Saturday, 13 July 2013



The sun’s shining, I have money coming in and on the whole I couldn’t be happier. Time to put on some Joy Division.

(Image: Factory Records)
Even on a sunny July morning, when I’ve got paying work, a mortgage and everything, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures still sounds like the end of the world. Imagine listening to it in 1979 when you were hoping to make it to your 16th birthday. I say hoping, because that year the Russians had invaded Afghanistan and Poland. In the Soviet satellite, Lech Walesa had made the moustache heroic again via his and his union Solidarity’s resistance to intimidation from the Kremlin. There was sabre rattling in Washington and the Cold War was warming up. Against that international background, Ian Curtis sounded like a man in a one-way conversation with a planet going to hell, rather than the self-involved depressive of popular myth.

There really had been no one like them before. The closest equivalent musically was Bowie’s Brian Eno trilogy of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger, but Curtis, bassist Peter Hook, guitar/keyboard player Bernard Albrecht (later Sumner) and drummer Stephen Morris seemed to spring, complete and iconoclastic, out of nowhere. ‘Atmosphere’, a beautiful sculpture of glacial audio, does sound like the Funeral March rewritten and orchestrated by Eno, but it didn’t then and it doesn’t now seem possible for men so young to have made music of such grandeur, clarity and sophistication. When I was in my late teens, all I was worried about was getting off with Jane Mitson.

Joy Division grew out of punk but they were anti-punk. There were no rabble-rousing anthems and they looked Civil Service dull – shirts, ties and sensible trousers. But track down the clips of them live on BBC2’s yoof programme Something Else and you’ll see a truly remarkable live act with an electrifying front man. Morris’s beats sound like computerised drums (which would become popular in the 1980s) but they aren’t. Typically for such a wayward genius, producer Martin Hannett’s production style makes the drumming sound like an instrument that was about to be invented. Built around the drums and bass, Joy Division’s sound is mechanically hypnotic.

By all accounts, Michael Winterbottom’s riotous film 24 Hour Party People is the closest we’re likely to get to the real Ian Curtis. Here we see a young guy who was aggressively arrogant – famously calling Tony Wilson ‘a cunt’ to his face – loved his music (perhaps too much) and, unlike the rest of the band, seemed overwhelmed and strangely disappointed by the prospect of imminent success. The impression the film gives is that he thought it was all too easy and that there had to be a catch somewhere. Sean Harris, who played him, might not resemble Curtis as much as Sam Riley in Anton Corbjin’s Control, but he had the edge in conveying the fragility and complexity of a great artist. Incidentally, one of the best things in 24 Party People is a clip from Corbjin’s video for ‘Atmosphere’ where hooded figures slowly carry a huge portrait of Ian across a desolate beach. It has me in tears every time.

One thing you’re never going to do with Joy Division is stumble in at 2.30am in the morning after a few ales, as I did a couple of days ago, and decide it’s time to crank up ‘Atmosphere’ REALLY LOUD. There are other bands for that: The Cult, Thin Lizzy – ‘Waiting for an Alibi’ and ‘Rosalie’, naturally – Suede, the Jesus and Mary Chain, The Who, Manic Street Preachers… Their stuff is head-in-the-speaker bin fantastic, ideal for lying down on the floor and doing air guitar solos. But Joy Division… their music has its own rules. Putting ‘Atmosphere’ on during a sunny July day, when you’re feeling very optimistic, is sometimes the best, and most humbling, way to enjoy them. Everyone needs an angsty catharsis from time to time, even an angst-free middle-aged man, and Joy Division will always be the ideal medium for that.

Let’s share a drink and step outside.

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