Why didn't Tony Wilson sign The Smiths to Factory Records?

10 August 2023, 15:00

Tony Wilson and Morrissey: two Manchester heavyweights
Tony Wilson and Morrissey: two Manchester heavyweights. Picture: Simon King/Redferns/Getty/Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/David Crausby/Alamy Stock Photo

The greatest Manchester band of the 1980s and the greatest Manchester label - why did Morrissey and Tony Wilson not collaborate?

By Martin O'Gorman

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Factory Records was a phenomenon in the 1980s. Operating out of a house in the Manchester suburb of Didsbury, Anthony H Wilson and his collaborators Rob Gretton and Alan Erasmus forged a record label that spawned much of the great independent music of the 1980s: Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays, James… they all released work on Factory.

But the big question - and one posed by Steve Coogan as “God” in the 2002 Tony Wilson biopic 24 Hour Party People - was why didn’t Factory get involved with perhaps THE most influential Manchester guitar band of the 1980s, The Smiths?

Steve Coogan plays Tony Wilson in the film 24 Hour Party People
Steve Coogan plays Tony Wilson in the film 24 Hour Party People. Picture: UNITED ARTISTS / SHARD, JON / Album/Alamy

Morrissey and Johnny Marr’s old fashioned, 12-stringed guitar, Levis-jeaned, James Dean-adoring style seemed oddly out of fit with the 1982 musical landscape of synths, mullets and New Romantics. But Factory was its own master and did what it wanted. It seemed as though The Smiths would sign with Wilson.

“So much has been made of Factory apparently turning The Smiths down, but that’s a crock of sh*t,” Johnny Marr told NME in 2014. “The Smiths would have signed to Factory over my dead body… I didn’t want to be assimilated into the Factory aesthetic.

"If you were a musician in Manchester at that time, it was almost the law that you went on your hands and knees and begged Tony Wilson for his papal blessing to stick you in the studio, and I wasn’t about to do that.”

The Smiths in 1984: Johnny Marr, Morrissey, Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke
The Smiths in 1984: Johnny Marr, Morrissey, Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke. Picture: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

But Anthony H. Wilson remembers it differently. In 1980, a young Steven Morrissey invited Wilson round to his house. Wilson recalled in the interview posted below: “I sat rather uncomfortably late afternoon in this teenager’s bedroom, surrounded by posters of James Dean. He announced to me that he’d decided to become a pop star."

The Smiths and Morrissey: Tony Wilson 02 (of 6)

“From the very beginning he had the aura of genius, without any doubt at all, I presumed he would be a playwright or a novelist, he would be our great literary genius.

“I looked at this kid and I almost had to stop myself laughing. Although I was in love with his genius and I could see it in his eyes, there was no way on God’s earth this strange kid was ever, ever going to be a pop star. I almost laughed in his face, but I was very polite and I said ‘Oh Steven very interesting’.”

Some time later, Wilson was taken to see one of the first Smiths shows in Manchester and saw Morrissey in action. He said: ““I can’t believe how wrong I was.”

So why didn’t Wilson sign The Smiths to Factory?

That summer saw New Order release their classic single Temptation. It crept up to the lowly chart position of 29 in the UK. Wilson recalled: “Come 1982, we’d gone into a cold period. People in the record industry say you have to learn how to be cold, sometimes for two, three years. I’d never been cold before. I found it deeply, deeply disturbing.

“I was very depressed with my record label. I thought to myself, I am not going to saddle Steven and his wonderful band with a crap record label. It wasn’t until the following year with Blue Monday that Factory took off again.”

New Order: masters of the No 29 smash hit
New Order: masters of the No 29 smash hit. Picture: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Wilson’s partner in the label Rob Gretton - who was also manager of New Order - was apparently telling everyone in Manchester that “The Smiths were the new Beatles”.

Tony recalled: “He told The Smiths, Your demo’s f**king shit, give us a good demo and we’ll sign you. Rob wanted a good demo and I wanted a good label.”

Instead, The Smiths signed to Rough Trade, run by Geoff Travis, and the backbone of the independent distribution scene in the UK. Wilson later thought that the success of The Smiths helped revive Rough Trade’s fortunes and therefore kept the whole indie scene afloat for the rest of the decade.

"It wouldn’t have happened if Morrissey didn’t sign to Rough Trade,” he mused.

The Smiths released their debut single on Rough Trade in May 1983. It was called Hand In Glove.

The Smiths - Hand In Glove (Official Audio)

Tony Wilson died on 10th August 2007, aged just 57. His life was immortalised in the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, which told the story of Factory's rise and fall and featured an amazing turn from Alan Partridge man Steve Coogan as Wilson himself.

Tony Wilson and the man that played him on screen, Steve Coogan
Tony Wilson and the man that played him on screen, Steve Coogan. Picture: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Wilson left behind of legacy of great music, great attitude and a Manchester that had re-asserted itself as one of the most vibrant cities in Europe. Which is not bad at all.

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