Jon Savage on Tony Wilson, music and Granada

I saw Tony is a very complex person. I thought he was a genius presenter and have an enormous respect for that. I thought he was… I thought with Janet Street Porter, he was by far… those two were the best presenters in the UK because they did something beyond just parroting, reading off autocue. This was a major source of disillusion to me, by the way, when I actually started working in telly, was how unglamorous it was and how people had to read autocue, and just other presenters who you thought were these people, were actually saying what other people have written for them, so that was a major source of disillusion, and we all thought presenters were all a bit sort of the wanky type to be honest. I mean, I don’t know whether you remember that, because I’m thinking, “They’re just a bunch of tossers really, just reading off the bloody autocue,” and of course that wasn’t entirely fair, but you know…

Anyway, as I said, I was very close to Tony and I saw him as a bit of a hippy intellectual, and he and I were very, very close, really until I left Granada because, you know, I’d write about his bands and I did posters for Joy Division, and Tony was a real impresario, like he brought a lot of different people together and gave them freedom to be creative which is something great. He wasn’t… but the downside of Tony was that – and I remember feeling this time – was that Tony would always be rushing around and he would never stop. “Oh Jon, I’m off to Moston to pick up an amp for Peter Hook.” “Oh, I’m going there.” “Oh, I’ve got to go to Sheffield, do you want to come with me?” You know, set off at 11 o’clock and smoke dope on the Snake Pass and not get in ‘til two o’clock, and all this kind of rushing around just endlessly in his red Peugeot with all sorts of amplifiers and leads in the back – it was just complete chaos. And he seemed to me to live his life in complete chaos and not to… and I don’t think ever did find his centre, and that’s a very, very dangerous thing because you’re actually sort of, as a person, you’re quite fragmented, you’re leaving bits of yourself all over the place.

And so… and Tony, obviously, Tony changed my life. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude, which I always say, and he was inspiring and he was a very big figure in Manchester I remember driving around with Tony a lot, and he’d stop at traffic lights and people would be like, “Yo, Tony!” and all this stuff, you know. “Tony!” So he was a huge figure in Manchester. But of course, being a Londoner, I was always slightly sceptical because I thought, “Well actually Tony, you’ve got to go to London and you’ve got to be able to make it there,” and of course Tony bottled it, and so he was kind of doomed not to be a national figure, which he could have been, but he was doomed to stay in Manchester. And then of course, he made a virtue out of a necessity, which meant that he did become a great booster of Manchester from you know, in the later ‘80s and ‘90s, which actually did a lot of good for the city, so it all turned out okay in the end. …..

Rob (Gretton) died in 1999. I gave a funeral oration in a church in Wythenshawe, it was awful, absolutely awful, I was terrified, and then Tony died and I didn’t go to his funeral, I jut couldn’t bear it. I’d had enough. And I didn’t want to see all those people and I didn’t want to… I was too… when Tony died I was furious at him, I was so angry with him, which is obviously one of the phases of grief, and in that state I could not go to the funeral because I would have got into arguments so I didn’t go. And I don’t regret it, I just thought about him, and I’ve thought about him since, and you know, Tony was really great but he was a very problematic character and in some ways he was the architect of his own downfall, because of the reasons that I said which is that, in a way, he was never at rest with himself and if you are going to survive you need to be, on some fundamental level, at rest with yourself you need to find your centre, and Tony was just… couldn’t do it.

What do you think he got from working at Granada?

Well, it gave him a platform. It made him a star. It plugged him into the life of the north west, only managed to knock Liverpool, that was another stupid side of Tony, he was always horrible about Liverpool, which is such a stupid thing to do. And there was that whole kind of tribal thing, I never understood it, because I’m very fond of both Manchester and Liverpool, and I have family connections in Liverpool. You know, my great grandmother… my grandmother… I’ve only just found this out, actually. My paternal grandmother, who died long before I was born, this has all come out because of me applying for an Irish passport, was a member of the Crane family who ran the music shops. And my father was brought up in New Brighton from the age of about 10, so you know, I’m very fond of Liverpool, and I’m very fond of Manchester as well so I never got all of that tribal bullshit, and Tony course was very irresponsible about that. But no, he was a.. and of course this Factory he and Rob and Martin and Peter Saville and Alan Erasmus, it wasn’t just Tony, Tony was the PR man. Alan was the guy that ran around and found the clubs and really did a lot of the grunt work. Rob was the guy who understood music and managed the principal band. Saville designed it, so it was a team, it wasn’t just Tony. And Tony was a kind of conceptualiser and the planner and PR and running around and saying ‘darling’ and everything and you know, putting the sort of icing on the cake. So that was him in factory and the whole North West/Manchester booster thing didn’t really come in until quite a lot later, which is what he is sort of remembered for now, and I’m equivocal about that, to be honest.

I suppose for Granada, they got something from his music persona.

Not a lot. He was a star. He was a Granada star before he did the music thing. I don’t necessarily think they did at all actually, I don’t think they knew what to do with Tony. And again, it goes back to what I’m saying is that TV executives don’t understand pop music, they don’t like it. It’s not what they’re about. I mean, the famous stories of when the Sex Pistols came to play, came to do So It Goes, which Tony arranged, was a real stroke of genius on his part. I mean Tony was very talented in that respect, and you can only be that for a short while, by the way, really on the ball… you’ve got about three years of being able to do that, because after then you just can’t do it because it’s too tiring. I had the same on the music press; I was really on the ball for about three years and then it just fades because it’s too tiring to be that on the ball. And Tony was really on the ball, so got the Sex Pistols, first British television appearance, you know, endlessly – Granada must have made so much money from that, same Leslie and The Beatles, it’s exactly the same deal. You know, he got the first live performances of generation-founding acts. Obviously The Beatles is a gazillion times bigger than the Sex Pistols, but the principle is still there. Anyway, so they’re all there, and with them is a woman called Jordan who worked in the sex shop with Malcolm McClaren, and she’s got an arm band with a Swastika on, and she’s cavorting around the stage, and Sidney Bernstein tunes in – do you remember when you used to be able to tune into studios! – and he tunes in and he sees this (woman) wearing a Swastika, and of course there’s a series of very serious phone calls. And that didn’t do Tony any good. And then there was the thing with Iggy Pop cavorting around the stage and saying ‘fuck’. It’s a wonderful piece of footage, but he’s wearing a horse’s tail and saying ‘fuck’ and doing all that, and Mike Scott sees it. And Tony was always in trouble, like me, but in a different way. You know, they just didn’t get it. I don’t think that they saw his music involvement as an asset at all. Because in fact it’s only in retrospect with Tony that that’s all been put together.

And in fact, the last time I saw Tony was when we filmed him for the Joy Division documentary, and he was obviously very ill. And I did the interview with him and he was very sweet at the end and he said, “Jon, that was a very professional interview,” which I took as high praise, and that was it. That was the last time I saw him. So there is a whole lot of death in that story. And for me, as I said, my close friends in the early days of Granada were people in Factory and they’re now all dead, which is ridiculous. So there’s that whole side to it as well, and you think, “Well, why?” And I’m afraid probably drugs were involved, and you know, that whole rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. You know, I just thank God I never went there.


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