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Mancunian on a Mission

In Australia they call it “tall poppy syndrome”. The flower that grows highest is the likeliest to have its colourful head knocked off. In other words, people who try to rise above the crowd will be criticized, mocked and cut down to size.

Sometimes, anyway. Anthony H. Wilson, the TV journalist and owner of Factory Records, was often criticized and mocked, but he was never successfully cut down to size. He was born in Salford in 1950 and died too early in 2007. He spent most of that time trying to stand out from the crowd. His family knew him as Tony Wilson, but he used the longer form, with its pretentious middle initial, precisely because it was pretentious. He was having a joke with his detractors, but he was deadly serious about success, even if he had to fail to achieve it. Factory Records, home to Joy Division, New Order and the Happy Mondays, is famous right around the world, but it lost a lot of money.

That’s partly because Wilson wasn’t satisfied with just music. Among other things, he wanted a nightclub: the Haçienda, with a pretentious accent under the letter C. That too became internationally famous, attracting “24 Hour Party People” not just from every corner of the UK, but from Europe, America and Australia too. Like one of the records put out by Factory, the Haçienda was given a catalogue number, Fac51. It ran into trouble with drugs and gangsters and has long since closed down, but it became a cultural icon.

That’s what Wilson wanted to do: have fun and change the world. He called himself a “cultural catalyst”, because he wasn’t a musician himself, but he wanted to bring interesting music to millions. It was Wilson who organized a famou gigs in Manchester by the Sex Pistols. Not many people turned up, but those who did formed some very famous bands of their own: Buzzcocks, the Smiths, Simply Red. Wilson brought people together and helped bring their dreams to fruition.

And so, although he might have been mocked, when he passed away Manchester knew that it had lost one of its greatest sons. He’s buried in the vast Southern Cemetery in Chorlton-upon-Hardy and he has some famous neighbours: the painter L.S. Lowry and the Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby, among others. Lowry and Busby achieved extraordinary things, but they have ordinary graves. Wilson was buried as he lived: trying to stand out from the crowd.

He succeeded. His gravestone is polished black marble, designed by the same team at Factory Records who were responsible for powerful minimalist record covers by Joy Division and New Order. The words carved on the gravestone include this haunting line: “Change alone is changeless.” Anthony H. Wilson was enthusiastic about change: new music, new fashions, new ideas. He knew that he had only a limited time to do what he wanted to do, because sooner or later he would pass away. In his case, it came sooner rather than later, but it’s hard to see that he could have done much more with the time that was given to him. And he’s still joking with the world: the coffin that lies below that black granite headstone has a catalogue number, Fac501.