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In the late 70s, the mysterious, topographical radio waves of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures appeared like a burst of energy in an empty void, signifying the arrival not only of one of the best bands this country has produced but also its finest independent record label, Factory. It’s not too strong to say that Peter Saville’s sleeves for Unknown Pleasures and New Order’s Blue Monday are up there with Peter Blake’s Sargeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Kraftwerk’s Autobahn and Vaughan Oliver’s 4AD covers. The design mostly matched up to the quality of the music.
The chaotic, quixotic Factory Records existed from 1978 to 1992, from post-punk to rave, and continues to influence those making music now, not only in nostalgic terms but because they were essentially purely about the music – and the design was all about enhancing the music. Ironically, it was on the very front that Factory couldn’t compete that it ended up competing on – design. This is the label whose die-cut Blue Monday single by New Order, the best-selling 12 inch of all time, cost them money every time someone bought the record.
Of course, Factory is most closely associated with the graphic designer Peter Saville. In the summer of 2003 there was a big Saville retrospective, The Peter Saville Show at the Design Museum and a book, Designed by Peter Saville, which of course featured a lot of his work for Factory. [See Spike’s interview with Peter Saville]. Saville’s book presented his art work and other writers put it into context with long, considered essays; what this book does instead is simply catalogue the work and provide minimal expositionary notes. Unlike the Saville book, it highlights the work of other people involved in the Factory story and shows how it evolved beyond the visually literate aesthetic of Saville.
The shadow background of the artwork in FAC461 reinforces the idea that these are objects, artefacts, photographed as if from above on mini-plinths. Ironically, a lot of the artwork published here that we are forever told works best as a 12" vinyl or 33rpm sleeve is shown at pretty much the exact dimensions of a compact disc.
There is a fantastically pretentious but sublime introduction from Factory co-founder and twat-about-town Tony Wilson whose register and sentence construction is unique. How about this, with its brilliantly ambivalent "or": "It all began after a very, very bad Patti Smith gig in late 77 or early 78…"; or this, explaining the Factory design rationale, the pick of the crop: "Does the Catholic Church pour its wine into mouldy earthenware pots? I think not." How can one not love this man (other than by meeting him perhaps)? [See Spike’s interview with Tony Wilson for much, much more in that vein].
However, Wilson’s got a gimlet eye for the design success of the Happy Mondays album Bummed, writing about its controversial inside sleeve: "It wasn’t the fact that the woman was middle-aged, it wasn’t the shaved pubes, it was the colour quality which made the viewer feel dirty. Sheer genius, that."
The Durutti Column album The Return of the Durutti Column (1979) designed by Dave Rowbotham is composed entirely of sandpaper and was inspired by the situationist Guy Debord‘s Memoires, "a book bound in raw sandpaper designed to damage all other publications around it" – perfect for punk.
Of course, Factory didn’t just operate in two dimensions – as Tony Wilson might have said – there was Ben Kelly’s Hacienda nightclub, for a while the most famous club in the world, with its chevrons, bollards and cats eyes – a kind of theatrical industrial space, which included the Gay Traitor bar, with its spot lights and furtive air of treachery. (Saville said astutely that "Instead of being a monument to the 80s, the Hacienda is the birthplace of the 90s".) Then there was Factory HQ on Charles Street, a disused textile warehouse (since the 70s they had operated from Alan Erasmus’s one-bed flat) – "a mausoleum to the corporate brand that the label could never be", plus the Dry bar, a continental-style bar, one of the first of its kind in England, all in Manchester.
There’s even info here that’s new to a Factory nut like me (and I made sure my son’s initial allowed me to have a FAC family code, though perhaps that’s a retrospective justification), such as the f-hole logo which I’d always taken to be f for Factory but it’s actually f for Fractured Music, Joy Division’s company (fascinating eh?). Also that there was a cigarette pack design for the Joy Division video Here Are The Young Men, got up like 20 John Player Special’s – I want to trade my VHS copy now! There’s even plenty to drool over in corporate terms such as the stationery and the Factory Christmas cards, especially the one from 1987 designed by Johnson Panas (they were of course commissioned and absurdly lavish), a cardboard model kit of the Hacienda.
While Saville continued his "grand tour for the masses", a visual journey of cultural heritage, with the New Order covers taking in De Chirico for Thieves Like Us, Futurist Fortunato Depero’s Dynamo (1927) for Procession (1981) and appropriating Jan Tschichold typography, there is a sense of a fast-approaching dead end. Luckily, the Happy Mondays covers rescued Saville’s anally retentive control freakery and let rip: they were garish, often unreadable and trippy. Happy Mondays’ Lazyitis single by Central Station Design looks as if they can’t be bothered, which is perfect of course, the bloated lettering slurring its way across the sleeve – you half expect the cover to belch in your face.