Jon Savage is one of those rare names in pop journalism that seem to transcend their music press backgrounds and become respected in wider culture.
His articles on punk and post-punk music in the late 70s still stand as definitive documents on the period. His report on "New Musick" for Sounds in particular was the linguistic launching pad for a thousand bed room boffins, and helped provide impetus to the formative electronic movement. But it is with Joy Division that Savage's name is linked - he helped publish the autobiography of Ian Curtis' widow, curated the "Heart And Soul" box set and most recently collaborated with Grant Gee on a new documentary. Titled simply "Joy Division" it is said to be the definitive portrait of the band on screen. Clashmusic.com caught up with this intelligent and outspoken man to find out how he viewed the Factory phenomenon.
Q – What does your documentary hope to add to the Joy Division story?
Well, first off, as we all know media attention does always mean very much! The documentary is about Joy Division – not Ian Curtis – so it takes quite a different line to the ‘Control’ movie. This is actually about Joy Division, and not particularly Ian – and also, I haven’t seen ‘Control’, but I have no doubt about Corbijn’s sincerity and I’ve heard mixed reports but basically it seems pretty good. But there’s been a lot of rewriting of Factory history – particularly by 24 Hour Party People – and I really wanted to get back to what it was like when Joy Division were very vigorous, and what Manchester was like in 1979, which of course is the very early days of the label, and how things were then. It concentrates on the band, it concentrates on Bernard, and Hooky, and Stephen and we got three really good interviews with them and we got interviews with other people who were around at the time, who were directly involved with or were friends with the band. Like Malcolm Whitehead, who shot the Badenvale footage in March 79 and did a short film called “Joy Division”. And Liza Naylor who is a fan of the band and who scripted the other super-8 Joy Division film in 1979 called “No City Fun”. So that’s it really, and also just to show how great Joy Division were live and we got some footage of them actually playing live and to see it on screen is quite extraordinary. Just great.
...what we’re trying to get is the mood of the city
Q – When did you first become aware of Joy Division’s music?
When I saw them at the last night of The Electric Circus, when they were Warsaw in October 1977. And I was very struck by them, that was the great thing at the time, you used to see all these bands and the really good ones you could tell had an ambition that actually outweighed their talent so they were actually really straining for something which they didn’t quite bring off but there was something rather heroic about that. Warsaw were one of those groups, I could tell there was something there – I was quite intrigued by them. There was another group on that night called The Prefects, who were quite similar, and The Worst were on that night as well. So they were all different, and weren’t getting there, but the actual struggle was memorable. I reviewed that night, and wrote about them in Sounds, briefly, saying that they were intriguing – or a bit desperate and quite interesting. I quoted a snatch from “Novelty” and then because of that I got a letter in the summer of ’78 from a person called Rob Gretton saying "I’m Joy Division’s manager here’s a copy of our first album which we’ve just recorded – which was the RCA album – and its crap but we’re going to do much better and by the way there’s also a copy of our first EP the sound’s crap and we’re going to bring it out in a better format." So it was quite intriguing to get a letter from a manager saying the releases were crap, and so via a complicated set of circumstances I got in touch with Wilson and phoned him up out of the blue and said “can you help me get a job at Granada television” and through Wilson’s agency I got an interview at Granada and got accepted for a job as a researcher – which is a very hard job to get and I went to live in Manchester in April ’79. Now Tony and I really got on, but he obviously wasn’t entirely altruistic and he was hoping that I would write about his groups, particularly Joy Division and also what he was planning, and of course I did so it all worked out.
Q – You’re writing for Sounds at this time, is that correct?
I wrote for Sounds until October 78 and then I went to Melody Maker. I wrote about Joy Division for Melody Maker – I reviewed “Factory Sampler” very favourably, and then I wrote a very long screed about the first album “Unknown Pleasures”. We’d scooped the NME because I had a white label – these things used to matter then – and Richard Williams sat on the review for a couple of weeks saying, and I quote “too much like The Velvet Underground”. So there you go…
Q – One of the common complaints of people associated with the Factory / Manchester story is that they weren’t taken seriously by the London media – what’s your take on this?
I think that’s a bit of self-justificatory paranoia going on, I think it might have been more intense a bit later on in the Beach Club period – the Beach Club never got mentioned in the London press which I thought was a great oversight. But I mean, come on, Joy Division were a hot group and don’t forget the desperation of the media in general for wanting to pick up on anything new. You look at the Joy Division press and there’s loads of stuff in the London media so that’s kinda horseshit really. Typical Manchester thing, really.
Q- Do you still live in Manchester?
Manchester is a city that I really love, and I live there but it’s got this weird relationship with London and sometimes that just gets in the way.
Q – Did you know the members of Joy Division personally at the time?
No. Well the people I really knew were Wilson, who I was very close to for two or three years, when I went up to live in Manchester I stayed in Wilson’s house. And Martin Hannett, and Rob Gretton who when I eventually got a flat lived a few hundred yards from me, along the Wilburn Road. So I used to see a lot of Rob and Lesley Gilbert, and a lot of Martin and Suzanne O’Hara and a lot of Wilson. The band I would bump into and be on nodding terms or quick chat terms with, but that would have been about it, really. I got to know Bernard and Hooky after Ian’s death. They were just a little bit younger and that sort of thing matters when you’re in your twenties. Also I didn’t like to hang out with bands too much, as a music journalist I thought it was embarrassing particularly if you were going to write about them. I wasn’t Nick Kent, I didn’t like hanging out with people and stabbing them in the back later on. I like to maintain a distance, between myself and the groups. They didn’t mind it either, so everybody knew what they were doing then, you weren’t pretending to be a mate, and not stabbing them in the back.
Q – What was Manchester like in the late 70s?
Well I think Joy Division’s music is very emotional, so what we’re trying to get is the mood of the city. We have talked about the experimental side to some extent but if you think about it there’s quite a lot to get into 85 minutes. By the time you’ve told the story – and there’s a lot in the story. You’ve got Manchester punks, you’ve got Warsaw, you’ve got Joy Division, you’ve got Rob, you’ve got Tony, you’ve got Martin, you’ve got Ian’s epilepsy, you’ve got all the records so there’s quite a lot of actual story. So we’re mainly focussing on the mood, and experimental stuff we do focus on a bit in regards to the band’s closeness to Caberet Voltaire and Ian’s fondness for Throbbing Gristle, the fact there was this electronic scene going on at the time which I had promoted in Sounds. And also Martin who was a great inspiration in that respect. So that’s how we’ve dealt with it.
Q – Factory as self consciously arty vibe appreciated at the time?
Well I didn’t think it was self-conscious at the time, I would disagree with that. I thought the whole point about punk is that you could do anything you wanted to, and there was a great tradition in punk – contrary to the whole ‘boot boy’ image which some people promote – is the kind of dada side, leading to people finding out things and doing things in ways they couldn’t do before – John Cooper Clarke is a very good example. There was that aspect of freedom there, I mean I certainly thought about it that way in regards to Manchester punk, which was a lot more open and friendly than London punk which had gotten grim pretty quickly. There was always that side to Manchester, if you go back to Buzzcocks who were obviously very important – they had this total artwork side. The idea of total artwork that the sleeve and the clothes and the posters and the handbills and the lyrics and the music were all part of the same thing. Buzzcocks are very influential in this, and in fact Richard Boon at New Hormones, the second New Hormones product was in fact a fanzine that Linda Sterling and I did in very early 78 called “Secret Republic” which had no words – it was all images, all montage. So it wasn’t self conscious at all, people these days are afraid of seeming arty, or seeming pretentious and one of the great delights of that period is that people didn’t have that fear. If they wanted to do it, they did it – that’s the great difference between then and now.
Q – Do you think that a ‘pretentious’ label such as Factory could be re-established today?
...the ramifications of Ian’s suicide still carry on
Well again I would question the use of the word pretentious as today it has a pejorative connotation. Again, I always thought it was a good thing, in that when I saw Warsaw they were pretentious, in that they were trying to do something which they were unable to do – but in that striving there was something very interesting. If people don’t strive to do something new, if people don’t over reach and try to do something that they’re not quite capable of then everything gets extremely boring and no progress is made. In answer to your question, could Factory be done now well, I don’t know – I’m a writer not a record company owner so I don’t know, that’s not my interest. You know, to be honest after fifteen years of lad culture, where people are afraid of being ‘arty’, ‘pretentious’ or even being perceived as being gay it seems unlikely unless someone has the courage to just get on and do it.
Q – Debbie Curtis complains of her treatment at the male 'clique' within the label - what was your experience of Factory masculinity?
Of course being gay, and also being a Londoner I had a very sharp view of this. It seemed to me that going to Manchester in the late 70s was like going back 20 years in terms of sex and gender relations. In fact a lot of my friends at that time, apart from those at Factory, were women – in particularly at Granada – and this was because a lot of the men were unbearable. At the same time I got it in the neck from the gays who had a deputation run down to me and say “we know you’re gay, why don’t you like disco, why don’t you dress like us?” and I said “I’m a punk rocker, sorry”. So it was not a free and easy time in that respect, there were campaigns against gay people by the then police chief – James Anderton – who had a very fierce, Evangelistic morality which was completely unacceptable, its not the police’s job to control peoples morals. There is certainly room for a feminist reading of Factory records, and that’s also why I helped to get Debbie’s book published. The judgement would be quite harsh in some ways.
Q – Factory progresses and evolves across its history, from Joy Division to Happy Mondays, who do you feel is the ultimate legacy of Factory records?
Well, to be honest there are two Factories and I’m with the first Factory – I couldn’t stand all that Happy Mondays crap. It drove me absolutely crazy, I thought they were a bunch of poison drug trolls. Apart from two or three remixes of some of the material I just disliked the whole vibe, it was very black. I had said this to Wilson – I had previously been very, very close to Wilson – and when I met him he was a kind of intellectual hippy, his house was full of West Coast records. He was very positive, and very up and it all turned a bit dark to be honest, and I regarded some of that as the involvement of drugs. I had real words with Wilson over his promotion of the Happy Mondays as a kind of ecstasy version of the Sex Pistols and I said to him “if you’re promoting drugs in that way, you’re going to get real problems” and this is before all the stuff that happened. I just thought he was being fantastically irresponsible, and I didn’t like it, I have to say. The legacy of Factory depends on which kind of Factory you like, really, the incompatibility of the two halves and periods can be seen in the problems that are seen in 24 Hour Party People where the whole Joy Division / Martin thing is written off as a kind of joke. Well it wasn’t a joke, and the great thing about Joy Division is that they didn’t talk about football.
Q – Manchester and London had very different approaches to fashion, was this a big deal at the time?
Well I don’t know because I wasn’t living in London! I was living in Manchester when Joy Division happened so I can’t answer that. I personally didn’t have a problem with punk being about fashion, I thought it was great – it started in fashion, I don’t have a problem with people wearing different fashions. It’s a part of pop, which is after all what we’re dealing with. The Joy Division look was very utilitarian, it was a mixture of second hand stuff and high street chains of the day. You look at Rob Gretton’s receipts for the band’s clothes and they’re going along to Deansgate to some of the big stores there and picking out items. In Manchester in 1979 everyone looked like that, it was part of the way in which the group perfected their time and their city, at the same time obviously as they transcended it in their music.
Q – There is a stunning number of ideas in the punk movement, with bands having vastly different ideologies - what caused this?
It was just that idea that you can do anything, and that whole didactic side to punk. You listen to the Sex Pistols records and there’s a lot contained in the words, and the words go together with the music, and the music of the time was very different. You listen to “Anarchy In The UK” and “God Save The Queen” and there’s a real lyrical ambition there, and there’s also some great phrases. There was that idea, very much promoted in the early days of punk, which was the whole idea of doing something new. That’s why bands like The Jam weren’t really well regarded when they started because they weren’t doing something new – they were like a 60s covers band. You look at Buzzcocks and they were doing something new. So if you’ve got that as a kind of central idea in a particular idea in a particular pop culture or youth culture then people are going to turn up with all sorts of things. There’s also this idea at the time – which is also probably punk’s most enduring legacy - which is the whole ‘do it yourself’ idea. The whole idea, that the Buzzcocks again really started, of independent labels and the idea that you can just press up and put out a record by yourself provided the distribution and press it there. In that period the much maligned music press was really promoting this type of music as much as it could, while you also had a chain of excellent records shops who were actually showcasing independent material – and were independent themselves. That’s very important, and Factory were a product of that, the fact that you could put out a record by yourself and guarantee enough sales to cover your cost. Or that was the idea anyway.
Q – In the wider Manchester scene, how were Factory regarded by their peers?
Factory wasn’t the thing it’s become, and part of me is actually quite bewildered by the way it’s become this huge issue – obviously because I was there. I remember Tony Wilson fighting with his wife and now it’s become legend – it’s a bit weird. Again you have to look at it in the context of the time. Factory at the time was resented by people such as Tosh Ryan. Tosh had Rabid, who made some very good records – Tosh didn’t like Factory. Then there was those groups like Spherical Objects and The Passage who were on a different label, and then there was New Hormones / Buzzcocks so there were a few little factions. It was such a small scene that I don’t remember it getting ugly, and also Factory / Joy Division weren’t a huge thing. Joy Division only really broke in 1980, they were still very much a music press / underground thing in 79 / early 80 and I’m afraid it was really Ian’s death that propelled them into the national spotlight. In retrospect they’ve become much bigger than they were at the time so Factory was just another label at the time. There were strong link ups with Sheffield, a lot of to-ing and fro-ing across the pennines. I don’t remember much link up with Liverpool – I think Bill Drummond and Zoo was a very different proposition and of course there’s a traditional hostility between Manchester and Liverpool anyway. Although friends of mine in Liverpool really did like Joy Division. So there was a Northern link up but mainly with Sheffield which goes in with the electronic vibe because you had The Human League starting up there as well, and you had Bob Last’s Fast Records which obviously put out those two great “Unknown Pleasures” outtakes – “Autosuggestion” and “From Safety To Where”- on one of his Earcom EPs.
Q – Joy Division have become a ubiquitous cultural object now – has this obscured the band?
I’m really pleased that Ian and the others have got the recognition they were due, because they were a fantastic band. Of all the groups that I saw in that period, apart from The Sex Pistols and maybe The Clash, they were the most intense and played some of the best shows I saw. They were extraordinary and I’m happy they’re getting all this attention. Much rather them than others. When something gets this bug there’s going to be all kinds of different levels of appreciation. One of the reasons I wanted to do the documentary, and also get the “Heart And Soul” boxset out, is so there’s stuff out there so people can hear them. In particular the live stuff, as they were very different live – they were super intense live – and I think that comes out on the live side of “Heart And Soul” and also in the documentary, we’ve got unseen footage and it’s extremely intense. It is just extraordinary – just brutal.
Q – The film incorporates a lot of footage from the period, do you find it quite emotional looking back on it all?
Yes! It was a very difficult thing to do, actually. I mean the director Grant Gee found it quite hard. It’s a difficult subject. Ian’s death was a very great shock at the time, and I had the very strange experience during the documentary of having people telling me that I did things around May 1980. Leslie Gilbert told me that I turned up to see her and Rob with a bottle of whiskey and I just don’t remember anything about that at all. I have a May 1980 hole in my memory, which in general is extremely good but I don’t remember anything from that period at all. So it was strange, because while we were finishing filming I heard that Tony was very ill possibly fatally ill so I was very upset about that and mourned the fact that we’d been young men together. It was a very important time in my life, and a very important time in his life – we were very close for a couple of years – so that was upsetting. It’s a tough subject in certain areas, and we all know the ending don’t we? And the ramifications of Ian’s suicide still carry on. There’s Deborah and Natalie, and the rest of the band who are living with this day by day.
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