Apart from holidays, and a month spent filling in at my then-firm’s London Office, I’ve lived my whole life in Manchester, except for one period. From March 1978 to Match 1980, whilst doing my Articles of Clerkship, I lived and worked in Nottingham.
It wasn’t an auspicious time to move to the East Midlands. When I arrived in Nottingham, Forest were a couple of weeks away from winning the League Championship, and when I left, they were not much further away from securing their second consecutive European Cup, which made the place not that good an environment for a Manchester United fan.
Musically, it wasn’t much better. The pure punk movement had run its course, but the public phase had gathered momentum throughout 1977, and I was just developing a fascination with Manchester’s own Buzzcocks when I was suddenly removed from ‘the scene’ to Nottingham, which was not a punk town, no sir, indeed not. It didn’t even have its own local concert venue, like Manchester’s Apollo Theatre or even the Free Trade Hall. I mean, if you wanted to go gigging, you were left with the Assembly Rooms in Derby or the De Montford Hall in Leicester which, without a car, were a bit remote.
Nor was the radio much better. Nottingham was a death trap for MW, which made Radio 1 on 247m impossible to pick up, except for the lifeline of John Peel five nights a week, on the Radio 2 FM band. Even the change to 275 and 285m in 1979 made only a marginal improvement, so I was restricted to the local commercial Station, Radio Trent, except during those hungry ten hours a week (reduced in 1979 to eight when Friday night was given to Tommy Vance for hard rock) when Peely brought you strange, weird and exciting sounds. Oh, and before I forget, I could actually get BBC Radio Nottingham on FM (in Mono) until 7.00pm, with a non-pop show that openly loathed punk and new wave. Exciting, eh?
So it was something of a change to get out on a Sunday night in February, to Nottingham Playhouse, a small arts theatre at the furthest end of the City Centre, to see John Cooper Clarke.
The venue was probably large enough to host about 200 people, and there was kit on stage: drums, amps, stands for bass and guitar: a backing band? But Clarke came out on time, alone, shopping bag full of notebooks which he dumped by his side, He rattled off three poems at top speed, then retired from the stage. Four guys, dressed in various combinations of black, white and grey, came onstage and took up the instruments. One guy behind the drumkit, the bassist stage right, facing into the wings, the guitarist stage left, facing into the wings, the grey-shirted singer ashen-faced, staring blankly into the audience.
Then they started. It was an ten song, 40 minute set, during which the guitarist and bass-player faced outwards the whole time, the drummer pounded away mercilessly and the singer intoned to a stunned audience, occasionally bursting in short and furious spells of dancing, arms and legs flailing, like somebody doing TISWAS’s ‘Dying Fly’ stood up.
They didn’t speak a word to the audience. Not then, nor when they dismantled their gear and removed it from the stage, afterwards. Clarke reappeared on a bare stage and went into the main set with a will, leaving the audience howling with laughter and at least one member stunned by the support band, but in complete ignorance.
They weren’t down on the ticket. There was no posters indicating a support band. Neither they nor Clarke gave their name. No-one knew who they were. They were just fucking amazing and totally anonymous.
And I’m not just saying in retrospect that they were fucking amazing, I have the diary entry I wrote that night to prove that I thought it then (although being a well-brought up and fairly shy young man, I did not write words like fucking in my diary. Not then). One track, in mid-set, has stuck in my mind ever since, for not only featuring a syndrum solo (which prior to then I had only ever heard in disco music) but the soundboard sent the sound rolling around the theatre, the sound coming from every possible point of the aural compass. It’s an effect I’ve never experienced since.
Who were this band?
I didn’t get my answer for six months, until August 1979. I had probably heard, but not registered, the Peel Session they’d made, and the same goes for the early singles, or maybe I just missed the nights on which such things were played, but Peel was now playing the début album from Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures. And he played the track Insight, the one with the syndrum solo, and insight flowed into my head. That band who had supported Cooper Clarke: that’s who they were!
I play Joy Division less now than I did. For many years they were the constant companions, the soundtrack to a dull, unfulfilled life. Though I’d deny that the term fitted either the band or myself, it’s not inappropriate to suggest that the music and my then-life could be described as “shoe-gazing”. To me, Joy Division were the band who understood my depressive states, when I would do all I could to hit the bottom all the faster, as that was the only way to break through and re-surface.
This is an album that detonates on the lowest level, an utter nihilism that, paradoxically, in facing the worst, offers the promise of recovery by facing it with openness and honesty. Its sleeve – which features neither the band’s name nor the album’s title (‘unknown’ pleasures indeed) – presents a matt, textured black surface with only a striking white pattern upon it. The image was found by Albrecht, in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy, and presents successive pulses from the first pulsar ever discovered, PSR B1919+21. The deliberate obscurity, the rejection of convention, was to be characteristic of Joy Divsion and New Order both.
It’s also the most composed, complete, sure and entire début album I’ve ever heard (only the Stones Roses’ first album pushes it close), a thing of balance and strength, grace and passion on the kind of knife edge that feels as if a single altered note will cause it all to collapse inwards.
The album opens with Disorder, one of only a handful of tracks with a fast tempo. Hooky’s bass leads into the song, creating a pattern that the album as a whole rests upon: bass as lead, a strong, steady, powerful percussive underpinning, Albrecht’s guitar angular and cutting across the rhythm, and Ian Curtis, intoning as much as singing, mixed provocatively forward, unlike the general tendency of punk to absorb the vocal into the razor of sound.
There’s an immediate alienation that remains unbroken until the album’s end. Curtis is seeking a guide, is seeking sensation, something to make him feel that he is alive, and not merely some observer. His alienation is accelerating, literally, It’s getting faster, moving faster now, it’s getting out of hand.
Where will it end? Curtis repeatedly asks in Day of the Lords, a gothic pile, slow, intense, but he’s singing about the start, the room where it all began, whilst the band build mountains of sound around him.
Candidate (one of only a few Joy Division titles to have a direct relation to the lyrics) adopts an even more glacial pace. Curtis is facing the collapse of all previous certainties and finds himself apologising for what he’s tried to say: Oh, I don’t know what made me/What gave me the right/To mess with your values/And change wrong to right. The effect’s been too powerful, the reaction too extreme. I tried to get to you/You treat me like this.
This is followed by Insight. Years ago, a BBC Radio documentary on Joy Division and New Order went out in two parts, drawing their titles from lyrics: “I remember when we were young” and “Now that we’ve grown up together”. The lines perfectly encapsulate the difference between the two bands, three members of which were both groups. The Joy Division line comes from this song: it opens with the sound of a lift door closing, sustains itself upon an almost bubbly bass-line, and breaks out into that astonishing electronic syndrum break, but through it all is Curtis, still sinking towards a bottom growing ever more unfathomable. Dreams end, times are wasted, I remember when we were young… but the line repeated most often is the defiant I’m not afraid anymore.
And he isn’t.
Side One – for this is an album from the primitive times when there was such a division – ends with the monumental New Dawn Fades. There is still no escape. Curtis has reached the centre of what affects him and here, as Hook sculpts the melody and Albrecht creates shapes above and behind the voice, Curtis stands alone in the dark, facing his failures. The song builds towards a peak as his voice alters, at last escaping contemplation and rising in passion as he metaphorically skewers himself, the butterfly pinned to the card. The guitar builds up to carry the song towards its eventual dying fall.
Side Two (which is not described as such: the first half of this album was titled Outside, the second half Inside) escapes this aural loneliness but only into the personal. She’s Lost Control operates on an emphatic, almost dancing beat, laid down by Morris with that syndrum popping, only to grow ever more ambitious around the static beat. Hook and Albrecht riff. There’s a girl having an epileptic fit, and Curtis knows about epileptic fits, being a sufferer himself. Though the beat is maintained, the growing momentum of the riff makes it feel as if it gradually accelerates
Joy Division made only two television appearances in their short life. This song, and its immediate successor, Shadowplay, were two of only three songs in which they could be seen performing.
The song begins with cymbals, adds a bass-line that is one of Hooky’s most propulsive, adds a storming guitar that mixes heavy-laden riffing with high, slowing lines, coming together to make one of the band’s finest ever tracks. Curtis is in search of someone, has been drawn into the centre of the city to look for her. He finds an elaborate, strangely ritualistic scene, the assassins all grouped in four lines/dancing on the floor, but his only outcome is a confession of failure that makes him an improbable rescuer: I let them use you for their own ends. There is no excuse.
If Unknown Pleasures falters at all, it is in the next two tracks, Wilderness and Interzone (the latter title taken from William Burroughs). These are the two shortest songs on the album, brief and intense, sonically closer to the punk sound with their driving guitar-dominated speed, and both employ a call-and-response lyric which the band don’t use elsewhere. In the first, Curtis asks and answers himself on an unusually impersonal journey into the past that suggests he has decamped to Biblical times, finding again only cruelty and terror. In the latter, Hook actually sings the lead and Curtis a slightly mixed back counterpoint, creating the odd effect that there are two songs going on at the same time, but each in their tale of journeying into an abandoned zone looking from different angles.
But it’s not a falter. The relative primitivity of these two songs, their brief, violent interruption is but a prelude to the album’s closing track, I Remember Nothing. It’s a counterpart, a balance, to New Dawn Fades, its equivalent on the other side. It’s long, slow, monumental in sound, and it’s where producer Martin Hannett is at his most overt. A sub-choral drone hangs over the song, filling in the massive gaps between Hooky’s funereal bass, Morris’s subdued rhythms and Albrecht’s little interjections. Found music, noises, effects, slip into and out of the mix, building the cathedral-like acoustic. Curtis’s singing is deliberately kept down: in places he is almost speaking his words in resignation.
Paradoxically, in all its drawn out, aural morbidity, the song offers, in the album’s closing minutes, a suggestion of hope, a suggestion that the worst may have been faced and defeated. We were strangers/for way too long. But the word is ‘were’. The suggestion is that something has changed, that were strangers are not strangers now. There is no daylight in this extreme, intense, powerful and utterly dark album.
But there may be a place after this experience from which daylight might be seen. What remains after the worst?