If I had a time machine right now, I would travel back to June 4th1976 and join Tony Wilson, Mark E Smith, Steven Patrick Morrissey, The Buzzcocks, Mick Hucknall, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner at The Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall and watch The Sex Pistols perform their first live gig outside London. When you think about it, wow what a day that was, after all it gave birth to Warsaw, later to become Joy Division.They controversially took the name “Joy Division” from the book “The House of Dolls” which describes “Joy Divisions” as a group of Jewish women who were kept in concentration camps to give sexual pleasure to Nazi soldiers.
You’ve just got to listen to Interpol or The Horrors to hear their influences confirming that Joy Division are still very much a part of the Indie/Punk Psyche, whose heart still beats vigorously . Unlike many dark bands around today, Joy Division were the “real deal”. They had an emotional vulnerability which was so authentic and was amplified by the sheer compelling persona of Ian Curtis. Never has there been a front man like him. He was the reluctant showman, whose dark vocals and twitchy dancing was hypnotic. He climbed into his protective shell and appeared to go through an exorcism through every live show. Although Curtis was the essence of Joy Division, it won’t have worked without the brooding baseline of Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner’s (or Albrecht as he was known back then) intoxicating, angular guitar shrieks and Stephen Morris’s robotic drumming.What’s astonishing about Joy Division is their music still sounds brilliant today, which doesn’t have to rely on the digital age for it to sound relevant. Although Joy Division is widely known as purveyors of gloom and raw emotion, they had this rare eerie quality, which wasn’t normally associated with post-punk music. Somehow, Curtis’s vulnerability and old soul lyrics managed to synchronise with the distorted Industrial and cinematic soundscape.
The band’s debut ‘Unknown Pleasures’, originally released in 1979, is one of those albums which all music lovers should own. It’s an understated classic, which pioneered the atmospheric, haunting, visceral sound of Joy Division. It’s also an album which is a culturally important, which has stood the test of time and is still recruiting members for its existentialist, emotionally driven club. It’s an album which allows access to the dark shadows of a tortured soul, whilst offering an intangible empathy towards vulnerable, disillusioned and alienated youth. While the Sex Pistols shocked and energised us in 77, with the bold “Never Mind the Bollocks”, “Unknown pleasures” transcended a post-punk darkness, unheard of by any punk peers. It’s also an album which showcased the distinctive, single-minded bass playing of Hooky, the sonic, mechanical drumming of Morris and Sumner’s spatial and intricate guitar playing, not forgetting the baritone vocals of Ian Curtis.
While songs such as “Day of the Lords”, denote a translucent haunting beauty, songs such as “Shadowplay” brings solid guitar dexterity centre stage. With an array of guitar interludes, Sumner, lets loose a long-winded arrangement, which sounds more Brit-pop than punk British, so prevalent in “Wilderness” and “Interzone”. Although “New Dawn Fades ”, “Insight” and “She’s Lost Control” are considered the Holy Trinity on “Unknown Pleasures”, I think that “Disorder” as an opening track sets the tone for the album. Although “New Dawn Fades ” exudes nihilism with the classic lines: “so plain to see, a loaded gun won’t set you free, so you say’, I think “Disorder” is ethereal punk personified, whose title and gripping lyrics speak for themselves, through the atmospheric soundscape. Kick-starting by up-tempo drums and oblique bass, “Disorder” is a song which is carried by the sinewy guitars. Such guitars independently penetrate through the metallic veneer, dancing repetitively, before crunching into the recesses of the song. However, it’s the spurts of the industrial psychedelia, which sucks you into a sublime territory, providing the backdrop for the lyrics:”I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling, I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling….”. It’s at this point that Hooky’s solid bass drones before liquidising against the crashing percussions, which then get carried away by the Industrial vehicle or an unknown dark entity. “She’s Lost Control” in contrast, is one of those rare songs where Curtis had written about another person, singing about the sufferings of a girl who had died from epilepsy. Such a song is musically balanced, allowing all components to work their magic independently, whilst cohesively uniting with a fast, robust and abrasive sound. It’s an edgy and methodical arrangement, where the minimalist bass holds its own against the Metronomic percussions and gritty guitars. It’s also a song where Curtis’s vocals drone robotically against the spacey and mechanical backdrop. Lyrically raw, “She’s Lost Control”, gives us a glimpse into the stark reality of a person suffering with epilepsy: “And she screamed out kicking on her side and said, I’ve lost control again. And seized up on the floor, I thought she’d die. She said I’ve lost control.” Although such lyrics are emotionally loaded, they are encircled by the weight of the musical soundscape, which simultaneously ejects clinical chaos through mechanical order.
Whilst “Unknown Pleasures” masters the art of producing songs which intertwine and mutate into aloof oblivion, it’s also an album which experiments with the sounds digital electronic, most notably in “Insight”. Emerging with what sounds like steel prison doors opening, “Insight” moves as if it’s transporting a heavy load, through sonic bubbles, travelling towards a surreal horizon. It’s a song which speeds up in tempo and becomes more prominent when the space invaders-esque synths apppear, which could metaphorically represent Curtis battling out his demons. It’s with this quirky arrangement of “Insights” that it’s easy to become distracted from the now obvious suicidal lyrics: I’m not afraid anymore, I keep my eyes on the door…..”, in particular since they are delivered with such calm composure, adding to Curtis’s mystique. With a thinly veiled layer of Eastern sounding guitars, which later merge with ultra meditative synths, “Insight” is a song which unravels and perplexes. However, what is clear is how “Insight” reminds us of Joy Division’s skill at conveying emotions through electronica inserts, projecting sonic silhouettes on the wall.
Then there was the posthumous ‘Closer’, released in 1980, shortly after Curtis’s death, which epitomised the darker side of electro-pop. Delving deeper into the soul of a troubled man, “Closer” gave punk a metallic make-over, which is tempered by a sorrow which grinds and interlocks with profound emotion. If there was ever a post mortem album, which at “Closer” inspection, enigmatically revealed the sources of the protagonist’s torture, then “Closer” would be it. With its atmospheric backdrop, paradoxical use of instruments and gloomy lyrics, “Closer” is an album which artfully delivers a poignant cry for help or is merely a step closer to the edge. It’s also an album which is technically disjointed where Joy Division almost abandon their post-punk roots, embracing a more dark wave synth pop. What I find interesting about “Closer” is the way Curtis’s voice evolves from the opening “Atrocity Exhibition” to the closing “Decades”. It’s as if the album is a chronological account of emotions, leading up to the death of Curtis. Whereas “Atrocity Exhibition” conveys a more nonchalant Curtis, “Decades” is drowsing into a lethargic oblivion. On the whole “Closer” is a powerful and sepulchral classic album, which is like peering into the depths of Curtis’s soul, through a cracked lens.
As an opening track “Atrocity Exhibition” illustrates Joy Division’s genius at presenting music as an animated take of emotions. Sharing the same title of a book written by J.G Ballard, “Atrocity Exhibition” is a curious song, with dark, twisted lyrics, which intrigue and perplex. Meticulously produced, Joy Divison appear to emulate the sound of wild animals which metaphorically exhibit the atrocity of emotions being explored in the song. Although “Atrocity Exhibition” is simultaneously calm and chaotic, it also predominantly evokes the darker side of human nature. Whilst the happy-go-lucky tribal drums of Morris plod away on a beaten track, it’s those chaotic guitars which clatter and scratch amongst the unruly landscape. With the lyrics: “This is the way, step inside…”, Curtis nonchalantly invites us into a jungle of mass destruction, where the Great Tailed Grackle-esque guitars clatter like machine guns amongst the inner tangled vines. Significantly the skillful guitars screech and distort emulating what sounds like wild cats wrestling in the jungle in contrast with those Grackle-esque guitars and passing rattle-snake percussion. Perhaps “Atrocity Exhibition” is providing us with a graphic glimpse into the inner turmoil of Curtis’s mind, which ends as if a musical massacre has taken place.
Whilst “Atrocity Exhibition”, “Isolation”, “Passover”, “Colony”, “Means to an End”, “Heart and Soul” and “Twenty Four Hours”, illustrate so diversely the sheer torture of Curtis’s inner demons, it’s the last two tracks “The Eternal” and “Decade”, which take a more menacing and haunting twist. What’s remarkable about “The Eternal” and “Decades” is the significant synchrony between the lyrics and the subtle cinematic soundscape. In particular it’s the opening lyrics from “The Eternal”: “Procession moves on, the shouting is over, Praise to the glory of loved ones now gone”, which encapsulates the essence of the song. It’s also in “The Eternal”, that the Hitchcock-esque bird intro, could be deemed significant as birds often symbolise the journey of the human soul after death. It’s a powerful insert, which flutters and fades throughout the song in juxtaposition against Hooky’s gloomy bass, marching at its solemn pace. Captivatingly it’s the shivering synths which provide the consistent eerie backdrop against the torpid piano which all collectively stroll like a funeral procession in slow motion. Notably it’s during the out-tro where the Hitchcock birds emulate the sound of a steam train, slowing down against the chilling synths.
Whereas “The Eternal” sounds like a monochrome funeral anthem, “Decades”, sounds like a vintage home video, found in the attic, being played back on a foggy, gloomy day. It’s a song which is tinged with feelings of regret, disappointment or feeling stuck. It’s a song, where Morris’s opening drums, sound like ice being chipped with a Neolithic axe, creating a sense of hollow, clinical indifference. It’s also a song where Joy Division don’t rely on distorted guitars to illustrate the chaos of Curtis. Instead “Decades” is a song which is very much a song consumed by droning synths, which branch into New romantic synth pop, which was prevalent at the time. However, Sumners loud Mellotron keyboard which pecks and clatters, provoking a sense of nagging torment. Or perhaps that Mellotron keyboard represents the frustration of those “…young men, the weight on their shoulders” or the sound of having “knocked on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber”. Nevertheless, it’s the synths featured in “Decades”, which crystallise the chilling emotions of Curtis. Paradoxically, “Decades”, illustrates the disintegrating spirit of Curtis, bridging the gap between haunting beauty and despair. Through the powerful lyrics, eerie back-tracking and descending synths, “Decades” shimmers and self-destructs. But perhaps more poignant are the deep and lethargic vocals of Curtis, which precariously glide down the glacial soundscape, before landing into an obscure no-man’s land.
A song which forever pulls you in is the hypnotic “Digital”, a song not featured on “Unknown Pleasures” or “Closer” but first featured on the “Les Bains Douches” live album, first released on 18 December 1979, then later 2001. However poignantly “Digital” was the last song that Joy Division ever performed at their last concert at Birmingham University, which then released on the compilation album “Still” on 8th October 1981. “Digital” is a song which tilts like the earth’s axis, making you feel like you are on the edge, falling into an abyss. It’s also a song where Curtis’s baritone, and at times out-of-sync vocals, are intensified by the dark and claustrophobic lyrics. Despite its two waves of multi-layered guitar interludes the dominant musical feature is the choppy, staccato wave of guitars buzz-sawing restlessly back and forth. Notably, it’s the metallic, wonky bass which kick-starts “Digital”, accompanied by the rigid drums that make way for the flood of reverberating guitars. With the opening lyrics:“Feel it closing in. Feel it closing in. The fear of whom I call. Every time I call” Curtis encapsulates the essence of being trapped under a black cloud, which intensifies with the lyrics: “Day in, day out. Day in, day out”, vaguely emulating the melody. It’s also at this point that the bass becomes more prominent and the guitars thicken, sounding like a slightly intoxicated emotional release. Perhaps it’s these guitars which represent the significant person who Curtis is in a state of anxiety about, encapsulated in the lyrics: “I see you fade away. Don’t ever fade away. I need you here today.” Such poignant lyrics and emotive vocals are also enhanced by the undercurrent wave of guitars. Stylistically, I think this level of synchronicity was one of Joy Division’s strengths and these particular lyrics powerfully illustrate the heightened sensitivity of Curtis, trapped in a “perception versus paranoia” state of mind. Interestingly the closing lyrics “Don’t ever fade away. Don’t ever fade away…” are at odds with the bellowing vocals and abrupt musical out-tro amplifying the complex spirit of Curtis.
I think that “Autosuggestion” is an underrated Joy Division song, which requires a few listens to appreciate its value. Featured on the 1979 “Earcom 2: Contradiction” EP, “Autosuggestion” is one of those songs whose pensive lyrics translate like a mantra and are delivered in juxtaposition against the erratic Industrial soundscape. Drawing on the psychological technique of “Autosuggestion”, I can only guess that this song is about Curtis’s attempt to break free from his restrictions and trying to take control over his anxieties. Significantly the intro of “Autosuggestion” sounds like a match is being lit, which could suggest a fuse or that motivation has been ignited in an attempt to self-hypnotise. Although “Autosuggestion” has never been considered one of the great Joy Division songs, I think that it’s a song whose lack of structure subtly reflects the chaos and inner turmoil of Curtis. It’s also a song, whose musical innovation was ahead of its time, experimenting with cinematic waves, long before the digital age. Interestingly in this song Curtis’s vocals sound more confident as if he is applying the “Autosuggestion” technique. With the opening lyrics: “Here, here. Everything is by design. Everything is by design”, Curtis sounds like a crooning, meditative Native Indian, likened to Jim Morrison. It’s also after the lyric: “Here, here everything is kept inside, so take a chance and step outside, your hopes, your dreams and Paradise…” that Curtis’s vocals become more intimate as if he has moved away from the back of the room and now is standing up close in front of you. What characterises “Autosuggestion” is how the lyrics are almost repetitive, which mimic a central thought or affirmations linked to the process of Autosuggestion. With guitars which tick against the steady base and drums which tap against the emerging back-tracking guitars, “Autosuggestion” is a song whose musical backdrop is a production of steel resistance, interrupted by waves of cinematic screeching, building to crescendo. It’s a song whose fractured guitars hold back and penetrate with sharp precision but dilly dally in the shadows of the song. It’s after the lyrics: “Everything is kept inside. So take a chance and step outside. Your hopes, your dreams, your paradise. Heroes, idols cracked like ice” the guitars become unhinged or empowered and speed up in tempo as if they are cutting through the reserve veneer. However it’s during the final lyrics of “So lose some sleep and say you tried…” that the guitars scrape against the intense vocals before disappearing against the staggered and abandoning drums.
Despite the significance and success of “Unknown Pleasures” and “Closer”, Joy Divison will be best remembered for the standalone single “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. The song was first released in April 1980 and, after Curtis’s suicide that May, became Joy Divison’s first chart hit, reaching number 13 in the UK. “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, is perhaps Joy Division’s most simple song musically, yet the most powerful lyrically. Apart from being their greatest hit, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is a timeless classic, whose lyrics have universal appeal, talking about love in a realistic and accessible way. With brutally honest lyrics such as: “Why is the bedroom so cold, you’ve turned away on your side”, capturing the heart-wrenching and cruel reality of broken love. Like most Joy Division songs, Love Will Tear Us Apart appears to be autobiographical and with the lyrics: “You cry out in your sleep. All my failings exposed”, thinly veils the torture and anguish caused by the much documented extra-marital affair of Curtis. It’s also a song where the bass guitar, clanging guitars, hammering drums and synths all work simultaneously together, emulating the melody of the song. Despite Curtis’s lethargic yet captivating vocals and Hooky’s distinctive bassline, what I find intriguing about “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is Sumner’s high-pitched and wide-birth synths. It’s as if “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is musically divided, which could be the metaphor for the song? Where the song is mostly steeped in misery, Sumner’s synths sound euphoric, which could represent a sense of hope or could just be the sound of love ascending away. However it’s when you hear the out-tro, with the closing lyrics: “Love Love will tear us apart again…” against the now flat-lining synths, you realise that any sense of hope is evidently dead, which couldn’t be any more poetic…
Unknown Pleasures • Closer
Still • Substance • The Peel Sessions • Warsaw • Permanent • Heart and Soul • Joy Division The Complete BBC Recordings • Martin Hannett’s Personal Mixes • Let the Movie Begin • The Best of Joy Division •+- Singles 1978-80 • Total: From Joy Division to New Order
An Ideal for Living • Licht und Blindheit • The Peel Sessions (1986) • The Peel Sessions (1987)
Preston 28 February 1980 • Les Bains Douches 18 December 1979
“Transmission” • “Komakino” • “Love Will Tear Us Apart” • “Atmosphere” / “She’s Lost Control”