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Joy Division

This month’s Blind Spots revisits Joy Division, the seminal post-punk band from Manchester England. The band formed in 1976 and dissolved in 1980 after the suicide of their frontman, Ian Curtis. The surviving members had their own successes with the formation of New Order. Through the release of two studio albums, a handful of singles, and a posthumous compilation, the band went on to influence contemporaries such as Talking Heads and The Cure as well as more recent artists Interpol and Bloc Party.

It took fewer than 24 hours after the Sex Pistols show on July 20th, 1976 at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall for friends Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook to form Warsaw, named after the David Bowie song “Warszawa.” The consensus among the group was that if the Sex Pistols could be rock stars then anybody could. Deborah Curtis, widow of lead singer Ian Curtis, would later recount in her 1995 biography Touching From A Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division: “After the performance everyone seemed to move quickly to the door. It seemed as if we had been issued with instructions and now we were set to embark on a mission.”

Hook took his instructions and borrowed money from his mother to purchase a bass guitar, while Sumner would pick up learning the guitar. The duo invited Terry Mason, another show attendee, to take on drums. They also put an ad up at the local Virgin Records store to which Curtis responded. Already having seen their share of incompatible singers and knowing Curtis from around town, Hook and Sumner hired Curtis on the spot. Terry Mason would determine his value as the band’s manager and a series of drummers were used (both live and on record) before landing on Stephen Morris to complete the lineup.

After hearing Joy Division’s output, and later New Order (the band formed after the 1980 suicide of Ian Curtis) it’s hard to imagine the Sex Pistols being the impetus to the group’s formation. Warsaw on the other hand, wore their Sex Pistols influence on their sleeves, leaving no doubt to their influence.

In order to avoid confusion with London punk band Warsaw Pakt, the band changed their name to Joy Division, taken from the unsettling system of the same name used in Nazi concentration camps to keep Jewish women as sex slaves. The new name, in addition to the cover of the band’s first EP under the Joy Division moniker (An Ideal For Living) featuring a drawing by Sumner of a Hitler Youth banging a marching drum, led many to believe the band had Nazi sympathies. It didn’t help the band’s cause either that the A-Side contained “Warsaw,” a biography of Rudolf Hess, one of Hitler’s confidantes. Although the band later admitted to being fascinated by Fascism, they denied any and all sympathies.

The band’s break would come when the band appeared on local news show “Granada Reports” hosted by Tony Wilson. In the past, “Granada Reports” featured appearances by the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, the Clash, and the Buzzcocks all before they had experienced mainstream success. Although Wilson was aware of the band, having seen them play as Warsaw and even holding up a copy of An Ideal For Living to the camera during a broadcast, he had not yet invited the band to play. The story goes that Ian Curtis, ever the loudmouth, aggressively confronted Wilson about this and after first giving Curtis a mouthful back, Wilson promised they would be the next band featured on the show. The band performed “Shadowplay” and was asked to contribute two tracks, “Digital” and “Glass” to the debut vinyl release (a double 7-inch) by Wilson’s Factory Records.  This release marked the band’s first appearance as a Factory Records artist and they were shortly signed to the label for their debut. (Perhaps you’ve seen the silver screen rendition of this in the 2002 flick “24 Hour Party People.”)

It was after the band’s signing and more precisely, on December 27th, 1978, that Curtis suffered his first epileptic seizure. Epilepsy would plague Curtis until his death on May 18th, 1980 by hanging, a day before the band was to embark on their first US tour.

Unknown Pleasures (June 14th, 1979)

Album cover image: Pulses from the first pulsar (highly magnetized, rotating neutron star) discovered

Ian Curtis wrote his songs in a blue room — the walls were blue, there was a blue couch, blue carpet and blue curtains. The only things to offset this were the bright red spotlights and a red telephone. Curtis would spend most of nights holed up in this room only distracted by cups of coffee his wife Deborah passed him through clouds of cigarette smoke (Marlboro smoke in particular), according to her biography. Ian’s color choice and comfort in a dark room most likely came from his allergy to the sun as well as his interest of those in the art world who had died an early death — James Dean, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin in particular. Similarly, he stated that he had no intention of living past his early twenties, according to Deborah’s bio. It’s these thoughts and this mindset of a depressive that would surround the lyrics of Joy Division and inspired the songs that would make up Unknown Pleasures.

***Check out the moves at 1:40 and 3:00!!***

Here’re some select excerpts of Curtis’ lyrics from Unknown Pleasures:

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? …
I’ve got the spirit,
but lose the feeling

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,
I’m not afraid not at all

“New Dawn Fades”
Directionless so plain to see,
A loaded gun won’t set you free.
So you say. …
I’ve walked on water, run through fire,
Can’t seem to feel it anymore.
It was me, waiting for me,
Hoping for something more

In addition to Curtis’ disabilities, producer Martin Hannett was a big part of Joy Division’s transition from students of the Sex Pistols’ DIY punk sound. Hannett was notorious for his unorthodox recording techniques which included setting the thermostat in the studio to a temperature in which the band could see their breath (helping to create the cold, claustrophobic atmosphere) and setting up Morris’ drums outside on a fire escape to achieve a certain sound.

The prominence of bass in the group’s sound came due to Sumner’s proclivity to take what Curtis thought of as excessive vacations, which he found to be wasteful. During one of these holidays, Curtis convinced the band that Sumner wasn’t a good enough guitarist and even began auditioning replacements. Although Sumner stayed in the band, Peter Hook’s bass was brought to the forefront should the band ever need to go without a guitar player, according to Touching From A Distance.

Prior to the release of their second album Closer, the band released the Transmission 7-inch in November 1979, and the Love Will Tear Us Apart 7-inch in April 1980. These two tracks proved to be the band’s biggest hits, and after Curtis’ death in May 1980, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was the first of their tracks to chart (hitting No. 13 in the UK). Besides being their biggest hit, the track also was a good indication of the poor state of Curtis’ marriage.

Focus Tracks: “Disorder,” “New Dawn Fades,” “She’s Lost Control,” “Shadowplay” & “Interzone”

Rating: 5


Closer (July 18th, 1980)

Album cover image: Appiani family tomb in the Cimitero Monumentale di Straglieno in Genoa, Italy

Closer was released two months after Curtis’ suicide, making the title’s double entendre even more appropriate and eerie. It’s easy for us to see the signs of his demise through his lyrics in hindsight, but at the time Peter Hook thought of them only has part of Joy Division with no indication of what Ian was going through personally. He hadn’t thought of them much until after Ian’s death when, according to Deborah’s bio, he recognized Ian as “a real beautiful wordsmith.”

This is the crisis I knew had to come,
Destroying the balance I’d kept,
Turning around to the next set of lives,
Wondering what will come next.

“Twenty-four Hours”
A cloud hangs over me, marks every move … Just for one moment,
thought I’d found my way.
Destiny unfolded,
I watched it slip away. …
I never realized the lengths I’d have to go,
All the darkest corners of a sense I didn’t know. …
Now that I’ve realized how it’s all gone wrong,
Gotta find some therapy, this treatment takes too long.

We knocked on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber,
Pushed to the limit,
we dragged ourselves in,
Watched from the wings as the scenes were replaying

The album’s darker mood and even more depressing subject matter solidified the group as a leader in the gothic movement.

Focus Tracks: “Atrocity Exhibition,” “Isolation,” “A Means to an End,” “Twenty-four Hours” & “Decades”

Rating: 4.5


Still (October 8th, 1981)

Album cover image: Logo from Joy Division's publishing arm, Fractured Music

Still contained a few unused studio tracks (many of which are from the Unknown Pleasures sessions), but most importantly featured the band’s last concert on May 2th, 1980. Joy Division shows were often more aggressive and messy than in studio sessions. Although Martin Hannett was an architect of their sound, live however, he was unable to control their performance which gave the songs a different intensity. For Joy Division super-fans, the inclusion of this show has been a point of contention, as the sound quality is decent at best. For almost all of the performance, the recording is unbalanced causing Curtis’ vocals to be too high in the mix at some points and completely inaudible in other parts.

One of the most interesting additions in the set was the only time “Ceremony” was played by Joy Division. “Ceremony” would later become New Order’s first single and was the only indication of the direction the band was going in. The disappointment with the inclusion of this track however is that for the first 1:33 of the song Curtis can barely be heard, damaging one of only three recorded versions of the song.

Fans were also frustrated by the omission of “Twenty-four Hours” from CD reissues of the album, originally included on the vinyl release. It’s a shame about these problems, as Still could have been a great document of what the band was and could have been.

Focus Tracks: “Ice Age,” “Glass,” “Dead Souls” & “Ceremony”
Rating: 4

Rating system

1: Don’t bother unless you’ve listened to everything else and you crave more. 

2: If you’re a completist, you’ll probably want to buy this, otherwise just legally download the standouts.

3: Most definitely download (legally!) the hits. The album as a whole is worth a listen but maybe not your money.  

4: A pretty solid album that contains a few skippable tracks. These albums would be a nice addition to any library.

5: Well worth your time and money — a must buy! A good place to start and a great introduction to the band. You owe it to yourself to have these in your collection.

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