Nothing attracts morbid curiosity, and money, like the untimely death of a young tortured artist. And in pop music, there’s no bigger publicity than the great rock & roll suicide. Nirvana made Kurt Cobain the voice of his generation. A shotgun to his head made him a martyr, and his wife a celebrity train wreck we’ve been staring at for 15 years. Pearl Jam did as much as Nirvana in the ’90s to get mainstream radio to embrace alternative rock. But had Eddie Vedder gone the way of Cobain, Gus Van Sant might’ve made a critically panned film about him too. So much for resting in peace.
The memory of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, who hanged himself in 1980, hasn’t been marred by nearly as much posthumous feuding and show-biz greed. Joy Division was at best a highly influential cult band that released only two studio albums and, after Curtis’ suicide on the cusp of the band’s U.S. tour, never made a big impression on America. Yet here we are, 27 years later, witnessing the release of a major movie about the Manchester band — five years after the release of another movie about a bunch of Manchester bands — and listening to a crop of current bands who sound as though they could come from Manchester as much as they could from, say, the Valley. Throw in more films, countless books and a little help from Urban Outfitters, and Curtis’ afterlife seems like it’s been one big after-party.
You can trace the resurgence of Joy Division’s influence and popularity back to 2002’s 24 Hour Party People. This was director Michael Winterbottom’s lesson on the story of Tony Wilson, Factory Records, Joy Division and New Order, and a musical ode that put Manchester back on the map — not just as the birthplace of the fratricidal Gallagher brothers but as the city that gave us the Buzzcocks, the Fall, the Smiths, Stone Roses, James and the beginnings of rave. If 24 Hour Party People was clichéd rock & roll debauchery, Anton Corbijn’s long-awaited and just-released Control is a quiet homage to Curtis, and a love story based on widow Deborah Curtis’ memoir, Touching From a Distance. Before becoming the favorite lensman of U2 and Depeche Mode, Corbijn was a young Dutch transplant when he started photographing Joy Division. Clearly, the man knew. And Corbijn goes a step further by doggedly re-creating in black-and-white a city whose industrial gloominess we’ve only heard about in songs. It’s simply the most beautiful-looking film you’ll see all year.
Completing the triple feature is the forthcoming documentary Joy Division, screened last month at the Toronto Film Festival. Director Grant Gee limits the talking heads to surviving band members and those closest to them (the late Wilson, the Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley, Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge and even Curtis’ mistress, Annik Honoré), in addition to unearthing some fantastic archival footage, from rehearsal gigs to radio sessions of late BBC DJ John Peel playing “Dead Souls.” Where will it end? Curtis sings from above. Well, word on the blogosphere is that another Curtis biopic is in the works, this one based on the 2006 book Torn Apart by Mick Middles and Wilson’s ex-wife, Lindsay Reade.
As someone in the documentary points out, “The two works are Unknown Pleasures and Closer, and that’s it. Everything else is merchandising.” Which leads us to the strange and booming industry of punk rock as pop-culture ephemera; Sex Pistols lunch boxes? Ramones shower curtains? Misfits incense packs? Little did Peter Saville know his cover art for Joy Division’s first album, Unknown Pleasures — a square of pulsar waves against a black sleeve — would become part of a new generation’s fashion nearly 30 years later, as ubiquitous as Arturo Vega’s presidential seal for the Ramones that appears on everything from T-shirts to snowboards to sneakers. (Earlier this year, Canadian artist Dylan Adair used Saville’s album cover to design a pair for New Balance, though none were ever sold.) Walk into an Urban Outfitters, Hot Topic or Virgin Megastore and there are Unknown Pleasures T-shirts galore, some available in the most disturbing color combinations, including neon. There’s even one of the comic character Emily the Strange that’s conspicuously Saville-inspired.
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Hipsters need music — their music — to accompany the clothes, right? Enter, in order, Joy Division’s illegitimate children Interpol, Editors, the National, She Wants Revenge and any other copycat group that’s permeated modern radio the last couple of years. During a recent broadcast of Jonesy’s Jukebox Jury on Indie 103.1, Steve Jones asked some of the cast and crew of Control, “What do you think of all these bands copying Joy Division?” After a round of polite grunts, Jones’ own answer was to simply have them cover a bunch of songs and put the money back in Bernard Sumner’s, Peter Hook’s and Stephen Morris’ pockets.
Well, they’re not all bad. Interpol’s 2002 debut, Turn On the Bright Lights, couldn’t escape the comparisons (blessed, or cursed, with the same set of pipes, Paul Banks is the love child of Curtis and Honoré), though the N.Y. quartet have moved on as poster children of neo-post-punk two albums later. The Editors have been tagged Interpol II, but singles like “Munich” and “An End Has a Start” are some damn catchy ditties. The National are just Joy Division with piano. And San Fernando Valley’s own She Wants Revenge are so shameless in their mimicry, they’d do less harm performing in Legends in Concert at the Imperial Palace in Vegas than in front of impressionable kids whose hair over their eyes shields them from the truth.
Not wanting you to be fooled by cheap imitations, Rhino Records is releasing double-disc reissues of all three Joy Division albums (Unknown Pleasures, Closer and the excellent live recordings and rarities of Still), as well as a vinyl box set and the soundtrack to Control, which includes a cover of “Shadowplay” by the Killers (brace yourselves). And for the busy fan on the go, ringtones of “Transmission” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Yes, the man who wrote one of the greatest songs of all time is finally cell-ing out.
Rhino Records' reissues of Unknown Pleasures, Closerand Still will be in stores Oct. 30. See page 86 for a review of Control.