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Tony Wilson: Manchester birthplace of digital pop music

16 Jun 2008

Previously unseen video footage of the late Manchester icon and music impresario Anthony H Wilson has been unearthed at The University of Manchester.

The late Anthony H Wilson
The late Anthony H Wilson

The video, which shows the former record label boss and journalist in forthright and animated mood, was shot in 1998 as part of celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the birth of ‘The Baby’ – the first computer capable of storing a program.

In the interview - which can be seen at www.digital60.org/media/interview_tony_wilson/ - Wilson claims digital music in pop music started with his band New Order.

At one point in the entertaining and illuminating clip, he breaks off to take a phone call on a large mobile phone. He goes on to argue that the Baby was THE first computer – and dismisses the views of “fussing” academics as “b*ll*cks”.

The footage came to light while Web designers at The University of Manchester were building the official web site for Digital 60 Day, which will take place on 20June 2008.

Wilson, wearing a black and white polka dot tie and dark suit, is seen sitting in front of a working replica of the Baby at The Museum of Science and Industry in June 1998.

Asked about Simply Red’s Stars being the first mass digital export from Manchester, Wilson says: “In a sense the beginning of digital music in pop music if we're talking about that, was actually another Manchester band, New Order, one of my bands who began with very early Apple Macs.

“I used to go to their rehearsal room in 1980 / 1981 / 1982. And they had very early Apple Macs and wires joined to different pieces. And in fact they developed a song which the machines could play, this is in 83, so they could go off stage and leave everybody, leave the audience, bored and bemused by a track that would go on playing. This is a song that was called Blue Monday.

“And despite the massive success of Stars, which I admit, this particular record which predates it by about nine years, was the biggest selling 12 inch single in the history of the British record industry, and right now adorns the American Express advert which is on TV every day in Britain. That song is seen as being the dawn of digital music and computer generated music in Britain.”

After taking a phone call mid-answer from his son, Wilson talks about how in the early 1980s, the Pet Shop Boys “bought this 12 inch thing called Blue Monday, took it home, put it on, and after two minutes they claimed to have locked their doors and spent three months in isolation because they were just so depressed someone had beat them to it.”

Asked by a rather nervous interviewer about the Baby being the first stored program computer, Wilson retorts: “No. No. No. It's the first computer.”

“Would you say you’re a human being with blood? You wouldn't. Because human beings have blood. All computers have stored programs. So the academics who are fussing around, saying this is the first stored program computer, it's b*ll*cks. This is the first computer.”

Concluding the interview, Wilson says: “[The pioneers] had no idea what was going to be 50 years later as a result of this, and we have no idea what will be here in 50 years time. It'll be a damn sight weirder than it is now.”

On Friday 20 June 2008, The University and the City of Manchester will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the world-changing achievement of Kilburn and Williams with Digital 60 Day.

The programme of events includes a demonstration of the working replica of The Baby at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester and a Computer Science Magic Show.

Four surviving member of the Baby design and development team will be awarded a Medal of Honour by The University and also by the British Computer Society.

Professor Steve Furber CBE, designer of the BBC Microcomputer, will later deliver the inaugural Kilburn lecture on ‘The Relentless March of the Microchip’.

For more information on Digital 60 please see www.digital60.org.

Notes for editors

The footage can be viewed at: www.digital60.org/media/interview_tony_wilson/.

A transcript is available at: www.digital60.org/media/interview_tony_wilson/transcript.html.

Media opportunity: The Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), Castlefield, Friday 20 June 2008, 11:00am. Photo and interview opportunity with original baby design and development team of Geoff Tootill, Dai Edwards and Alec Robinson, with working replica of the Baby computer.

For further information please contact Alex Waddington, Media Relations Officer, The University of Manchester on 0161 275 8387 or 07717 881569.