Black Sky Thinking: The Joy Division Industry

More offcuts from the factory, by Chris Roberts. Illustration by Stu Green

Excuse my poor posture, but I’m crushed under the weight of the Joy Division memorabilia that currently dominates the world of "alternative" culture, though whether the adjective "alternative" remains apposite in 2008 is open to question. Outside your window another Best Of is looming, tapping, trying to get in. Nipping out for a pint of milk, you’ll trip over the heavily-marketed DVD release of Anton Corbijn’s Control, while a slight detour for a paper will mean circumnavigating the promotional material for a new Grant Gee documentary, Joy Division, out on May 2nd. All this would be, if irritating, at least standard in the modern climate, were it not for the fact that an ocean of Joy Division stuff already floods the racks.

The band made just two albums proper – Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Yet a pattern for what was to follow was set as soon as Ian Curtis died in 1980, with Factory Records, nothing if not 24-hour self-promoters and smart myth-makers, rushing out Still. And still the myth grew, with even the consistently beery, laddish fartings of New Order failing to halt the traction. (I interviewed Bernard Sumner a long, long time ago. The first words this poetic man of mystery said to me, as Paula Yates walked past, were "Fuckin’ hell mate, I fuckin’ wouldn’t mind fuckin’ that.")

There have been innumerable compilations, box sets, radio sessions, TV docs, books and biographies, not to mention the albums Live at ULU, Live At Factory Manchester, and (and here’s an album title you never got from Elvis) Live At High Wycombe. In fact, 20 albums in total. Thirty years on, Joy Division are more omnipresent than ever. The initially well-meant canonisation of Curtis – and Tony Wilson – has become a boom industry rather than a cult. Half Man Half Biscuit long ago prophetically lampooned this with a song about Joy Division oven gloves. And recently the biscuit was well and truly taken by Nike, who released Joy Division trainers. Yes, that certainly captures the essence of the music.

With Converse meriting equally scathing criticism for their appropriation of Kurt Cobain, it’s clear that the icons of "independent" or "non-mainstream" culture are now as exploited and exploitable as the traditional "classic" beardy Sixties relics who’ve been resurrected as staples by the monthly music mags (this month: Bob Dylan Breathes! Next month: Brian Wilson coughs!) Yet Joy Division are rapidly becoming to today what Al Gore’s green campaigning was eighteen months ago (before Live Earth rather punctured its cool): you don’t want to disrespect the source because the heart is in the right place, yet the constant in-your-face hagiography is at best rather tasteless, at worst nauseating.

Peter Saville’s original artwork for Unknown Pleasures successfully evoked the outsider, the existential who’d read a bit of Camus or Kafka and felt ill-matched with society. It dovetailed sublimely with Curtis’ angst. Nowadays, it’s become just another logo, brand stamp, gang tag.

"The more that time moves on, the more I have to say about Joy Division", writes Paul Morley, as a timely compilation of his own pieces on Joy Division emerges. One doesn’t doubt that he was there at the beginning, and indeed that what he (along with photographers) saw in the four almost accidentally great post-punk boys has set the blueprint for what everyone else has seen in them since. But it’s no coincidence that his writings, which have been in existence for decades, are only now collated by a publisher. With Ian’s widow Deborah Curtis’ memoir Touching From A Distance the source for the Control movie, others have felt compelled to recall their own brushes with Ian. Tony Wilson’s ex-wife Lindsay Reade collaborates with journalist Mick Middles on Torn Apart – The Life Of Ian Curtis. "To be frank, he did his bit, we did our bits, and that was that", muses Peter Hook. "It always feel strange when people try to read so much into every lyric."

We’re just questioning the relentless cash-cow filleting of a now over-familiar tale here. It’d be straining for effect to try to belittle the flashes of genius in Joy Division’s actual (very limited) output. It’s true, though, that Curtis’ voice was that of a Bowie fan, his dancing that of an Iggy fan. Other fine groups of the era didn’t receive equal acclaim, and that’s undeniably because they didn’t (like Curtis, or later Cobain) die at just the right time to become a legend/martyr/saint. The Sound and The Comsat Angels made superior albums, as did The Bunnymen. But if you were on Factory, you got more coverage, because the Southern press were suckers for the "Northern = working class cred" card. And still are: see the completely rubbish Oasis, who fooled almost everyone. One shudders to think that if a Gallagher had died a few years ago, Oasis would be fallaciously credited with talent.

The motives of artistically-inclined individuals are perfectly acceptable. The director of the new documentary film, Grant Gee, comments winningly, "In 1980, aged 15, I bought a copy of Unknown Pleasures. It was the single most beautiful object I’d ever possessed and the first record I’d ever heard that didn’t just spit out sounds but seemed to create a whole new landscape. A couple of months later, listening in bed to John Peel’s radio show, I heard that the band’s singer Ian Curtis had killed himself and I experienced a brand new/strange sense of adolescent loss…"

But are Joy Division truly as "influential" as, for example, The Gang Of Four? For better or worse, more bands rip off the latter’s rhythms than dare to venture anywhere near Curtis’ self-exposure, and those that do sonically echo him – Editors, say – take just the sheen, the rumble, without the guts, heart or soul.

When I asked the musician-turned-actor Sam Riley, who superbly played Curtis in Control if he was a Curtis fan, here’s what he said. "No, not really. Other people I knew were, and of course Joy Division get played in indie discos all over the place. But…it wasn’t that I ignored or disliked them, it was just it never really came in my direction. I only used to listen to ‘Transmission’, if I’m honest. Yeah, the most obvious one, with that "dance to the radio" hook…"

Riley, like the rest of us, wouldn’t be able to move now without something about (if not by) Joy Division coming in his direction. "It’s a delicate balance", Riley added. "I have respect for Ian Curtis, but not reverence. I definitely didn’t want to play him as an icon. He wasn’t an ideal husband or father. Even if you’re an icon to a lot of people, you still have to go to the toilet. That’s real life."

Leave ’em wanting more, they say. Curtis did. The vultures, however, keep forcing another plate into our faces. The music was about emotional starvation. We’re gorged.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today