It’s somewhat hard to cover topics that haven’t already been covered from the legendary saga of Factory records. Within recent years it has been portrayed in films such as ’24 hour party people’ and the recent Joy Division biopic ‘Control’, plus gaining a further lease of life by the untimely death of factory records founder Tony Wilson (the last ever factory catalogue number was in fact used on his coffin, FAC501). So perhaps a box set or reissues collection was inevitable. The four CD box set in question contains four CD’s and sixty-three tracks. A somewhat hefty task.
Whether the idea to do the album in chronological order was a good idea or not is debatable, and rests largely on your views of the labels artistic output. Joy Division the band ultimately responsible for the labels birth and rise to success are only seen four times, and are never to be seen again after only track ten of CD one; of course this is perhaps a true and accurate representation, Joy Division were of course over before they ever really had chance to begin. ‘Digital’ the opening track is excellently placed, demonstrating that frightening sense of immediacy and urgency that Joy Division so easily possessed. Possession itself is an important factor within Joy Divisions music, or more accurately, within Ian Curtis’ vocals. He was possessed on many levels, be it physical, mental or medicinal, there was something with Ian’s voice that radiated another ‘being’ within him that he seemed unable to control, and only channel through those wild manic eyes, the twitching spasms of his uncontrollable limbs and his catatonic yet cathartic vocal delivery.
One thing that becomes apparent from only CD one is the feeling these bands are able to create that are so representative of a time and place. Everything screams ‘Industrial’, which is truly what Manchester oozed during this period. Perhaps much like Pere Ubu and Devo (from Ohio), the grey, drab surroundings seeped into the music. In a time when a country screamed for change, these bands simply absorbed their surroundings and transformed it into a brutal art form, that had no shame or need to hide what or who they were. Of course, this sparse, shallow yet fulfilling sound is often indebted to one man, and his lunatic genius: Martin Hannett.
As we progress through the box set things start to crisp up a little, as the digital and European influence of such artists as Kraftwerk really start to rear their head. No more so than on the legendary ‘Blue Monday’ which actually samples Kraftwerk’s ‘Uranium’. This cleaner, crisper and ultimately more ‘Pop’ sound is of course embodied by the arrival of the Happy Mondays; in many sense the antithesis of Factory’s earlier darlings Joy Division.
Factory is in many senses quite an odd record label. It’s ingenuity stems more from it’s concepts, formula’s and ideas (both good and bad) then based purely on their roster. Of course, the death of Ian Curtis and the demise of Joy Division cemented the labels status almost irregardless of anything else it achieved. But for a label as legendary and groundbreaking as it is, it relies hugely on the musical output of only a handful of bands, and one could argue that commercially you could narrow that down to three (Joy Division, New Order, Happy Monday’s). Over time, more appreciation has come to Durutti Coumn (Vinnie Reilly) and A Certain Ratio have never been anything less than interesting. But with the exception of a few artists (Crispy Ambulance, The Railway Children, Cabert Voltaire) a lot of the album feels inferior to what we know and expect as a listener. One reason perhaps being, that many bands such as Cabaret Voltaire simply used Factory as a stepping-stone on the path to the major label’s. But once again, this is where factory glistens, because at a time when independent labels where only interested in releasing singles, and bands on independent labels where also only interested in releasing singles; Tony Wilson saw the longevity both musically and financially in the album format, in which albums such as Unknown Pleasures now stand a very true testament to this notion and approach. You could of course argue that the output of Joy Division, A Certain Ratio, The Durutti Column, New Order and The Happy Monday’s is enough for any label to be proud of, and perhaps you would be right. But because this is a career retrospective that covers the label as a whole, not just the label’s greatest successors, it does at times fall flat. But that’s what Factory records did, it did fall flat, it would fall flat on it’s arse and then they would drag themselves out of the shit once more, but it was the manner, optimism and fervour in which this was done that cements the legend of Factory records, perhaps more than it’s output. After all, when are we ever going to witness a label owner so obsessed with the labels aesthetics that he would knowingly release a single that would lose the company money with each sale, because he, well, liked the cover too much? Never is the answer.