by Lewis Church
There is a scene in Michael Winterbottom’s 24hr Party People, the heavily fictionalised biopic of Tony Wilson that documents post-punk in Manchester, where Wilson (played by Steve Coogan) drives out of the city to find the producer Martin Hannett (played by Andy Serkis). Hannett stands on top of a moor, lifting a microphone into the stillness of the air. There is dialogue:
Wilson: Martin? What you doing?
Hannett: Recording. Silence.
Wilson: You’re recording silence?
Hannett: [exasperated] No, now I’m recording Tony fucking Wilson.
Their conversation progresses into a negotiation for Hannett to produce the first Joy Division album, Unknown Pleasures, which he agrees to do for £50 and a share in Factory Records (Wilson’s label). Then he trudges off, continuing to record his silence.
It’s supposed to be a scene that reinforces the strangeness of Hannett. It paints him in broad and legendary brushstrokes, as the prickly genius that reinvented recording and made the output of Factory sound like it does. Hannett produced both Joy Division albums, Magazine and New Order, and then the Happy Mondays after that. He treated John Cooper Clarke’s poems like research and development opportunities, making some of the greatest and strangest poetry records ever made, with words accompanied by bizarre instrumentation and aural experimentation. The sounds from the bands that he captured were looped and treated, with bass lines left spiky and drum beats broken up to leave cavernous spaces between their snare hits. Before his premature death from drink and drugs (a decline vividly rendered later in the film through a fat suit and a brandished handgun) he was a figure of cantankerous yet limitless invention. Serkis’s Hannett is a caricature, the legend, obsessive and unfathomable, and recording silence is just something that he might do. Maybe that’s how he dropped ‘Candidate’ down a well, layering the clips of silence being captured in the scene between instrument tracks for endless echo. Maybe the great fade-out on Cooper Clarke’s ‘Valley of the Lost Women’ is actually an overlay of nothing rather than a stopped tape. Perhaps, this scene suggests, the cavernous sound of Manchester post-punk rests not on emptiness but on marked-out quiet. Silence that Hannett sought, bottled and used.
I often listen to the music Hannett produced as I walk around. Records he had a hand in are a key part of my shuffle. For more than eighteen years they’ve been playing out my headphones, as I dragged my teenage feet through Derby and my student feet through London, my twenty-something and now my thirty odd feet around. It’s music that has always sounded like a city, and a city is always where I wanted to be. It’s a soundtrack to urban living, one that slots in with a constant buzz of people, traffic and trains that comes from living alongside so many. It’s not always glamorous, but it is exciting.
24hr Party People is a ridiculous fiction of subcultural legend, but it’s the kind of seductive mythmaking that I like, a rendering that glorifies its setting and a small group of people making extraordinary things. Hannett in the film is a weirdo, monomaniacal about sound, unaware of how strange he is. When I first saw it at about fourteen this scene and his task within it felt intriguing but remote. I couldn’t imagine pursuing silence in that way, wanting for there to be less music when there might be a Joy Division record instead. Why would you want less of that sound than there could be? I wanted music all the time, hustle and bustle instead of the suburban quiet I was used to. I couldn’t understand how my mum could drive without the radio on. I wanted out of the Midlands town to a big city. My ideal of this city was one of noise, where silence and quiet was banished in excellent music, cool abandon and industrial hum.
Since I was thirteen years old I’ve sought out noise, digitally and in person, in where I choose to live and where I spend my time, in what I like to do and where I want to be. In what I write about and what I choose to become expert in. I ended up writing my PhD on post-punk. Almost four years of listening to and reading about bands and artists, unpicking subcultural legends and examining them fresh. Comparing and contrasting, reflecting and rewriting. Endlessly re-writing. I still listen to music as I walk and as I work. But less often than I did. Sometimes now I’ll choose to travel in silence or have quiet in my flat. But as a result of that chasing of sound and city I now live in a tower-block where silence is rarely achieved. I hear our upstairs neighbours peeing and their furniture moving, sirens outside and foxes fucking in the park. I hear the traffic always. The 24hr bus that has been my way home so many times is an almost unconscious white noise that rumbles behind what I think of as quiet. I find it hard to sleep at my parent’s house when I go back. It’s too quiet when quiet is the near silence of the (almost) country. Birds and trees rather than cars and people. That is the silence that Hannett is recording in his scene, observing it like a curiosity.
Sometimes I wonder what it might be like to listen to the ‘silence’ that he records. Perhaps it would work like one of those white noise machines that some people buy to sleep with. I like to imagine owning some really expensive noise-cancelling headphones and walking down Bethnal Green Road, hearing nothing but the Pennines. That act of seeking silence, of standing somewhere quiet to catch it, appeals in ways it never has before. Hannett is looking for silence in this scene and Wilson disturbs it. Silence doesn’t come easy in a city.
Lewis Church is an academic and writer based in London. He completed his PhD in 2017, and pursues research focused on live and performance art, music, subcultures, disciplinary borders, and the cultural politics related to them. His writing has appeared in PAJ, The Art Story, East End Review, The First Line, Exeunt and Loose Lips, and been published by SPILL Festival of Performance and The Sick of the Fringe. As a producer and dramaturg Lewis has worked with Ron Athey, Vaginal Davis, Franko B, Bobby Baker, Stacy Makishi, Shabnam Shabazi, Sh!t Theatre and others. @LewisAChurch