GROWING up on the right side of the Pennines – the wrong side if you wanted a signal from Granada TV – I missed out on the influence of the Blessed Tony and his So It Goes televised punk-fest, and decent music on telly was pretty much limited to Top Of The Pops (well, if someone like PIL or Earth Wind & Fire were on) and The Old Grey Whistle Test.
John lived round the corner from me in the village where I grew up and we bonded over a mutual appreciation of John Peel’s late night Radio One show. Thanks to the influence of an arty-farty and trendy big brother, John used to wear RAF flying suits, dance like Richard Jobson and play me Kraftwerk, Devo and John Foxx albums. He also brought round the two Joy Division albums but they didn’t really make much of an impression. Probably a bit too subtle for me at the time.
Then I saw a short clip of their music on The Old Grey Whistle Test. The band weren’t even in the studio, so instead they showed this mad black and white Jan Svankmajer jerky stop-motion animation of a wolf stalking through a wintry forest, which perfectly matched the monochrome thump of Isolation. Nightmarish, but utterly fascinating too. It made a massive impression on me. I’d never seen or heard anything like it in my life.
I bought the 12-inch of Transmission from Singer’s record shop, All Tomorrow’s Parties, more or less at random. It was all bit too cool and intimidating for me at the time. Scunthorpe as a whole was still a little exotic and disorientating for this naturalised country boy. I just went in, flicked through the very sparse racks trying not to appear too stupid, bought the first thing I vaguely recognised – and could afford – and high-tailed it out of there as soon as I could.
Other purchases I remember from there included Man Ah Warrior by Tappa Tzukie, Candyskin by the Fire Engines and New Life by Depeche Mode. Like I say, random.
Actually, thinking about it now, I probably went for it because its typically understated and beautiful Peter Saville sleeve had a picture of a Fairlight synth on the front that looked vaguely like the kind of cities you see in sci-fi movies, like Tokyo in space. Or something.
Either way, Transmission was a major, bass-heavy monster of a tune. It was uncompromising and exhilarating, and really stylish and sophisticated, but also thrillingly primal and direct. It was dark and dirty and edgy and somehow very attractive. I liked it a lot.
I went on an exchange holiday to Madrid around Easter, 1982 and bought a live bootleg tape – and, like a dick, a beret – from the Rastro Sunday flea market in Madrid. All these leather, bristles, studs and acne Spanish punks kept asking if I wanted to buy some chocolate. I thought they just wanted to sell me some chocolate. In fact, it was probably pot. Or smack. But I’d blown all my money, so I didn’t take them up on it.
I’ve always wondered if my life would have taken a different direction if I had.
Ian Curtis was long dead by the time I really got into Joy Division. The remaining members of the band, having briefly considered calling themselves the Witchdoctors of Zimbabwe, wisely decided to continue making music under the name of New Order.
I think eventually, a few years later, I used my fairly generous discount at Record Village to buy Unknown Pleasures and Closer, although I can’t be sure. I bought them somewhere. They were great and all that, but I always preferred my bootleg tape, to be honest.
Somewhere along the line, they fell out of step with my fickle tastes. I stopped listening to them. And all of them, Transmission, Unknown Pleasures, Closer, even my bootleg tape, ended up getting lost, flogged or nicked. But there was too much good new stuff coming out to worry about it that much.
Long since relocated to the land of dark, satanic mills on t’other side o’ t’Pennines, a few months ago I bought a £14.99 reissue of Unknown Pleasures (“.. remastered from the original master tapes, original artwork, heavyweight 180-gram vinyl ..”) from the very wonderful Piccadilly Records in town and found an original copy of Closer in the Oxfam shop (£7.99, thank you very much) round the corner from me.
Listening to them both now, the first thing that strikes you is that Joy Division still sound so very different to, well, pretty much everything, despite everyone from U2 to the Smiths to the Gossip appropriating elements of their sound. Just like the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, Can, Kraftwerk, Roxy Music and, I suppose, if you insist, Bowie (all of whom were big influences on Joy Division in various ways), they were simply decades ahead of the game.
There’s barely anything there, apart from the very basics. Often austere and restrained, the two albums are a succession of simple motifs and song structures underpinning a feeling of barely repressed mayhem.
The combination of Peter Hook’s big, bouncy basslines leading from the front, Stephen Morris’s oddly mechanical drums, as regular and unchanging as one of those new fangled drum machines, Barney Sumner’s hesitant one-note guitar solos and Curtis’s laboured, even tortured croon, is a winner by any standards, but would we still be talking about it decades later if it hadn’t been filtered through the mind of wayward production visionary Martin Hannett?
Who would have thought that a pair of Salford gobshites like Sumner and Hook, working with a couple of nice Cheshire boys like Curtis and Morris, could produce something so beautiful and profound from the grime, rain and greasy chip-wrappers in the piss-streaked gutters of Greater Manchester? Well, Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson for a start.
Factory might have completely missed the opportunity to sign the Smiths, they might never have released a proper house record (despite popularising house music in Britain via the Hacienda), they might have signed the musical car crash that is Northside, but as far as I’m concerned anyone who helped kick-start Joy Division’s career has earned their place in history.
The music on both Unknown Pleasures and Closer is proper moody, contradictory, beautiful/ugly northern soul that never makes as much sense as when you’re driving round the neon-lit “centre of the city at night, waiting for you ..” It alternates a delicate lightness of touch with moments where it has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
And permeating everything is a feeling of melancholy, of longing for something that is gone forever, or maybe even for things yet to come – a dichotomy which is, I guess, an accurate reflection of the mood of the times in which it was made.
If you don’t own these albums, you probably should. You’re missing out.
The fact is, there are more truly classic songs on either of these two albums – She’s Lost Control, Isolation, Atrocity Exhibition, Disorder, Shadowplay, Heart And Soul, Passover, the list goes on – than most bands make in an entire career.
Just imagine what their third album would have been like.
See also: The Tony Wilson Experience
* * *
One thing I like about these two albums is the fact that there are no singles on them.
I like that. Maybe it was just a way of getting more money out of fans. Maybe it was some bloody minded artistic statement.
Either way, as an early Christmas present, here are a few links to a few different Love Will Tear Us Apart covers / mash-ups.
Swans contented themselves making largely unlistenable industrial slow-mo metal like Time Is Money (Bastard) until, confusingly, they went all REM on us and did this beautiful and fairly faithful cover of Love Will Tear Us Apart.
More recently, top French covers band Nouvelle Vague did an equally lovely version on their debut album – although one of the more innovative treatments of the song comes with this piece of Missy-goes-to-Macclesfield madness.