The Infinite Jukebox: Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’

I still call myself lucky. From March 1978 to March 1980, I lived in Nottingham, whilst Joy Division were emerging from raw punk roughness to the thing of intensity and beauty that they became. They were here and I wasn’t. Yet I saw them live, and I saw them twice, and the number of people who wish that they could have that experience far outweighs the ones who got it. I wasn’t there, but I still had that. Like I say, lucky.
‘Transmission’ was, effectively, the band’s first single. ‘An Ideal for Living’ was an EP, ‘A Factory Sample’ was a double EP with Joy Division only getting one side out of four. I was first exposed to it on an early Saturday evening when, the luck again, I was the only person in a TV room whose set was dedicated to BBC1 (the other room was for ITV) and was able to switch it to BBC2 for the first episode of Something Else, a youth magazine and music programme, each episode to be created in a different city, by their own youth. The first episode was from Manchester and it featured Joy Division.
This was only the band’s second television appearance, and it was to be their last. They played ‘She’s Lost Control’, which I knew well from the album I’d been incessantly playing since I heard ‘Insight’ on Peely’s show and recognised Joy Division as the unknown, unnamed, completely mysterious band I’d seen supporting John Cooper Clarke at the Playhouse at the end of February. But ‘Transmission’ was completely new to me.
At first, I wasn’t totally sold on it, not like how I was sold on ‘Love Will tear Us Apart’ when I heard them play it in October, supporting the Buzzcocks at the Apollo, Ardwick. Unknown Pleasures was phenomenal. I knew it well, I understood its rhythms, the shapes the music took, the range the songs explored. It is still the most accomplished and complete first album I have ever heard.
Against that, ‘Transmission’ was a bit penny-plain. It was simple, almost absurdly so. A straightforward, one paced song that set out to get from one end to the other without the least delay or distraction, a rhythm rather than a record. On the simplest of levels that defines the song, but it’s far from so simple as that. A couple more hearings – on John Peel, natch – when it was released and it all slid into place. Quite simply, ‘Transmission’ is the Unstoppable Force in music.
It opens with an aura of sound, through which Hooky’s bass cuts, concentrating upon a nagging, insistent, almost unvarying note, beneath which Steve Morris lays an almost metronomic beat and above which Bernard Albrecht lays a filigree of dark guitar notes. The song hits its beat instantly and refuses to let it go.
Curtis joins in, his opening line ‘Radio, live transmission’, repeated twice. Albrecht cycles a riff on upper and lower register notes. Curtis resumes, a four-line verse of almost apocalytian splendour, yet which is merely – merely – about a relationship in the process of being shattered, territory to which Curtis would return in less abstract form in ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. A second verse brings the subject closer to home: We would go on as though nothing was wrong, Hide from these days, we remained all alone, Staying in the same place, just staying out the time, Touching from a distance, further all the time.
Touching from a distance… one of those lines that can’t be imagined but only known. One of the defining lines of Joy Division’s brief life, those moments that make you stop, that bypass the mind and go straight into the nervous system. Deborah Curtis would adopt it as the title of her book about her husband, which is only right and proper.
Touching from a distance… The song is getting harder, the sound thicker, Hooky and Morris maintaining the beat, Hooky doing the journeyman work of maintaining its perfect tempo, Morris adding even more definition, frills that are architecture, that emphasise the urgency and the drive whilst Albrecht layers more and more licks and riffs into the insistent sound.
Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio, Curtis repeats. His voice is still comparatively flat, the mantra stripped of insistence, but without once increasing the tempo, the song is getting faster, psychologically, the sound deeper and more brutal, the situation more desperate and Curtis is gradually losing control, his voice getting ragged, his passion growing. Another verse, coming closer to breaking apart, no language just sound, the radio replaces communication, synchronises love, if this still is love, to the beat, the mindless beat yet the beat that Joy Division have fastened onto and transformed into something malignant and inescapable, the Unstoppable Force, and Curtis screams into the wind, ‘And we can dance!’, extending the word, holding onto it as if it is the final inch of his sanity.
And everything is off the leash now. With Hooky behind him in a parody of a harmony, the mantra returns, Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio, over and over, no longer advice, not a suggestion but a demand, an imperative. You must, you must, you must, Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio, caught up in the music and its force, dancing because it’s the only thing that resembles order, resembles control, dance until the music ends but it will never end…
And it ends the only way it could, by relinquishing itself. A last guitar note, sudden and withdrawing, the simultaneous winding down of the tempo by Hooky and Morris, the palpable release from something that had so totally absorbed you.
It wasn’t a hit. Only John Peel played it. Even in late 1979, Radio 1 still didn’t want to give house space to those nasty punks with their unsmooth sound. It was never going to be a hit. It unsettled too much, it took you in too deep. The radio felt on more secure grounds with Paul McCartney and policemen with balloons tied to their feet. You could dance to the radio, but don’t ever dare to dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio, because you could never be quite sure just where that beat came from.
Lucky. I have always known that when it came to Joy Division, I was.


Film 2020: Control

I can’t really say that I was there. Most of what happened with Joy Division happened when I was living away from Manchester for the only time, in Nottingham, which was hardly a punk city. I got to see Joy Division live twice, both times as support, once in Nottingham, once in Manchester, in those two years I lived there. The only part of the story I was truly present for was Ian Curtis’s suicide, closer than I might wish, for one of the Partners in my new firm was the Coronor who conducted the inquest.

But I hate the very idea of reviewing this film as a film, because it is part of my life, and because I wasn’t really any further distant from it than any other Joy Division fan in anything but geography.

Yes, I see the disclaimer in the credits about how incidents have been dramatised, and the comments from the likes of Hooky that it isn’t the truth because the truth was more boring, but I’ve owned Deborah Curtis’s Touching from a Distance since it came out in paperback and I lived through the Seventies in Manchester when all this takes place and the re-creation is exact. We sounded like that, we looked like that, it was as shitty as that.

And I loved Joy Division’s music more than I ever loved anybody else’s, not even R.E.M. or Shawn Colvin who I had the pleasure of for decades, literal decades, not the twelve to fifteen months of Joy Division before that horrifying shock announced by John Peel at the start of a Monday night programme.

And I will never forget the feeling of unease at listening to the lyrics of ‘Love will tear us apart’ as a single, knowing of why Ian Curtis had killed himself, and wondering if I really should be listening to something so personal, which was already my favourite song ever, and still is.

I can’t begin to analyse this because I lived it and the film is too much like living it again. The cast are brilliant and even what is false feels real because I was there, at a distance but there.

When New Order weren’t New Order

As a Joy Division fan, I was lucky enough to see the band perform live twice, given that for the majority of their effective career, I was living seventy miles away in Nottingham. I had barely returned to Manchester when dear old much-missed John Peel gave us the horrible news of Ian Curtis’s suicide.
Naturally, I became a New Order fan, and they were my favourite band for much of the Eighties, at least before they came under serious challenge on my discovery of R.E.M.
Being back in Manchester, I had far more chances to see the new band in concert, at various venues, from my first gig at the Haçienda in 1981, and my last, also at the Hacienda, in 1987.
That first gig was not, to be honest, the best of experiences. It was my second gig in as many days, the previous night having been taken up with The Nolans at the Free Trade Hall – and the Nolans were the better night.
But that was the only time I had to make that complaint, and perhaps it was something to do with the band still being in that early period of uncertainty when they were still cleansing their souls of the traits of Joy Division. From 1983 onwards, New Order were powerful and focussed, and at its best, their music was propulsive and overpowering when performed live on stage. It had a tremendous physicality to it that I’ve never experienced in quite the same manner from any other live band.
So the gigs racked up, and they were great fun every time: Salford University when the nascent Happy Mondays were in support, and you can hear my voice roaring on the bootleg when Barney announces they’re doing an encore because Man United have beaten Liverpool in the FA Cup Replay that evening, G-Mex for the eleven hour Festival of the Tenth Summer concert, finishing the day by inspiring my first and only indoor Mexican Wave.
Encores were always something to think about at New Order gigs. The band rarely did them, and most of the time, once they left the stage the house lights went on and it was up to you whether you chanced it and stayed, more in hope than expectation.
This was certainly so the night I last saw New Order on stage.
It was May 1987, back at the Hacienda again. The band’s fourth album, Brotherhood, was out, but not yet True Faith, which would break the commercial mode for the band. By 1989, New Order would have recorded Treatment, their most overtly dance music oriented album, and the first break in the continuity of my enthusiasm for their music.
But the gig was another stormer, from beginning to end. I had taken my usual position on the balcony, clinging to the front, overlooking the floor below. One thing I didn’t like was the band’s habit of not coming on before 11.00pm, meaning a finish somewhere about or after 12.30am. Add in the return to my car and the drive back to South Manchester, I wasn’t getting into bed until 1.00am, and getting up again at 7.00am to get ready for work.
This time it was 12.40am when they finished the last number and went offstage, the Hacienda house-lights coming up immediately. There was a buzz in the air from the gig. Some people drifted out, but the majority of the audience stayed, me among them. There were no indications – there never were – that they might come back, and it was late and I was tired and I had work in the morning, but I stayed. There was something in the atmosphere, something telling me to stay, that it would be worth it to me if I did.
So I hung around, dehydrated, clammy from the set, whilst nothing happened. Then, without a change in the lighting, or an announcement, the band drifted out again, plugged their instruments in and prepared to play an encore. It had been worth waiting.
It had been more than worth the waiting. The rush of chords, the insistence of drums were instantly recognisable and a cold thrill went through me: they were playing Love Will Tear Us Apart
I’d only once heard that song live before, at the Apollo, that Saturday night in 1979, supporting the Buzzcocks. To hear it again, by the only band who, in my mind, had the right to even think of playing that song, was an astonishment and a dream. I was there. It had happened to me, as it had for a tiny number of audiences over the past three years, as the band chose a solitary gig, near the Anniversary, to remember Ian Curtis. I’d got the bootlegs of those three instances, but now I was here for one.
But the strangest thing of all was the band. They were the same four people, dressed in the same clothing that they had worn during the ninety minutes of their set, the four who had gone off-stage more than five minutes ago, but they were no longer New Order. They weren’t Joy Division, but for the four or so minutes that they played that song, with Barney misremembering the words, but with that oh-my-god, so brilliant a riff that I had missed so very much in the hearing live, they were… different. It was if the song existed in its own zone, into which everyone that entered had to leave their selves behind.
And it was over. There wasn’t the voice in the world with which to scream my delight, my gratitude, my delirium at what had happened.
I went home, undressed, got into bed. It wasn’t a deliberate decision on my part not to see New Order live again: the chance just didn’t happen for long enough that my enthusiasm began to dim, my loyalties shift from Manchester, England to Athens, Georgia. By then it had become fitting that the last song I’d heard New Order play had been the only time I’d heard them cover Joy Division, and become something different in the process.
They had touched magic, and I was there.

Joy Division – Closer

Joy-Division-CloserFor 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.

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?