Caught by the River

I Thought I Heard You Speak

Clare Wadd | 4th May 2023

Audrey Golden’s ‘I Thought I Heard You Speak’, which unearths the undervalued and overlooked work of women at cult Manchester label Factory Records, is published today by White Rabbit Books. If you thought all the stories had been told, writes Clare Wadd, this is clear evidence that they’re only just starting to be.

When you think about Factory Records what do you think about? Manchester, The Haçienda, Tony Wilson, Alun Erasmus, Rob Gretton, Peter Saville, Joy Division, New Order, Madchester, Martin Hannett? So maybe in passing you think about Gillian Gilbert or Cath Carroll, but do you think about any other women at all? I have to confess I didn’t. And yet here they are, all these brilliant women, beavering away, undervalued and overlooked, both at the time and since — sometimes deliberately, othertimes just casually, carelessly. 

Over 50 women’s voices feature in Audrey Golden’s I Thought I Heard You Speak, perfectly named after a line from ‘Blue Monday’ — and there are over a dozen more that she couldn’t contact and whose voices still haven’t been heard. This is a thematic oral history of Factory Records, told entirely by the women who were there, from their perspectives. Working as sound engineers, band managers, musicians, DJs, filmmakers, promoters, PRs, label employees and company directors, even the UK’s first female bouncer, the women involved in Factory over its 14 years were quietly there, doing every job you can possibly think of from its very inception in 1978 to its demise in 1992. 

Pointing out that releasing Factory’s first record involved spending all of her and then-husband Tony Wilson’s joint savings, Lindsay Wilson says: “I call myself a co-founder of Factory. I hadn’t found my voice then, but I have now.” Good for her. She was responsible for Factory signing OMD, and handled their licensing, tripling their overseas income within six months of taking that job, before being unceremoniously sacked by Tony Wilson; later she managed The Stone Roses.

There have been over a dozen other books about Factory Records, all of them very male. Whilst some reference women as the wives or girlfriends of its founders, or as recording artists, they miss the authoritative voices of the women who ran Factory behind the scenes in a wide range of roles. Women were integral to its ethos, creativity and success, kept the label running, and later tried to sound the alarm to prevent its ultimate downfall. It’s really striking, reading this book, how female Factory was, and it can’t be that nobody, at the time or documenting it subsequently, knew, just that they didn’t consider the women really worth mentioning.

Women at Factory had business and administration skills, even if they weren’t always listened to about the stupid amount being spent on the new office building or the excessive cut being paid to distributors. They knew the industry and handled the unglamorous work, boringly making sure the right number of records were pressed and distributed to the right places, that they were licensed to the right companies with the right contracts, that royalties were received, and bills and bands paid. Tina Simmons, the only woman to have been made a company director, managed the label for five years and saw the writing on the wall, but wasn’t heeded and couldn’t stop Factory going bust, reluctantly leaving in 1990 because she didn’t want to be there when the company was destroyed. “All I could think was: I’m here watching the fall of this wonderful label.” According to Suzanne Robinson, “women were the force behind a lot of what went on, they were the powerhouse. They kept it all going, kept it all together.”

I Thought I Heard You Speak isn’t an angry book — it’s not a take-down of Factory, it’s a love-letter, a celebration, starting with its beautiful Factory-esqe cover. It isn’t a #MeToo book either — the Factory men seem to have been OK to be around, better generally than the norm for work environments of the time. It’s a tale of being discounted and undervalued, of casual ingrained sexism mostly, rather than of assault or sexualised conversations. Opinions differ about whether women were recognised largely as equals within Factory. Tony Wilson is portrayed as a brilliant man, if a bully, who enjoyed chaos and conflict and wanted to disrupt things if they were running smoothly, and as a man who didn’t really take women seriously.

Lieve Monnens, originally of Factory Benelux and with a mainland Europe perspective, says “England was old-fashioned and chauvinistic. I would be asked to wear short skirts…” and highlights the contrast between “working in a modern and alternative industry while still coming across those conservative attitudes”. Martine McDonagh, then James’s manager states: “Lesley [Gilbert] did everything. You know, she ran that label and it’s still only the men who get the credit…As someone who worked in the music business for thirty years, I can say that, being a women, you don’t get the credit for things that you do. I think it’s much easier for men to deny women credit than it is for them to deny another man credit.” 

Susan Ferguson makes points out “the Madchester scene was very laddish, but I don’t think the indie scene that preceded that was. There were always women at gigs. Women in bands. Maybe they didn’t hit the big time in the same way. In a society and a world that was very male. The Haçienda felt very different.” Linda Dutton from Ikon Films talks about every performance at The Haçienda being filmed, except Madonna nearly wasn’t (until Linda stepped in): “It was a kind of misogyny, the idea that she was just a woman dancing and nobody knew who she was, so she wasn’t important enough to be filmed”. And making sure women got credited for their work seemed to require an intervention from Brix Smith.

As for the music industry more generally, many of the interviewees talk about being the only women in the room at meetings or dinners, something I can very much relate to. Brix Smith points out “Women were a novelty in so many industries in those days, and it was very, very hard for most women coming into a very male-dominated industry.” Lindsay Reade says “women have been marginalised in the music business…I don’t remember speaking to a single woman while doing deals for Factory overseas. It was men, men, men.” Musician Anna Domino notes “As far as I could tell, heads of labels were all men, though the occasional woman might be procured as adornment. The women I met mostly made coffee, did secretarial work.” And from Audrey Golden, “Playing live gigs as a woman is difficult. You’ve gotta know your stuff sonically while contending with the realities of gender-based discrimination and violence”. 

All the women interviewed are justifiably proud of their part in Factory, The Haçienda or Ikon, of their roles in making Factory the cultural icon it became, its place in musical history, and of what it did for Manchester. What comes across most is their love of music, and the fun, chaos and excitement of creating something new and being part of an emerging and fabulous scene. You don’t have to be interested in women’s rights to enjoy I Thought I Heard You Speak, just to be interested in women’s perspectives on Factory Records and the music industry more broadly. And, if you thought all the stories have been told, this is clear evidence that they’re only just starting to be.

On a personal note, having set up and co-run Sarah Records from the age of 19, during Factory’s last five years, I wish I’d known about all the amazing women working behind the scenes at Factory at the same time. I was a girl and girls didn’t run record labels, that point was repeatedly rammed home to me by everyone who ever assumed I was a plus-one, just helping out, just answering the phone, who wanted to speak to the man who really ran the label. I wish I’d known there were women out there experiencing the same thing, who knew what it was like to be creative and artistic and good at your all-consuming music industry job whilst having to deal with the added burden being repeatedly discounted and put down. Maybe we could have supported each other, or just talked to each other now and then. It’s so obvious now, of course, that Tony Wilson, Alan Erasmus, Rob Gretton and Martin Hannett couldn’t have done all the work but, to my own lonely detriment, I too fell for the myth that they did. 


‘I Thought I Heard You Speak: Women at Factory Records’ is out now, published by White Rabbit Books. Buy a copy here (£25).

Audrey Golden appears in conversation with Emma Warren, Jayne Houghton and Tracey Donnell at this year’s Kite festival, discussing the women of Factory. More information here.

Clare Wadd will share her experiences of setting up and running Sarah Records at the next Caught by the River event, taking place at The Social, London, on 3rd June. More info/tickets here.