By the time Factory Records was over, I had almost caught up to it. There was something wonderfully regional about the record industry in those days, and Factory was just so quintessentially British that I couldn’t decipher that Mancunian accent.
Picking over the wreckage left in Factory’s wake made me understand what it is to be one of those weird, creepy guys with metal detectors on the beach. Women in various states of undress are swarming around and he’s focused on finding some lump of forgotten treasure that probably won’t be valuable enough to justify the time spent looking for it. Factory left some sort of treasure behind, but you have to pick through an awful lot of garbage to find it.
And despite a couple of later reincarnations (most recently in 2006), Factory really is gone now. Nearly all of the principle figures in the story are dead. Ian Curtis of Joy Division was the first, but in he’s been followed by impresario Tony Wilson, producer Martin Hannett, Rob Gretton and many more. In fact, aside from the folks from New Order (who merely wish each other dead), the only ones left standing are designer Peter Saville, who created the label’s early iconic style but outside of New Order artwork had little to do with Factory output for many years, and Alan Erasmus (who has kept such a low profile that an earlier version of this article suggested he might be dead too – my first journalistic murder).
Clockwise from right: Peter Saville, Tony Wilson, Alan Erasmus & Martin Hannett.
One of Saville’s creations appears as the minimalistic cover design for FAC DANCE, a new compilation compiled and annotated by Bill Brewster (author of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and curator of the excellent djhistory.com), with a focus on early Factory 12″ records and “rarities made for the dancefloor”.
The qualifiers in that statement are important – many Factory acts had as much to do with dirge as dance, and the label never quite recovered from perhaps the worst business decision in music history since Decca Records passed on the Beatles with the note, “Guitar groups are on the way out, Mr. Epstein.” As Dave Haslem wrote in 1992, Factory in its later days had become “an A&R disaster zone”. This is all the more curious in that Factory co-founded The Haçienda nightclub and had, essentially, House Music’s first explosion into the mainstream happen right in its own backyard. For whatever reason, they failed to capitalize on it. Nostalgia and myth-making are often lies but sometimes the truth lurks between the lines: in the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, Wilson is shown wandering through The Haçienda at its peak with “The House Music Anthem” playing – a record Factory had nothing to do with. None of the actual dance music in the film about Factory was from Factory. The music of The Haçienda would change the world but the tastes of its owners lead in a more pop-friendly direction.
It’s not, however, as if Factory had nothing to do with dance music at all. Aside from “Blue Monday”, there was, most notably, “Run 2”, whose troubled legal history has made it something of an undeserved legend. Factory and New Order were sued for plagiarism by (no, I’m not making this up) John Denver, and the record was quickly taken out of the bins when the smiley folkster sued for royalties.
“Run 2” doesn’t make an appearance on FAC DANCE and, with its emphasis on “rarities”, only one track from New Order (Factory’s most commercially successful band) made the cut – the 12″ mix of “Confusion” (different from the 12″ remix of “Confusion” commissioned by DMC DJ service and edited by an up-and-coming radio DJ named Dimitri Yerasimos, later to become Dimitri From Paris.)
Anyone connected with Factory would probably put together a far different (and likely inferior) selection. Instead, Strut Records brought in an outsider, Bill Brewster, who recently reinvigorated the sprawling Trax catalog with the critically acclaimed Trax Re-Edited. Brewster is making a fine second (or is it third, or fourth?) career out of this – digging through fabulous wrecks of a storied back catalog and sifting with the touch of a polished DJ but the obsession of a record nerd.
Released on Harmless Records rather than Trax itself, the Trax Re-Edited compilation was something the current people in charge over there could have never done – an inspired, cruel culling of a highly uneven back catalog driven less by nostalgia and still less by getting your name in the paper, which seems to be Trax’s primary obsession now. (Compare and contrast the dates of this and this and finally this.)
Quando Quango, from the ultimate Factory site CerysmaticFactory.
Once again, Brewster makes a savage cut from the Factory catalog. Section 25’s “Looking From a Hilltop” kicks it off; 52nd Street, Durutti Column and Factory faves A Certain Ratio are also well represented with multiple tracks each. Also of note is Jellybean Benitez’s “restructured” mix of 52nd Street’s “Cool As Ice” and three tracks from the highly underrated Quando Quango, a new wave and dance project co-founded by Haçienda DJ Mike Pickering. Quando Quango was strongly influenced by New York and Chicago House Music, and formed a template of sorts for his popular successor act, M People, and his A&R work after he left Factory with DeConstruction.
On the whole, you have to stand back and admire this. Brewster takes the chaotic grandeur that is the Factory catalog (CAT#s were assigned to posters, places and things – the last entity to receive a catalog number was Tony Wilson’s coffin) and without worrying about being definitive, made something highly listenable out of it. As Haslem wrote in his obituary, “By the end, Factory’s self-belief was turning into arrogance, but once their musical Midas touch deserted them, there was no hope.” This is true – but Brewster deserves credit for spotlighting how magnificent that golden touch had once been.