One of the most iconic labels ever to live beyond its means, Factory Records put its indelible, charcoal-souled stamp on postpunk with Joy Division, New Order, Crispy Ambulance, A Certain Ratio, and others throughout the ’80s. Beyond that identifiable sound, though, Factory harbored outliers like Durutti Column, Section 25, Crawling Chaos, and the Royal Family and the Poor and championed outfits like James before they became unbearable.
Led by the legendary Manchester media mogul Tony Wilson (see the movie 24 Hour Party People for an entertainingly embellished portrayal of the man and his accomplishments), Factory eventually branched out into the baggy, dance-rock shenanigans of Happy Mondays and Northside and indulged every New Order offshoot, such as Revenge, Electronic, and the Other Two. In addition, the company released music by many other less-celebrated artists that most of the world just didn’t have the time or inclination to explore (sorry, Kevin Hewick and Kalima). The only person I know who’s possibly heard the entire catalog is ex-Stranger tech guru Brian Geoghagan—and even he might have balked at Shark Vegas.
Factory had several towering highs, its share of dull middles, and a smattering of embarrassing lows. But when it was on, it was on in fiery, boldfaced, italicized CAPS.
Choosing a Factory top-10-song list is not an easy task, but it must be done, so I’m doing it. It's a given you're going to find fault with this survey, so explain why I’m way off base in the comments and post your own top 10, if you find yourself with too much time on your hands.
A Certain Ratio- “Flight” (FAC-22, 1980)
A Certain Ratio made the most frigid funk in the world. You’d think a genre that thrives on heat would wither in this Manchester group’s ice-cold hands, but no. ACR’s early records took the percussive, chicken-scratch guitar and taut yet rubbery groove of the Godfather of Soul's essence to the freezer and still made you sweat like a malaria patient. “Flight,” though, is on some other higher level of sonic science. Its funk is subliminal and ethereal, its melody ghostly. The track appears to be dispersing as it goes along, shedding layers of skin, vaporizing before your astonished ears. (I’d bet a hundred pounds that Burial loves this magnum opus.) Simon Topping’s deep, glum vocals make Ian Curtis’ sound like Curtis Mayfield’s as he intones, “We need flight to feel the light.” In the utterly chilling coda, someone plays a mean ectoplasm solo. “Flight” is Factory’s pinnacle.
Crispy Ambulance- “The Presence” (FAC BN-4, 1981)
13 minutes of sinuous tension building, this is Crispy Ambulance’s crowning achievement. Accused of being Joy Division copyists, CA definitely took inspiration from Factory’s flagship band, but “The Presence” was like JD in dub, with spectral-flare guitar glints and a bass line that lithely looped like a blunted combination of Peter Hook and Jah Wobble. No matter how low you feel, this epic classic will console the hell out of you.
Joy Division- “The Eternal” (FAC-25, 1980)
No song better captures the sorrow and the pity of Joy Division than “The Eternal.” (How has the RZA not sampled its opening moments?) It’s a majestic yet forlorn procession to the vanishing point. Ian Curtis poetically expresses a resignation that cuts to the core, his tender, stoic voice calmly enunciating lines like:
Cry like a child, though these years make me older,
With children my time is so wastefully spent,
A burden to keep, though their inner communion,
Accept like a curse an unlucky deal.
This is how you create a woebegone tune that makes you proud to hang your head forever.
New Order- “Everything’s Gone Green” (FAC-30, 1982)
What an elegant juggernaut this is. “Everything’s Gone Green” perfectly distills New Order’s rock and dance elements into one efficiently chugging poignancy machine. It contains my favorite Bernard Sumner vocal performance (including that lone amazing “WOO!” near the end) and the main gilded, glistening guitar riff that periodically slashes through it never fails to fire up all of my synapses. You can have the overplayed “Blue Monday”; I’ll take “Everything’s Gone Green” any day.
Joy Division- “Dead Souls” (FAC-40, 1981)
The agonizing sound of a mind churning in its own rancid torment, “Dead Souls” is a highlight of the posthumous Still compilation. You can sense singer Ian Curtis struggling to break on through to the other side with every fiber of his doomed being. After a deceptively strolling intro, the music gets down to serious business, throbbing and receding with absolute sympathy, power, and grace. This song meant a helluva lot to me when I was 19; it still moves me to tears now. If you can listen to “Dead Souls” without your eyes watering and your throat lumping, you may be Dick Cheney.
A Certain Ratio- “Do the Du (Casse)” (FACUS-4, 1981)
No song with the words “shrivel” in it has ever funked harder than “Do the Du (Casse)”—plus, “I flay your flesh with my thoughts” is a stunningly great line, in any context. This track exists on the same 12-inch as ACR’s potent cover of Banbarra’s “Shack Up.” Both tracks will scorch your dance floor within seconds.
New Order- “In A Lonely Place” (FAC-33, 1981)
The perfect song with which to transition from Joy Division into New Order, “In a Lonely Place” serves as a tremblingly beautiful tribute to the late Ian Curtis, even if it wasn't intended to. The B-side to the near-universally loved “Ceremony,” it achieves the rare feat of toggling between intimacy and grandiosity with utmost grace. Whenever it’s playing, I imagine statues crying to it.
ESG- “You’re No Good” (FAC-34, 1981)
ESG are a supreme party band, but “You’re No Good” is one of their most down-hearted tracks—and, paradoxically, one of their finest. This is funk that tumbles down the stairs in slow motion, but the chorus of “you’re no good!” puts a damn smile on your hips [sic]. As a tune about loving the wrong person, it’s maddeningly simple, but the sublimely laggard groove and coyly yearning vocal performances win the
Happy Mondays- “Wrote For Luck” (FAC-212, 1988)
Welcome to the peak of baggy, a loose, funky fusion of candy-glazed dance music and blissed-out rock that flourished in the UK in the late ’80s and early '90s. The Mondays finessed out one of those riffs—a yobbish take on African highlife music—that you want to go on till you forget all of your responsibilities. And if anyone can make you slack on your obligations, it’s Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark- Electricity (FAC-6, 1979)
An ideal offspring of Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity,” “Electricity” represents synth pop at its most sprightly and environmentally responsible. Instantly hummable and indomitably cheerful yet with a grave undercurrent, this song set the bar sky high for all synthesizer wranglers hoping to dwell in the charts. Few have matched it in the ensuing 35 years.
Crawling Chaos- “Sex Machine” (FAC-17, 1980)
One of Factory’s greatest WTF? moments. Think of what the opposite of James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine” would sound like and that’s pretty much what you get with Crawling Chaos’ song of the (almost) same title. The singer sounds like he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown as he recounts all of the anatomical anomalies he possesses, as outlined in the verse below:
I’ve got pricks on my toes and one on my nose
And some on my back that nobody knows
And the one I got first still grows and grows
I’ve got a set of clits hanging in my ear
I went to the doc to get a smear
He told me I had gonorrhoea
The music’s an odd fusion of fidgety, minimal synth and guitar-rock heroics. There sure is a lot of sturm und drang about wangs here. A one-off for the ages.