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Arts and Literature
Zeroing in on Martin
Of all the people that colour the story of Factory Records, one of the least known but most important was producer Martin Hannett. Curiously, despite being at the helm of some of Manchester’s most influential records, his story has remained untold.
Hannett’s rise to fame and critical acclaim and fall into heroin addiction and obesity is the subject of a new book, Who Killed Martin Hannett?, which seeks to redress his relative obscurity.
The author, Colin Sharp, is the ideal candidate to write such a biography. After all, he spent what he describes as "fairly intense period in both our lives" with the producer in the late 70s and early 80s.
But despite having been there with Martin, Colin found writing the biography wasn’t a straightforward process. He had not only to sift through his own memories but also the fiction and myth that have come to surround the life of Martin Hannett.
"What’s in the book is much closer to the facts than has been the case, but it is a balance between me imagining stuff that Martin might or might not have done or thought and the accounts of either myself or people who were there with him. I think it’s ended up as a good mix.
"Writing it was an odd experience, in that it was both very personal and quite impersonal. The character Colin, as I call him, is present nearly all the time, and my ex-wife, who died a couple of years ago, is in there too. Along with that, I was researching and making it factually correct, so I had to walk a tightrope between them, writing without falling into pathos but also without making it too clinical."
The peripheral producer
The Factory story has been told many times, in many different media, yet Martin Hannett’s as an individual has been glossed over, something that amazed Colin when he first came up with the idea.
"When I zeroed in – if you excuse the pun [Hannett also produced under the name of Martin Zero] – on the idea, I thought that there must be a biography out there, but there isn’t. There’s been a number of documentaries that have touched on his work, but nothing that has focussed entirely on him.
"But producers are often seen as peripheral and people tend to focus on the obvious characters; in this case, the likes of Ian Curtis and Tony Wilson. If you asked most people to name five record producers, the majority would struggle.
"Also, Martin was a very private person. He had no interest in promoting himself; he was just interested in the art of producing levels. As I found myself, he was quite difficult to penetrate, to talk to about his private life."
Genius or obsessive?
But why does Martin Hannett’s story need to be told? Surely, his inclusion in the recountings of Manchester’s post-punk era is enough? Colin thinks not, and while he doesn’t quite agree with the labelling of his former friend as a genius, he does think he was very special, more than worthy of his own notch in history.
Martin Hannett with The Names in 1980
"A huge part of his story is the timing of it, the fact that it did come after the energy and rawness of punk. That couldn’t go on forever. So what Martin brought to the party was much more rooted in the 60s – ideas of experimentation and psychedelia. What you get is the collision between those two consciousnesses.
"It’s to do with place too. The fact that it is Manchester is hugely important. It’s something I can never get away from in Martin’s productions. It’s just there; the ghosts of Hulme, the motorways, Oldham, Rochdale… those things resound in the mix.
"But I wouldn’t use the word genius. I quote C.P. Lee in the book who calls him ‘an obsessive’. I think that is closer to the mark. Martin was completely obsessed with sound; the manufacture of sound, the quality of sound, the texture of sound.
"He had a fantastic knowledge of sound, but he could never get it right. I mention several times that he was a perfectionist, way beyond compare. It drove him and the musicians that he worked with completely mad. For example, there’s the story of Stephen Morris having to dismantle his entire drum kit because Martin was sure he could hear a rattle.
"These aren’t apocryphal stories. They actually happened. I think if he’d been left to his own devices, Martin would have spent ten years working on one track.
"But he was a visionary. He was able to move things on; with Spiral Scratch, with Joy Division and much later on, with Happy Mondays. He was there three times, which is pretty impressive."
The rise and fall
Colin’s book deal with both aspects of Hannett’s life, his speedy rise to success and his elongated self-inflicted destruction. He says the impact of the former was to create the setting for the latter.
Colin was once lead singer of Durutti Column
"It was a meteoric rise. He had been this fledgling prog-rock hippy musician who was schmoozing around, then suddenly, thanks to the work he did with Buzzcocks on Spiral Scratch and with Joy Division, he seemed to appear fully formed at exactly the right place and time.
"The fall was slower. It became more and more painful for him and the people around him, particularly as his drug addiction and over-eating took hold.
"I think the mental reason why he died, apart from the physical reasons such as his drug use, drinking and obesity, was the fact he’d lost the one thing he loved in life; going into a recording studio with a bunch of keen creative musicians and making something magical. Without that, there was little for him to stay around for."
The right Atmosphere?
So who killed Martin Hannett? Well, the answer to that, it seems, is a lot less clear than you might have thought. What is clear though, to Colin anyway, is the definitive Hannett recording.
"I think I’d probably have to go with Joy Division’s Atmosphere. It’s such a massive sound, it out-Spector’s Phil Spector. It’s very minimal, but it’s incredibly evocative.
"But if I could have two, I’d also pick John Cooper Clarke’s Beasley Street, which for me just captures Manchester in the late 70s, the whole feel of it. It’s the perfect marriage between John’s words and Martin’s production."
Colin Sharp launches Who Killed Martin Hannett?: The Story of Factory Records' Musical Magician at Urbis on Wednesday 25 July. The book is out now through Aurum Press.
last updated: 21/12/2007 at 08:21