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Jude Rogers On The Right Way To Remember Joy Division
Jude Rogers , July 9th, 2009 08:17

As Unknown Pleasures reaches its 30th anniversary, Jude Rogers looks behind the commercialisation at Joy Division's eternal truth

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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.

Joy. Division.

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Dick Tracy
Jul 9, 2009 4:18pm

Horrible article. Just atrocious. Whether it was the Lolita-esque lede, the incredible hyperbole throughout, or the concentrating of everything Joy Division into "shock value" or "commercialization." Ugh.

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Kevin Kharas
Jul 9, 2009 4:59pm

In reply to Dick Tracy:

What, really? I thought it was great. I wasn't born 'til five years after Curtis died, so I've probably been dealing with the diluted, detracted facsimile my whole life. A light-shedder.

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Todd Cochran
Jul 9, 2009 8:01pm

Nice article. There's a recent interview with Peter Hook at where he talks quite a bit about Joy Division. Good stuff.

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Millicent Pew
Jul 10, 2009 12:30am

Thank you for this article. As someone who was part of that 'few' here in NYC, I voraciously gobbled up every new release that came our way via the best record shop that ever was: 99 Records and looked forward to their first show here in the states that would have been at Hurrah! that never materialized as a Joy Division show but as the very first New Order show, just weeks after Ian's death.

You can imagine how the audience felt. The 'few' die hards who knew Joy Division was scheduled to come months in advance and oh so wanted to see them, but were equally mesmerized by the four individuals who became New Order on such short notice in order to keep Ian's vision alive and at the same time, try and move on with their lives. This show was Ian's funeral mass, plain and simple. I cannot describe it in any other fashion.

This short time of Joy Division's spark that was given to us was glorious and at the same time, you knew it was never to be again, a once in a lifetime feeling for a band that meant so much because they dared to be genuine and they dared to touch your soul. No pretense. No glitz. No trust funds. Just 4 working class lads giving it a go. Glorious!

I do get the urge to dismiss posers today who think they have something over on Joy Division who were not around at all to experience their brief moment in the world, but at that same time, in a strange way, I have to give them credit for trying at least to keep their energy alive.

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Daniel Copeman
Jul 10, 2009 10:27am

I have to say I love Joy Division and like Mr. Kharas stated missed the boat on being there (born in 85). I alos hate most that has been written/inspired by/leached off about them however I enjoyed this lots.

a very good honest read that raises some good points regarding how sanitisied music coverage has become in mainstream media.

only criticism... "Joy. Division." not too keen on that touch but great article

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jean encoule
Jul 14, 2009 10:56pm

Lest we forget:

The artwork for the original 7" of 'An Ideal For Living':

See also:

The 'Rudolf Hess' intro . . . the Germanic count-ins . . . the Tory vote casting . . . and the latter day admissions that they really did mean it, man!

In 1979, things were very different, it really wasn't ironic to wear a Joy Division badge and an ANL badge on the same lapel! Back then, us kids worried about things like this.

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Sleazy Martinez
Sep 2, 2009 2:54pm

What an awful, snobbish article. Misinformed, too - when did Joy Division ever appear on "So It Goes"? Ellen and Du Noyer may not have liked them, but enough journos did at the time - you may wish to look up some of the interviews some time. Why do you think such a cult built up around them? Some of the hyperbole of this article is up there with Dave McCullough's "obituary" at the time.

And it's nice to see that despite the death of Steven Wells, the old "Nazi" accusations continue to live on. Tch.

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May 18, 2013 12:39pm

eh, I get it, but give me New Order over Joy Division any day.

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May 18, 2013 3:14pm

Just listen to the music and love it. I'm sure most people with the t-shirts etc haven't even heard much more than Love Will Tear us apart. Their loss.

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Tommy Udo
May 18, 2013 4:08pm

Joy Division never appeared on So it Goes. I suspect that Jude means the dreadful patronising BBC show Something Else. Joy Division appeared on it in September 1979.Tony Wilson wasn't the presenter but he was interviewed on the show.

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Jul 10, 2013 6:34am

Over blown over dramatic fluff.

The article distains the bands modern day reach as an 'authentic elitist grit for the chosen few - verses - global mainstream influence reached by over commercialisation and hype'

I have some sympathy with this arguement in general terms for much of music from the 70's and 80's and the JD are no different to many similar bands from that era.

But to write the arguement in such a pretentious, psuedo poetic, hyperbolic manner feeds into the very hype it is criticising.

See 24 Hour Party People or any interview with Peter Hook to see how the band viewed it themselves. Way more comical, shambolic and accidental than anyone would believe now.

Also, Curtis suffered terribly from a serious mental illness which has been romanticised by the media and te pubescent masses for years. The remaining band just don't get that.

If Curtis were still alive releasing Elton Job duets now, would the band still be the 'legends they are'.

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Andrew Meldrum
Jul 24, 2015 12:49pm

In reply to Tommy Udo:

He doesn't mean So It Goes, but he doesn't mean Something Else either. Joy Division's TV debut came on Granada Reports, a local news programme that ran for half an hour after the national news, and was presented by Tony Wilson. Hence the misconception.

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Oct 2, 2015 1:56pm

Good article. Plenty of bands power has been, for all the best intentions, blunted by their long-term influence, but in the case of Joy Division it does seem especially heinous.
It's not just those who were around at the time who were aware of their impact. I recall as a child seeing Anton Corbijn's video for 'Atmosphere' and finding myself both perplexed and a little bit scared, and get that video is in some ways a stronger testament to the central intrigue of this band than the well-meaning but ultimately mishandled 'Control'. Also seeing that monochrome shot of Joy Division on the TOTP chart rundown alerted my 8-year-old self that here was a very different sort of music to what I was used to.
When I got around to actually listening to Joy Division, I was initially uncertain, my instinct was that this guy had an odd way of singing and the starkness of the sound was too alien to connect with right away. It certainly took a few plays of 'Closer' before i really got it. Eventually, I did get it and how rewarding that is. Whatever happened to music asking something of the listener?

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