“Say what you want, time never seems to corrupt the music of Joy Division: the actions, sensations, images, movement all seems to fit into the next moment, the noises and agitation, the courage and diligence, always seems to be happening for the first time. Their music so feverishly conjures up insecurity, malign gods, moral chaos, human lostness, caged energy, loss, shifting meaning and danger that it could never slip back into some cosy version of itself. It could never be stripped of its harrowing power because its crystallisation of moody form and seething content is so classic and universal.”
Paul Morley, “Listen to the Silence”
Unknown Pleasures (1979)
It was fall of 2008, and I was nineteen, when I took the plunge on a whim to buy the entire box set of Heart and Soul, which contained 81 songs, encapsulating most of Joy Division’s output – including alternate recordings and a live CD. I knew nothing of Joy Division then. I listened to a few songs when the set arrived, figured it wasn’t for me, and put it in a box, where it stayed for three years.
Flash forward to summer of 2011. I found the box while searching for something I can’t remember. I put disc two in my car stereo, and went straight to track seven – I knew “Atrocity Exhibition” to be the first song of Closer. What followed was one of those rare moments when you listen to a new album, a new band, and it instantly connects. I could not believe I had listened to this before, three years ago, and decided that it wasn’t for me. This album was me. Or so it seemed at the time.
I listened to Closer, over and over, knowing all the time that I was listening to some of the darkest moments in music I would ever hear. It was only after a while that I seemed to remember that there was this whole other album, Unknown Pleasures, waiting to be listened to.
“I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand
Could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal man?
These sensations barely interest me for another day
I’ve got the spirit, lose the feeling, take the shock away – “
Ian Curtis’s lyrics were always deep, and once unraveled revealed sadness and loss. All I could think at the time was, “how depressing.” Yet I could not stop listening. There was something in the music that I connected to – perhaps the lostness, the questions, the wondering and wandering – with no answer to any of it, and resolving to live with that emptiness.
Musically, Joy Division are quite unique. The spine to their music was the bass. Always the bass. I’ve heard someone say that Joy Division is a bass player’s wet dream. The bass pounds through each song, without apology or frills. It carries the melody to its heights and depths of chaos, from subdued anger to exploding shock. The distorted guitar jangles, never taking over the bass, setting the atmosphere, painting the air for Curtis’s baritone vocals, always desperate, always frenzied, always earnest, always eerily calm and accepting of it all.
Though short-lived, you can hear their influence in U2’s Boy, and further down, Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights, among other artists, from Joy Division. They, in a large way, were a prototype for goth and eighties post-punk and that synthy eighties sound – and even when you delve into the darker corners of disc three, you hear traces of dance and techno in their tracks.
“Guess your dreams always end
They don’t rise up just descend
But I don’t care anymore
I’ve lost the will to want more”
Ian Curtis committed suicide in may of 1980, on the eve of the band’s first American tour. It seems senseless – but he suffered from epilepsy and depression, and had problems in his personal life and his health, both of which he sang about, albeit wrapped in layers. It’s hard to imagine what they would have done, had they made that third album – but what they did in three years most artists could not do in twenty.
None of the songs on Unknown Pleasures has hit me so hard as “New Dawn Fades” When Ian breaks out around minute three with “I’ve walked on water, I’ve run through fire, can’t seem to feel it anymore,” it gives me chills every time. It’s like being in space, watching the Earth distance itself as you fly off, never to return into the darkness. It is about losing touch with your humanity, your emotions, screaming and yet not being heard in the vacuum of your thoughts and internal world. I don’t know if that is what Ian was actually singing about – maybe it’s what I’m putting on him from my own life and thoughts. It is amazing to me that, after all these years, after he died eight years before I was even born, I can still know at least a part of who he was through Joy Division’s music.
Heart and Soul (1997)
In a way, Ian’s death might have set a false tone for the band, in that everyone looks back at all his songs and say it’s about suicide. There’s more to Ian and Joy Division than suicide, and there’s more to Joy Division that Ian Curtis. For me, it is the music that will live on. Twenty years from now, I will probably still listen to Joy Division. Twenty years from now, people will still listen to Joy Division and discover Ian and his honesty. Joy Division really are timeless – great music always transcends the time in which it was composed, even if it carries the trappings of that time. Perhaps more than any other band, Ian’s lyrics have given voice to things I have felt and wondered but never dared say aloud. I suspect that Joy Division is not easily understood by most (but I might be wrong about that), until you have understood yourself and the questions you ask – the questions that you know have no satisfying answer, no answer but poetic silence – a silence that can either calm you, or drive you mad. I don’t know why, but I sense that struggle in Joy Division – the struggle for meaning. It is very refreshing, and cleansing, in a way, that there is a band out there that gave words and music to that struggle so poignantly.
Joy Division – we were strangers for way too long.