There was always something about Tony Wilson that got right up people’s noses. Nobody was remotely surprised that when they came to make Twenty Four Hour Party People, the film of his time as one of the three great driving forces behind the Manchester music scene of the 1980s, the movie was initially promoted with a poster illustrated with pictures of Ian Curtis, Shaun Ryder and Wilson accompanied by the tagline Genius, Poet, Twat.
Typically, one of his last ventures before he died was greeted with both raised eyebrows and curled lips. Wilson, along with his partner Yvette Livesey was the ‘imagineer’ – and I can’t forgive him that – of ‘Dreaming of Pennine Lancashire’, a 20-page report outlining a ‘Wish List: A Series of Consummations Devoutly to be Wished’ to regenerate and rebrand East Lancashire, including a ‘fashion tower’, Philippe Starck-designed ‘chic sheds’, the creation of a Rusholme-like curry mile by the canal and a football theme park called ‘Goal’.
So far so blue sky, but the killer touch as far as many people were concerned was that the region would be rebranded as Pennine Lancashire. And not even that – instead it would become PL, a bit like LA but more like MK, as Wilson readily admitted when he claimed that Milton Keynes was the most successful rebranding of recent years from, if you please, ‘the suburb with the plastic sheep into the new hip retreat for London’.
Now I know I’m just a northern monkey, but when exactly did this happen? As far as I’m aware ‘hip’ is not one of the five first things that spring into the minds of people when they hear the words Milton and Keynes. Even Google knee-jerks up an image of fake cows on its first page.
Rebranding is a real headache. Changing your image means having to worry about three things. It’s about what you do, how you make yourself look and how people perceive you, along with the various ways in which those factors combine. If you get any of them out of sync, you’re sunk. The word ‘holistic’ brings me out into a rash, but it’s the only way of describing how this works. You also have to be patient. Any attempt at a quick fix will invariably end up with somebody putting lipstick on a gorilla, to use Dieter Rams phrase.
And there you have the biggest problem with image changes. They’re just so damn hard to achieve. Tony Wilson may have had the best of intentions with his suggestion for East Lancs, but even if they managed to implement every single one of his proposals, if you were then to ask somebody in Harpenden the first word that sprang to mind when you said ‘Burnley’ to them, they’d never come up with ‘Starck’. At least not spelt with a ‘c’.
For people trying to change an image, the biggest cause of failure is preconception. Ironically Tony Wilson was the perfect example of this. Here was a man who helped to launch the careers of some of the best bands in the history of British music and who has enjoyed a long career in the media and some – possibly self-aggrandising – reputation as a polymath. Yet when they came to make a film about him, what word did they use on the poster to describe him?