Saturday, April 18, 2015

J is for… Joy Division

In the pages of Frank's APA we are running through the letters of the alphabet.I would not actually describe myself as the world's biggest fan of Joy Division, but they are a band I like. Their place in music history can easily be summarised. They start off as a Manchester punk/post-punk band. They develop in somewhat doomy directions, perhaps driven by the miserabilism of their lead singer, Ian Curtis. They are apparently on the brink of major success but then Curtis tops himself. And that is the end of that, except that the surviving members regroup, recruit the drummer's girlfriend on keyboards and continue under the new name of New Order.

Joy Division's career was short and they did not record that much, though I suppose two albums and a rake of singles in such a short time makes them remarkably productive. They have probably become more famous since the band's dissolution, with a cinematic documentary followed by a feature film telling the band's story; the Joy Division and Ian Curtis story was also an important part of that film 24 Hour Party People. They have been the subject of many articles by music journalists and several books.

So what do I have to add to this party? Probably not much. The big thing I have to say about Joy Division is that too much of the commentary on Joy Division focusses on Ian Curtis. I am not saying he is overrated as a frontman (though of course I never saw them live), as on record he is clearly a lead singer of power, possessed of a singular vision. What I am saying is that the emphasis on Curtis obscures the input of the band's other members and turns the whole enterprise inappropriately into Ian Curtis and his backing band. The fact that the surviving musicians were able to bounce back so effortlessly from the death of Curtis suggests to me that they were more than just his peons.

In listening to the music of Joy Division, it is apparent in so many of the tunes that the vocals are just part of the mix. The musicians' efforts create a claustrophobic and oppressive atmosphere as much as the singer's deep vocals and sinister lyrics. You only have to listen to the first two minutes or so of 'Dead Souls' to perceive the atmospheric qualities of the instrumental music on its own.

The other perhaps controversial thing I would say about Joy Division is that people sometimes over-emphasise the oppressive doominess of their music and miss the perky pop elements. 'Love Will Tear Us Apart Again' was released as a single after the death of Ian Curtis and will always be associated with his untimely passing. Yet despite the lyrics and their sad evocation of a dying relationship, the music is astonishingly joyous. From the triumphant intro to the surging rhythms that run through the tune, this is a song that calls feet irresistibly to the dance floor. I can imagine that in foreign countries where they do not know English local bands could cover this and sing it with cheery smiles on their faces. In days of yore I used to think it would be an ideal song for Steps to sing.

Joy Division's career was cut short but three of the band's members went on to form New Order, whose more dance floor friendly electronic music enjoyed considerable success. What is always a bit of a mystery is whether Joy Division would have progressed in similar directions to New Order in the event of Curtis remaining alive. It is a difficult question. In some ways early New Order and late Joy Division are not so very different to each other. Joy Division were becoming a bit more electronic and as noted above were not complete strangers to the lure of the dance floor. Early New Order meanwhile maintains a lot of the oppressiveness of Joy Division, as well as a lyrical miserabilism that they never definitively lost (though for tracks like 'World in Motion' it took a definite back seat). But there are other factors in play which may receive further discussion when I reach the letter N.

image source (Stereogum)

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