The women who helped build Manchester’s famous Factory Records
A new exhibition at the Science & Industry Museum reveals the roles of females who changed the course of history.
Come November, it’ll be almost three decades since Factory Records folded. But someone forgot to turn the music off on the way out.
Wherever you go in Manchester, you’ll hear the label’s records playing. The city remains as proudly black and yellow as the day Hacienda designer Ben Kelly wrapped up the superclub’s pillars in bumblebee coats.
Even the famous FAC catalogue – an inventory to which each Factory Records item was assigned – is still alive and well; the 40th anniversary edition of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures receiving a number in 2019.
The world has changed in the 43 years since Factory was formed, and three of its five founders aren’t with us anymore. But the label – and its legacy – endures; gaining a new lease of life with every salvaged anecdote or long-lost artefact plucked from the archives.
Not even FAC’s instigators – Tony Wilson, Peter Saville, Alan Erasmus, Rob Gretton and Martin Harnett – could have predicted they’d leave such a permanent mark on Manchester. Although the ambition was there from the beginning.
This quintet of movers and shakers did something different by taking the region’s industrial aesthetic and channelling it into art – and they brought aboard other people who thought like they did.
The artists that peddled the Factory sound were similarly open-minded, embracing trailblazing technology, instruments and techniques to produce a pioneering form of style and sound. It led to the label quickly acquiring its own unique look and feel – and any product befitting of ‘Factoryness’ was assigned a prestigious catalogue number.
All of it was new, exciting, and wildly ahead of its time. And this extended to representation.
As a new exhibition at Museum of Science & Industry reveals, an embedded narrative runs through the Factory story: The prominent role of women.
Use Hearing Protection (UHP) – an exhibition chronicling the early days of Factory Records – currently houses the first 50 items of the FAC catalogue, including some items on display for the very first time.
Discontent with simply scratching the surface, UHP delves deeper into the origin story of the label – analysing the backdrop from which ideologies were born and what it was like to live in Manchester in the 1970s and 80s.
Beyond the series of display cases paying homage to the era, UHP moves towards the realms of sociological study. And in doing so, it awards spotlight to the lesser-known figures of the Factory family and beyond – including the females that helped push the label’s status beyond ‘visionary’ and into ‘immortality’.
1978 was a time when opportunities for women in music were limited at best. Yet, as UHP reflects, Factory would not have come to fruition or thrived without several key female members.
Several “relatively unsung pioneers” in the Factory story receive renewed recognition at UHP, with sections dedicated to the likes of general manager Lesley Gilbert – an essential behind-the-scenes leader who “ran the Factory office”.
The exhibition also focuses on Lindsay Reade – Wilson’s former partner who helped get Factory off the ground with her input and savings. Reade was a crucial participant in the early part of the story and even wrote a book all about it – Mr Manchester and the Factory Girl (which is on sale at the Museum shop).
Further tributes are paid to Gillian Gilbert, the talented keyboardist and guitarist for New Order, and artist Linder Sterling – whose conceptual work The Factory Egg Timer concept was assigned number FAC 8 in the Factory catalogue. Sterling would also form the group LUDUS – one of the first acts to perform at the Hacienda during the superclub’s opening year in 1982.
Another credited with contributing to the overall movement is Liz Naylor – a writer who worked on local music magazine City Fun and penned a film script titled Too Young to Know, Too Wild to Care (see FAC 20).
The exhibition itself has also been curated by a female: Archives Manager of the Science and Industry Museum Jan Hicks.
Many of the instrumental figures throughout the history of Factory Records were women – from the label’s inception right up to its final days.
Indeed, shortly before label execs received the bill for Happy Mondays’ indulgent Barbados recording session of Yes Please! (a critical and commercial flop now best remembered for hammering the final nail in the coffin of Factory Records), great art was still being produced by women. A perfect case in point was Cath Carroll – whose England Made Me LP from 1991 is considered as one of the label’s least-known, best-received productions.
Factory closed down forever in 1992 as the Madchester era fizzled out, with its flagship club The Hacienda following suit five years later.
But curiously, public interest in those heady days has only piqued. People are eager to remember a time when Manchester was centre of the universe.
And as for the group that made it happen? It was a little bigger and a lot more diverse than many might have thought…
Use Hearing Protection: The early years of Factory Records is open now – running right through to 3 January 2022.
An after-hours celebration of Manchester’s music scene will also take place on 23 September.
You can find more information here.