From 19 June 2021 to 3 January 2022, the Manchester Science and Industry Museum will bring the city’s illustrious record label back to life with its temporary exhibition Use Hearing Protection: The Early Years of Factory Records.
In some ways, it’s funny to think about the story of Factory Records being told through a museum space of any kind, given the founders’ focus on innovation and futurity. For so long, museums “stood in the dead eye of the storm of progress serving as a catalyst for the articulation of tradition and nation, heritage and canon,” according to cultural historian Andreas Huyssen, and “provided the master maps for the construction of cultural legitimacy in both a national and universalist sense.” Even setting aside these potential political implications, museum spaces offer visitors a chance to dwell in curated narratives of pastness. Yet as Huyssen also points out, in a shift to so-called post-modernity, the museum exhibition space has been theoretically transformed into a forward-looking “site of spectacular mise-en-scène and operatic exuberance.” That’s precisely how, I imagine, Tony Wilson, Rob Gretton, Peter Saville, Alan Erasmus, and Martin Hannett – the original Factory partners – might have described a vision for the label. Tracey Donnelly, eventual PR Manager at the Factory Palatine Road office, recalls how “all of them were always about the future and not the past . . . . it’s all about the future.”
In speaking about the new Use Hearing Protection exhibition at the Manchester Science and Industry Museum, curator Jan Hicks foregrounds the forward-looking and trailblazing work of the Factory founders, recalling them in the present tense as if they’re all still here, generating ultra-modern ideas for music and design: “They have their finger on the pulse, and they’re interested in things that are very new and very current. Although they do have an interest in history, they want that history to inform what’s happening now and what’s going to be happening in the future.” Indeed, the FAC 301 catalogue number was assigned to a “Think About the Future” conference in 1990 (and true to form, Factory even produced notepaper to accompany the event).
One might even argue that Factory Records played a role in catalysing the prospicient shift in public and cultural perceptions of a museum. Nearly from its start, Factory organised visionary exhibitions to celebrate the label itself, its record releases, Peter Saville’s design work, and the ten-year anniversary of punk. These shows received numbers in the label’s famous cataloguing system, with FAC 121 precipitating Factory’s foray into the forward-looking exhibition space. FAC 121 was a five-day residence in August 1984 at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, entitled “From Factory” and in some places “From the North.” It included a Peter Saville design exhibition and performances by Factory bands, along with support from the Haçienda hairdressers from Swing.
A hairdresser you say? That’s right—in 1983, Andrew Berry approached Tony Wilson about opening the hair salon “Swing” in the basement of the Haçienda, and it got catalogue number FAC 98. As it turned out, Andrew’s sister Cath was best friends with Tracey, so Tracey ended up starting her career with Factory as the Swing receptionist. She remembers how Swing was “so much more than a hair salon.” It was a place where “everyone got their hair done – The Fall, New Order, The Smiths – turning it into a place where people hung out all day long.” Coming back to FAC 121, Tracey laughs as she recalls the ways that Factory was becoming associated with the shifting nature of gallery shows to the point that anything could be taken for art: “One night during that week at Riverside Studios, we finished our work doing haircuts and left all the stuff lying around – scissors, towels. The next day we went in and found out that someone from Riverside thought the hairdressing stuff was an art installation, talking about the placement of the scissors and towels! But no, we just didn’t clean up!”
Factory put on other shows in the years that followed, including “Compact” (FAC 171) at White Columns in New York City to celebrate the release of New Order’s album Brotherhood (FACT 150), and a series of exhibitions as part of the “Festival of the Tenth Summer” (FAC 151). The Festival of the Tenth Summer included a Peter Saville show at Manchester Art Gallery, as well as Kevin Cummins and Malcolm Garrett exhibitions. FAC 151 bridged a gap in some ways between the retrospective nature of the museum and the provident gallery form, offering artefacts and objects tied to the past and present. None of this should really be surprising, of course, given Tony Wilson’s parallel interest in the archival aims of museums and the innovative possibilities of the exhibition space. As Jan Hicks highlights, “Tony’s family are really proud of the fact that Tony used to be a trustee at the Science and Industry Museum. He brought both his kids to the museum regularly, and it’s part of their childhood. They’re also aware of Tony being someone who encouraged people to make things happen. If somebody came to him with an idea, he would encourage them and support them to make it happen. So, I think part of the reason they want his archive to be at the museum is because we can harness what’s in that collection to encourage the creators of the future.” Tracey recalls how that kind of enthusiasm for encouraging creativity in others was at the centre for Wilson and the other Factory partners. “If you had passion for the music,” she remembers, “they’d give you an opportunity. I had no experience, but they saw I had a passion for the music, and they gave me the chance to work for Factory. They were always backing and promoting other people, teaching other people… If they thought you had the passion for the music and the design, you were in. It didn’t matter if you had no experience. Tony would back anything. They were all about helping other musicians and designers, and they really got inspired themselves by anything new. It was like being in a little family. ”
It seems likely to me that, even in the earlier years of Factory Records, Tony Wilson and the other founders had what Andreas Huyssen refers to as a “museal sensibility.” They recognised the value and power of assembling seemingly ordinary artefacts as objects d’art and cataloguing them dutifully with an eye toward the future, evidenced in part by Factory’s numbering system. Tracey remembers how “so much thought and planning went into everything, from the annual Christmas cards to the new stationery to the badges, and Tony and Alan were behind all of that. Even if they didn’t exactly think about all that stuff as collectable at the time, they recognised the value of the object.” So much of the ephemera from Factory’s heyday has become extremely sought-after by collectors, especially as celebrations of the label and its visionary work abound. I asked Tracey if she kept anything (or everything!) from her Factory days. “If I’d known then what I know now, I would have taken one of everything,” Tracey laughs. “I’d never have guessed how Factory would become what it is today, but there were little things that made me know it was something special, even early on. The first moment I remember having an inkling was at the Riverside Studios exhibition [FAC 121]. We brought Factory badges with us, and we started selling them. And the stuff was really selling. Tony got excited, and he’d come back each day with his car restocked, and we’d sell more and more of this Factory stuff. But I never took any of them!”
The cultural value of those objects is long recognised, and the Science and Industry Museum isn’t the first to curate a Factory Records exhibition. There have been many in the years since Factory’s demise in 1992, like The Peter Saville Show at The Design Museum in London in 2003, True Faith at Manchester Art Gallery in 2017 as part of the Manchester International Festival (MIF), and the 2018 White Columns exhibit of Michael H. Shamberg’s archive (Shamberg ran the American arm of Factory, Factory US/OFNY). Then, of course, there are the 2019 shows celebrating the 40th anniversary of Factory Records, like Trevor and Craig Johnson’s PRAXIS XL at The Modernist Society in Manchester, and Use Hearing Protection FAC 1-50/40 at Chelsea Space in London, curated by Jon Savage and Mat Bancroft. Each of these exhibitions, following on the ones developed by Factory in the 1980s, tells a particular story of the label. They also demonstrate how a viewer’s interaction with objects and movement through a museum or gallery space can reorient perceptions and knowledge about the material we see.
As Mat Bancroft explains, the physical space of Chelsea Space shaped the exhibition in various ways, both in terms of the number of objects that could be included as well as the visitor’s orientation to the materials. “The space was small,” Mat says, “but one of the benefits was that, when you stood in the space, you saw all fifty items at the same time. It helped people understand the surge of creativity in such a short period of time for the Factory founders and the bands.” I joked with Mat that the space might have created a kind of reverse, curative Factory panopticon. The panopticon is a repressive architectural area in which a single person maintains visual control over all persons and objects within the space at any given time – a disciplinary concept made famous by philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault. Rather than replicate the panopticonic configuration, the Chelsea Space exhibition instead, perhaps, flipped the script by inviting the viewer into the centre of the room to become gloriously overwhelmed by the wealth of Factory innovation surrounding them.
The story that Jon Savage and Mat Bancroft wanted to tell was a particular one that focused on the early years of Factory Records. As Mat recalls, “No one had really done that yet in exhibition form, the early years. The Haçienda and the Madchester period had been well represented in other exhibitions, but I really felt that those early years were quite fascinating and more interesting in the sense of how they brought out the methodology behind Factory, specifically the influence of Situationist International and the general influence of punk.” Within those early years, Mat reflects on the ingenuity and sheer productivity of the period that illumines a radical DIY ethics and approach. Similar to Jan Hicks, Mat thinks of the Factory founders in the present tense, bringing them forth from the realm of pastness to accent the immediacy of their ideas: “It’s quite incredible that the five partners who form Factory are all doing what they’re doing for the first time, really. Martin Hannett had been producing of course, Rob Gretton had been managing bands, Tony Wilson had been with Granada, but they’ve never really done all these things before in such an innovative manner. And they’re incredibly intuitive and do a very, very good job of it, almost from the start. That’s not to say they don’t make mistakes, but in those initial years they really hit on these amazing skills that perfectly complement each other. They put out so many projects in a short period of time, and they create valuable and varied products. It’s not just records – it’s everything. It’s posters and other projects and films, and then badges, logos, stationery.”
The creative impulses of Tony Wilson, especially, served as a focus at the Chelsea Space exhibit, largely due to the rich archival materials. “When we were going through Tony Wilson’s archive,” Mat explains, “we found that he had done a lot of creative work in promoting the Factory club, and for us [Mat and Jon], that archival material did three important things. First, it showed how Factory was part of a scene at the time. A lot of the work Tony did was collage, so it fitted into a kind of punk and new wave aesthetic. It was also interesting that he was doing the work directly, and that he was doing it while at Granada TV, completely on the side from his main job, and often on the yellow paper they used at Granada TV. And it was DIY – photocopy after photocopy of flyers that would have appeared all over Manchester at that particular time. Second, it helped explain the influence of Situationist International on Tony specifically. And third, which was unintentional at the time, his archive revealed how revolutionary Peter Saville’s first poster [FAC 1] was because it looks like none of the other materials. It borrows no punk or new wave language or aesthetic – not in typography or design. The poster becomes extremely important in the context of Factory, then, because it establishes an aesthetic for the label.”
The Chelsea Space exhibit also sought to provide viewers with background materials that demonstrated the various ways in which objects alone can tell stories, even when those objects themselves may not seem particularly remarkable or museum-worthy on their own. The exhibition included a copy of Zoom, the art magazine that inspired Peter Saville to use funerary imagery for the Joy Division Closer album sleeve. “It’s a simple, accessible object to help people who don’t know anything about Factory understand where that sleeve comes from,” Mat says. “So in some cases, there were easy-to-use objects that helped to explain the story, and in other cases, there were items we found in the archives that were so interesting and connected to one of the FAC 1-50 items that they needed to be shown. For example, the items that Rob Gretton had in relation to Unknown Pleasures: the original typed-out liner notes, the tracklisting, the different song order that shows how some songs didn’t make it, his comments in his notebook, and the original little promotional stickers Factory made for the album. We thought those archival materials were a nice way of adding texture to the Unknown Pleasures number sleeve and item [FACT 10]. We also showed the page of the pulsar [that image is a stacked plot of radio emissions put out by a pulsar, reproduced by Peter Saville as the Unknown Pleasures sleeve graphic and discovered by Bernard Sumner, who reportedly saw it for the first time in a copy of The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy]. And it’s very easy to get – anyone can go buy that book!”
The Factory Records story grew and shifted for the new exhibition at the Science and Industry Museum, which focuses on the label’s formative years from 1978-1982. It builds on the Chelsea Space framework while reorienting the narrative toward Manchester as a physical space and drawing out key themes that emerge from the early years of the label. Yet the new exhibition is still largely archival based, just as Use Hearing Protection was at Chelsea Space. Jan explains, “we’ve got Tony Wilson’s and Rob Gretton’s archives on loan to the museum, so we’ve been able to dig into those collections and build on the digging that Mat and Jon already did for Chelsea Space.” In exploring new threads and centring the city of Manchester, Jan clarifies how the narrative for the new exhibition grows from storylines that emerged in the Chelsea Space exhibition in London: “Manchester is an industrial city, and Factory Records was an industrial record label—from the way it operated, and from the way the partners thought about it and the wider company. We talk about the physicality of Manchester and its landscape. In the 1970s, Manchester was a place of heavy industry in serious decline, so we show how that aspect influenced the bands on the label and the formation of the label itself.”
In relation to industry, Jan says, “we also look at the ways Factory tried to support existing industry in Manchester. They worked with a lot of local publishers and manufacturers to get that “Manchesterness” into their visual design. But they were also part of the vanguard of developing creative industries in the city. In Manchester, we’d always had an arm of the BBC, but we also had Granada, an independent television station where Tony Wilson worked, and associated creative industries emerging. So you’ve got people coming out of the Manchester School of Art, and you’ve got Linder Sterling, Malcolm Garrett, and Peter Saville, so you’ve got a burgeoning graphic design industry in Manchester. These were all really creative thinkers who set trends in design.”
Speaking of Granada TV, the new exhibition draws out the role of the broadcast industry and the role of technology in making the innovation of Factory Records possible. The exhibition, Jan says, “brings in Martin Hannett as one of the partners and his interest in new digital and electronic technology for recording in the studio. The exhibition shows how he worked with a local company to develop things like the digital delay line and his ambition to turn Factory into more of a flagship of studio technology, which ultimately brought about a sort of split with the partners. He wanted to go down a technical route with Factory as a record label with a distinctive sound, and the other partners decided they wanted to go down the route of Factory being more than just a record label. They chose to go towards the Haçienda, and that created a split in the partnership.”
At the Science and Industry Museum, the early years of Factory Records are framed by six different “amplified stories” that centre on the Joy Division and New Order albums Unknown Pleasures, Closer, and Movement; the importance of women in Factory; the early Factory band X-O-Dus and the role of race and racism in the broader story; and the salience of industrial imagery revealed through album artwork for A Certain Ratio.
For visitors to the exhibition, the first amplified story examines women in the Factory scene, an oft-overlooked element of the label’s narrative that deserves distinction. Women played key roles in the Factory bands, as well as behind the scenes. Jan speaks about how the museum “starts off with a story about the women in Factory because, although Factory is famous for the five men who were involved as partners,” she explains, “I wanted to have a prominent female story because there were women involved in Factory.” That amplified story focuses on Linder Sterling’s egg timer design (FAC 8), Lesley Gilbert (Rob Gretton’s partner) and Lindsay Reade (Tony Wilson’s partner at the time) running the Factory office, Gillian Gilbert joining New Order, and Ann Quigley forming the Factory band Swamp Children and designing for A Certain Ratio. I ask Tracey about experiences of sexism as someone working in the music industry in the 1980s, thinking about the various reasons that women’s experiences often are marginalised within these histories. She tells me, “Oddly, I never even thought about it at Factory. You felt like an equal. I suppose it must seem odd now, looking back, but there was no sense of that. There were so many women around the Factory scene.” The amplified story is a significant one, setting the stage for more expansive work in the future on women in Factory Records, and women in music more broadly.
The next amplified story is a critical one. Jan details how it “comes off the 12-inch single that was released by X-O-Dus called English Black Boys [FAC 11],” explaining “the museum’s goal to make people aware that Factory wasn’t just a ‘middle-class white boys’ kind of record label—it stretched into all the different areas of Manchester’s culture.” Indeed, “X-O-Dus had the experience of growing up Black and British in a city which, at the time, had a very, very racist chief of police,” Jan says. “That song [English Black Boys] is about feeling as though you don’t belong because somebody in authority is making you feel as though you don’t belong.” FAC 11 offers a framework for exploring the role of Factory in acts of resistance against pervasive racism and the rise of the National Front. “From that single,” Jan clarifies, “the exhibition looks at the Rock Against Racism movement, and we talk about the Northern Carnival Against Racism. We have a copy of Temporary Hoarding (the Rock Against Racism zine) that focuses on the Northern Carnival, and we’ve got posters from Rob’s archive that refer to the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism more broadly.” This amplified story also allows the exhibition to reveal how Joy Division was at times political even though that narrative often is overshadowed by threads that focus on graphic design or sonic innovation. Jan tells me how the exhibition “talks about the fact that, for Joy Division, some of their early gigs were benefits for Rock Against Racism,” and how “Rob’s archive gave us materials to show how they were involved in the wider movement.”
In the amplified stories centred on the Joy Division and New Order albums, the museum draws out storylines that focus on technology and Peter Saville’s design journey. The exhibition features equipment on loan from Stephen Morris (Joy Division and New Order drummer extraordinaire), an example of the digital delay line used in Unknown Pleasures, a synthesizer that visitors can use, and a mixing desk where visitors to the exhibition can remix Love Will Tear Us Apart. In allowing viewers to “have a little play at being a sound engineer,” as Jan describes the tactile elements within the exhibition, the museum compresses time by transporting visitors into the past while underscoring the relevance of analogue technology in the present. That powerful temporal collapse gets crystallised for viewers as they head toward the exit. “Right at the end,” Jan says, “we’ve got what we call the gig room where we’re trying to recreate the environment of being in a small space and experiencing live music. We’ve got screens at the front, and we’re going to be projecting live footage of various bands from Factory performing. It’s going to be an intentionally little claustrophobic space, like the back of a pub gig. It will give a sense of what it was like to be out and enjoying music in Manchester during the Factory days.”
The exhibition is contained within a highly curated space fashioned by Ben Kelly, who famously designed the Haçienda. “It’s going to be cathedral-like!” Jan exclaims. “It will be a place where you can worship Factory if you want to, but it will also be informative.” For the Science and Industry Museum, she emphasises, “it’s a really important exhibition, not just in terms of telling a story, but also in terms of consolidating the museum’s position as the home of the archive of Factory Records.”
Jan Hicks is lead curator of Use Hearing Protection: The Early Years of Factory Records at the Science and Industry Museum. Jon Savage and Mat Bancroft are consultant curators. Book your tickets for the exhibition here.