For someone living in Nottingham and dependent upon public transport, I was bloody lucky. I got to see Joy Division live a second time.
This was also by accident. I was a big Buzzcocks fan, they were touring in the autumn of 1979 and, as luck would have it, they were playing two nights in Manchester, at the Apollo, and they included a Saturday night. I was in the habit of coming home for the weekend every six weeks or so, and that made it easy to pick up a ticket one visit and see the gig the next.
And the support band were only Joy Division!
It was a special occasion on many levels: getting to a gig in the first place: seeing the Buzzcocks for the first of what would be four occasions: being as eager to see the support band as the headliners: and the song Joy Division played, fifth in in a set of eight songs.
I’d no idea what it was called. The band still weren’t doing things like talk to the audience, or announce titles, and the PA systems of 1979 had not yet reached the point where you could hear the words to unknown songs with any degree of clarity.
The only thing I knew about this song was that it had the most instantly compelling synthesizer riff I have ever heard. Ok, yes, you’ve already worked out what song I’m talking about: a song recorded by a publicly obscure, short-lived punk band from Manchester, for a piddlingly-small independent record label that, rightly but still unbelievably, got on a shortlist of five songs to be Song of the Twentieth Century.
But I had to wait until 10 December and the band’s second Peel Session, tape recorder at the ready, fingers metaphorically crossed that the band would choose to record that synthesizer song, which they did, to learn that it was called Love Will Tear Us Apart.
I love the song to this day. To me, it is probably the finest single piece of music I’ve ever heard, and, remembering its origins and the public hostility to this kind of music altogether, I still find it impossible to accept that it has been so universally recognised.
It’s not on the album though. Joy Division were recording a new album, we were all of us looking forward to it intensely. I was back in Manchester at the end of March 1980, having completed my Articles and found a first job with a now-defunct firm of Solicitors, one of whose partners was to Stockport Coroner: his District included Macclesfield.
It wasn’t in the press, and no-one, not even the band themselves, had ever understood just how personal Curtis’s lyrics were. But he was suffering from depression, his marriage was crumbling, his epilepsy was worsening, the band were getting bigger and busier, he was getting more exhausted. And on a Monday night in May 1980, John Peel opened his show by breaking to us the horrible news that Ian Curtis had committed suicide.
I didn’t know him, I didn’t hero-worship him, so I didn’t react in any way like the fans of Presley and Jackson did when they lost their idols. I just sat there, feeling empty.
A few weeks later, the single version of Love Will Tear Us Apart was played by Peel. Like all too many, I sat there and listened to the words properly for the first time. They were about his marriage: I felt uncomfortable, understanding that I was listening to something entirely real, and personal: feeling as if this shouldn’t be made public.
But it was. The song was the hit it deserved to be, peaking at no 13. It was released in a gravestone sleeve, the band’s name and the song title being etched into a grey/silver background, a sleeve designed and produced before Curtis had killed himself, that took courage to press.
I remember hearing it on the radio during a short and unsuccessful holiday in Wales with my mother and sister, I remember there being no Top of the Pops for it to be played on, due to a strike that covered its entire chart run. I remember seeing the video for the first time on, of all places, a Saturday morning live TISWAS knock-off, and I remember thinking that TOTP could never have played it anyway, because Curtis looked dead already, in his eyes.
And the album got put back, until July. The same controversy surrounded its cover: a graven tomb-image against a pale cream, black-bordered background. Should it be used? Again it was. But looking back to the knowledge that both of Joy Division’s new releases were planned to be wrapped in images of death and burial, it is impossible not to believe that those around Curtis understood far more of his mental state than they realised, that the knowledge had entered their subconscious minds, collectively. Would that in even one of their cases, that understanding might have percolated into the conscious understanding.
So Closer became Joy Division’s monument, its epitaph, the frozen moment between actuality – which was tremendous – and potentiality – which was infinite. Even the name was a perfectly chosen enigma: was it Closer with a soft ‘s’, implying increased nearness, or was it Closer with a hard ‘s’, implying ending, completion, validation?
I myself have always used the soft ‘s’ and taken the statement to intent to imply a greater emotional tuning.
It was never possible to listen to this album the way I’d heard Unknown Pleasures. Things were over, it was an epitaph before it was released, there would never be any more after this.
Closer was never as certain as its predecessor. Curtis’s voice had changed, deepened. The music was less certain, less monolithic, its sound broader, with synthesizers playing a deeper role in the music. Atrocity Exhibition, the opening song, starts with Morris’s rolling drum pattern, which he maintains uninterrupted for the whole length of the song, as guitars and synths combine in the effect of a road-drill, rising and falling as Curtis guides the reader through a place of terror and torture, torture that’s less of the body than the spirit.
What we’ve gone through in Unknown Pleasures has been distanced, externalised. At the beginning of that album Curtis was waiting for a guide, now he is the guide, except that he’s a guide with too much knowledge. No matter how much he depersonalises his experience, it isn’t enough, and though he tries, desperately, to maintain this pose through the first verse of Isolation, whilst the band lay down a skittery, rhythmic, synthesizer laden support that’s an uneasy pre-echo of what New Order will become, he can’t maintain the fiction: Mother, I tried, please believe me, he cries, I’m doing the best that I can, but this brief attempt to shift the horror outside himself has failed.
Though he tries again to distance himself, his own despair keeps pushing through, not violently but inexorably, his voice separated in the mix from the sonic surroundings, trying to remain in control. But only honesty is allowed.
Passover is not the best song on the album, not a song that will ever force itself into any essential Joy Division songlist, but it served me well, years later, in the grip of a black dog that had me fear for the outcome when someone finally disturbed the last straw. But out of nowhere, Curtis’s words arrived in my head: This is a crisis I knew had to come/ Destroying the balance I’d kept/ Doubting, unsettling and turning around/ Wondering what will come next. And: Can I go on with this train of events?/Disturbing and purging my mind/ Back out of my duties, when all’s said and done/
I know that I’ll lose every time.
Someone understood. Someone else had felt this way, had known the helplessness of understanding that to go to the final point would be to destroy myself. The dam dissolved, the black water drained away, and I was my old self again within minutes.
This song, and Colony, with its discordant rhythms and its failed attempt to displace the experience into an inanimate thing, a place, an isolation but still a colony, remote but still within, are the equivalent of Wilderness and Interzone on the first album, a two track interlude where the band’s sound, the way they presented themselves onstage, out of Martin Hannett’s influence, is allowed to dominate.
And you could, if you wanted to be critical, extend such a comparison into the closing track of Side One (and believe me, this is so very much an album of two sides, and side one is but a build-up). A Means to an End is simple and unadorned, but it is a buoyant track, coming out of the amps with Hook and Morris for once working in tandem on a swinging, almost boisterous rhythm, flexing its muscles and providing Curtis with room in which to sing with a surprising enthusiasm and vigour.
The warmth in the music elevates the words. Curtis sings as if out of a fantasy novel, he and another, acting in unison, taking up arms, as it were, against a sea of of troubles, intent on opposing them. Their purpose is high, their efforts are focussed together, but Curtis continually returns to the repeated phrase, I put my trust in you.
Was it betrayed? How long did it held? There are no answers in the song. In the context of the album, of Curtis’s overwhelming melancholy, in the knowledge that he has ended up taking his own life, we presume that the line is bathed in irony. But the music fight to tell us otherwise, until it slows and stops and we are forced to live the record and turn it over.
I confess: pretentious as it sounds, pretentious as it almost certainly was, but for years I would play no music on New Year’s Day but the second side of Closer. I would only accept this four song set, returning the needle to the outer edge of the groove each time it reached the inside. And, listening to it again, so many years on, I can feel its power.
Call it pop, call it rock, call it by any of the names we’ve devised over sixty years to drive to describe music in a single word, each song, each recording is of its time, made possible by what has gone before and by what is in the air. The best songs reflect that. But the better ones transcend time and place, tearing a hole in the fabric of time and finding a way into eternity.
Take the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset, so absolutely a product of 1967, and yet so absolutely fresh, 46 years and a million plays later, each time it begins you are hearing it for the first time. Or Teenage Kicks by the Undertones. Lie all you want, it isn’t 34 years old, it came out a week ago Thursday and I’ve been playing it non-stop ever since.
In the same way, this set of four songs broke through, transcended its time and any time. It’s hard even to think of them as four individual songs, even if one of them was first recorded in that December 1979 Peel Session (and the NME’s album review came out and said they’d done it better then). It’s like a symphony in four movements, each a different form, yet indisputably a part of the whole.
And there goes the pretension again.
Heart and Soul begins with a scurrying rhythm from Morris, light and high in its sound. Curtis sings in a softer voice than elsewhere on the album, stepping away from his baritone. Heart and Soul, he sings, one will burn. The music comes from a distance, cocooned in itself. Morris and Hook lock into their rhythms as tightly as the MGs at their finest, and it’s almost two minutes before Albrecht begins to slice guitar sounds across the space vacated by Curtis’s voice. The distance extends to the words: Existence, well what does it matter/ I exist in the best terms I can, Curtis explains. He’s too weary of things even to sound weary. Albrecht, with guitar and some synthesizer, fills up the absence again, and in the closing seconds, Morris adds an intensified roll in the fade.
Twenty-Four Hours is the closest this side comes to the ‘classic’ Joy Division sound, the to-the-hilt onslaught of bass, guitar and drum, out of which Curtis’s rises, borne up on a sound equal to the astonishing Dead Souls. It’s also the only track to have appeared elsewhere. Hook’s repetitive four descending notes bassline underpins the song in both its uptempo sections and it’s slower, more contemplative interludes. Curtis surveys the landscape of his life and sees it in ruins: So this is permanence, love’s shattered pride, he begins, a thought that, in less abstract form, is echoed in Love will tear us apart. Oh how I realised how I wanted time, but it’s slipped away. He knows he needs therapy, needs to find a true destiny, but time is slipping away.
But if there still is time, there is no energy. The Eternal signals a shift into a slow, almost dreaming, electronic world. Synthesizer fuss like a swarm of insects approaching, out of which the simple, plaintive melody of this slow, brooding song is picked out on electric piano. The procession moves on, the shouting is over. We are not told what kind of procession is for, but the slow stateliness of the music, and our subliminal understanding of Curtis’s journey makes the conclusion inescapable. Again, as in Heart and Soul, the band are distant: the insects swarm again, almost enveloping the hypnotic micro-melody. Curtis emerges, returned to his childhood, playing by the gate at the foot of the wall. But his vision is still confined, from the fence to the wall. Rebirth offers no better chance of happiness. The locusts settle upon the song again and it fades.
And then Decades. Again, first Morris then Hook etch out a rhythm that underpins the song, slower, a little unsteady, before the synths spring out in almost an upbeat manner. Here are the young men, Curtis tells, the weights on their shoulders. It isn’t about Curtis any more. He’s vanished, dematerialised, or is it disintegrated. The young men stand together but is he one among them or is he… not, any more. And if he is just one of an endless mass of young men, facing the burden of being, where are they?
And where have they been?
The rhythm dies, the music becomes mournful, then almost defiant. Curtis makes one final attempt to face whatever has to be faced, though everything has been lost for all and not just for one, who has already left the stage. Where have they been? He repeats, as the song gathers tempo, soaring musically to the end. Where have they been? Where is he?
There is no answer, and there never will be.
Four songs, a discrete whole, inside but in a sense not of an album. Twenty minutes in which Joy Division step outside being even Joy Division, into a time and a zone that no-one would ever reach again.