Dr. James McGrath, a lecturer in English, Creative Writing and Music at Leeds Met reflects on the life and impact of record producer Martin Hannett, ahead of the publication of a new book, documentary and exhibition about his life.
Two decades after his death, the mysterious and once extraordinarily prolific record producer Martin Hannett is to be remembered with a new book, documentary, and exhibition. All will be launched on 10 April 2014 in Manchester at a night titled Martin Hannett – The Redemption.
But why 'redemption'? And does Hannett's reputation actually need renewed focus?
For the many admirers of Hannett (including dozens of musicians), the new wave of interest is welcome and well-deserved.
Factory Records – which Hannett helped make into possibly the world's most celebrated independent label – has been the subject of countless films, documentaries and books. Yet Hannett's own place in these has, until now, been decidedly marginal.
The most influential telling of the Factory story remains Michael Winterbottom's 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, focusing on the label's charismatic figurehead, the late Tony Wilson. But scenes depicting Hannett were few, and showed him as eccentric first and producer second.
Artists produced by Hannett for Factory included Joy Division, The Durutti Column, Section 25, New Order and Happy Mondays. He also produced Buzzcocks, U2, John Cooper Clarke and The Stone Roses.
Yet since his death from heart failure in 1991, Hannett's work has rarely received close attention in its own right. Redemption, then, seems timely.
Directed by Chris Hewitt, a longstanding friend of Hannett's, the new documentary – titled He Wasn't Just the 5th Member of Joy Division – is especially welcome as a visual representation of the producer. In contrast to most musicians he worked with, published photographs of Hannett have until now been scarce, and moving images even more so.
Most of the documentary, however, consists of talking-head style reportage – some dating back to the 1990s. Hewitt and his son Tom acquired hours of interviews with Hannett's friends and colleagues, and have since conducted further interviews themselves.
While Hannett is foregrounded in the documentary as an artist in his own right, like many successful artists, he was aided in completing his tasks by vital assistants. The documentary features exclusive interviews with Hannett's studio employees and collaborators, yielding many fresh insights, both personal and technical.
The DVD will be released in May, and a preview extract will be shown on 10th April at the Redemption event.
Hannett was fascinated by the number 23, and enjoyed pointing out its occurrence in the lives of his friends. This prime number has long held fascination for numerologists, and was given particular significance in countercultural literature by William Burroughs.
10 April 2014 marks the 23rd anniversary of Hannett's death during a house move in Manchester, and will also see the publication of Chris Hewitt's book about the producer, Pleasures of the Unknown. Like the documentary, this consists mainly of interviews, but the content often differs between the two.
That so many musicians, friends and colleagues have been willing to share their recollections at length is a mark of Hannett's impact on their lives. Members of his family also contribute.
Pleasures of the Unknown reveals new details of Hannett's life on almost every page. Many are surprising, and all of them intriguing. As a boy, he was fascinated by buses and their engineering, and spent school holidays astounding mechanics with his knowledge of and suggestions for bus technology.
As a teenager, he built his own bass guitar. He would read up to three books in a day. He recorded the sounds of the road outside his Manchester house. His approach to both listening to and creating music was shaped in part by rhythms he heard in air condition machinery. As a Chemistry student at Manchester's UMIST, he would go for days without food to save up for new sound equipment.
Hannett appears to have been relatively guarded about his main musical influences, though reading between the words in the new book, it seems that he was more heavily influenced by the work and persona of Phil Spector than is always noted.
But as with many people who attract the term 'genius' (as Tony Wilson and many others called him), Hannett's processes of imitation were themselves inspired, and he allowed his own interpretations (and limitations) to infuse such gestures, making something genuinely new.
Certain myths are stripped somewhat by some interviewees. For instance, although many convincingly testify to Hannett's extraordinarily sensitive hearing – especially where drum kits were concerned – the producer also seems to have played up to this reputation.
Studio engineer John Brierley describes how Hannett once announced that something was amiss with the drum kit and left the studio. Brierley and the drummer privately disagreed with him, and altered nothing. When Hannett wandered back in, they told him it was all sorted. On casually inspecting the kit, he affirmed 'That's what I like to hear'.
But occasional details such as this in the book do not diminish the allure of myth. Instead, they edit the myth, revealing aspects of contrivance (or simple error) in some of its foundations.
What we are left with is a portrait that feels altogether closer to Martin Hannett: more human, and thus more compelling.
Hannett's creativity can be difficult to discuss because of his working methods. As Peter Hook's enjoyable memoir Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division reflects, Hannett usually completed productions with band members absent. He often went out of his way (and theirs) to do so, re-entering studios long before dawn to work without artists' interference.
It's logical, then, that so many anecdotes about Hannett as producer focus on his puzzling behaviour while overseeing recordings (which included sleeping under the mixing console).
Then there's also a language barrier. Although talking, reading and writing about music are often key parts of how we celebrate the art, a producer's work is sometimes more remote. It can involve a technical vocabulary that is obscure to most people who have not worked in a recording studio.
Hewitt has, however, found interesting ways around this. Through his reissue label OZ/IT, Hewitt has released several albums of Hannett's studio experiments. And as well as the documentary, which features further audio clips, Hewitt has assembled an exhibition of Hannett's own sound equipment.
The enigma of how Hannett made such extraordinary uses of studio devices remains intact, and the sight of these (now charmingly antique-looking) machines provides plenty for the imagination.
For all his apparent idiosyncrasies, Hannett is not unusual as an artist whose life story sometimes threatens to overshadow his actual work. He is not even unusual for a record producer in this, as biographies of Phil Spector or Joe Meek might show.
The 20th century's harshest critic of popular music as a form of culture, Theodor Adorno, observed that the public tends to fall for artists whose chaotic (often tragic) personal lives are publicised. These, Adorno ominously suggested, are part of the entertainment for which we pay our idols.
Although Hannett never courted the limelight, his last few years were – at times – tragically messy, as heroin and alcohol ganged up on him. Stories of Hannett in the late 1980s, leading to his death in 1991, tend to feed off the topic of his eventual obesity – and in numerous previous accounts, it's the spectacle of his final years that dominates the focus.
Hannett's decline presents a very different set of realities in comparison to the story of Ian Curtis, who became the most celebrated of all Hannett-produced artists. In contrast with the 23 year old Curtis, who (like Sylvia Plath) committed suicide after a period of frenzied creativity, Hannett had long passed the height of his achievements. Some collaborators still speak with unreserved exasperation when describing his capacity for disorganisation.
Hannett became less active and more chemically-afflicted following his complicated split from Factory in 1983. But the supposed ending of his musical career by the mid-1980s as implied in many previous narratives is misleading. Hannett did largely cease involvement with Factory by this time, but continued to work for various bands, usually at crucial early stages in their careers.
He produced some of the first recordings by The Stone Roses (1985) and, in a partial return to the Factory scene, Happy Mondays' album Bummed (1988). Other artists produced by Hannett in this period included Irish quartet Blue in Heaven. His final twelve months yielded productions for no fewer than four bands (Kit; The Kitchens of Distinction; New Fast Automatic Daffodils; and World of Twist).
Although, roughly edited and occasionally meandering, Hewitt's documentary and book both appear to have been produced with more love than money, each adds immeasurably to the existing histories of Manchester music and culture.
In one of the most memorable, curiously heartening recollections, Pete Garner (original bassist for The Stone Roses), describes Hannett spending three hours wiring a tiny, expensive microphone to the musician's thumb, to record it tapping against the bass's body. 'When I heard the finished mix', Garner recalls, 'I told Martin I couldn't hear the thumb track'.
'Yeah', replied Hannett. 'But you know it's there.'
Dr. James McGrath lectures in English, Creative Writing and Music at Leeds Metropolitan University. His recent study, Closer From A Distance: Myths and Auras of Factory Records in Film and Music, will be published later in 2014.