It was a great name for a band, though some felt it unwise and still do. But for a band that shimmered and boomed and clattered alarmingly close to some edgy uber-achievement, some penetratingly cool triumph – or deathlike collapse? – it rings. As do those occasional mournful reminders… 10 years since, twenty years since… and on.
This last week there was another anniversary of the suicide of Ian Curtis, singer with Joy Division. And because he – Curtis – in particular was a full-on icon of my youth, a real marker for profound and unchanging things, like innerness, abandonment, my contribution follows. I note in passing this is my 100th post and I wanted to rise to that (ha!) by
a) as always scribbling too unplanned upon something I care about
b) by amongst other things contradicting those slack notions around great music necessarily ‘lasting’ or sustaining through the aeons. I’ve always been repulsed by the conservatism implicit in this argument; great music is often about the NOW and this may not always transfer to some ‘classic’, longevity-dependent scenario.
Joy Division were stupendously and really massively of then and I don’t give a toss if that, for some, hasn’t lasted. More generally, is it not true that one of the more unassumingly heart-warming features of fabulous music is often, surely, a lack of pretensions towards posterity? (And yes, I am making an argument for Joy Division being unpretentious in this respect because… Curtis responded naturally. That he did this with both poetry and via Manc-centric or actually Macclesfield-rooted prickly heat is a gift, not some pose or contradiction).
So this gangly Northern Gang were intense and yet possessed of a panoramic range; they were magnificent and yet live, relevant, supra or anti-pompous in their stridency. In that wonderful accident of young, unlimited, searing, utterly compelling boogie – either bass-heavy or driven with swinging but nail-sharp guitar – they found something special and yeh, expressed it. Easy; when the blood is pumping with chemicals and confidence; easy.
I, for one, followed them, wearing my bruised young-man’s passion for silently screamingly protest like a quietly treasured weal. Hidden to you dumbfuck passers-by, in this terrible bland universe, under my dead Dad’s old sports jacket; dotted with that tiny black badge of allegiance – the one that said Joy Division. A period picture finds me fully kitted-out for Misunderstanding – or simple exclusion – on the basis I appear to implode with fashionable sadness; I wasn’t kidding.
Ian Curtis was the epileptic, skinny-boy colossus of these great distracting issues; power, displacement, loss. Plenty of us in the Cult of The Aware knew he was going to die, somehow, in consequence. This haunting, uplifting stuff would kill him – soon. Because in the tradition of those who treat us to the enriching but violently selfless, in reduced fettle through excruciating and beautiful and heartfelt exposure, he broke against some unknowable dam. And if this in some ways glorifies a(nother) rock death, then so be it. Joy Division were, to me, on their A Game, absolutely glorious.
‘Transmission’ marked them out early on as uniquely achieving of both topical brilliance – annihilating the very idea of radio’s suffocatingly fraudulent liveness – and extra-dimensional grace. Dance dance dance to the radio immediately fired up the knowing, becoming one of the great and resonating refrains in a largely lazily masturbatory rock cannon.
Characteristically powered by sensational bass and the kind of joyfully lacerating guitar riff that in itself pissed all over the strawberries of the era’s alleged guitar heroes, this was and remains a truly towering single. Even now, when a phrase like that has lost nine tenths of its meaning. Curtis’ singing on this record is a kind of developing rage against everything dishonest ever in the universe. So perfectly natural to feeI both unsettled and humbled listening to it; (don’t worry).
She’s Lost Control (…er, who has, exactly?) was similarly electrifyingly on the pulse of profound shit and remorseless giving out. With Curtis intoning further motifs for all of our angsts against the backdrop of a sodumbit’sawesome chord sequence – one that my mate the best guitar player amongst us was deeply offended by. (Later, climbing higher on a high horse than I ever remember, I chastised him bitterly for failing to get that essentially punkish emotion, and for seeking (only!) to make decorative music for people to mindlessly adore. He had no idea what I was onnabout.)
She’s Lost Control was so obviously dark and its structure so utterly about those simple words repeated – dark-eyed and spookily serious – that following the singer’s death by hanging it may and does act like some rather crass but helpful ‘pointer’ dreamed up by join-the-dot rock-biographers. But Joy Division – despite the thematic grandnesses and presentational dodgy-pomp of the sleeves – were not essentially theatrical. They were way better than that.
Like a visceral Ian MacCulloch – whose Bunnymen shared some poetic sureness with their rivals in Northern Working Grandeur – Curtis told it like it was; lonely; cruelly difficult to bear; too much. Production values surrounding (often outstanding, in my opinion) were either a final touch of class or a whiff of seductive neo-fascism, depending on your point of view – or whether you actually liked Joy Division. I did and therefore am slightly troubled by the links made by some over the icy, marbled iconography and design of Joy Division things to suprematism of whatever kind.
Love Will Tear Us Apart can surely flush out most of these significant worries. As a wonderful sounding thing and an ode to sensitivities of the most truly human kind, it chimes for a deeply personal worldview. Incompatible, surely, with arch conservativism or any of that machismo-driven nonsense. Making it a triumph, a triumph for sadness and hurt and the sparkling but yes bruising bringing together of concerns upon love.
For me it’s right up there on the list of capsuled gems we humans might leave for funny green men to discover; after we’ve eaten all of our own heads to a soundtrack by Boston.
The production on this record – the words and the music on this record are inspired – absolutely inspired.
But maybe we should finish with Atmosphere? As the lights go out on human racing, how about some nuclear proofed record-playing robot-serf nonchalantly flipping on the 12″ vinyl version of Atmosphere by the mighty Joy Division. Somewhere in that austere, magic-filtered ease, with the synth and the voice and that perfect affirmation swelling and falling, walking in silence, I will be – and I hope you will be too – finding some words, proudly, tapping my toes, knowingly…
Walk in silence
Don’t walk away in silence…