Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis committed suicide on 18th May 1980, two days before Joy Division were due to embark on their first tour of the United States and twenty four days before I was born. This latter factoid may seem insignificant but, please, indulge me. Joy Division’s career was not a long one, they formed in 1976 (under the name Warsaw), released their first album in 1979 and were brought to an abrupt end the following year.
Despite never being active at any point during my life (in fact, they only released one album, Unknown Pleasures, during Curtis’) they have influenced, and continue to influence many of the bands that have formed in the intervening years. Eclipsing, it could easily be argued, the far more prolific band formed by the remaining members, New Order. Everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Franz Ferdinand owes them some sort of debt.
Carefully timed to coincide with the release of Anthon Corbijn’s Ian Curtis biopic, Control, the band’s entire back catalogue has returned to record shop shelves. The three albums, Unknown Pleasures, Closer and posthumous compilation Still are all released as separate CDs with an bonus live show attached to each. If you’ve got a bit more cash in your pocket, you can spring for the box set, which sees the albums pressed on 180gm vinyl and placed into new Peter Saville-designed packaging.
We could sit here and debate whether or not these new releases are carefully restored versions of classic albums or shameless cash-ins, but we’re not going to. It’s probably a bit of both – and that’s as much discussion on the subject as we’re going to have. That a major record label would consider a little punk band from Manchester worthy of a £140 vinyl re-release nearly thirty years later is testament to how important Joy Division have become.
What is perhaps strangest or most amazing (depending on how you look at it) about Joy Division’s legacy is that new bands being formed now are being influenced directly from the source, rather than picking up a sound filtered through other bands down the years. Something about them still resonates strongly with music fans.
Of course, there will always be those who will wheel out the old line about record sales and killing yourself. But it’s not as simple as that. Sure, Ian Curtis was a tragic figure and committing suicide is a sure fire way to make sure people remember that, but the tragedy was already there on the records. Curtis’ real contribution to Joy Division’s success was a striking emotional honesty, taking the listener into the world of a young and disaffected man. But that he sang about things that remain relevant to today’s youth is not the only explanation. Joy Division’s music captured the same feeling; mechanical, angry and given an overarching feeling of fear and emptiness by almost excessive use of reverb.
This sound was first brought out on Unknown Pleasures. Originally released in June 1979, while it was by no means the first “post-punk” record, it was much darker and very different to its contemporaries. With Peter Hook’s bass stepping forward as the main melodic instrument, Bernard Sumner was left to provide jarring, atmospheric sounds with his guitar, while Stephen Morris’ almost tribal drumming provides much of the excitement that bristles within the songs and, more than with most bands, is actually the thing that pulls all the different elements together.
The album begins with Disorder, a song that tells you everything you need to know. Morris and Hook shoot off the starting line, Sumner’s guitar buzzes around them like he shaking a piece of metal and it all builds in intensity until Curtis shouts “I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling” over Hook’s now bulging bass line. It is a great opening track and the band only accentuates its power by following it with the much slower Day Of The Lords.
New Dawn Fades is another slow, brooding track and one where Sumner steps up and brings the guitar right out front. The doom-laden riff that opens this song gradually works its way up the fretboard making for an excellent introduction and Hook gives space for it by playing a relatively simple bass line. This is give and take style of playing is even more apparent on Shadowplay, where Sumner suddenly bursts into full lead guitarist mode.
The standout track from this album is She’s Lost Control. Morris’ drums are complimented by an ominous sounding drum machine, with Hook and Sumner’s minimalist tendencies at their most stark, while Curtis coldly deadpans his lyrics, “she’s lost control again”. For this song, producer Martin Hannett added subtle (but heavy, nonetheless) effects to the vocals, so that Curtis’ words echo and swirl around him as if caught by the wind.
The follow-up album, Closer was released in July 1980, just two months after Curtis committed suicide. Much darker than Unknown Pleasures, it opens with Atrocity Exhibition, six minutes of repetitive drums and sprawling, nauseating guitars with Curtis beckoning, “this is the way, step inside”.
Next up is Isolation, which sees the band at their most electronic, hinting at what the future held with New Order and modelling a bass line that Jane’s Addiction would later borrow for Mountain Song. Martin Hannett once again gets to work on Ian Curtis, this time making him sound like a broken robot from the future. While much less electronic, Colony is altogether more mechanical. It’s a jerky and precise swarm of staccato riffs, not wavered by the swirling guitar that comes in for the bridge and the end of the song (and bears a striking resemblance to the guitar on Dead Souls, which appears on Still)
A Means To An End begins with a descending, bouncing bass line over a solid and steady drumbeat. The guitar is minimal, appearing only for emphasis, while the vocals are understated, almost forgettable until Curtis suddenly drops the line, “I put my trust in you”. He repeats this a couple time, so you know he’s not best pleased. Sumner hits a few chords and there’s an outro of sorts but that’s basically all there is to it. The key to its effectiveness is its simplicity.
Another classic can be found in Twenty Four Hours, a song that sends you hurtling down a long, unending corridor, occasionally pulling you back to take in the surroundings before pushing you forward again.
The final remastered release is Still, a compilation of unreleased and rare songs, largely from the Unknown Pleasures sessions, coupled with the band’s last ever live performance, recorded at Birmingham University two weeks before Curtis’ death.
Despite being made up of studio outtakes, it’s yet another great collection of songs. In part this is certainly testament to Joy Division’s songwriting but that the surviving members of the band returned to the studio to finish work on the songs prior to release also accounts greatly for the quality of this record.
Many of the songs find the band experimenting outside the style of Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Glass is particularly off-kilter, with its disorientating guitar stabs and hand claps. Then there’s the fast, punky Ice Age, which probably captures the band closer to their own vision of themselves than the one Martin Hannett created for them. Also, Dead Souls, which finds Joy Division in at their most grand and epic and is a song you can never quite believe is tucked away in the middle of a compilation album. And, of course I have to mention Sister Ray, a live cover a song originally by Velvet Underground – a band who, despite Ian Curtis’ quip “you should hear our cover of Louie Louie”, were a significant influence on Joy Division (just listen to Day Of The Lords on Unknown Pleasures).
As well as arriving in full remastered glory, each of the CD releases also comes with a bonus live disc recorded at Factory in Manchester and The Moonlight Club in West Hamstead (Unknown Pleasures), University of London Union (Closer) and High Wycombe (Still).
Though these recordings range in quality from very good (High Wycombe) to a little crackly and slightly marred by audience chatter (ULU), they do capture the band in a more raw and in your face form than on studio recordings. The selected recordings also all feel like a live show, without the sanitisation that often comes from a direct mixing desk recording.
For all those despairing over the lack of a remastered version of Joy Division’s most famous song (it being a non-album track), Love Will Tear Us Apart has also been re-released as a single along with these albums.
This is an extended and reworked version of a review I wrote for Subba Cultcha. View the original version here.