Welcome to the Infinite Jukebox.
We all have this in our heads, a marvellous machine into which, at any time, we can insert the shiny 50p piece of our imagination and set up a platter to play. No buttons needed, no disappointed peering for songs we want to hear, the only limitation is memory and hearing. There are songs for every emotion we want to express to ourselves.
This is the first one.
The first time I heard this song for the first time, it was being played live on stage. Fifth song of an eight song support set at the Apollo Theatre, the Buzzcocks headlining. They were the band I’d paid to see, but Joy Division were a glorious bonus. I’d seen them live at the end of February, supporting John Cooper Clarke in Nottingham, four guys in varying shades of black, white and grey, unannounced, uncommunicative, astonishing. This was still 1979, when PA systems were still crap, when the only words you could hear on stage were the ones you knew in advance, and new songs were incomprehensible. What it was called, I hadn’t a clue: it was the synthesizer riff that captured me from the moment it first ripped across the stage, a simple, elemental riff that slid into your head like a stiletto between ribs. It was magic, and I craved it again.
The second time I heard this song for the first time, it was part of Joy Division’s second John Peel session, in the February of 1980. The moment he announced the band were on, I had my tape recorder at the ready. Surely that incredible song had to be part of the session? And it was, and it was called ‘Love will tear us apart’, and I could play it over and over again.
The third time I heard this song for the first time, I was back in Manchester and Peely had the long-awaited single, and I raced back out of the bathroom to tape this. Ian Curtis was newly dead, a suicide whose inquest had been conducted by a partner in the Stockport firm I’d just joined, who was also the Coroner. And I sat on the edge of my bed, listening to the words as if I’d never heard them before, as I’d never understood them before. Why is the bedroom so cold? Turned away on your side. The break-up of Curtis’s marriage had, I’d been led to believe, been behind his death, and the unconsidered words were a route into Curtis’s head, a path that made me shiver, made the song too personal, made me feel as if I should not be listening to something so private.
I’ve listened to ‘Love will tear us apart’ an unbelievable number of times. It’s a song that’s grown in stature ever since, rightly so, but still it shakes belief that something so personal, so open and raw, something that was a minor hit for a short-lived band, a punk band at that, unloved and unwanted and despised, should have become a top 5 candidate for Song of the Century. On Radio Two.
It’s a strange world. Let’s keep it that way.
Nor does familiarity breed even dullness. The riffing guitar, the sonic clarity of the acoustic, so fiercely strummed, Morris’s powerful, rhythmic drumming kick-starting itself like a jet about to cram it hell for leather down the runway and, at once the backbone of the music yet gloriously alone and supreme above it, that synthesizer, that riff, that melody. The jet leaves the runway, the song soars, Curtis’s deep, almost sepulchral, itself a void, speak-sings words that even today are a window into a place none of us really wants to look. There but for grace go you and I, and some of us have had to look through windows of our own into places we no more want to see.
And on it goes, in effortless flight, powered by that unique rhythm section of Hook and Morris, until Curtis reaches the end of words. In the video, he turns his back to us, Torn Apart a final time, as the song shifts in mid-air, prepares to come to Earth.
That video was never seen when the song had its first and most successful chart run, reaching no 13. There was no Top of the Pops for two months, exactly enclosing the band’s run. It was shown in the summer, on a Saturday morning kid’s portmanteau show set on something like a ferryboat, and it was out of time and incongruous and I watched it in silence, Curtis’s eyes already dead.
I used to joke, for many years, that this was my theme song, along with the Buzzcocks’ ‘Ever Fallen in Love (with someone you shouldn’t have?)’ and the Assembly’s ‘Never Never’. If pushed for what is my favourite song ever, I would still pick this. It’s A1 on the Infinite Jukebox, forever.