Factory Records

Few independent English-language record labels achieved so much subcultural cachet and made as great of an impact on multiple fronts as did Factory Records. Not quite making it to a decade and a half of existence, the Manchester-based label, formed in the ferment of punk in the UK, was somehow simultaneously a brilliant art and conceptual project (its catalog numbers, famously, applied not just to music releases but everything from posters to packing tape to lawsuits to music press articles and more), a booster for local acts that gained a worldwide following and ultimately shaped popular music in numerous ways, and a chaotic business model money-wise that wouldn’t’ve lasted as long as it did without a lot of luck. Remembered in numerous autobiographies and music histories and the sole or partial subject of feature films, Factory and its main cofounders, local TV broadcaster and public face Tony Wilson and actor and activist Alan Erasmus, have become legendary, but the reality rests primarily on its series of remarkable albums and singles.

Founded in late 1978 after a series of successful club nights Wilson and Erasmus ran called the Factory, the label, run out of Erasmus’s home, debuted with the A Factory Sample compilation EP, the first of many such collections over time. It was also the debut appearance of two other key figures helping to shape the label’s early identity: producer Martin Hannett and graphic designer Peter Saville. Its first full album was by the Durutti Column, focusing on the spare and beautiful guitar playing of main figure and label constant Vini Reilly, but no question which band in two incarnations became the keystone of Factory. Managed by another key early Factory figure, Rob Gretton, Joy Division, who after two dramatically powerful albums and the early death of lead singer Ian Curtis transformed into electronic dance rock experimenters New Order, ultimately became almost mythical. Besides keeping the label generally afloat and acting as mentors and producers for many other acts, its members, along with Gretton and Factory, founded a famed concert venue and dance club, the Haçienda.

Factory itself never stopped looking to sign and work with numerous other bands, most often looking locally. Occasionally figures like New York’s Thick Pigeon and Anna Domino and California’s Abecedarians might release efforts, but primary acts were always from the greater Manchester area, early on including A Certain Ratio (and related band Swamp Children, later renamed Kalima), Section 25, 52nd Street and Stockholm Monsters. The latter were among other bands, like Quando Quango and Tunnelvision, that primarily released singles and at most one album, but they all collectively furthered the label’s reputation. By 1985 another local act made its first Factory appearance with a debut EP: the Happy Mondays, whose twisted and scabrous funk rock approach would mutate over time though a series of albums and singles that would make the band iconic figures via the Haçienda-driven ‘Madchester’ scene, one of the centers of the rave and techno explosion in the late 1980s and 1990s.

New Order, as much a founding force of said scene as anything else, scored Factory’s first number 1 UK chart single in 1990 with their theme for the English efforts in the World Cup that year, “World In Motion,” while its members started on various solo projects as well, most notably Bernard Sumner’s collaboration with Smiths veteran Johnny Marr, Electronic. While other acts like the Railway Children, Miaow (and, solo, its lead figure Cath Carroll), Northside and the Adventure Babies released efforts during these latter years – and Factory itself started a quixotic but intriguing sub-label focusing on classical musicians and recordings – the label’s luck turned for the worse in the early 1990s. Iconic figures like Hannett died while the expenses of the Haçienda and a new label headquarters, plus cost overruns on new albums by both the Happy Mondays and New Order, ultimately led to Factory’s late 1992 bankruptcy. Tony Wilson worked on different projects carrying the Factory aesthetic and often the name forward, musically and otherwise, and continued to boost Manchester as a creative center until his passing from cancer in 2007. 

As of 2022, a number of Factory stalwarts continued to perform and/or record in various incarnations, including New Order (and, separately, now ex-member Peter Hook), the Happy Mondays, A Certain Ratio and Section 25. Combined with a series of box set overviews as well as comprehensive rereleases over time of the label’s material, in large part due to the continuing work of James Nice via his own LTM label and then working with the affiliated Factory Benelux imprint on archival presentations, and the general inspiration Factory had on indie rock labels like the US’s Teenbeat to the fact that Saville’s design for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures has become a key part of modern iconography, it’s not a bad legacy in the slightest.

Reunion Wilderness cover

At once sweetly gawky and fairly well-polished, the Railway Children’s debut album is very much a product of its late 80s UK indie rock times: guitar-led, shimmeringly melodic and somewhat understatedly sung. Not necessarily the fault of lead figure Gary Newby, who sounds a little mixed into the band’s music at points, but it’s more of an album to gently sway and nod your head to on a lazy afternoon. His ruminations are engaging enough, however, and songs like “First Notebook” and “Brighter” have all the feelings of young life, love and loss down.

The Temple of the 13th Tribe cover

The first full-length release by The Royal Family and the Poor, 1984’s The Temple of the 13th Tribe found Michael Keane, assisted by a variety of fellow Factory types such as Peter Hook on production and Stockholm Monsters keyboardist Lita Hira on backing vocals, creating a series of dreamily involving songs. Akin to the murky electronic psychedelia of the 1980s as heard in acts like the Legendary Pink Dots – Aleister Crowley samples appears more than once – its core element is Keane’s high singing, effortlessly conveying a range of moods and emotions.

When It All Comes Down cover

The Cath Carroll-led Miaow never released a tentatively planned full-length album before the band split in 1988, but years later When It All Comes Down brought together the group’s three singles, radio sessions and demos and other cuts – including their C86 contribution “Sport Most Royal” and Carroll’s wonderfully weird revamp of Elvis Presley’s “King Creole” done in collaboration with Steve Albini – to create a definitive collection. The heart of it remains said singles, often at once vocally sweet and lyrically barbed, all with a crisp, focused energy.

Watching The Hydroplanes cover

Tunnelvision initially had a very small formal recorded legacy courtesy of one 1981 single on Factory Records: the steady, subtly mesmerizing flow of “Watching the Hydroplanes,” Chris Anderton’s voice a yearning keen against the darker punch of the music. The 2005 Watching the Hydroplanes compilation pulled together that with the efforts of two demo sessions, one of which is also presented in a remix by Peter Hook, as well as a separate basic demo of the title track itself, the whole a good portrait of a band with an ear for some focused, strong songs.

Unknown Pleasures cover

Over the decades it’s almost been the case that Peter Saville’s monumental art design for the cover of Joy Division’s debut full-length outstrips the music itself, but even just a quick listen confirms the staying power of the remarkable music they’d created at a young age. While the band famously felt that Martin Hannett’s production didn’t capture them at their strongest, the dark power and energy of such remarkable songs as “Shadowplay,” “New Dawn Fades” and “She’s Lost Control” retain a vivid intensity.

Bummed cover

One of Martin Hannett’s last full album productions, Bummed is a wonderfully strange listen then and now – starting with the twangy stomp of “Country Song” that sounds like it shouldn’t work but is a treat. By all accounts the Happy Mondays were happily in the thick of ecstasy and rave culture during its recording, and while Bummed isn’t quite yet at the chaotic fusion that would result, it’s an energetic collection of psych-tinged jams, Shaun Ryder’s attitude-tinged singing about wild scenarios on “Mad Cyril,” “Lazy Itis” and the storming “Wrote For Luck” driving the party.

LC cover

Following the Durutti Column’s remarkable debut, Vini Reilly made it an actual group thanks to the addition of Bruce Mitchell on drums and percussion, complementing the stark rhythm-box pulses of the original with a clipped, crisp sense of drive to match Reilly’s elegantly spare guitar creations. Reilly also began to add vocals for the first time, with soft semi-whispered murmurings with a yearning edge on “Sketch for Dawn (I)” and “Never Known.” It was his remarkable, carefully delivered turn on “The Missing Boy,” dedicated to Ian Curtis, that was key.

Electronic cover

The debut album by the partnership of Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr was heralded for some time in advance thanks to earlier singles like the exquisite, disco-tinged confection “Getting Away With It” — itself notably featuring Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys as well — and the rough shuffle of “Get the Message.” The album finds its own sonic balance away from both New Order and especially the Smiths; if Sumner isn’t the sharpest with hip-hop flow, he makes a game effort, and songs like “Gangster” and the concluding “Feel Every Beat” connect just so.

Chicken Rhythms cover

If the Happy Mondays became the face of Madchester almost by default, their younger labelmates Northside were perhaps more stereotypically so, a rush of psychedelia-touched indie guitar chime and funk-derived beats that instantly calls to mind the time and place. For all that, their sole album Chicken Rhythms is a breezy listen, with songs like “My Rising Star,” which ends the album on a high note, and “Take Five” (very much not the Dave Brubeck standard) providing engaging energy. All too perfectly obvious song title: “Shall We Take A Trip?”

So Hot cover

The sole album released by Swamp Children under that name before transforming into Kalima, So Hot found the group building on their previous two years to create an engaging formal debut that very much was in the vein of the early 80s nightclub jazz and funk-tinged pop that the UK produced in spades. While the crossover of members with A Certain Ratio can be sensed it’s still its own thing, with Ann Quigley’s relaxed singing and extra guest performances on flute by Elvio Ghigliordini adding to the easy energy on songs like “Samba Zippy (Pt. 2)” and “Magic.”

Alma Mater cover

The sole album by Stockholm Monsters, 1984’s Peter Hook-produced Alma Mater, remains a too-little-known delight, a gem in both the story of Manchester of the era and its label Factory Records as well as post-punk/synth-influenced rock of the decade. The eclectic combination of talent on display, including guitarist Tony France’s dry yet yearning vocals, the trumpet of Lindsay Anderson and the excellent and deeply underrated drumming of Shan Hira, turn up trumps on stately songs like “Decalogue,” “Where I Belong,” “Life’s Two Faces” and “E.W.”

Frozen Blood cover

Crispy Ambulance’s slightly tangled history with Factory can be partially summed up in noting they only released one thing on the label proper: the two track Unsightly and Serene single in 1981, with “Deaf” being the better song in its upfront, slightly weird energy. Frozen Blood compiles that effort with a variety of contemporaneous additions: a slew of radio session cuts from 1980 and 1981 plus some live tracks from 1982. If the various songs don’t always quite reach The Plateau Phase’s majesty, they showed the band’s driving post-punk approach well.

Compressed (The Factory Recordings 1984-87) cover

Manchester’s Biting Tongues had already been going for five years before signing to Factory, with new members joining to replace some departures; the resultant efforts collected on Compressed, covering two singles and the soundtrack to the Feverhouse video, capture them continuing to explore their slightly murky but still compelling art-funk approach. With Howard Walmsley’s sax and Tom Barnish’s trumpet most often being a signature feature, both galloping songs like “Troublehand” and moodier grooves like “Meat Mask Separatist” still hit hard.

Pigs & Battleships cover

For their sole album, Quando Quango almost became something of a Manchester supergroup – besides core member Mike Pickering’s roles as legendary DJ and future founder of M People and Beverly McDonald’s previous singing in 52nd Street, other players included Vini Reilly, A Certain Ratio’s Simon Topping and Andy Connell and more besides. Pigs + Battleships is a delight of an album, touching on sleek polyrhythms, house-influenced piano and nods to reggae and dancehall; standouts include “Go Exciting,” “Genius,” and the slow groover “Happy Boy.”

Cool As Ice (The Be Music Productions) cover

As Be Music, members of New Order did numerous production efforts during the 1980s for labelmates on Factory and like-minded souls elsewhere; 2003’s Cool as Ice was the first of two anthologies focusing on these songs, particularly remixes and 12" singles. Bernard Sumner’s work features most here, often in partnership with A Certain Ratio’s Donald Johnson, including two strong selections by Manchester electrofunk act 52nd Street, among them “Cool as Ice (Twice As Nice)” itself, and their famed ‘megamix’ of Section 25’s “Looking From a Hilltop.”

From the Hip cover

Right from the slowly unfolding opening track “The Process,” an almost sweet dreamy build of a song, it was clear that Section 25 had found a new way to create their intense music. The audible embrace of New York-based electro and other dance sounds seemed to unlock something in them, as songs like “Reflection” and “Program For Light” showed. The unquestionable highlight, though, was “Looking From a Hilltop,” which became a major 1980s underground dance anthem, Jenny Ross’s voice a serene complement to Larry Cassidy’s.

Anna Domino cover

Following her debut EP East and West, Anna Domino returned with her first full length in 1986, further establishing her sly, genre and decades-hopping style, feeling like something that could be from a lighter Alan Rudolph or David Lynch film soundtrack. With Associates veteran Alan Rankine providing the production and the bulk of the music, Domino hits it out of the gate with the finger-snapping “Rythm.” Songs like “My Man” and “Summer” have similar backward-looking vibes, while others like “Caught” and “Not Right Now” aim for a brisk, then-contemporary feeling.

Sextet cover

Having already established their bona fides at moody intensity on earlier releases, A Certain Ratio followed their “Waterline” single with a slightly lighter but no less driven way forward with 1982’s Sextet, their first full-length self-produced effort. With the band crediting their 1981 New York visit with opening up connections to that era’s funk and underground dance efforts, Sextet audibly sounds it on the horn-driven “Gum” and the whistle-driven joy of “Skipscada.” Meanwhile, the brilliant, nervous clip of “Knife Slits Water” is one of their all time high points.

Substance cover

New Order created one of the 1980s most iconic double albums via a deft, well-chosen compilation in the form of Substance, aiming to draw together their many notable non-album 12" singles in particular into one place (with the CD version adding a slew of B-sides on a second disc). Ranging from their debut “Ceremony” to their latest single and biggest American hit yet, the propulsive “True Faith,” it’s an embarrassment of riches, with standout mixes including “The Perfect Kiss,” “Bizarre Love Triangle” and of course their most iconic song, “Blue Monday.”

Too Crazy Cowboys cover

With production and support playing from New Order’s Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris, the duo of Stanton Miranda and Carter Burwell released their one full album as Thick Pigeon in 1984, a bass and synth-led effort that has both fascinating songs and great atmosphere to recommend it. Miranda’s slightly childlike but not childish singing adds a very human touch to the usually skeletal or ominous arrangements – “Sudan” is a strong example, while “Fred + Andy,” a transformation of the standard “Something’s Gotta Give,” murmurs with subtle threat.

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