Joy Division: An Ideal for Listening
Peter Saville, the graphic designer responsible for nearly every item in the Factory Records catalog, often points to an article by New York Times music critic Jon Pareles entitled "How Cool Is Coldness?" In it, Pareles discusses the idea of a mass-produced secret, something that 250,000 to half a million people are aware of, but has never been discussed or advertised in mass-market media. It's a proposition that's come full-circle in 2002, with the release of 24 Hour Party People. The story of Joy Division and Factory Records begins with Ian Curtis calling Tony Wilson "a fucking cunt," just before ripping him a new one from onstage. Wilson is lately candid about his envy-- of Joy Division's music, of Curtis' intensity-- and how the denial of this humanity created legends of both the band and Factory Records, the unassailable purveyors of pure will, high art, and commercial success, together at last. The genius of Wilson, his partner Alan Erasmus, designer Peter Saville, producer Martin Hannett, and the band that motivated them (shepherded by their late manager Rob Gretton) makes for a greater story arc than the string of anecdotes endlessly retold and finally filmed. What these people did was extraordinary, and ultimately, non-commercial. The dramatic, distant work of Joy Division-- and their singer's unearthly warble-- remains one of rock and roll's most challenging curiosities.
The daring of Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop pointed up pop's ability to challenge more than just an audience; young New Yorkers embraced the frustrated malaise of No Future, while the brats in the Sex Pistols hastened to celebrate it worldwide. Joy Division, raised in a wasteland of chemical plants and mild-to-severe poverty in Manchester, lacked a sense of humor where hopelessness was concerned. The Sex Pistols were poor, but in London they had access to a social network of wealthy backers, and more importantly, a sense of urgency-- the center-of-the-universe delusion that what they were doing could change the world. The members of Joy Division lived a disconnected life in Manchester, a city that bred self-sustenance and pride as virtue. To Mancunians, what went on in London was fit for critique, not sacrosanct. This no-win situation fueled Ian Curtis; it kept his standards too high, his self-confidence too low.
By all accounts, Ian Curtis wanted to make his mark. He was willful, driven to create art of his dreams, and discontent, but like everyone, he started out a fan. Curtis wanted to be a rock star like any teenager, and followed music as studiously as possible in 1970s Manchester. He was a know-it-all that knew very little by the standards of many chic contemporaries. Impatient, cocky, and often rude, he intimidated audiences with a frantic, burning stage presence, but could not see the trees for the forest. Early shows billed as Stiff Kittens and Warsaw featured lots of leather and Nazi imagery, equal parts art and shock-tactic. This fascination with atrocity would bleed into Joy Division's first two appearances on vinyl, both released in January of 1978. Bernard Sumner (who formerly posed with the German surname "Albrecht") famously bellows "You all forget Rudolf Hess!" at the beginning of their track on the first Mancunian punk compilation Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus, and the first proper Joy Division release, the Ideal for Living EP, is emblazoned with a Nazi-era font and poster art that would pass for Aryan Youth propaganda. These early dares raised eyebrows and offered the press a bleeding cutlet, but the band were not prepared with a concise explanation for employing such imagery and came out the worse for it in interviews. The political nerve was already being pinched down in London; the band wisely opted to abandon such distractions in favor of perfecting a monolithic deconstruction of rock and roll so breathtaking, it has defied both classification and imitation ever since.
In addition to careless imagery, the band shelved a handful of learning punk tracks, most notably "Failures," their rank imitation of The Damned's "New Rose" (the first British punk single, released in November 1976). This first wave of material was half-heartedly recorded for RCA at Arrow Studios in March of 1978, under the over-eager guidance of an up-and-coming A&R man. Each blatant or banal cut in their early repertoire was more than countered by some stunning rearrangements of the already tiring punk formula: "Warsaw", "No Love Lost" and their last straight punk track, "Digital", all stand up to this day, but the RCA experience lent Joy Division a suspect eye and not a little bitterness for the major labels. In short, it set them up to follow Tony Wilson's blind march.
Joy Division played off the increasing attention from fans and music industry operatives with their ears to the ground; as is the case with nearly every great band, the moment they perceived a sympathetic audience, previously untapped creativity exploded, fostering a unity that produced three of their best songs in a matter of weeks: "She's Lost Control", "Transmission" and "Shadowplay" dated everything they'd recorded to that point. After featuring the first of these two tracks on their debut John Peel session, famed producer Martin Rushent came calling with a £40,000 offer from WEA's Genetic imprint. Demo versions of five songs were recorded at Rushent's Genetic studio, but as upstart Factory Records were offering a 50/50 profit split and the band's audience continued to grow, WEA/Genetic's 8% royalty rate seemed a losing proposition. One month later, with the aid of producer Martin Hannett-- whose lunatic creativity rivals both Joe Meek and Phil Spector-- Joy Division recorded a debut album that, while flawed, ripped a hole in the fabric of rock and roll, expressing a depth of dread never before imagined in a medium that would seem lightweight in retrospect.
In April of 1979, the band finally committed to tape the frantic performances they were already known to deliver in concert. Hannett produced their set of 15 new songs at Strawberry Studios, 10 of which were selected for Unknown Pleasures. "Transmission" was wisely kept aside as the coup de grace to follow the record's success or redeem its unlikely failure. To this day, the surviving members of Joy Division complain about Hannett's hand in the sound of Unknown Pleasures, a record they immediately thought hollowed out their deafening live sound. They still identified with punk's urgency, having seen every first-wave British punk band in person, later performing with a few of them. The digital delay Martin Hannett all but invented-- and most certainly perfected-- created a sound too processed, too close to the corporate excess their generation was still burning at the stake. Though all parties would come around to the genius of Hannett's electronic sounds-- thanks to Kraftwerk and later Giorgio Moroder-- at the time, their music was still in line with punk rock's evolution. "She's Lost Control" incorporated an electronic snare from its beginnings, but it's driven as much by Bernard Sumner's overblown guitar and Peter Hook's unforgettable treble bass riff.
Unknown Pleasures was released one month after it was recorded, and quickly sold roughly 5,000 copies. While supporting the record on tour and in radio stations, Hannett and the group reunited in July to record what many consider their defining moment, "Transmission".
"[in late 1978] We had one person in the audience. And he lasted two numbers. It felt like the end, like we were just wasting our time, that nobody wanted to know at all. Then, just three months after that... when we were soundchecking, we launched into 'Transmission', and all the other musicians, all the sound crew, everyone, just stopped and looked at us. I looked at Barney and he looked at me like 'Fuuuuuckin' hell we have really got something here.'" --Peter Hook (excerpt, From Joy Division to New Order: The Factory Story © Mick Middles 1996)
Like "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and "Atmosphere", "Transmission" showcases the combined power of Joy Division's unique music and the unearthly talents of Martin Hannett as a producer. The wall of guitar that enters exactly halfway through the song-- which in many ways plays as a fuck-you to the band's dissatisfaction with Hannett's guitar work on Unknown Pleasures-- is to this day without parallel in its simultaneous beauty, distance and terrifying volume.
"Transmission" extended the shelf life of Unknown Pleasures, which had stopped selling and was cluttering the Factory office and co-founder Alan Erasmus' apartment. "Transmission" would take care of the space problem, as the album went on to sell out the initial 10,000 copies within weeks, and more in subsequent pressings, generating roughly £50,000 profit for label and artist to be, theoretically, split down the middle (Wilson would famously spend most of Joy Division and New Order's profits on his insane pop music San Simeon, his club The Haçienda, the Factory offices, and later the Dry Bar).
When "Transmission" was released in October 1979, Joy Division were ensconced in Cargo Studios, where they'd first recorded the single before retreating to the more familiar surroundings at Strawberry to polish its sound. This time around, Hannett and the group stuck it out at Cargo, recording for French label Sordide Sentimental. 1578 numbered copies exist of the Licht und Blindheit (Light and Blindness) single, comprised of "Atmosphere" and "Dead Souls" from these sessions. The record was released in a gothic gatefold sleeve, containing an equally dramatic essay by Jean-Pierre Turmel. If not for this essay-- its overreaching prose, and its somewhat embarrassing effort to insert Joy Division into linear philosophical league with everyone from De La Croix to the Marquis De Sade-- the single is without flaw. The music is powerful enough to withstand or validate the lofty scripture, depending on your view; unsheathed, Licht und Blindheit is easily one of the most expressive pieces of vinyl released by an English recording artist. "Atmosphere" employs the ghosts of American rock and roll-- specifically Phil Spector's wall of sound singles-- and seamlessly integrates their nostalgic echoes with modern electronic chimes. The result is an unsettling, monastic anthem that ushers the most despondent, desperate lyrics Ian Curtis would ever pen. The flipside, "Dead Souls", is their least polished recording, an intentionally raw, screeching dirge from which the caterwaul "They keep calling me!" rises again and again.
Licht und Blindheit is a turning point in the life of Ian Curtis. From here on out, his obsession with art and integrity (where Joy Division's music was concerned), as well as his mounting frustration in confronting success (and the audience it garners) is both audible and harrowing to behold.
Paul Morley, the NME journalist who made Joy Division his reason to live, helped produce and/or finance both the three-hour New Order Story documentary and the 20th Anniversary Heart and Soul box set released by London Records in 1997. Morley has written volumes of humorless praise for Joy Division, all bordering on self-flagellation in the face of God, which he all but pronounces Ian Curtis. Any number of alternative authorities on the man considered him affable from time to time. His widow's memoir Touching from a Distance ignited a small storm of controversy when it was released; it condemns the memorial service held at Factory ("They smoked pot and watched The Great Rock and Roll Swindle), but more importantly humanizes the immortal Ian Curtis as a depressed kid chasing dreams he constantly saw dashed once he met them. Each accomplishment was a disappointment for Curtis-- reality never approaches fantasy-- and more than confronting the duplicities of adult life, he was developing a serious case of epilepsy.
Curtis was put on high doses of powerful sedatives (which we now know wouldn't have helped), and medical science being what it was in 1979, his routines changed little. He continued to drink, stayed up late, and took the stage whenever possible. Any one of these activities can be an epileptogenic; add to this the affair Curtis began with his crystallized, artistic 'other self' (a Belgian girl he first met during a short tour of Europe in October 1979), and the wife and daughter he was neglecting (in her words, "tormenting"). In many ways it's no surprise Ian Curtis wanted to commit suicide, but it's stupefying that he actually managed to. He had both slit his wrists after downing a bottle of Pernod and blatantly overdosed on phenobarbitone in the months up to and following the recording of their second and final album, Closer, which has never been reviewed without use of the word 'ethereal.'
In March of 1980, roughly four months after recording Licht und Blindheit and performing a number of short European tour dates (some abbreviated as Curtis's epilepsy mounted), Joy Division recorded three sessions with Martin Hannett. The first two were for a new single, the now classic "Love Will Tear Us Apart"; one of a pair of modern pop classics Joy Division would commit to tape that month. "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is as smooth and easy a piece of listening as the band ever produced-- the only recording of theirs to employ acoustic guitars-- and is sung in a subdued midrange tone which sounds eerily displaced when compared with the rest of the band's catalog. Immediately after completing the session, they moved to the state-of-the-art Britannia Row, which was to Pink Floyd what the lesser-equipped Strawberry Studios were to Joy Division.
Martin Hannett, possibly at the urging of the band, radically changed his production approach for Closer, recording live echo (playback from speakers in other parts of the studio) for the drum tracks and all guitars. In the midst of a personal breakdown, though not necessarily demonstrative about it, Ian Curtis unloaded months of self-torture in the album's lyrics. The pallor cast over the proceedings is only audible in retrospect; the album was recorded so quickly, no one had any time to process what was ending up on tape. No one was thinking about Closer as the last album they'd ever record, because in only a month, Joy Division were set to take on America, the dream of nearly every British teenager that ever picked up a guitar.
Immediately after recording Closer, on April 4th, 1980, the group supported The Stranglers, which is odd not only because of their disparate styles, nor The Stranglers' uncertain place in music at the time, but because Tony Wilson hated The Stranglers with a passion and refused to do a feature on them for Granada TV (he was later forced). During the show, Curtis-- angry at himself, the poufs in The Stranglers, who knows-- spun completely out of control on stage and crashed headlong into the drum set. He recovered, but was disastrously embarrassed and barely turned back from an attempted overdose a few days later. Tony Wilson decided the best solution to the singer's dilemma would be a Joy Division concert with a rotating cast of singers, such that Ian Curtis could rest and avoid the stress of singing the harder numbers. It sounded as ridiculous then as it does now. Wilson called Alan Hempstall, singer for rank Joy Division imitators Crispy Ambulance, and asked Joy Division to build a set around the songs whose lyrics he knew best. The April 8th gig at The Derby Hall in Bury dissolved into a full-on riot, in which bassist Peter Hook and manager Rob Gretton both brawled with outraged audience members.
The sight of the mayhem nearly snapped Ian Curtis in half, and following on its heels came divorce papers from his wife. Within a month, he hanged himself after watching Werner Herzog's Stroszek and listening to Iggy Pop's The Idiot, all the while downing a bottle of whiskey, and finally a handful of pills. The mayhem of the last month of his life is in one sense, and probably was to Curtis, as melodramatic and horrifying as "Twenty Four Hours", the most brutal, unyieldingly morbid song Joy Division recorded. "The Eternal" and "Decades"-- the back-to-back dirges at the end of Closer-- are restrained, forgone conclusions in which Curtis has accepted his situation, and seems resigned to ending it sooner rather than later. It's only in "Passover", "A Means to an End" and "Twenty Four Hours" that Ian Curtis shows any passion, any desire to fight his circumstance.
In the simplest terms, Ian Curtis lost. He lost to a disease no doctor could cure, one that kept him from living the life he dreamed of. That he considered those dreams more important than any relationship betrays his youth and naivety, but as the music he made of those dreams has all but validated his conviction, it's hard for those as passionate about music as he was not to deify this confused, barely 24 year-old genius.
[The prescient "Isolation", as well as the never-recorded Joy Division tracks "Ceremony" and "In a Lonely Place" act as a perfect segue into New Order's catalog (the latter were re-recorded by the group as they tried to carry on without Curtis). In time, New Order would produce some of the most original pop music recorded in the 1980s, overcoming a doubting fanbase to release singles that, while not as transcendent as anything Joy Division released, were easily as innovative, and most certainly more successful-- 1983's "Blue Monday" sold over three million copies worldwide and is still the best-selling 12" single of all time.]