Jude Rogers On The Right Way To Remember Joy Division
, July 9th, 2009 08:17
As Unknown Pleasures reaches its 30th anniversary, Jude Rogers looks behind the commercialisation at Joy Division's eternal truth
What has become of the dark power of Joy Division? Once upon a time, it was all in that name. Joy. Division. These were the two most terrifying words in the English language. They took happiness unconfined, and sliced the idea surgically, numbing any possibility of hope, or of life. They scalded us with their shock value. They held the ghosts of the House Of Dolls, Ka-Tzetnik's book about the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp brothels, in their hands. They contained thunderous abstractions of the industrial north. They swallowed within themselves Ian Curtis' epilepsy, his hatred, the neglect of his family, and the macabre manner of his decline.
Today, this power is all but gone. The name Joy Division is nothing more than a shorthand for edginess – that dank, fetid quality that promises the shock of the new while delivering a facsimile of the old with a new, wonky haircut. Joy. Division. The name sells trainers, mugs and babygros. It inspires derivative bands to latch on to its syllables like whiny infants, each of them trying to grab their own speck of the bible-black. Today, Joy Division means nothing more to many people than the machinations of smoke and mirrors.
This week, the name almost lost its power forever. A press release for an American rom-com, 500 Days Of Summer, pitched itself as a movie for people "who like Joy Division and kissing". Joy. Division. This is a name to be linked with the act of kissing as much as equatorial heat should be linked to the Arctic Circle. Joy. Division. It is a name, and they are a band, for a lightless room with heavy curtains, closed doors and low hours, for those times in our lives when we need silence and darkness and hollowness. Sometimes we need pop – bright, shiny and loving; sometimes we need music that is light, soft and cosseting. Sometimes, we need the indulgence of the other side, a harsh hit of the stuff. It's true. We all do.
The name Joy Division requires a revolution: we need to remember what that name really means. To remember the shock value it held, we need to remember the hard elements that are so often forgotten.
Firstly, everyone ignores the brevity of Joy Division's career. From their first appearance in the NME to the day in May 1980 when everything ended, only fifteen months passed. This is no time at all. Think of it another way. Only thirteen months went by between Unknown Pleasures, the group's debut album, and Curtis ending his life on his wife's drying rack. He did this at the age of 23 – a fact we all know, but very often fail to process in terms of his years. Think of what all this means, then say how you feel to White Lies.
Everyone also forgets what a minority concern Joy Division were at the time. Mark Ellen and Paul Du Noyer of The Word magazine, both NME writers at the turn of the 80s, once told me about this band being the fancy of a few, rather than the obsession of the many. A little light research also reveals that those who championed them were also less gushing than we would expect. Take Paul Morley. He still pays for fruit and flowers on the back of the NME feature titled New Stirrings On The North-West Frontier, that introduced the band to the world in January 1979. He never mentions where Joy Division came in his article. They came last, after Spherical Objects and The Passage, since you ask. But this is not to Morley's disservice, to be fair. This merely reveals to us how local and little they were.
People also forget the power of Joy Division's performance on So It Goes. No one forgets its host, Tony Wilson, the post-punk Richard Madeley, or even what the band looked like on stage. They always forget what that performance tells us about modern music, and how it reveals how few risks modern television really takes. It also shows us how far we have fallen. Jools Holland would never allow a band like Joy Division to jam with Coldplay, Mulatu Astatke and Florence and the Fucking Machine. His team would sit in the production office, picking apart Curtis' off-key vocals, the way that he danced, the way the band dressed, and the sense of unease that underpinned their performance. They would have said no to them right off the bat, and we would have missed everything.
There are other things we must not forget. We must not forget Peter Hook's basslines, and how they fuelled the menace of Joy Division's music. We must not forget how Joy Division created a new British gothic – a term that should be rehabilitated rather than reviled – by sweeping the Northern spirit of foreboding away from the moors of Yorkshire, towards the dying landscapes of Lancashire. The strange, spindly man with the piercing eyes who made that mindset matter again could have come from a novel fully formed, after all. He also knew, as well as Emily Bronte, that "terror makes us cruel", that "proud people breed sad sorrows", and that the land revealed an "existence of yours beyond you". He knew what shadows meant to the world, and to its humans, and how to translate and transport them.
But however the weight of the world sat on their shoulders, we must not forget either that Joy Division were a band of four men. They were four young human beings that had a life outside the music they made, as Anton Corbijn's Control and Grant Gee's Joy Division documentary showed us so well. But this should dramatise, rather than dilute, or detract from, their power. Their humanity should make their achievements all the more extraordinary, especially as they happened in such a short space of time, and in such strange circumstances.
So remember them this way, for the shock value, and not for the sneakers. For their power, and not the pretenders.