The Infinite Jukebox: The Distractions’ ‘Time Goes By So Slow’

Despite the existence of Oasis’s extensive back catalogue, there are remarkably few specific references to Manchester scenes and places in pop music. One splendid exception is an obscure Graham Gouldman song, written for and recorded by Herman’s Hermits. “It’s nice to be out in the morning” namechecks places like Ardwick Green, Irlam o’th’Heights and Besses of the Barn before finishing up at Old Trafford with the Holy Trinity of Bobby Charlton, Best and Law.
Off the top of my head, the only other song to reference a Manchester landmark is The Distractions’ legendary “Time Goes By So Slow”, one of the best singles of 1979 but, of course, a flop.
The Distractions were a five-piece band and a much mixed bag. Singer Mike Finney looked like a schoolteacher and sang like a white soulboy, Steve Perrin and Adrian Wright played guitars, Pip Nicholls, a tiny wee lass who styled herself pipnicholls, played a solid and pounding bass, and veteran skinsman Alec Sidebottom pounded the hell out of the drums.
The Distractions were incredibly popular around Manchester when I was living in Nottingham, which didn’t believe in punk. They were inspired by the energy and rhythm of punk but also the melody of Sixties music and, with Finney’s voice ultimately too good for the purely raucous, their sound evolved as a fruitful mixture of the two roots. Their first release was a 12” four track EP on TJM Records (which I never heard of releasing anything else) that I had to buy when visiting home. It’s rough, it’s crude, the production is unpolished to say the least, but in “Doesn’t Bother Me” and “Maybe It’s Love” it contained two bloody good, energetic songs, full of urgency, melody and compelling choruses. For their second release, whilst already formulating a deal with Island Records, the band signed a one-off single deal with Factory Records, and came out with “Time Goes By So Slow”.
In a summer of great new music, The Distractions stood out for producing a perfect pop-punk single, with a glittering melody line, a surging beat, an air of undefinable melancholy in the heart of bright, joyous music that was the band’s trademark mood, and a killer chorus. They were acclaimed on all sides. Everyone loved it. Except Radio 1, of course, which didn’t play it, the splendidly essential John Peel aside.
Though the Finney/Perrin partnership was The Distractions’ main source of songs, it was Adrian Wright who wrote ‘Time Goes By So Slow’. It’s a typically Distractions mournful lost love song, conducted with great vigour, in a rush of bass and drums, guitar and organ. Never has misery sounded so much of a rush.
And at a time when I was conscious of living in another city, where I had no roots, Finney was singing about places with which I was wonderfully familiar. They put your statue up in Albert Square, he sings to the girl who has blown him out and about whom he still dreams. And all the people standing by just stare. But Albert just won’t do, Finney sings, I don’t need him but you. When Nick Lowe had gone to the Heart of the City that was it, just a generic place, every city’s got one, but Mike Finney singing Adrian Wright’s words was in the heart of a real city and I could picture its streets and, when I came home, I could drive those pre-pedestrianised streets and pass by and not care.
But it was more than the call to home that led me to take this song to heart. I was in love, and had been for a long time, with a woman from whom I was forced to conceal my feelings, and melancholy was my place, my Albert Square. I loved the brashness, the simplicity, the energy of punk whilst never foregoing my love for the stunning chorus, the line that pulls you in to lend your inadequate voice, to find a space inside the song that makes you a part of it.
If I’ve a criticism of the record at all, it’s that it’s ending is a little weak. In the first use of a trick the band would later make a regular part of their repertoire, after the second chorus the music drops out, leaving only the bass and drums, lowering the tension. Well I wonder why you had to go, Finney croons, repeating himself, and again, as the music crashes back with the timeline, but only so that it can lead the record to a definitive end instead of one more valedictory rush.
Interestingly enough, “Time Goes By So Slow” was originally meant for the b-side. It and the song “Pillow Fight” had been recorded after the You’re Not Going Out Dressed Like That EP and were the only other recordings in existence when Factory offered the deal. “Pillow Flight” was offered as the a-side but the single was flipped at Tony Wilson’s suggestion. But “Time Goes By So Slow” had been treated as a b-side in the studio, recorded almost live, with minimal overdubs added and harmonies that simply consisted of following Steve Perrin’s lead. Apparently, the whole thing took about three hours total, and that just adds to the purity of the song. Maybe a more polished version might have been better, but I doubt it, because this song has no sag, no weariness, no over familiarity. It’s pure, it’s complete, and it’s raw edges complement the rawness of the feelings.
Nearly forty years later, the song is still as fresh as ever, the loss is undiminished, and when she has to go, time still and always will go by so slow.

The Distractions: Nobody’s Perfect

Once upon a time there was a Manchester band. There have, of course, been many Manchester bands. Many of them got the success that they deserved. Many of them got the obscurity that, despite being Manchester bands, they deserved. And not a few got the obscurity that they definitely did not deserve.
One such was The Distractions.
The Distractions were, at the outset, a five piece band, consisting of Mike Finney (vocals), Steve Perrin and Adrian Wright (guitars), pipnicholls (bass) and Alec Sidebottom (drums). They got together in 1977, during the punk era, though as punks they were something of an unlikely lot. Finney, the singer, had a more soulful voice than most, and looked a bit like a schoolteacher, nicholls was a tiny blonde with a pudding bowl haircut in the mould of Tina Weymouth and Sidebottom was in his late thirties, a veteran skin-pounder with dozens of Manchester outfits. And Perrin and Wright, both of whom wrote songs for the band, were much more tuneful in their efforts than most of their contemporaries, even if such contemporaries, such as Slaughter and the Dogs, Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds, and the wonderful Buzzccks were much better known than these five.
They made their vinyl début with a 12″ EP, released through the tiny TJM Records label (I know of no other releases by TJM). Under the gloriously Mancunian title of “You’re Not Going Out Dressed Like That”, the band presented four of their early songs, including two superbly fresh, poppy efforts with compulsive choruses, “Doesn’t Bother Me” and “Maybe It’s Love”.
This got them a deal with the nascent Factory to release a one-off single, which turned out to be the band’s most perfect song, the wonderful, catchy, impossible-to-resist “Time Goes By So Slow”. Peel loved it, I loved it, the radio criminally ignored it, and “Time Goes By So Slow”, with its lyrics about sitting in Albert Square, its mixture of sadness and joie de vivre, and its beautifully balanced energy placed it very high in the list of records that should have been, but never were absolutely mega.
Nevertheless, the single’s reputation, and the band’s continuing live popularity in Manchester prompted a deal for an album from Island Records, resulting in the Distractions’ one and only contemporary LP, “Nobody’s Perfect”. It would be a disastrous experience for the band, with fissures arising as to the direction of their music. Finney, nicholls and Sidebottom seem to have been behind a general move to soften the band’s overall sound, to emphasise keyboards and acoustic sounds, instead of the Distractions’ original, guitar-based, abrasive approach. Their notions were more commercial in aspect, if not, ultimately, in outcome, but Perrin was left dispirited and upset by the move, and shortly after the album was released, in 1981, he left the group.
As the band’s leading songwriter, either alone or in tandem with Finney on lyrics, this was as much a disaster as John O’Neill leaving the Undertones in 1979 would have been, especially when Adrian Wright followed, shortly after. And whilst the band’s reputation is built around the partnership of Finney and Perrin, it should be noted, as few seldom do, that it was Wright who had written “Time Goes By So Slow”.
The Distractions recruited Arthur Kadnam on guitar and continued as a four-piece into 1982, when I saw them live for the only time, doing a pub gig in Romiley, Stockport. The new line-up released a three track 7″ EP, of which the lead track was “Twenty Four Hours” but this was the band’s last release, and they split up later in the year.
I’ve never heard anything as to the futures of Wright, nicholls, Kadnam or Sidebottom, but Finney went on to form the Secret Seven, a pop/soul oriented band, with twin singers (Finney and a young lady with a fresh voice). They released the superb single “Hold on to love”, a sweet concoction ideally suited to Finney’s voice, with a b-side of equal quality, but then disappeared without making any other records.
This was the story of the Distractions as I’d always known it, but a few years ago, I learned that Finney and Perrin (the latter of whom was now living and working as a teacher in New Zealand) had reconciled, and had met up in 1995 to record three tracks which were released as an EP under the leading track “Lost”. These included a remake of the Distractions’ original track, “Still it doesn’t ring”. That was all until 2010, when the due again teamed up, with outside assistance, to record another three track EP, featuring the title track “Black Velvet”.
And just last year, the Distractions recorded their long-awaited follow up, thirty-two years on, “At the end of the pier”. Sadly, though the sound is familiar, it lacks the sonic texture of their early days and the songs are old men’s songs, looking backwards into an infinity of regret for what didn’t happen.
But it’s “Nobody’s Perfect” that I’m concerned with now, the only album recorded by the original line-up. It’s very hard to get hold of, having never been released on CD (nor are there any plans that it should ever be), and copies of the LP being rare, and consequently expensive.
Nor is it a major album, a lost cultural (or even cult) masterpiece, though I’ve always contended that its sound, marrying the energy and melody of the Buzzcocks to a softer, more keyboard oriented sound, makes “Nobody’s Perfect” the missing link between the Buzzcocks and the Human League of “Dare”. But it’s still an album worth listening to, and there are at least three solid masterpieces, all from the Finney/Perrin team, that deserve to be known widely.
The album begins with jittery guitar, skittering into your hearing, before a solid riff, having its roots in the band’s punk origins, leads the band on a busy hustle. “Waiting for Lorraine” is a love song, but it’s a peculiarly Mancunian love song, with its feet set firmly upon the ground. Finney’s waiting for Lorraine: she’s his girlfriend, he’s sat by the phone because she’s supposed to be calling him back, but he’s not hearing from her. The longer he doesn’t hear from her, the more he starts to doubt her. He doesn’t want her to love him forever, just to stop her telling lies. Perrin rips in with a fast guitar sole and Finney shoots back, washing his hands of untrustworthy, heartbreaker Lorraine, until he’s now waiting for her to go drop dead.
It’s a love song of disillusion, set to a fast, melodic sound,guitar based, with little snippets of voices behind Finney’s upfront tones, yet it’s only his side of things. The twist is that we have absolutely no idea whether Lorraine is a cheater or if it’s Finney’s anger at being stood up (even if it’s only a non-returned call after a phone argument) that’s creating this image.
As I said, Mancunian.
It’s followed by “Something for the Weekend”, an equally up-tempo, energetic song, driven by sharp organ riffs and an underlying pounded piano. Musically, it wears it’s rock’n’roll roots pretty close to the surface, especially in Perrin’s trebly solo, but the busyness doesn’t disguise a certain thinness in the song. The chorus repeats insistently, as Finney pleads for something to stop the pain, ease the strain, numb his brain, make it real again (so, nothing to do with drugs then). It’s all to do with his mysteriously unexpressed behaviour, that makes him an outcast.
The song also features a technique that the Distractions increasingly used over what little was left of their career, that is that guitars and keyboards would drop out, leaving only drum and bass to support Finney’s voice. It works here, because the percussion keeps the rhythm of the song, but elsewhere it tends to render the song choppy, disrupting its integrity.
Track three is the album’s biggest mistake. It’s a full-sounding, swirl of guitar and organ cover of Eden Kane’s 1964 hit, “Boyscry” (though Kane sold it as two words). This was the only single to be pulled off the album (“Something for the Weekend” was re-recorded as a single) and though the sound was representative of the band in this album, the archaic nature of the song and the lack of confidence shown in the Distractions’ own music was a colossal own goal.
It slides into “Sick and Tired”, an uninspired retread of “Waiting for Lorraine”, heavily featuring synthesizers over a niggling rhythm that breaks out into a brief but vicious chorused title line. Once again, Finney’s waiting for someone who’s not showed, though this time he’s out in the rain, smoking a cigarette and trying to look cool. A vicious solo from Perrin overtakes the end of the song, but there’s a lack of conviction to the song, or perhaps the production doesn’t entirely believe  in the rawer sound of the band’s origins.
It doesn’t matter because we now approach the first of the album’s three undoubtedly classic moments. “Leave you to Dream” is an airy confection, a pure pop moment, its lightness promised in its exuberant intro an confirmed in its first line, as Finney cut in, effortlessly, his voice floating over a beautifully smooth keyboard riff that frolics and gambols.
It’s again a love song, a hopeless and unrequited love. Finney’s found his girl, and she’s truly lovely. She’s asleep and dreaming: he holds back from waking her because he fears (knows?) that she’s too good for him, yet he dreams that in her dreams she dreams of him.
And yet… Though he’s stoical about it at first, accepting of his non-place in her affections, aware that his only recourse is to get pissed, but whilst he watches her and longs for her regard, he wishes for her the things she dreams of, and the hope remains in there that, in that unknown land behind her closed eyes, that maybe there is a place fr him, by her side.
It’s a stunningly lovely, oddly hopeful song that should have been far better known.
It’s followed by “Louise”, a sharp-edged little song with another Mancunian take on the problems of love. Finney’s singing to his mate, who’s pissed off at the Louise of the title, who used to be his girlfriend, but they’ve broken up now. She’s with Finney now, and if this guy should blame anyone, it should be Finney, not the girl he never properly made his feelings known to, and whose name he’s been trying to blacken (you can just hear the sound of the unspoken words ‘slag’, ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’).
Finney’s stepped out of his own head now. Where, in “Waiting for Lorraine”, he could only see and blame the girl, now he’s looking at just such a guy, and telling him off.
“Paracetamol Paralysis”, which closes side one, is very much The Distractions in full-out punk mode, riffing ferociously, with hard-edged guitars and pumping drums, in the middle of a night out. Finney’s been down the disco since quarter to nine, getting into the groove, and he’s taken this handful of pills someone’s slipped him. Heaven knows what he thought they were but they were actually paracetamol, and everything’s bloody strange.
It’s an intense, nervy, but almost comical track – I mean, bloody paracetamol! – that is a draining experience. The brief pause whilst we turn over the record is quite welcome.
Because we’re into a totally different sound as “(Stuckina) Fantasy” flies out as us on sheets of organ, underlaid by a pulsing rhythm, on which Perrin builds little guitar figures until the chorus hits like a dream. The story on this side of the album is different: where Finney sought love from girls who stood him up or were too good for him, now he’s found love, and lost it. They lived together and she left him: the fantasy he can’t leave is that she hasn’t.
Funnily, I didn’t think that much of this track in 1981 but, fifteen or so years later, I dug out this album and out it on a tape to play in the car whilst away on holiday in the Lakes and it hit me right between the ears. Its pace, the compelling chorus, the sheer drive of the song: just as the Bluebells’ “Young at Heart” had reappeared out of nowhere to hit Number 1, I could suddenly see the band performing this in Top of the Pops after a top Five entry.
It’s something in the balance between light and shade: that compelling intro followed by a starkness of sound, of mostly rhythm before re-engaging the full sound for the chorus. And such a painful lyric, as Finney recounts his crippling obsession with almost price: his sprinkling of her perfume on her pillow at night so he can dream of her is a painfully observant detail but it is the final lines, when he reveals that after he switches the TV off at night, her ghostly face appears to him, laughing like a clown, that push in the knife.
Stunningly brilliant, and so bloody commercial too. This, not “Boyscry”, should have been the single.
Next up is a re-recording of “Nothing” from the “You’re not going out dressed like that” EP, which polishes up the song without adding anything to its original version. Like “Fantasy”, it’s about lost love. Finney’s got it wrong and would like it to go back to the beginning, so he can try again, but it won’t happen
He’s back in the hopeful mode of “Leave it to Dream” in “Wonder Girl”, worshipping from (not very) afar, in his corner at the dance, looking at his Wonder Girl, who’s got something she doesn’t seem to want to let go. How she’s come to have his heart when neither of them has let it show is an impenetrable mystery.
But the song offers an unseen moment of joy: Finney wakes alone, wondering if something was a dream, apologising for apologising. But the door lies ajar, and maybe even the lost and lonely who are too prone to fear can have satisfaction.
Love preys on his mind, and he’s once again waiting for her to call him, but “Still it doesn’t ring”. Finney’s in suspension, not knowing if he still has a girl or not. The music swirls around him, not going anywhere as much as we is: he can’t do anything until that phone rings, his life can’t resume and it’s not going to ring whilst the band weave smooth patterns around him
There’s a sharp cut again to the punk edge that Perrin needed to espouse in “(Untitled)”, which might as well be called Don’t trust nobody but yourself. This has nothing to do with love, but life: Finney the awkward object that fits nowhere. In a side whose sound is directed to the mellow that would drive Perrin away, the song sticks out like a sore thumb.
And then there’s “Looking for a Ghost”.
And this album reaches out and strokes its hand against the flank of greatness, because this ethereal, 10cc I’m not in love-esque masterpiece, all easy, gentle, drifting guitars, and its soaring, swooping and diving voices filling the air with a sussuration of sound is gorgeous beyond belief. So much so that my sister, then aged 18 and with tastes diametrically opposed to mine, taped this for herself to listen to.
It’s “(Stuckina) Fantasy” moved forward. Finney sings without emotion, quietly, not flatly, but with utter calm, allowing the multi-tracked voices to cocoon, whilst he explains, with infinite care, by just how much he has accepted madness. All he wants to explain is why he smiles the way he does, though she’s left him and she isn’t coming back.
And it’s because he has her in his head. The girl never understood him, he only ever made her feel bad, so he’s replaced her with a fiction that floats by his side, ‘unable to feel good or bad’. The voices swell and rise around him as he gently sings that plain but powerful chorus,  then they drop away, leaving Finney alone as he makes the final confession, without regret, in pride at how he’s conquered the universe of being alone.
My only lover lives encased inside my head/No-one can ever take her away/The Ghost now belongs to me and, if she ever knew/I wonder what the real thing would say?
And one last time the chorus swells again, the soaring voices louder and wider. And if you see me hanging around in places/where we always used to go/maybe its just because I’m looking/for a ghost I used to know. And the voices soar even higher then you could imagine as Perrin begins a liquid, reaching, despairing guitar solo that rips apart whatever tiny pieces of your heart that are still left intact.
Most bands would have left it at that, would have closed this album with that soulcrushing song, but not the Distractions. Not for them ethereal perfection, but with joyous energy they finish off with a minute and a half of raucous guitar and drums on their stage favourite, “Valerie”, which distils everything they’ve had to say in this album into ‘I love Valerie but now I think it’s true/I love Valerie but Valerie loves you’.
It shouldn’t work after “Looking for a Ghost” but it does, beautifully, because never has heartbreak sounded so much bloody fun! And it’s so short, you want more of it…
So: a mixed bag, in sound, with its switching between the past and the not-future of a band that deserved so much more, with its sad, grounded love songs and its exuberant melodies: the epitome of bittersweet. There are three stone-gone classics on this album, in “Leave you to Dream”’s melancholy melody, “(Stuckina) Fantasy”’s energy and drive, and “Looking for a Ghost”’s  soundscape of beauty and horrific pain.
As I said, musically it’s the missing link between the razor-edge melody of the Buzzcocks and the electronic aura of “Dare”-era Human League. If only more people had seen it as such.

Joy Division – ‘Unknown Pleasures’

joy-division-unknown-pleasuresApart 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?