Joy Division. Play Loud Or Perish
THE BEST ALBUM NEVER MADE? – by g. william rex
We all have “defining” moments of varying intensity in our lives. One of mine occurred thirty-three years ago. I had just finished law school and was becoming increasingly obsessed with punk music and, more to my liking, what would later be called “post-punk.” It should be noted that to this point, music had been an incidental part of my life despite the fact that my paternal grandparents had both been musicians. My LP “collection” consisted of one milk carton containing a mishmash of predictable, boring stuff.
In 1979 I had been introduced to new “alternative music” and had quickly acquired about 20 LPs by bands such as The Specials, Wire, XTC, Buzzcocks, Magazine, The Clash, 999, Talking Heads and The Fall. I loved the immediacy and intensity of the music as well as the lack of pretentiousness. At that time, information about alternative music in North America was mostly learned by word of mouth (and very few mouths I might add) and by reading the three British music weeklies New Musical Express, Sounds and Melody Maker (sadly only the NME survives today). Access to purchase this “new” music was also very uneven as this was very much an underground phenomenon.
Another student from my University newspaper (where I had been sports editor in my senior year of law school and he, entertainment) had told me about this “brilliant” young band called “Joy Division.” They hailed from near Manchester, England and were coming to North America for their first tour in May, 1980. He was bragging that he had a ticket to see them in Toronto.
Based solely on my friend’s recommendation, I went to visit a record store in Port Huron, Michigan (about a 60 mile drive from my then residence in London, Ontario, Canada) in search of their music.
On entering this store, I was immediately jarred – on the cover of the NME was a pronouncement that Ian Curtis, lead vocalist for Joy Division, was dead. I was both stunned and confused but, at the time, not overly emotional about this news since I hadn’t heard the band’s music.
I purchased the paper (which I now wish I’d kept) and a 7″ single by Joy Division entitled “Transmission” b/w “These Days.”
Once home, I put this record on my turntable and – to use a well-worn phrase – the rest is history. I heard this rumbling, pulsing bass start-up over a funereal organ sound and then in this stunning baritone voice the booming refrain – “Radio, life transmission…” The thunderous rhythm of Peter Hook’s bass, drummer Steven Morris’ incessant pounding of the skins all washed through Bernard Sumner’s lead guitar combined with the bone chilling voice of Ian Curtis – sent me into heaven. On just my first listen I knew it was my favourite song ever – and it remains so to this day. The pure, raw emotion of this sonic blast is amazing (a desire not to be institutionalized prevents me from disclosing how many times I have listened to this song since.)
I immediately tracked down their debut album “Unknown Pleasures” and whatever little other Joy Division music I could find, like a ravenous dog. At this time I had no means of even knowing what the discography for this band was and I spent dozens of hours scouring record bins.
A short time later the final, second proper Joy Division album “Closer” and the breathtaking last single, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, were released posthumously. Some further JD music (unreleased, and live songs) were made available when the compilation album “Still” came out about a year later (this occurred around the same time that the debut album “Movement” by the successor band New Order was released). My proudest moment came when I uncovered a 12″ record at a store in New York City. It was a compilation with two obscure bands called “Contradictions” and contained two JD songs- “From Safety To Where” and “Autosuggestion”. It was a veritable needle in a haystack.
From that point on, collecting and listening to “alternative” music has been my favourite pastime. Today, after 33 years of practising law and raising a family etc, I have over 80,000 legally purchased songs in my collection (no piracy for me, thanks.)
I look back on listening to Transmission as a pivotal point in my personal life.
Joy Division have always been this shining nova that burned brightly for such a short time. Their impact on me is as strong today as ever. Musically and lyrically they are my favourite band ever. I am still amazed by the brutal intensity of “Shadowplay” and the foreshadowing of Curtis’ impending departure in songs like the smoldering “Heart and Soul”:
Existence well what does it
I exist on the best terms I can,
The past is not part of the
The present is well out of
…the present is well out of
In addition to the brilliant “Transmission”, some people think the single “Atmosphere” is the best song ever released. Amazingly, it was only released as a free 7″ record (backed with the searing “Dead Souls”) in a French publication (“Sordide Sentimentale”). Something like 1,578 copies were pressed.
Many people may know Joy Division from the movies “24 Hour Party People” (about the Manchester music scene) and/or “Control” (about the life and death of Ian Curtis.) However, most know the band from their final “official” single and most well-known song, the aforementioned “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” While Transmission is my fave, “Love Will..” contains some of the most poignant lyrics ever:
Why is the bedroom so cold?
Turned away on your side
Is my timing that flawed?
Our respect run so dry?
You cry out in your sleep
All my failings exposed
And there is a taste in my mouth
As desperation takes hold
…Yeah, love will tear us apart.
How this young man from the greyness of a then crumbling Manchester could have understood so much about the human condition is a mystery to me.
While the visceral “Unknown Pleasures” and the majestic and more ethereal (but still intense) second album “Closer” are two of my top 10 all- time favourites, this continual quest for Joy Division music and extensive research about the band has caused me to consider that perhaps the most amazing thing about them is the output of many of the brilliant songs they released were not on either proper album!
Joy Division did not follow the norm of most bands in having their singles populate long-players. I have always wondered what a selection of just some of these individual non-album songs would be like if listened to continuously as if they had been made into an “album.” All of these songs were recorded within about a two-year period – not an unheard of time for an album to gestate. So on the understanding that subjectivity is the essence of art, I have taken the liberty of creating a playlist of what I think is the greatest “album” NEVER made!
Here is my tracklisting set out as if it were a long-player.
1. Exercise One
2. Sound Of Music
3. The Only Mistake
4. Something Must Break
5. Dead Souls
9. These Days
10. From Safety to Where…
13. In A Lonely Place*
14. Love Will Tear Us Apart
(* These two songs were written by Joy Division but released initially by successor band New Order. Rough Joy Division demos of these two songs were on the 1998 collection “Heart and Soul”, but are of lesser quality so I recommend the New Order version albeit without Curtis’ vocal.)
May 18, 2013 marked the 33rd Anniversary of the death of Ian Curtis at the age of 23. At his residence in Macclesfield, near Manchester, Ian hanged himself on the night before Joy Division were to fly to America. He left behind his wife, Deborah Curtis (who later wrote the book “Touching From A Distance”- a lyric from “Transmission”) a one year old daughter (Natalie), and a mistress in Europe.
It is speculated that Curtis (whose epilepsy condition was worsening) was despondent over his health and the deterioration of his marriage.
In recent years I have met and struck up a casual friendship with Peter Hook (who I believe is the greatest bass player of all time). Today, Peter is a successful DJ, club owner and active musician. In addition to Joy Division, he is a “former” member of New Order (“Blue Monday” is still the largest selling 12″ single ever and in this writer’s opinion was the genesis of modern dance music). He also captained the bands, Revenge, Monaco and Freebass.
Currently Peter, his son Jack, and other guest musicians are travelling the world as Peter Hook and the Light playing both Joy Division and New Order albums.
I urge you to create the playlist above and give it a listen. I believe you will be astonished at the quality of the album that was never made!
“Play Loud Or Perish”
Words by g. william rex