Joy Division

TrackAlbum / EP / Single
TransmissionFactory FAC 13 A-side
Dead SoulsSordide Sentimental SS 33002 B-side
DecadesCloser
New Dawn FadesUnknown Pleasures
DisorderUnknown Pleasures
DigitalA Factory Sample EP
IsolationStill
AtmosphereSordide Sentimental SS 33002 A-side
She's Lost ControlUnknown Pleasures
NoveltyFactory FAC 13 B-side

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Contributor: Neil Waite

The tragic story of Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s singer, has been well told, from Deborah Curtis’ book Touching From A Distance to Anton Corbijn’s film Control and most recently Peter Hook’s and Bernard Sumner’s biographies Unknown Pleasures and Chapter And Verse. I won’t retread this ground, as this is about the Joy Division I experienced as a teenager and listen to today.

I should first mention that I haven’t selected Love Will Tear Us Apart. There, that’s off my chest. I know I’ll be knocked over by a wave of What, no…?’s. For is it a great song? Yes. But Joy Division recorded at least 10 greater songs.

It’s strange to think there was a whole year between their first release, the EP An Ideal For Living, and the album Unknown Pleasures. Twelve months in punk time is like thirty six months in other genres (though some call Joy Division ‘post punk’). I first saw them on the Something Else programme in late 1979. They performed Transmission and She’s Lost Control and it should have been the first of many TV tours de force, but alas this remains one of the few decent documents of them playing live. I’m not sure if I liked them at that point, but my eyes were glued on Curtis as he contorted himself and flung his arms around in his manic way. It wasn’t until I heard Transmission a few weeks later on John Peel (and taped it) that I realised how different and truly amazing this band was. This song remains my favourite, with its opening bass riff of basically two notes followed by Stephen Morris’s fast drumbeat. After two minutes the enigmatic chorus kicks in, “Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio”. The feel is typically dark and gothic and yet also upbeat. Curtis gives the vocal all he has and I still find the song thrilling, especially if I haven’t heard it in a while. I’ve agonised about including the B side Novelty, at the expense of Warsaw from An Ideal For Living. With Warsaw I need to separate the song from the historic aura of that early EP, and if I do that, Novelty has the edge – especially with its guitar intro, lethargic at first, then pulsing into life.

At that time pocket money was scarce but babysitting duties and dinner money gave me cash for records. Naively I tried to order An Ideal For Living from the local record shop. This release has become a grail for Joy Division collectors. Oddly the sound quality on this 7″ rarity is appalling, as too much is crammed onto each side (unlike on the later 12″). But I did manage to get A Factory Sample (1978) through a magazine. It’s now displayed in a frame. I believe in playing vinyl rather than displaying it but this is an exception. Digital from this release has a simple punchy sound with heavily distorted bass and powerful singing by Curtis. The catalogue number for this is FAC-2 as it was the second product of Tony Wilson’s ‘Factory’. Indeed everything that came out of Factory had a number: FAC-1 was a promotional poster (the prefix FAC was for singles and other products and FACT was for albums). Ironically even Tony Wilson’s coffin was catalogued, as FAC-501.

A Factory Sample

A Factory Sample (FAC-2) containing the brilliant Digital

 

In October ’79 John Peel played another Joy Division record that blew me away (and also went on to become a collectors’ item). The original release of Atmosphere was a single entitled Licht Und Blindheit (Light And Blindness), with Dead Souls as the B-side, on the French label Sordide Sentimental in a limited edition of 1,578 copies with a booklet. It’s frustrating now to hear Peel say that the release would cost £2.50 for those who wished to write off … If only I had. Atmosphere and Dead Souls were both dark and haunting songs, though I preferred the latter with its long hypnotic guitar sequence before the vocal kicks in. It’s even more haunting with hindsight hearing Curtis sing “They keep calling me, Keep on calling me”.

We take sites like YouTube and Spotify for granted but back then if a record like this wasn’t played by John Peel you had no way of sampling it. So spending my hard-earned pennies on an album which I hadn’t heard was a risk. But it was a risk I was ready to take, so I ordered the album Unknown Pleasures from a mail-order company called ‘Small Wonder Records’ (also an independent label). And in those days when it said the delivery time was 28 days, that’s what it was. When the package finally arrived I was a bit gutted because the corners of the sleeve had been damaged. However, I was eager to play the record but was first struck by the design by Peter Saville – a transcription of a signal from a star going nova (as I learned later) on a black embossed background. Soon the needle settled on Disorder, which couldn’t have been a better way to kick off a classic album. Morris’s agitated ‎drums start up with Hook’s distorted bass, then Sumner’s simple guitar riff enters the equation. And I love Curtis’s voice, which is closer and better defined on Unknown Pleasures. All the tracks on this album are brilliant. New Dawn Fades starts off mysteriously with the backward lyric from the song Insight. It builds up until Curtis sings, “Me, seeing me this time, hoping for something else”, not wholly in tune but with great intensity, expressing an anguished insecurity. The mix of distorted and clear guitar sound is incredible. Other bands have covered this and all have made a hash of it.

The final Unknown Pleasures track I’m including is She’s Lost Control. This has catchy rhythm backing (not something you can say of many Joy Division songs) and once again Sumner’s clear guitar sound makes the track, scaling the fretboard time and again with austere bar-chords. A version also appears on the B-side of the 12″ version of Atmosphere but the less distinctive guitar sound makes this less good. What also struck me about Unknown Pleasures was the change from their more thrashy singles to a more refined sound, due to Martin Hannett’s tight and competent production.

Joy Division photo

Joy Division from left to right Stephen Morris, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner & Ian Curtis

 

Closer, the second album, was released just over a year later, two months after Curtis hanged himself. The year between albums for me was not really about Joy Division. I listened keenly to their Peel sessions but my ears were distracted by other punk highlights. Sadly, Curtis’s death made the release of Closer poignant. I didn’t like it at first. The style was so different from Unknown Pleasures, though it was also produced by Martin Hannett. The vocals were dark and the lyrics certainly not cheery (not that they ever were). But it grew on me and I soon found it just as good. Some amazing tracks stand out, such as Atrocity Exhibition and Twenty Four Hours. But my favorite by far is Decades, a six-minute song about feelings of lost youth. The slow start sounds like machinery in a factory. Then strange synth sounds come in as Curtis sings bleakly of “trauma and degeneration”.

A year after Closer came the album Still, a compilation of live and studio material, some previously unreleased. I remember finding two versions of it at Virgin Records in Southampton. The standard release and a hessian-covered version which was £2 more. The dilemma was, do I buy the normal version and get a burger on the way home or do I buy the hessian version and go home hungry… Well, you look back sometimes and wonder at the blunders you made!

Isolation was a huge highlight on Closer but I’m including the version on Still. This is a live recording from Joy Division’s last concert before Curtis’s death – a mere two weeks before, when they played Birmingham University on 2nd May 1980. It’s not the best recording in the world but it certainly shows the band’s live charisma and the force they could have been.

Curtis’s death propelled Joy Division to mythical status, but there’s no doubt their music was original, innovative and exciting. There are lots of ‘What ifs’ and ‘What could have beens’, but let’s be grateful for what they did achieve and what an incredible legacy they left.

Joy Division Shadowplay fansite

Joy Division Central fansite

A tribute to Ian Curtis 1956-1980

New Order Toppermost #593

Joy Division biography (iTunes)

Neil Waite, a teacher of 24 years, has written a number of posts for Toppermost. He lives in Hampshire, England and has always been a music and vinyl addict. He loves a wide variety of music genres but is particularly passionate about Punk. You’ll find him on twitter @NeilWaite1

TopperPost #375

6 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Oct 30, 2014

    Neil – thanks for this excellent list. Might need to have ‘Shadowplay’ in my top ten but can’t really argue with any of your choices. By the way, the numbering of Tony Wilson’s coffin is the subject of Kevin Hewick’s fine song, “All Was Numbered”. Have always liked his song ‘Haystack’, which was the first recording on which the other members of Joy Division played after Curtis’ death. It can be heard here at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1a3B_rhfzg.

  2. Rob Morgan
    Oct 31, 2014

    Excellent choices. I’m glad you picked “Isolation” from “Still” – that was my first Joy Division LP in spring ’84 and that song stood out on the live LP – there’s more energy and desperation in the live version. It’s interesting to hear the viewpoint of a fan who was there at the time, by the time I discovered them there was such an aura around them – the whole “this man died for you” schtick – that it was sometimes difficult to get past that and listen to the music. If anything “Love will tear us apart” is over-exposed (didn’t the NME make it greatest indie single ever in one of their myriad endless polls?) and don’t forget that the band weren’t happy with the vocal and Ian Curtis was planning to rerecord it after their American tour…

  3. Peter Viney
    Oct 31, 2014

    I’ll tell you how late I am on Joy Division. In their day I wasn’t into that area at all. I got interested in Factory from a design point of view initially. It is one of the great design-centred British labels of the era, like Stiff, F-Beat, Demon. I bought “Factory Records: The Complete Graphic Album” (FAC 461). I agree, this stuff is worth framing and displaying. It was the film “Control” (2009) that got me interested in the music, and I watched it because it was recommended as a movie, not because of Joy Division, but it made me want to listen. On “Love Will Tear Us Apart” I mentioned the June Tabor & The Oysterband’s sublime cover after the June Tabor article here.

  4. David Lewis
    Oct 31, 2014

    “Love …’ Made the triple j (the government ‘yoof’ radio station in Australia ‘ hot 100 no 1 for 5 or 6 years in a row before they changed (rightly) the eligibility criteria. Is it wrong if I say I prefer new order (while still thinking joy division a great band?)

  5. Keith Shackleton
    Nov 1, 2014

    Having seen Bernard massacre LWTUA at a New Order gig a couple of years ago, I’m not too well disposed towards it these days, and Hooky is on his way to give us his version next year.. hmm. So glad you included Digital and Isolation, my top JD tracks, and I can’t really argue with the rest either.. having given it a deal of thought, I couldn’t replace any for others.

  6. Andrew Shields
    Nov 1, 2014

    To me, the difference between Joy Division and New Order is that while the latter were a passable band who made some excellent singles, the former are – along with The Beatles, The Kinks, The Pistols, The Smiths – one of the essential bands whose two albums were masterpieces…

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