Tuesday, January 18, 2011


In 1980, I lived by myself in a room in Boston and would listen to the radio in the morning. One of the bands the radio station played was Joy Division. They played the songs Transmission and Love Will Tear Us Apart, which created a dark atmospheric sound that had a strong emotional impact. One morning I turned on the radio and they were playing Joy Division songs and announced that Ian Curtis had committed suicide.

I bought their album Unknown Pleasures and listened to it endlessly. In July 1980 Closer was released and it seemed like a funeral march in the wake of Curtis' suicide. In 1988 Substance was released that contained the singles, b-sides, and some alternative versions of songs. These three records are some of my favorite rock albums of all time.

Joy Division came together in 1976 in Manchester, England. The band was originally called Warsaw and consisted of Ian Curtis on vocals and guitar, Bernard Sumner on guitar and keyboards, Peter Hook on bass and backing vocals, and Stephen Morris on drums and percussion. Their name came from the prostitution wing of a Nazi concentration camp mentioned in the 1955 novel The House of Dolls. They evolved from the punk inflected hard rock of the Sex Pistols to a sound that pioneered the post-punk movement of the late 70s that emphasized mood and expression and pointed the way to a more melancholy alternative music. Their originality came from slowing the songs down giving it a more sparse quality. Hook's bass carried the melody, Sumner's guitar left space instead of filling up the sound with density, and Morris' drums seemed to circle the rim of a crater. Ian Curtis' vocals were full and deep and isolated in the middle of the music. This created a sound that still contained the darkness of punk, but also created a spacious haunting atmosphere where each instrument was distinct. 

Joy Division had been signed by Tony Wilson's Factory Records in 1978 and Martin Hannett was the producer and played a huge role in creating the Joy Division sound. The band members actually didn't like the production at first because they felt it didn't reflect their more aggressive live sound, but eventually saw that Hannett's approach was right for their music.

Curtis was the main force behind the lyrics and content of Joy Division. While the songs and sounds point towards the goth movement, they are not fantasies but come from the drab realism and industrial grime of Manchester and are about a working-class young man trying to make sense out of the world in which he lives. Musically he was influenced by Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, and the punk movement. He was also interested in literature and even some songs were titled after books - Interzone (William Burroughs), Atrocity Exhibition (JG Ballard), Dead Souls (Gogol), and Colony (Franz Kafka). 

Unknown Pleasures was released in 1979. The album is dark, angry, and aggressive at times, with slower dirges at others, but with a hypnotic rhythm throughout. All ten songs are stone cold and the album is a monument to passion and cathartic despair. Songs fade in and out from electronic noises and sound effects of motion and activity. There is a sense of doom and the feeling of a coming disaster. It starts of with Disorder and Day of The Lords which both point towards a looming apocalypse. Candidate and Insight are more contemplative but still gloomy and experimental. New Dawn Fades starts off with Hook's deep warm bass and is an emotional powerhouse foreshadowing Curtis' suicide. Curtis sings throughout with fear, desire, and a need to connect, yet lost in a storm of loneliness. She's Lost Control was inspired by Curtis witnessing a young woman have an epileptic seizure of which he was also afflicted and with Sumner's repetitive guitar is a trance-like death dance. Hook' s bass again leads us into the romance in hell of Shadowplay with the beautiful guitar architecture of Sumner and the driving force of Morris' drumming. Wilderness is faster and describes a lost man travelling far and wide who sees the despair of the world. Interzone turns it up another notch with two vocals overlapping describing a figure searching in an urban landscape. The album fades out with the slower, dark, intense, and atmospheric I Remember Nothing. 

The cover of Unknown Pleasures was designed by Peter Saville and it consists of a transcription of a signal showing a star going nova, on a black embossed sleeve.

Even though Joy Division was starting to gain success, Curtis was spiraling downward. He was suffering from epilepsy, a failing marriage and bouts of depression. On stage he would sometimes dance in an epileptic fashion and even passed out on stage at times. After watching Werner Herzog's Stroszek on television he committed suicide by hanging himself on May 18, 1980.

Closer had already been recorded and Joy Division was about to embark on a US tour that had to be cancelled because of Curtis' death. The album came out in July 1980. It's hard to believe an album could be darker than Unknown Pleasures but Closer was like a resignation to life depicting a disintegrating world. Musically it was more diverse and sprawling with keyboards and sound effects taking a more prominent role than on Unknown Pleasures. The songs sound more chopped up and fragmented and Sumner added teeth-grinding guitar riffs. It starts off with Atrocity Exhibition, followed by Isolation, Passover, Colony, and Means To An End. Closer turns even darker with introductory bass of Hooks leading into the marching drums of Morris and the guitar shards of Sumner on Heart and Soul. Curtis seems to be retreating deeper into the mix. Twenty Four Hours is a final demonstration of tension/release or soft/loud appoach with Curtis in his final resignation as he is starting to slip away. A buzzing synth with a slow bass march and piano open The Eternal. You can see the funeral procession moving through the streets to the cemetery in the voice and lyrics of Curtis. The album ends with Decades with a funeral-like organ and bone-like drums and evokes an after-life quality. The last four songs on Closer are some of the most emotionally powerful songs in rock music.

Substance was a compilation released in 1988 and fills in the gap of Joy Division's recorded work. It contains early singles that came out before Unknown Pleasures and several of their major songs including Transmission, Dead Souls, Atmosphere, and the ironic Love Will Tear Us Apart that has the most upbeat sound of any Joy Division tune ever. There is also a great alternative version of She's Lost Control.

The film Control was released in 2007 about Curtis and Joy Division and is directed by Anton Corbijn in black and white.

After Curtis' death, the remaining members of Joy Division went on to form New Order and morphed into a totally different sound that embraced electronic textures and disco rhythms of the underground club culture. Personally, I could never get into New Order except for their first album Movement which had its origins with Joy Division and still carried a dark edge. In fact a couple of songs on the expanded cd - Ceremony and In A Lonely Place were recorded in some fashion by Joy Division. In A Lonely Place could have been a postscript to Closer as it has a similar deep dark quality. It seems as if Ian Curtis is still alone singing from the grave.

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