Joy Division. Young men in cold, cruddy Manchester late ‘70s, byproducts of a time and place that placed them both at the end and at the beginning of . . . what? Rock? They were, according to the Rock & Roll Mythology that makes it true as it never was, meant to be.
Which all started when the band’s lyricist and lead singer, Ian Curtis, hanged himself at home on the eve of Joy Division‘s first American tour, amid a lot of turmoil involving his impending divorce, his recent fatherhood, a nasty barbiturate habit and the prospect that his epilepsy — which had a way of smashing him to the stage midsong — would likely never leave him alone. Curtis’ cancerous blackness of spirit dovetailed neatly into his long-standing opinion that all, or at least most, great artists die young. (No doubt there was a bit more tangled up in his head during his great leap backward, but then, we‘ll never know, will we?) The upshot is that, at the time of his death, his rapidly evolving band was creating genuinely epic magic. The music and the concept had grown grand and deep, and showed signs of going deeper. Joy Division had been on a rich creative roll, even along with (and in many ways because of) Curtis’ various woes, and then his big No stopped the whole enterprise dead in its ascending tracks.
Before Joy Division, Curtis and his mates had been a thrashing punk band called Warsaw, the best Damned impersonators in the entire world, or at least Manchester. In short order, though, they tossed aside the punk blueprint and sailed into the new. In this way they were a true punk band, in Johnny Rotten‘s sense of existing in order not to pay homage to but to dig under the scrapheap of the leather-jacketrebellion-politicsblues-chords straitjacket to which rock music had led us by the mid-to-late ’70s. Post-hippie, sure — and post-punk on top of it.
Today, Joy Division is two things: a Rock & Roll Death Mythology classic, and the entirely detached, scrambled, frightening and perversely liberating microcosm the band invented for themselves during their time upon the stage. Theirs was a topsy-turvy musical game, apparently never sketched out or discussed much at rehearsals or in the studio, in which each player and the singer claimed lead-instrument status. Their defining sound, apart from Curtis‘ loungey monotone, consisted of Peter Hook’s bass guitar, usually employed as a melodic instrument high in the instrument‘s register, introducing each piece with a warped approximation of a theme so obscurely related to blues-based rock that it felt exotic. With this attempt at keeping time came a loose flying of various sonorities around Bernard Sumner (”Barney“), the guitarist, chopping at his ax, hovering, cascading spidery slates of screech; and drummer Stephen Morris thumping out clipped Kraftwerk-derived beats, tossing up tight, primitive tumbles on the toms.
Still, as a beat combo Joy Division relied on Curtis’ voice and purpose to make sense of their noise. He chose, it‘s said, which parts out of their collective improvs to focus and expand upon, thus turning naive fumbling into memorable songs. In this or some other perhaps-never-to-be-revealed way, Joy Division painted bluegrayish fleshtone pictures with incredible devotion to detail, made disciplined and judicious use of their primitive tools. The evolution from the first album (Unknown Pleasures) to the second (Closer) is startling. The music grows more beautiful in its yearning and, befitting the band’s accrued age and experience, ever more despondent. But then, following ”Atrocity Exhibition“ — pure audio art with a rock song plopped on top of it like a frame — Closer reaches a lush state of grace called ”The Eternal,“ a highly focused assemblage of splinters and small chunks. The final song, ”These Days,“ even feels hopeful, by way of the guitar‘s major chords, suggesting, perhaps, a way out of Joy Division’s blue period and into — growing up, however ironically. Even with Curtis‘ explicit words on alienation, loneliness, death and decay, etc., this overreaching band’s attempts at grand statements ripped open a fertile ambiguity. Such a limited but suggestive field of sound remains alluring and, in its capacity for inviting projection, charismatic.
More than anything, though — and this would seem to be confirmed by the band‘s decision to stick with shaky but human Factory Records when offered big money to sign with major labels, and their habit of not including their singles on the albums — Joy Division just wanted to be heard, live, and wanted to live, not just exist, or survive. But then, can you imagine being Ian Curtis and trying to sort through the distressing mess you’re living? From Unknown Pleasures‘ leadoff song, ”Disorder“: ”I’ve got the spiritdon‘t lose the feelingfeeling, feeling, feeling, feeling.“ And later, ”Where will it end?“ (In tears, of course.) And in the same LP’s ”She‘s Lost Control,“ the quintessential Joy Division song, the reference to a woman he’d known who had unsuccessfully sought work, and suffered a mentalphysical downspiral much like his own.
Ultimately, it was Ian Curtis‘ fear-filled private sanctuary that done him in. And heartbreak, I suppose. And numbness, a chronic adjustment to his fate. He’d been a paradoxical man — a Tory, a bohemian, a practical joker, a Myshkin whose better revelations preceded his seizures — and that seething jumble of contradictory emotions always comes to bear, over and over again, even in Joy Division‘s more energized tunes. In ”Atmosphere,“ when Curtis resignedly says, ”Don’t walk away“ and the chorus dawns with a shimmering string synth, he strains so hard to hit the last note — a deadened fervor that pulls us luridly and sympathetically and inexorably toward his voice.