Factory Records – Communications 1978-1992By Craig Smith • Jan 29th, 2009 • Category: Album Reviews
The story of Factory Records has been told to a certain degree by way of celluloid in 24 Hour Party People and in the background of last year’s biopic on Ian Curtis, Control, but the real audio legacy of Factory Records has been scattered far and wide, in print and out of print, only brought together once before in a similarly tracked 4CD compliation entitled Palatine that fell into obscurity when the label folded. In the nearly two decades following, the mythology of Factory Records and the impact of the post-punk Manchester scene has had the Hollywood touch not once but twice, so it seems fitting, especially in light of the passing of chief Factory guru Anthony Wilson in 2007 that there be a worthy compilation to document the label’s history. With artwork by in-house designer Peter Saville and the requisite existential essay by Paul Morley, the 56 tracks spread across 4CDs finally reveal the true story of Factory Records.
In some ways, you could say ‘In the beginning there was Joy Division’ and aptly enough, Communications 1978-1992 begins with Joy Division’s “Digital” and Cabaret Voltaire’s “Baader Meinhof”, two tracks from A Factory Sample, the first release from the label. Like so many bands influenced by the rise of punk, Joy Division’s stark, dissonance seemed to leap beyond the simple three chord shouts of disenchantment. Cabaret Voltaire, on the other hand, pursued an avant garde electronic squall that would later find a sympathetic ear in Sheffield. Many of the tracks from the years 1978-1979 sound similar, mostly due from sharing the same production stylings from Martin Hannett. Of the initial Factory bands, it was Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark with “Electricity” that showed the most commerical promise and went onto greater success outside of the label. Whilst mostly catering to the post-punk/nascent electronic scene, Factory wasn’t averse to excursions into reggae with X-O-Dus “English Black Boys” and the delicate instrumental driven Durutti Column who’s “Sketch for Summer” and “Messidor” highlight what an under-rated band they were.
It’s readily apparent that the holy trinity of Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays would dominate the track selection of Communications… with a good quarter of the chronological selection featuring contributions by these bands or their off-shoots, and to be honest you’d expect nothing less. A compilation without “Ceremony”, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” or “Hallelujah” or indeed “Blue Monday”, “She’s Lost Control” or “24 Hour Party People” would be seriously amiss. It’s because of the deification of Joy Division and New Order (Happy Mondays not so much) that their presence nestled inbetween the lesser-known acts would overshadow them and in some cases show them up as being less worthy immitators (cf. The Wake). With the exception of the big three and perhaps the Durutti Column, very few bands on Factory would elevate themselves anywhere near the same level of success. Despite these failings, it’s still hard to listen to a track like A Certain Ratio’s “Shack Up” and see how influential it would be on the New York post-punk scene.
Without New Order there clearly wouldn’t be a Factory Records beyond the early ’80’s. The unexpected evolution of New Order into a dance band would go on to be Factory’s greatest money earner with the band themselves hitting a creative peak with singles like “Temptation” and the quintessential classic “Blue Monday”. The success of New Order went on to bankroll many of the questionable acts that appear on discs 2 and 3. Given a fresh ear it’s understandable why the careers of Kalima, Life, Stockholm Monsters, 52nd Street and Miaow have long since faded into obscurity. Even with the rise of Acid House and Madchester, it’s clear that Manchester was not fully the haven of talent that it has often been given credit for, which is probably more to do with Anthony Wilson’s skills as a salesman than anything else. Its an obvious fact that while this compilation is insightful and necessary, the decision to spread this across 4CDs seems a little extravagant.
The temporary dissolution of New Order brought forth three side projects which along with the bewildering rise of the Happy Mondays forms a large section of the final disc. Of the New Order off-shoots, only Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr’s Electronic would show the most promise with “Getting Away With It” being one of the finer Factory releases of the nineties with the nadir quite obviously being the heinous collaboration with the English Football Squad and Northside’s exercise in questionable advice with “Let’s Take a Trip”. Whilst the quality of releases in the nineties is significant, it wasn’t enough to both keep the label afloat and survive the excess of Happy Mondays final album for Factory, the fueled-by-crack antics of Yes Please. It was a disappointing way for such an influential label to bow out. Without the knowledge or the history of the bands involved, Communications 1978-1992 is a potent collection of music for the uninitiated. From the beautiful and fractured Joy Division to the ecstacy lunacy of the Happy Mondays, the legacy of Anthony Wilson’s vision is assured.