Review: St. Anthony: An Ode to Anthony H Wilson

Anthony H (Tony) Wilson was and still is referred to as ‘Mr Manchester,’ the person responsible single handedly for Manchester’s resurgence from crumbling, post-industrial, Life on Mars-style degeneration to pretender to the status of ‘world city.’

I suppose there are several others that could reasonably claim the same accolade, and on both sides of the hipness dividing line, including Bloxham, Stringer and Leese, which, come to think of it, sounds like a firm of solicitors specialising in out-of-hours emergencies. But Wilson stands alone for his star quality and international reputation. So it is fitting that a host of ‘stars’ – both local and international – should come together to make a charity record in his honour eight years after his untimely death while still at his mental peak, and just as the city was finally demonstrating that it had star quality itself.

I have to say straight off – and I know I’m not alone in this – that I’m uncomfortable with the ‘Saint Anthony’ tag and the general air of deification. I know it refers to Saint Anthony of Padua, the Patron Saint of things that are lost, the theme of the song, and the writer’s attempts to ‘re-find’ Tony Wilson, but it still makes me uneasy. I never met Tony Wilson; I can only go off what I’ve read (including Peter Hook’s excellent book ‘The Hacienda: How not to run a nightclub’) but I reckon he’d be the first to admit that he wasn’t a saint, and that he made a lot of mistakes, even that he was a practitioner of Praxis, a favourite Marxist form of anarchy that was dear to him and embodied in the concept that you learn why you do something by actually doing it. But if it helps sell copies in a good cause I suppose we should turn a blind eye.

The song started life as a poem and has been around since shortly after Wilson’s death, written by Mancunian poet Mike Garry. He since enlisted the help of Joe Duddell to bring it to life musically – a locally trained (Salford University) composer who has worked with, inter alia, New Order, James and Elbow and who is composer-in-residence at the annual Festival No 6 that will be held shortly in Portmerion, North Wales. It is said that Duddell recognised elements of New Order’s ‘Your Silent Face’ and accordingly based the music on that song. So let’s go there first:

The accompanying video (see end of text) was made by the local filmmaker Soup Collective at the Sharp Project, the Japanese company Sharp which previously owned the building having once been a sponsor of Wilson’s beloved Manchester United (which gets several mentions in the song). And last Friday night the song was performed live, fittingly, at the old Granada TV Studios, where Wilson first made his name, by another local group, the Cassia String Quartet.

So, all-in-all, an exercise in keeping it in the (Manchester & Salford) family. Wherever he is, Tony must be beaming from ear to ear.

The ode is a six minute spoken extravaganza to a violin background that is at one mournful and exhilarating. It attracted the participation of the likes of Steve Coogan, who played Wilson in the 2002 Palme d’Or nominated film 24 Hour Party People. Also various Factory Records band members from New Order and Happy Mondays including Shaun Ryder looking like a Vulcan; Christopher Eccleston, Mike Pickering and others who had roles in 24 Hour Party People; Manc luminaries such as Terry Christian, Richard Madely and Mark Radcliffe; assorted poets; internationally renowned composer Phillip Glass; Julie Hesmondhalgh, who recently played the cancer-stricken life-terminating Hayley Cropper on Coronation Street of course); Mike Garry and Joe Duddell themselves; and even a brief cameo from Iggy Pop. It has the air of an Irish wake.

Running through the alphabet from A to Z it invokes images of events, buildings, people and philosophies that identify Manchester, and, ergo, Wilson. In many cases they are explained by way of clickable notes in the video, but often they are not. So for example if you didn’t know who Alan Turing and Emmeline Pankhurst were you can quickly find out. On the other hand references to the IRA and ‘Jesus Mary’ are not explained. You can get chapter and verse on the Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, The Smiths and the Stone Roses, but not a word on Morrissey, Liam (presumably Gallagher) or Warsaw, the original name of Joy Division. The seminal 4th June 1976 Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade hall, described as one of the most important concerts of all time because it inspired a generation to make their own music, is quite rightly referenced. But then you get anomalies like Kurt Cobain, who seems to have been included only because, like Ian Curtis of Joy Division, he committed suicide, and shared the same birth date as Tony Wilson.

Does it matter? I would argue that it does, for this reason. Whether or not it was the intention, the poem/song and video are an advertisement for (Greater) Manchester, warts ‘n all that has the capacity to span the globe, the sort of thing Messrs Leese, Bernstein and Karney in the Town Hall must have wet dreams about and which would have pleased Tony Wilson no end. Already I have had enquiries myself from people abroad asking who ‘Anderton’ was (a notorious 1970s-90s Manchester police chief who suggested God might be using him as a Prophet), the significance of ‘bouncing bombs’ and the Rochdale and Regent roads, and what a Salford soft boy is, and a scouser.

The song begins, middles and ends with a repeated entreaty to Wilson to (come back and) ‘talk to me.’ Nothing unusual about that, plenty of musicians, from Peter Gabriel to Jim Bob and Fruitbat of Carter USM have done much the same. But this resonates more because as Iggy Pop splutters out in the opening seconds, something is ‘lost’. Wilson is gone and no-one has moved to fill the void. The revolution is in danger of faltering, even running out of steam altogether, like the Northern Economic Power Cut.

There are two stand out moments for me, the very brief appearance of a poster towards the end which carries Wilson’s immortal line “But this is Manchester; we do things differently here,” and the line from the song “how in the end you hated all the pity.” Sainthood earned.

‘St. Anthony: An Ode to Anthony H Wilson’ is available to download and buy on CD and white vinyl 12.” The label, Skinny Dog Records, was formed by members of I Am Kloot and Elbow.

Now go and buy it. –

©D J Bentley, 2015