Saturday Afternoon Artist: Joy Division

The story of the band Joy Division, and its lead singer Ian Curtis, is a dark one.  But like all the best dark stories, it’s imbued with filaments of light and joy.  The band was made up of young men who seemed to have no future.  Their town, Manchester, in the 70s was a dirty, desolate pile of rubble, and the only way to survive was usually a lifetime of factory work.

Ian Curtis, known to many of us alternative music heads as perhaps the most charismatic rock frontman of all time, was like a comet. He burned brightly and then was gone.  Ian was an epileptic, and probably bi-polar.  There was no frontman rock persona for him. His shaky, intense dancing came from a place deep inside.   At any moment the loud noises or flashing lights could trip off an epileptic seizure. But he lived it out, with all his might, anyhow.

The story goes that these 4 young men — Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner, Steven Morris — from Manchester (and near Manchester) went to see a punk rock show at their local Free Hall.  The Sex Pistols.

It’s not so surprising that the future Joy Division were impressed by the energy of punk. And that they also came away convinced that if that bunch of drugged-out, untrained musicians like the Sex Pistols could be a band, then so could they.  They took the feel of punk home with them. But when they started to play their own music, it was much more melodic, full of echoes. And thoughtful lyrics, poetic ones, came out in force.  Originally called “Warsaw” they eventually changed their name to “Joy Division” – a title taken from female prisoners in concentration camps who were forced to be prostitutes for the Nazi soldiers in World War II. (Curtis was always fascinated by the dark sides of humanity.)

In 78 and 79 the band started to get recognized, playing on TV and getting serious press as a force that was both original and intelligent.  It’s said that they were not morose in person, but a bunch of guys who enjoyed playing music and having a laugh.  When they picked up their instruments and Ian started singing, there was a different feeling that seemed almost channeled from a deeper place.  Their manager helped them to get recognition and form the label Factory, their producer chose a dreamy dance aesthetic.  And the evolution of Joy Division’s sound emerged most gorgeously on the album Unknown Pleasures in 1979.

Hook’s bass is played high and so loud it sounds like the main melodic instrument. The guitar sounds splashy and dreamy.  The lyrics (was anyone listening?)  foreshadow the fact of Ian Curtis’s impending suicide.  Curtis’s onstage dancing (I once heard referred to as the “trapped butterfly” dance) gives you a clue to his inner state.

Ian Curtis hung himself on the eve of Joy Division’s success. They were just about to put out their 2nd release Closer and go on tour.  Closer was put out after Ian’s death in 1980. And the remaining band members, once past the shock, reformed and became New Order. When you look at the song Shadowplay (which was a huge influence not only on other post-punk bands, but also legendary alt-rock groups like Gang of Four and U2), you have to wonder if Ian knew he would commit suicide.

To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you,
To the depths of the ocean where all hopes sank, searching for you,
I was moving through the silence without motion, waiting for you,
In a room with a window in the corner I found truth.

In the shadowplay, acting out your own death, knowing no more,
As the assassins all grouped in four lines, dancing on the floor,
And with cold streel, odour on their bodies mad a move to connect,
But I could only stare in disbelief as the crowds all left.

I did everything, everything I wanted to,
I let them use you for their own ends,
To the centre of the city in the night, waiting for you.
To the centre of the city in the night, waiting for you.

In addition to the murky path through his own psyche, Ian Curtis talked about real feelings, rather than the fantasy take usually heard in rock and roll. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” had a melody so catchy it hit the charts in the US and UK, and was absorbed into the pop music mainstream.

I love Ian Curtis. No, really.  There is something in him that make me want to live, to shout and kick and let it all out. He said “Instead of just singing about something, you can actually show it as well. There’s no need to simulate it when you can just put it over. The way it is, if you’re totally involved in what you’re doing.”

For more on Joy Division check out the arty dramatic film Control or the documentary Joy Division: Under Review. Or our KEXP Documentary from the series Portraits of Post-Punk.

Michele Myers spins every Saturday on KEXP from 3-6pm.  It’s a high-energy show that is geared to ramp you up for Saturday night… Every week she plays 3-in-a-row from the Saturday Afternoon Artist. She is the creator of KEXP Documentaries and hosts Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays 6-9am on WNYE 91.5FM in New York City.

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One Comment

  1. Lezlie
    Posted February 12, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Michele, I love your show and the documentaries are amazing but I REALLY love your writing! Thanx:-)

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