From the very first seconds of proto-rave history flick 24 Hour Party People, actor Steve Coogan, playing Factory Records founder Tony Wilson, declares, “I’m a minor player in my own life story.” The real Wilson is rarely so modest, spouting his achievements and hilariously egregious errors at a mile a minute. And with good reason: before losing it all, he pulled double duty as a local TV personality and one of the driving forces behind bands like Joy Division and New Order. His now-defunct Hacienda nightclub is considered the birthplace of acid house and the backbone of the Manchester scene, and his UK-based In the City conferences helped jumpstart the careers of Oasis and Radiohead. Now in his 50s, Wilson’s recently waged a comeback against cancer, and the first American incarnation of his ITC conference went down last week (albeit hobbled by the high-profile cancellation of the much-anticipated Happy Mondays). Still a shameless self-promoter, Wilson is fond of two expressions: “It’s better to tell the myth” and, more mischievously, “I’m a twat.” In keeping with his character, neither is completely true, as Earplug’s Andrew Phillips found out in conversation.
Earplug: I think that a lot of people are familiar with your work, but they’re most familiar with your name from 24 Hour Party People…
Tony Wilson: That is very strange for me, because obviously Joy Division are one of the most important bands in history in many ways, so it’s something to be connected with Joy Division and New Order and the Mondays. It’s very strange for me, the impact of the movie in America.
EP: Has it changed your name recognition?
TW: It has in America. Not at all in England. In Britain, there were three posters for the movie. There was a poster of the actor playing Ian [Curtis], and it said “Genius.” There was a poster of the actor playing Shaun [Ryder], and it said “Poet.” And there was a poster of Steve Coogan playing me, and it said “Twat.”
EP: So that didn’t help you much.
TW: No, but that’s what I am in England — or have been for nearly 30 years. Because I’m a local TV presenter, I’m a loud-mouthed, arrogant… [pauses] shit. So everybody knows me as that, and everyone hates me.
EP: And it’s still like that?
TW: Last Friday night there was a Manchester Against Cancer concert and I got a phone call from my friend, and he goes, “Are you alright, Tony?” And then he says, “Are you coming to the concert?” And I said, “No fucking way.” Now that I’ve got cancer, everybody fucking loves me.
TW: I go on telly now and everyone’s going, “Are you alright, Tony, are you alright?” instead of going, “Fuck off, you wanker.” I much, much prefer the old Tony Wilson. But in America, [the movie] has been fabulous. I’m very, very proud of it. It’s a very funny film, even though it’s a complete collection of fucking lies.
EP: I’m actually curious about that. Is it true you never had any contracts with your bands?
TW: Unfortunately no, it’s not true. If we had had no contracts I never would have gone bankrupt. No, it was precisely because of the contract we had. It was one page long and signed in blood. And what was very weird was when we came to be bought, Roger [Ames] goes, “Can I speak to you again? You have no contract with any of your bands?” One of us said, “Actually, there is a kind of contract. There’s a kind of thing that we drew up back in the early ’80s.” He passes it to all his people and he goes, “Tony, do you understand that if you have no contract with your bands, you at least own the back catalog, because you paid for the recording? That is, unless you have a signed fucking contract” — and he waved the piece of paper in my face — “that says, ‘We own nothing.'”
EP: Did you realize that going into that meeting?
TW: No. We didn’t care, either. The other thing is, I didn’t get sucked off by two prostitutes in the back of a van. The film just made everything up. It took all the myths and all the stories, but, in the end, in some bizarre way, it told the truth about punk. It told the truth about acid house, and it told the truth about my mates and myself. It told a load of lies that ended up as a total telling of the absolute truth.