Joy to the world
cd choice: rock JOY DIVISION Unknown Pleasures/Closer Factory Records
If music historians mention the Manchester Free Trade Hall venue, it’s usually in the context of Bob Dylan’s famous 1966 show, the one where he was loudly accused of being a “Judas” by some Neanderthal hippy. A much more significant show, however, took place in the smaller room upstairs in 1976, when The Sex Pistols made their Manchester debut. In the audience were Tony Wilson, Pete Shelley, Howard Devoto, Morrissey and Mark E Smith.
Also there were Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook. Like almost everyone else in the audience that night, the three decided to form a band and, with Stephen Morris in on drums, they slowly began to explore a sound so distinctive and influential that you can still hear its loud echoes in today’s chart-toppers (Interpol, Editors et al).
Always a bit out of step with the prevailing post-punk mood, Joy Division named themselves after the prostitution wing in a Nazi concentration camp and signed to Tony Wilson’s new Factory label. Factory’s in-house producer, Martin Hannett, and graphic designer Peter Saville were to play a major role in how the band sounded and appeared.
Unknown Pleasures, released in 1979, was a revelation. For its time, it was a disturbing and Teutonic work that almost fell over itself in its own sense of portentousness. What is still striking about the album today is how Curtis’s oddly eerie baritone is the perfect vehicle for those tense, nervous lyrics. Rhythmically, it’s admirably restrained, and more mood music than anything else. And it’s still track six, She’s Lost Control, which dominates. Saville’s minimalist cover art couldn’t have been a more appropriate-looking cover.
Closer, released just after Curtis’s death in 1980, saw Joy Division bring more of a synth feel to the proceedings. Oddly though, the album remain more sepulchral than its predecessor. Isolation and Heart and Soul still pack power and potency. Charles Shaar Murray’s review for the NME said it all: “Closer is as magnificent a memorial (for Joy Division as much as for Ian Curtis) as any post-Presley popular musician could have.”
As unique and timeless as popular music has rarely dared to be, these albums still enthral. That said, it’s not worth getting excited by the bonus discs with either – they’re both just live recordings from the time. With Anton Corbijn’s already acclaimed Curtis biopic (Control) due in Ireland on October 5th, it can only be hoped that a new generation will listen and learn. www.joydivision.homestead.com Download tracks: She’s Lost Control, Isolation
Old order: Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris, Peter Hook (photograph: Harry Goodwin/ Rex Features)