September 10, 2002

Satellite City - Part I

[24 Hour Party People movie poster]

Recently I went with some friends to see the movie 24 Hour Party People, a giddy chronicle of the legendary Factory record label and its main instigator, Tony Wilson. As a film, it was most definitely entertaining and funny, largely due to Steve Coogan's portrayal of Mr. Wilson -- wisecracking, camera-addressing and generally larger-than-life. But naturally my primary interest in seeing this movie was due to the music.

And I was completely engrossed with the musical and historical aspects of the first half of the film, which focuses on the rise of the post-punk Manchester music scene. A landmark Sex Pistols show is shown as the catalyst for the formation of labels and bands alike, as our protagonist/narrator proceeds to ID some notable audience members, including the future members of Joy Division. The Buzzcocks are also represented (briefly), although they, like other influential post-punk Mancunian bands that did not record for Factory, are largely ignored in the overall narrative. Yes, I know this is the story of Factory and not the Manchester music scene, but when the only nod to The Fall is a tiny cameo by Mark E. Smith himself as a club-goer (credited as "Punter" -- heh)... let's just say that some additional context would have been welcome.

However, much in the way that the story of the label is told through the antics of Tony Wilson, the story of the music is largely driven by the force of two bands: Joy Division, in the first half, and Happy Mondays, in the second. We get just enough of Joy Division's story to see how integral they were to the label's early success, but not enough to fully explain some scenes, in particular the brief and minimal lead-up to Ian Curtis's suicide. Later I provided a bit more background to my friends about Ian Curtis's life leading up to that event -- the frequent epileptic seizures, his extramarital affair and drug overdose/initial suicide attempt. (See this excellent band history for more.) Regardless, the performance scenes are positively riveting, successfully recreating the charged, hypnotic atmosphere of their live shows -- which, admittedly, I've only ever been able to experience via the live tracks on Still and any of the many Joy Division bootlegs in existence.

After Curtis's suicide, the first half of the movie ends on a quiet, hopeful note, as we see the remaining members of Joy Division -- now New Order -- in rehearsal working on "Blue Monday" which, as the narration points out, will end up being the biggest-selling 12" single ever. Good storytelling, but bad history, since "Blue Monday" was the band's fifth single, released almost three years after the formation of New Order. I'd have preferred a more natural (though subtler) transition that would have instead shown the band working on "Ceremony," which had been a Joy Division song that they'd only had the opportunity to perform once, at what would happen to be the final JD show. I do understand that would have required more backstory, plus the filmmakers wouldn't have been able to switch the mood as easily from despair to success by cutting to tens of thousands of fans cheering New Order in some huge stadium.

Moving into the second act, the movie picks up the pace to tell the story of Happy Mondays and Factory's Hacienda club, which became the nexus of the subsequent "Madchester" music scene. Much in the way that the film skimmed over the general post-punk scene, we get a quick-cut montage of club flyers, NME covers and dancing crowds to represent all of the other Manchester bands that were associated with that scene or came to prominence at that time. And the omissions here are even more egregious than in the first half since not only were a number of the other bands (notably The Stone Roses) at least as popular as the Mondays, but others (The Railway Children, James) actually recorded for Factory!

The musical nitpicking from here on ceases, though, as I don't particularly care for Happy Mondays and their ilk. (Need I tell you I that my Manchester band of choice in the 80's was The Smiths? There's a clever little reference to them in the film as the band that Tony Wilson should have -- but didn't -- sign.) So I was able to enjoy the story of yet another rise-and-fall cycle for Factory based on more outrageously entertaining moments of excess, especially near the very end.

As we left the theater to the pulsating sounds of New Order, I was already doing a mental scan of my record collection, considering which Factory records I could pull out and listen to later. I'd already checked out the movie soundtrack, which is half classics I already own (Joy Division/New Order/Buzzcocks/The Clash/Sex Pistols), half later-period Factory I don't own and don't particularly care to (Happy Mondays, et al). What I needed was to refresh my ears with some of the early, more obscure Factory recordings, as well as some of the overlooked mid-period releases that got somewhat lost in the Acid House shuffle.

Prompted by one of my moviegoing companions, I've started compiling my own personal Factory primer that will highlight some of the music and bands that were overlooked in the film but are nonetheless essential to the Factory story. I'll be posting a little more about that sometime in the next day or two, as the conclusion (as it were) of my 24 Hour Party People experience...

Posted by nstop at September 10, 2002 01:18 AM


the thing too, of course, which i've pointed out to anyone who wasn't already aware, is that this is the Factory legend as filtered through the eyes and yarnspinning capabilities of one Anthony H. Wilson. therefore, it's to be expected that a lot of stuff would end up left out...not only because most people regard him as something of a liar with more than a slight penchant for self-aggrandisation, but also because it's told based on remembrances of one man, and therefore will inherently be incomplete and/or biased.

ah, yes. while James wasn't really a Factory band proper, they did have their start there and it ought to have been acknowledged...especially since it was largely due to Factory's insistence on getting James' career off the ground that they failed to sign the Smiths! XD also the Railway Children, Stockholm Monsters, Minny Pops, Miaow, Royal Family & the Poor, Quando Quango (i mean, c'mon, Mike Pickering was IN the bloody film!), OMD, Cabaret Voltaire, Section 25, Crawling Chaos, X-O-Dus (which i've probably spelt wrong, but)...the list goes on. and Durutti Column ought to have been gone into in more detail. more time was spent on Siouxsie and the Banshees than on most bands on Factory!

(oh, and getting REALLY nitpicky, the outfits for Joy Division were completely off. i understand the need for continuity, to not put audience members off who wouldn't be aware that yes, brown-haired, angelfaced publicschoolboy-looking Bernard is the same as bleach-tipped, jean-jacketed Bernard, but. AND the minor issue that the Stiff Kittens were not yet the Stiff Kittens at that Sex Pistols gig, and in fact hadn't yet hooked up with IC at that point. but that wouldn't tie the story up quite so neatly.)

i understand why they did a lot of the things they did, though. the way the story was told. as a movie, and as long as we're taking it as the "Factory legend," it's fine. i wish they'd given more info on Jon the Postman as well...they really ought to have; i had to explain who the hell that was and why he was up there to many people afterwards. XD

the thing is, each band could probably have taken two hours to themselves to tell a cogent and reasonably detailed story, which i'm guessing is why they didn't. although if that film based on Deborah Curtis' bio ever gets off the ground, perhaps they'll try. but no matter what, not everyone will be pleased. 'tis the nature of the beast. XD

look forward to your list! and you may well have seen it already, but you might want to take a look at this article on the matter; it's really well-written and informed. ^^

Posted by: janaki (who is not a Factory h0 in the slightest, oh no...XD) on September 10, 2002 12:47 PM

Steve Coogan has been playing a character called Alan Partridge on UK TV for several years, that was what I intended with my comment elsewhere in cyberspace. In my eyes it's hard to see Tony Wilson being played by Steve Coogan.
Tony Wilson presents dodgy gameshows on a UK TV channel these days, so I'm surprised they just didn't ask him to play himself.

Posted by: stx23 on September 10, 2002 03:14 PM

We saw it this weekend, I wrote a bit about it as well. It was an entertaining musical education, though I wished for more of a focus on the music. I'm only familiar with the bigger names on the Factory label; now I have some more digging to do (and looking forward to the mix, that should help)!

Posted by: monsur on September 10, 2002 04:40 PM

Janaki: Damn, you sure do know a lot about Factory! Way informative, thanks.

Posted by: nstop on September 16, 2002 05:54 AM

Nstop, don't know if you also noticed the credits at the end where they listed the songs supposedly included in the film. 'Rowche Rumble' by The Fall was there (performed by someone else) but even after watching the video I didn't spot it. Looks like there were lots of cuts. As Steve Coogan/A Wilson sez in the movie, perhaps they'll be on the DVD (out Jan2003 I hear...)


Posted by: MOB on December 24, 2002 12:54 PM

Just as a solid rock is not shaken by the storm, even so the wise are not affected by praise or blame.

Posted by: Wacker Leslie on May 19, 2004 06:56 PM

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