Chronicle of a death foretold

Joy Division were rooted in grim finality. Now, through a series of new books, CDs, and films, the band has found new life.
By JAMES PARKER  |  October 24, 2007


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What a difference a death makes. In September 1979, after the release of Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division were interviewed by a writer called Dave McCullough for the British music weekly Sounds. It didn’t go well: the band glared sullenly at their interrogator, who found the conversational deficits of singer Ian Curtis, in particular, to be less than impressive. “No amount of undermilling obscurity,” wrote McCullough, “will convince me that Joy Division’s static, murky militancy is real. . . . At the moment, the music (like the people) is too supercilious to ring true.”

Eight months later, Ian Curtis was dead by his own hand at the age of 23, and McCullough — as recorded by David Nolan in his new book Bernard Sumner: Confusion (IMP; 224 pages; $26.65) — was singing a different song in the pages of Sounds. “Ian Curtis was the stuff of enchanted, immutable mystery,” he eulogized desperately. “When I met him, he talked in a whisper. . . . He spun words magically . . . he poured pure silver. . . . That man cared for you, that man died for you.”

Pity the poor journalist: he was only doing his job. He was, in a sense, reporting the facts. For Joy Division fans, Curtis had just made the voyage — approximately the length of a hangman’s rope — from charismatic frontman to supernatural scapegoat/redeemer. Within weeks, Factory Records would release the band’s second album, Closer, the recording of which had been completed before Curtis’s death. Curtis had also had time to approve the cover art: an image, from the sculpted frontispiece of a Genovese tomb, of a Christ-like figure attended by kneeling mourners. Closer’s frigid, cavernous music, meanwhile, sounded less like a suicide note than like the prelude to the fall of an empire. Critics queued up to howl their obsequies. The man was dead, and the religion was beginning.

***
Directive #314(b) from Dept. of Rock Criticism. The following adjectives will no longer be used in articles/books about Joy Division: “gothic,” “Teutonic,” “monastic,” “haunting,” “brooding,” “austere,” “funereal,” “glacial,” “marmoreal.” The adjective “mausolean” is permitted until the end of 2007. Directive ends.

Playing with shadows
Joy Division are much with us these days. This month sees the release of Anton Corbijn’s reverent biopic Control, as well as re-releases of their albums Unknown Pleasures, Closer, and the posthumous collection Still. Grant Gee’s documentary Joy Division is upcoming, and next year we will have Joy Division: Piece by Piece (Plexus), a collection of articles on the band by genius Brit music writer Paul Morley. Another Brit, Simon Reynolds, placed Joy Division at the core of his superb 2006 exploration of post-punk, Rip It Up and Start Again (Penguin). The generation that was in Joy Division’s audience has come to cultural maturity, and it doesn’t want you to forget.

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