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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

14. Joy Division: Substance: 1977-1980

On May 18, 1980, Joy Division singer-lyricist Ian Curtis took his own life in the kitchen of his Macclesfield home. This ended the short career of a superb band. Fortunately for us, artists from contemporaries like U2 and The Cure to post-punk revivalists like Bloc Party and Interpol took up the reigns, citing Joy Division as a major influence.

Choosing a Joy Division album to highlight was a chore. The purist...the invested fan in me wanted to choose their 1979 debut, Unknown Pleasures. Then I thought I might choose both Unknown Pleasures and 1980's posthumous release Closer. Those were, after all, the only two studio albums produced by the band. Instead, I chose the compilation record Substance: 1977-1980. Substance is Joy Division's singles compilation and is the companion record to New Order's Substance (New Order, of course, was formed by Joy Division members Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris after the death of their singer). Joy Division's Substance contains the four songs from their first release in 1978, An Ideal For Living, allowing you to hear their original punk sound. It also includes four singles not appearing on the two studio albums, and their B-sides, as well as several other previously released tracks.

Once producer Martin Hannett grabbed hold of them in 1979, Joy Division's sound adopted its more well-known sparse, eerie, and spacious qualities which captured the mood and expression that followed punk rock. They became pioneers of the post-punk movement. Most of Ian Curtis's lyrics center on darkness, loss of control, crisis, failure, and sorrow...not the band to listen to if you're in the mood for margaritas with the girls, but it's important stuff! I saw a recent shot of bassist Peter Hook wearing a shirt stating "We Made HISTORY, Not Money". Missing out on Joy Division's body of work truly is skipping an important piece of music history.

As for the album itself, "Transmission", "Digital", "Atmosphere", "She's Lost Control", "Dead Souls" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart" are incredible, incredible songs (emphasis on "Transmission", "LWTUA", and "Digital"). These may be the stand out tracks, but Substance is packed with thought-provoking, poignant music steeped in mystery and regret. 

I was fortunate enough to see Peter Hook's controversial performance of Unknown Pleasures in its entirety last year at the Doug Fir Lounge in of only eleven U.S. shows. You can click on the link above to read about the controversy. In short, some felt he was capitalizing on Ian Curtis's death to make money. I, however, was overjoyed at the chance to hear a Joy Division set performed right in front of me. The night was everything I hoped it would be (except for the 45 minute video of the life of Ian Curtis and Joy Division in lieu of an opening band...all information Joy Division fans had seen or already knew). Being part of the crowd screaming to the chorus of "Transmission"...closing my eyes and experiencing one of my favorite songs of all time, "Love Will Tear Us Apart"...granted, about halfway through the night Hooky started to sound more like Tom Waits than Ian Curtis, but the mood and the expression was present for me!

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't advise you to watch the movie Control by Anton Corbijn. Newcomer Sam Riley gives a remarkable performance of Ian Curtis in this biopic based on Ian's widow Deborah Curtis's book Touching From A Distance.  The movie is centered around Curtis's pain and depression...his battle with epilepsy, and the rigors and pressures of his being famous.

Here are two videos for you. The first is a recording of "Transmission" from their only TV performance in which we get a glimpse of Curtis as a performer. Of his "dancing", he once hinted that it's a type of sign language for the lyrics (unfortunately, the best clip I could find is tainted with an intro and closing from English performance poet John Cooper Clarke's "Evidently Chickentown"...bloody monotonous!). The second video is the official BBC video for "Love Will Tear Us Apart". This version is a bit "faster" than the original. It's more fun to play and sing, but it's not the original...take that into account. As evidence of their influence, I'll share this...while searching for the video for "LWTUA", I found versions from U2, Bjork, The Cure, Nouvelle Vague, David Gahan (Depeche Mode), Thom Yorke (Radiohead), Arcade Fire, Paul Young (just what Ian would've wanted), Fall Out Boy, Broken Social Scene, Gavin Rossdale (Bush), and, the very best cover of this brilliant song, by Jose Gonzalez. Thanks so much for reading. Please let me know if you enjoyed it.

1 comment:

  1. hey marc,
    just to let you know your blog helped joy division finally click in my brain. back in college, people would talk about them, but i NEVER got it...the lead singer doesn't even sound that good type of thing. as such, new order, for me, was much more friendly to my ears. then your wife facebooked your blog on joy division/ian curtis so i checked it out again...not bad...pretty cool actually...then, especially transmission, just stuck and i found myself youtubing it here and there since then. it's mesmerizing watching them play it. so i heard transmission at a restaurant/bar tonight and had to groove to it. made me think of your blog. thanks, man. chris