Chronicle of a death foretold

By JAMES PARKER  |  October 24, 2007

The Joy Division sound, meanwhile, reduced and boiled down by its imitators, is currently epidemic. Big drums, plangent basslines, an affect-free baritone — what’s it like, I wonder, to be in Interpol right now? Or Editors, or the National, or She Wants Revenge? Can it be pleasant to have your band’s name rolled out in every single article about Joy Division, as an example of their influence and permanent modernity, when you must know — you must — that, artistically speaking, you can barely touch the hem of their frigging garment? Those bumptious Killers, for some reason, have just released a cover version of Joy Division’s “Shadowplay”: interestingly, they attempt to perform it as a crisp and twitchy-rumped little club number before getting completely lost in the dark magnitude of the song. Maybe Glenn Danzig could have handled it. Or Johnny Cash.

Could there be other, obscurer reasons for the Joy Division resurgence? Ian Curtis’s lyrics were like the bad dreams of a tyrant, images from a psychic under-realm where seer and blind man, victim and oppressor, wheeled and blended. “Oh I’ve seen the nights filled with bloodsport and pain/And the bodies obtained, the bodies obtained. . . . Where will it end?” (“Day of the Lords”). It’s a dark, backward projection into history — but were Curtis to reconstitute himself and walk among us in 2007, he might find the atmosphere rather congenial to his muse. Empires are on the move again, strange leaders are rising, atrocities are being committed at remote sites, and everyone, but everyone, is either medicated or falling apart.

Joy Division formed in 1977 in Manchester, a city caked in the soot of the previous century’s coal fires, and they came up as part of the ferment of moods and ideas that defined the post-punk period. Like Morrissey, members of the Buzzcocks, and future Factory boss Tony Wilson (who passed away in August and who was memorably portrayed by Steve Coogan in 2002’s 24-Hour Party People), Curtis had been in the audience for the Sex Pistols show at the Lesser Free Trade Hall on July 20, 1976. Also present were guitarist Bernard Sumner and bassist Peter Hook. “After the performance,” wrote Curtis’s widow, Deborah, in her 1995 memoir Touching from a Distance (Faber), “everyone seemed to move quickly toward the door. It seemed as if we had all been issued with instructions and now we were set to embark on a mission.”

For Curtis, time was very short. In December 1978, he suffered his first epileptic seizure, and the remaining 18 months of his life were a spiral of marital breakdown, intensifying attacks, and smothering, confusing medication. Phenobarbital, Dilantin, Tegretol. He wrote the song “She’s Lost Control” about a fellow epileptic, a girl he knew who had died during a seizure. Reynolds, in Rip It Up and Start Again, writes of the track’s “mechano-disc drum loop, tom-toms like ball-bearings, a bassline like steel cable undulating in strict time, and a guitar like a contained explosion.”

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