Never Sell Out

24 Hour Party People and the Allure of Northern England

 

By Andrew LeMay

 

I’ve always wished I was from Northern England. You might think that’s an odd choice of alternative homeland, and there’s plenty of reasons to be skeptical. In British media, Northern cities like Manchester, Sheffield, and Liverpool (similar to American Rust Belt communities) often represent a cold, hollowed out, post-industrial landscape populated by poorly educated football hooligans, drug addicts, and other undesirable working class elements. Certainly nowhere someone from a paradise like the American South would wish to call home.

Of course, like most regional prejudices, this vision of Northern England contains kernels of truth but is largely dishonest and ignorant, particularly when it comes to the region’s culture. Truly, there are few more creatively vibrant places on Earth. The city of Manchester is a particularly thriving hub of theatre, music, art, and has historically been a center of LGBTQ life in Britain.

But while I don’t wish to downplay Northern England’s other cultural achievements, it’s the music that has really endeared me to the region. When you look at the music produced by Northern artists, you realize how massive the North’s contribution to pop culture has been. Of course, you can’t discuss this contribution without first mentioning The Beatles; the work of these four working class boys from Liverpool not only transformed pop music but laid the foundation for the groups that would come after them. Bands like Pulp, The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Oasis, and later Arctic Monkeys represent a tradition of rock music rooted in the realities of the region they lived in. This music clearly originates on the lower end of the income spectrum, with all the grit and sardonic humor that comes with that background. And it has no desire to hide it.

Get Things We Watch delivered to your inbox

It’s bands like these that attract me to the foreboding grayness of Northern England. When I first heard the hilarious, bitterly clever lyrics of singers like Alex Turner and Ian Brown, I knew there must be something about where these artists came from that gave them their wry, cynical perspectives, something beyond simply their class backgrounds or artistic influences.

Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People provides an intimate portrait of what this “something” might be.

Set in Manchester, this film follows the rise and fall of Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), a TV journalist who decides to jump into the city’s music scene. The timing of this decision ends up being impeccable, as bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash are just hitting their peak popularity. Wilson decides to promote these bands (whom the major networks refused to broadcast) on his show, while also expanding his reach by opening his own music venue, The Factory.

The Happy Mondays , one of the central groups in the film, enjoying some KFC. (Film4)

After The Factory opens, 24 Hour Party People turns into a sort of roller coaster tearing through a museum of the British punk and later New Wave scenes. Wilson previews this wild ride for us early on in the film when he attends The Sex Pistols first gig in Manchester. The event is sparsely attended, but Wilson breaks the fourth wall to point out that almost everyone who was at the gig ended up starting their own band. The unkempt dirtbags in the crowd would go on to start groups like Joy Division, New Order, Durruti Column, and The Buzzcocks. As Wilson lists these groups, we see documentary footage of the massive concerts they would later put on; the enormous crowds are nearly unbelievable when we see their genesis in a half-empty auditorium in Manchester.

This scene, while ostensibly merely informing us of the future fame of a few minor characters, gets to the heart of one of the aspects of Northern England’s music that as has always captivated me: its local flavor. When you listen to Pulp or The Arctic Monkeys, you know you’re listening to songs from Sheffield; if you listen to Oasis or The Stone Roses or The Happy Mondays, the sound of Manchester pervades every song. Sometimes you find this local character through the stories the lyrics tell, but more often it’s in the undeniably Northern, working class language these artists use. When we see the small-scale circumstances in which Northern indie rock was born, we start to understand just how much influence cities like Manchester wield over their artists. This music could never have come from anywhere else.

24 Hour Party People dives deeper into its microscopic view of Manchester music when Wilson decides to break into music production. He founds Factory Records, and fortuitously signs Joy Division, the now legendary post-punk band led by singer Ian Curtis (Sean Harris). Wilson had been familiar with this group for some time; they were a mainstay at The Factory, where Curtis honed his erratic stage performances that mimicked the epileptic seizures from which he often suffered.

Ian Curtis, wearing his typical expression. (Film4)

Ian Curtis, while appearing for less than half of the film, is one of the most important figures in Manchester’s musical history and deserves some further discussion. The Curtis we meet in 24 Hour Party People is a figure of absolute angst with a heavy dose of artificial punk rock edge. When he first meets Tony Wilson in The Factory, he gets right up in his face and yells “Cunt!” It’s fitting behavior for a singer trying to stick it to an authority figure, but coupled with Curtis’ brooding it strikes me as extremely put-on.

You get the same feeling when Curtis explains the origin of the group’s name to Wilson: “Joy Divisions” were the name given to brothels set up by the Nazis in the concentration camps. His eagerness to shock his audiences with this fascist imagery also comes across as a hollow attempt to cloak the despair that’s written across his face. Ian Curtis might wish to be an icy, ironic prophet of doom, but it’s clear that he cannot escape his own inner despair, a feeling that eventually drives him to kill himself.

While definitely a tragic figure, Curtis’s brief career represented not only a leap forward for his city’s music scene, but for the entire post-punk genre. His character and personal struggles embody many of the city’s defining characteristics: he came from a working class background, often worked jobs he hated before breaking it big with Joy Division, and eventually lost his battle with depression when he committed suicide at the age of 23. For a city like Manchester, whose culture manages to flourish despite post-industrial decay and punishing economic downturns, there is no more fitting standard bearer.

After signing Joy Division, Wilson brings in Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis) to produce their album. Hannett had also been present at the earlier Sex Pistols’ gig, where Wilson introduced him to us as “the only bona fide genius” we’d meet in this film. At first his “genius” comes across as pure eccentricity. When Wilson asks him to work for him as a producer, Hannett is standing on top of a hill in the countryside with a microphone raised to the sky. He tells Wilson he’s “recording…the silence.” His personality and artistic vision clash with the band’s as well; at one point he sends the drummer to play on the roof to get the right sound.

Martin Hannett (far left), looking a little exasperated with Joy Division. (Film4)

But when we hear the final product of Hannett’s arduous production techniques, his genius, coupled with Joy Division’s, becomes quite clear. Wilson plays the band their track “She’s Lost Control” in his car, and they quickly declare it to be “fucking brilliant” and that “nothing else out there sounds like this.” Despite this high praise, Curtis remains typically glum throughout this scene. As the sounds of “She’s Lost Control” continue to play as the scene ends, we see Curtis’ face in a black and white close-up, giving us a portrait of the singer that captures his deep depression and reflects his dreary, yet iconic, stature in the history of rock music.

As we watch Tony and Joy Division take in what they’ve created, I was once again struck by the scale on which this music was made. Every aspect of the music (the band, the label, the venues, the producer) was local to Manchester. In today’s economy, such a great achievement on such a local level is pretty unthinkable; sure a band from a smaller or more provincial city might make it big, but they’d have to leave home to do so. In the case of Joy Division, though, the entire creative process is self contained. This fact amplifies what I’ve previously mentioned about the local flavor of Northern music, and reveals to us that this quality (at least in the case of Joy Division) pervades the entire process of the music’s production .

Joy Division don’t get to bask in their newfound success for long; shortly before the release of their second album, Closer, Ian Curtis hangs himself in his living room. The film never breaks its naturalistic style when it shows us Ian’s death, we merely see him sitting in front of the television before it cuts to show us his legs dangling from the ceiling.

Curtis takes in the sound of “She’s Lost Control.” (Film4)

This depiction of Curtis’ death is almost punishingly cynical. Seeing this man, who we only ever see pissed off or depressed when he isn’t performing, hanging from the ceiling while across the room a chicken dances on his TV screen seems insultingly unfair. But the film’s refusal to eulogize Curtis actually  leads to one of its most ingenious comic moments.

When Tony Wilson receives the news of Curtis’ death, he is recording the Manchester town crier (an official who traditionally made public announcements in English towns) for his show. Tony is clearly shocked, and calls Curtis “a stupid bloody bugger,” before turning back to the town crier to explain the situation. The next shot we see is a close-up of the crier, announcing “Ian Curtis! Lead singer of Joy Division! Has died! Today!” We then see Wilson and his wife watching the same shot on TV: Wilson had included the man announcing the Curtis’ death in the segment he was shooting. This scene not only hilariously subverts what could have been a typically melodramatic reaction to a tragic death, it also gives Curtis a fitting send off that fits him into the history of his home town in a totally unexpected fashion.

The Town Crier prepares to announce Curtis’ death. (Film4)

Curtis’ death marks a distinct shift in the film that follows the shift in musical genres that was occurring in Manchester at the time. Gone are the gloomy tones of Joy Division and their fellow post-punk groups, and in are the big beats of dance music. The film’s second half largely follows Wilson’s success with the second big act he signs: the ecstasy-hoovering Happy Mondays.

But before I launch into that story, I want to briefly turn my focus back to Tony Wilson himself. One of the film’s most memorable stylistic ticks is Wilson’s repetitive breaking of the fourth wall to either give us extra context or to tell us that this film isn’t about him. This second point is clearly bullshit. While we definitely meet a wide range of characters and gain a pretty intimate understanding of Manchester’s music scene from this film, everything happens in orbit around Wilson. The story of 24 Hour Party People is Tony Wilson trying to single-handedly drag the music of Northern England into cultural relevance. And while he largely succeeds, we see in the film’s second half that his success comes at the cost of all control over the monster he has created.

The story of Tony Wilson and The Happy Mondays is far less emotionally complex than that of Joy Division. When we first meet Paul and Shaun Ryder, the brothers who front The Mondays, they are feeding rat poison to hundreds of pigeons, which proceed to fall out of the sky as absurd cartoons.

This scene pretty much sums up the band’s career.

Once The Happy Mondays come on board Wilson’s label, they quickly gain popularity across the UK and take their blend of dance and rock music mainstream. They pack Wilson’s new venue, The Hacienda, every weekend. Their tours play out as a blur of drugs, booze, and sex in front of us. Ecstasy reaches the pinnacle of the drug scene at the same time, and good times seem to abound at every turn.

But like an exploding star, the good times of 24 Hour Party People cannot escape the inevitable collapse. It’s clear to us that Wilson’s carnival of excess has to end at some point from the first time we see him at the Sex Pistols’ gig. Wilson himself actually lets us know he’s in for a bad ending in the film’s opening scene. After filming a segment for TV in which he crashes a hang-glider, he tells us what the core theme of this film will be: “One word…Icarus.”

Eventually, the death knell rings for Factory Records and Wilson’s music career when The Happy Mondays travel to the Caribbean to record their album Yes Please (and to give the Ryder boys a heroin-free environment to record). But while the island of Barbados might have lacked heroin, it had plenty of crack cocaine, in which the band happily indulged. Their money blown on drugs, the group returns to England with an album composed mostly of reggae-inflected gibberish. It’s an utter failure, and puts the final nail in Factory Records coffin.

The face of the London Records man when he tries to buy the company. (Film4)

But still the film gives Tony Wilson’s great venture a glimmer of hope. Following The Mondays’ Caribbean clusterfuck, an executive from London Records offers to buy Factory and take control of their contracts for the sum of £5 million. This sounds like a great deal, except that Wilson never made any of his bands sign a contract; if nothing else, Tony Wilson was committed to artistic freedom. The “sum total of paperwork” between himself and the groups on his label was a framed, handwritten note reading: “The label owns nothing… Our bands have the freedom to fuck off.”

Wilson notes that, while he won’t be getting paid, his “epitaph will read…that I never literally, nor metaphorically, sold out.” The deal falls through, and Wilson’s reign as Manchester’s leading music influencer goes down in a blaze of glory.

Wilson tells us everything he did was in the name of “civic pride,” and honestly, I believe him. Nothing captures the spirit of Manchester, and all of Northern England, more than producing some of the most transformative acts in rock music history, and then not making a penny off of it in the end. Wilson’s commitment to never “selling out” would make any punk or working class stiff proud.

The fact that Wilson does all of this out of an apparently genuine love for Manchester cuts straight to the heart of why I love the music of this region more than any other: it’s the sound of millions of people who refuse to sell out and join the crowd. It’s the discordant noise of outcasts who would rather be broke or dead than sell out. Whether it’s Joy Division, The Happy Mondays, Oasis, or The Arctic Monkeys, the music of Northern England is the voice of an entire region telling you that everyone who lives there has the freedom to fuck off.

 

 

— —

Editors’ Note:

Welcome back! There are several great things in this issue for you!

Reed examines the gay glance in Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man and in Tom Ford’s film adaptation, and Rane tackles the current state of anime adaptations, while asking fans to honestly analyze and question these films.

In this month’s “Gaming w/Nick,” Nick gives us some criticism of the achievement systems in modern gaming, and implores Nintendo to stay away from them. Lance examines David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the violence it shows us on a micro level in this month’s “Close Reading.”

Meredith inducts Billy Ray’s masterclass tale of betrayal and espionage, Breech,  into the “Panda Collection.” Andrew also joins Reed for this month’s “Side By Side” as they discuss The Emmy Awards and their politics. And in “So I Watched An Episode Of…,” Reed explores his infatuation with reality TV, particularly the engrossing Vanderpump Rules.

As always, a big thank you to our writers artists; none of this would be nearly as fun to read without them.

Want to add your name along these writers and artists? Shoot us an email with a pitch or sketch to submissions@thingswewatch.com

Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter below!

Get Things We Watch delivered to your inbox

Andrew LeMay
Andrew spends his day working in a bookstore, a setting not nearly as charming as it sounds. He is a fan of the films of Edgar Wright and Guillermo del Toro, among many other things.