone Roses, The Charlatans, Oasis, Doves, even Take That would get their first press.
The name The Word would be suggested by me in turn to Channel 4 for a new youth programme they’d employed me to present. The Word, in turn, gave the first TV appearances to Oasis and Nirvana and is still talked about now 25 years after it finished.
When I needed advice about TV, there was only one person I’d ring. The advice was: “do it your way and make sure you put something back.”
So from that tiny punk scene in 1976 in Manchester, we’ve produced influential music like Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, James, The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Doves Oasis, The Courteeners, Blossoms, Children Of Zeus, Aitch, IAMDDB and Bugzy Malone. The charts have been littered for the past 30 years with Manchester originated pop and dance tunes, the radio stations play stuff by Manchester bands, and the city has become a Mecca for music worldwide.
Tony’s advice still resonates, put something back, and more will grow.
I’d often bump into Tony and his son Oliver at United matches, where we shared a passion for the reds. Tony was my half time comfort blanket when United was struggling in tricky European ties – “we’ll win this one, Terry, there’s no doubt” – and he was almost always right.
I was lucky enough to work with him on TV and radio. I recall Tony saying that it was the job of Mancunians to annoy everyone else, exoneration and benediction for me. So don’t be ignored, don’t be overlooked.
Despite international cult status, Tony was our triumphantly private touchstone and far from perfect. But then, we’re all loved for our imperfections. So the fact he’s no longer there to share his thoughts is a supreme irritant.
Happy birthday Tony, from all of us who’ll never forget.