A beginner's guide to Factory Records in five essential albums

Factory Records essentials
(Image credit: Factory)

There really is no other record label in history quite like Factory Records. Formed in Manchester in 1978 by local promoter and television personality Tony Wilson and actor Alan Erasmus to try to promote the fertile local punk scene, Factory succeeded as a label despite being staffed by a colourful cast of impresarios, chancers, eccentrics and outright criminals, refusing to sign their artists to contracts, using a bizarrely specific catalogue system and famously spending such absurd amounts of money on the packaging of New Order’s Blue Monday single that they actually lost money for every copy sold.

Whilst the label cataloged, not just records, but club nights, NME ads, ear plugs, breathing masks, cardboard model kits, computer software, films and even Wilson’s coffin as part of the Factory roster, they still found time to release some of the most important and innovative music that Britain ever produced; from the birth of post-punk in the late '70s through to the acid house boom a decade down the line, before imploding in typically outrageous fashion.

Tony Wilson once famously remarked “When forced to pick between truth and legend, print the legend”: here, told via five essential releases, is the legend of Factory.

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Various Artists - A Factory Sample (1979)

The first record to be released by the label (FAC 1 was actually a gig rather than a record) ended up being a hugely important one for more than just the fact that it was the first. Although the contributions from cult Manchester post-punks The Durutti Column and influential proto-alternative comedian John Dowie are worth hearing, it's the inclusion of two tracks by industrial pioneers Cabaret Voltaire and, most notably, a pair of songs from Joy Division, which made FAC-2 iconic. One of those songs, Digital, has gone on to be regarded as one of Joy Division's most anthemic tracks, capturing the band at their early, punky stage, just before they would go on to completely change music with their debut album. Having two bands that went on to have such influence showcased on the very first Factory release, illustrated that Wilson and co. had a real ear for the underground.

Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (1979)

Unquestionably one of the most influential albums in the history of recorded music, Unknown Pleasures utterly changed the very perception of what being a punk rock band could be. With such a legacy over so many years it's difficult to overstate just how important a document Joy Division's debut is. It was arguably the album that defined the music of Manchester, turning a local punk scene into the envy of the world, it certainly helped launch the post-punk boom of the early 80’s, and it was unquestionably the album that put Factory Records on the map. The likelihood of starting a record label and that label's very first full-length album going on to be considered an all-time classic record has to be extremely slim, but that’s what happened here. Unknown Pleasures legitimised the label from basically its birth. 

New Order – Technique (1989)

New Order had already played more than their part when it came to bringing the nascent dance culture to guitar music fans, particularly with the phenomenal (and, as already mentioned, costly) success of Blue Monday. But by the time 1989 and the second summer of love rolled around, with Wilson and New Order manager Rob Gretton’s legendary Hacienda nightclub (FAC 51, if you’re asking) a mecca for acid house and rave culture, New Order couldn’t have been in a better position to capitalise on dance and indie’s new found appreciation of each other.

Technique is not just the best New Order album, it is also the one that pushed their alt-dance ideology the furthest, the band heading to Real World, Box studio in Ibiza to record the album. What makes it such a fantastic listen is the creative push and pull between vocalist Bernard Sumner, keen to go all out with the electronic influences, and bassist Peter Hook’s desperation to make sure New Order remained a rock band. Technique is often overlooked when it comes to records by Manchester-based indie bands in 1989, largely due to The Stone Roses' debut album coming out that year, but songs such as Fine Time, Round & Round and Vanishing Point still sounded like a new utopia back in the late '80s.

Happy Mondays – Yes Please (1992)

Ranking behind only Joy Division and New Order in terms of definitive Factory artists, Happy Mondays certainly released more influential, more important and far superior albums than Yes Please during their career. But this is the story of Factory Records, and so how could we ignore the album that essentially destroyed the label?

Where previously mentioned Factory artists were artsy, creative types, Shaun Ryder and the Mondays were, in the nicest possible way, salt of the earth, working class oiks. They weren’t interested in literature or poetry in the way that Ian Curtis was, they liked football, fags, booze and drugs. Particularly drugs. And as the Hacienda took over the city in the mid to late '80’s, the Mondays were the perfect band to bridge the gap between pilled-up ravers and punks.

Both 1988’s Bummed and 1990’s Pills Thrills and Bellyaches are great dance rock albums, with hits like Step On, Loose Fit, Kinky Afro and Hallelujah all classic 'baggy' singles. Their success meant that in 1992, with Factory in all manner of financial trouble, Wilson believed the Mondays were on the verge of becoming the biggest band in Britain and could save the label, so gave them an advance of £150,000 to make their fourth album. Shaun Ryder, Bez and co. promptly took that money with them to Blue Wave Studios in Barbados and proceeded to spunk the lot on crack cocaine over a five-week period, in which they completed a single song.

They eventually came back and, even though Ryder spent a significant portion of time in rehab, finished the album at a studio in Surrey. A deal to sell the band and album to London Recordings fell through when a document was found detailing Wilson’s refusal to sing his artists to traditional recording contracts, and, having fronted up all the cash for Yes Please, The Mondays were able to leave Factory for free in the aftermath of the album's release. It was one of the all-time shit shows, and Factory declared bankruptcy in November 1992. As for the album? Yeah, it’s actually pretty good.

24 Hour Party People (2002)

With a legacy as unusual as Factory, there was always going to be something of an oddity in amongst the five picks here. Not a vinyl release, obviously, Michael Winterbottom’s movie is a fantastic document of the rise and fall of Factory, particularly thanks to Steve Coogan’s perfectly pitched central performance as Tony Wilson (who makes a cameo in the movie as himself, five years prior to his death).

Much like Wilson’s entire ethos, the film deliberately skirts around what is real and what is fictional - did God really visit Wilson and chastise him for not signing The Smiths? Unlikely, but we can’t rule it out - toying with the audience with glee. But it also does a great job of recreating some of the iconic moments of the label's existence: scenes at the infamous Sex Pistols gig at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976, Factory in-house producer Martin Hannett (portrayed by the ever-superb Andy Serkis) setting Joy Division’s drum kit up on the roof, the birth of The Hacienda as a super club, and the chaos The Happy Mondays caused across Britain as they blew up are all joyous for fans of this music.

What the film proves more than anything though, is that, even with a label associated with characters and personalities as huge as Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Shaun Ryder, Bez, Tim Booth and more, Tony Wilson was Factory Records. It’s rare that a label boss can be just as fascinatingly charismatic as the artists he believed in, celebrated and showcased, but, as this film proves, there really was no other label quite like Factory.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.