Pete Mitchell pays tribute to the late, great Tony Wilson

The Absolute Radio DJ uses the 6th anniversary of the death of one Anthony H Wilson as an opportunity to look back on the life of Manchester's answer to Diaghilev

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This month marked the 6th anniversary of the death of TV presenter and music entrepreneur Tony Wilson. From his devil may care style of TV presenting to his chaotic running of his record label, to the shambolic financially draining and influential night club the Hacienda, the man will never be forgotten – and if one or two leading luminaries get their way, we will see a permanent memorial to him.


My attention was drawn to his anniversary by singer songwriter Richard McNevin-Duff on last Saturday’s show who, along with his band the Space Monkeys, was signed to Tony’s legendary label Factory Records (he started the company with the inheritance of £12,000 left to him by his mum).

For me it was very satisfying to hear from one of his fledglings inspired by Wilson and his legacy years down the line, and still making music under his new guise as Giant Star (check out Happy Pills on iTunes). Richard owes his life in music to Tony, as so do an army of others including Joy Division/New Order, Happy Mondays and Duritti Column. The city and its people owe a great debt to his legendary efforts and shenanigans and of course to his eternal spouting off, to anyone who would listen, about tales and talent from his beloved metropolis in the north.

The ubiquitous Anthony H entered my life through What’s On, his weekly tea-time music slot on Granada Reports. He would feature non-mainstream new music on his fifteen-minute slot, much to the chagrin of his myopic bosses.

The one thing I found off-kilter was his theme music, Bruce Springstein’s Born to Run – but then he always was contrary. He would introduce anyone from Magazine, Buzzcocks, Iggy Pop, Joy Division and Blondie.

Seeing Debbie Harry for the very first time on early evening TV in a leather mini-skirt, thigh-high boots and a shock of blonde hair, whilst my mum was frying chips in the kitchen, is something that is indelibly etched onto my fading memory. Tony looked besotted.

When I was an apprentice electrician I would ring him up at Granada and leave a message about some band I had heard and seen and he would get back to me days later. He would stand near me in the Stretford End at Old Trafford every other weekend.

We got to know each other better when I landed my first radio job at Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio. I still have many hours of Tony and I talking, what can only be described as ‘a load of old bollocks’. He was a master of that and we all loved the guy. I also got to appear on his televised debate show a few times over the years and I think fondly about one particularly surreal heated debate on the Prodigy’s controversial video to Smack My Bitch Up alongside art critic Brian Sewell.

Tony’s stories and antics are legendary. I could tell you many tales about his black nail-varnish or his water-only diet when he was at Jesus College Cambridge, or him wading in about legalising drugs in front of James Anderton, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, during a meeting when the Hacienda licence was up for renewal. It was, unsurprisingly, revoked.

Terry Christian weighed in on Twitter with a link to a great article on his website about Tony and the lack of a memorial to the most important Manchester music magnate. DJ Dave Haslam also commented ‘He made this city a better place, more cultural, more musical, more exciting. He opened doors for people; he was a great enabler, although he had an ego like everybody else’.

Tony was self-effacing, pretentious, aloof and funny and when I put it to him that he was responsible for so much many years ago, he raised an eyebrow and launched into one of his long diatribes: “When did I say I was responsible for any of this? I take the blame for everything from people’s deaths to putting the Hacienda stage in the wrong place to building a metal detector on the door that never worked. That’s why I get called a twat quite a lot. I’ve always said that Rob Gretton wanted to build the Hacienda and I tried to stop him. I can’t write songs, I can’t design sleeves but you could say that I was a Diaghilev figure (Russian promoter of the arts who revitalised ballet by integrating the ideals of other art forms like music and painting). I like to think that I was a Graham Nash type figure. When he joined up with the geniuses that were Crosby, Stills and Young after he left the Hollies, it is said that he was the glue that joined them all together. So maybe I was a Nash type character of the eighties, glueing all these talented folks together.”

Tony was a silent member of the Duritti Column, the first band he signed to his label in 1979. In those days nobody really signed contracts, although it’s rumoured that the members of Joy Division signed a piece of paper in blood. Tony went on to describe his contribution to the group: “Drummer with Duritti Column, Bruce Mitchell, describes my relationship with founder member Vini Reilly over twenty years as like watching Van Gogh paint, while some geezer lurks over his shoulder shouting ‘no, no not that green mate, the other green.'”

I’m not entirely sure about a bronze statue to commemorate the great man, I don’t think it’s his style. Perhaps a free working space for underprivilged young aspiring musicians, artists and creatives in the city centre, financed by the arts council and private sponsorship, along with a permenant exhibition of his life and work. As for a street or building to be named after him, I think the Mancunian Way should be renamed ‘The Tony Wilson Way’. God bless you Anthony H.


Catch Pete Mitchell on Absolute Radio on Saturdays from 10pm, and on Absolute Radio 90s from 8pm on Saturdays for Pete Mitchell’s 24 Hour Party People