Unknown treasures: the forgotten women of Manchester’s Factory Records

·4 min read

From its figurehead Tony Wilson through to the male-dominated bands that found fame on the label, Factory Records is sometimes seen as the epitome of a muso lad fest. But a new exhibition at Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum is having a go at changing all that, casting welcome light on the women who were integral not only to Factory’s birth but its three decade-long survival.

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Use Hearing Protection displays the first 50 items to receive the label’s famed FAC catalogue numbers, starting with a 1978 Peter Saville-designed poster for the first Factory club night and finishing with New Order’s debut album, 1981’s Movement. But rather than simply letting attendees bask in the artefacts’ counter-cultural greatness, the exhibit homes in on the label’s female forces, letting long-unsung talents such as general manager Lesley Gilbert – no relation to New Order’s Gillian Gilbert – as well as New Order’s current co-manager Rebecca Boulton, and the writer Liz Naylor, who co-edited Manchester music zine City Fun and created the four-page film script for the never-made Too Young to Know, Too Wild to Care (catalogue number FAC 20), get their dues.

Lindsay Reade also plays a vital part in the story. “I really am a co-founder, because it was our household savings that we used to make the first record,” explains Tony Wilson’s ex-wife of A Factory Sample, a 1978 EP (FAC 2) that featured songs by Cabaret Voltaire, Joy Division and the Durutti Column. It was Reade, too, who stumbled upon a demo by the unknown band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark while going through the stacks of cassettes sent to Wilson. “It wasn’t his thing, but I told him: ‘I really think this is going to get somewhere.’” On Reade’s advice, the band released their hugely influential debut single, Electricity (FAC 6), with Factory. “He subsequently got rid of them without discussing it with me!” says Reade.

A former schoolteacher, Reade met Wilson – who died in 2007 – at a party. Upon hearing plans for this exhibition, Reade looked back through her mementos of their fiery relationship and found a stack of letters he had sent her. “They run the gamut from falling in love at first sight, then the marriage going wrong and the infidelities, then him desperately trying to get me back,” says Reade, who is currently looking for a publisher for them. “He was a great writer and it’d be a shame for them to just go in the bin.”

Portraits of Reade taken by Wilson and the sleeve of Durutti Column’s I Get Along Without You Very Well – featuring Reade on vocals as well as the artwork – are also included in the exhibition. She was integral to nurturing Joy Division and became disillusioned after the 1980 death of their frontman Ian Curtis. “It was then that I began to hate Factory,” she says. “I felt that we’d failed. Nothing’s worth a casualty like that.” Although she and Wilson divorced, Reade later returned to the label as an employee, setting up Factory’s overseas licensing department and briefly co-managing the Stone Roses.

It helps that one of the women curating Use Hearing Protection is a proper old-school Factory fan. “It really struck a chord with me when Gillian [Gilbert] joined what became New Order,” explains Jan Hicks, archives manager of the Science and Industry Museum and one of the driving forces behind the exhibition’s female focus. “The fact that this band had a woman in it who was a core musician and not just a singer was really important.”

Hicks was keen to upend the traditional telling of the Factory story by celebrating the less-heralded likes of photo-montage artist Linder Sterling, who was one of the first to design flyers for Factory. “You’ve got this boys’ club feel around Factory, but actually right at the start, the way that they were presenting themselves incorporated radical feminist imagery,” she explains.

Sketches on a napkin of a menstrual egg timer – a sort of period tracking abacus – dreamed up by Sterling is one of the items on display. “It never got made but that napkin was taken by Tony and given a Factory number, so it’s FAC 8,” says Hicks. A few years later, Sterling wore a dress made entirely of meat during a performance at the Haçienda – 30 years before Lady Gaga – and her work has since been displayed everywhere from Tate Britain to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

If period-related innovations are the last thing you would expect to find alongside a geeky collection of A Certain Ratio cassettes, then think again. “Factory is a label that tells the story of independent thought and of inspiration coming from unusual places,” states Hicks. “It encapsulates Manchester’s radical history as well – as a place of nonconformity.”

Use Hearing Protection is at Science and Industry Museum, Manchester, to 3 January