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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

VIDEO: Joy Division, "Atmosphere"

Pleasures still unknown: Convention takes Control of Ian Curtis. By Peter Keough.

Disc by disc: The new Joy Division catalogue. By Matt Ashare.

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.

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.”

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Chronicle of a death foretold
Was Curtis really at the Pistols show? I know that the others formed the band first without him, and then sought him out because they needed a singer...For me, Sumner was always, as you say, the "druid" of the group; Curtis was unstable and it shows in his off-key warblings. And he never did break out of his Jim-Morrison hell-shell. That said, he's a great maverick-fruitcake-rebel-revolutionary, like Johnny Rotten or Genesis P-Orridge.
By gordon on 10/25/2007 at 10:01:11
Chronicle of a death foretold
There was nothing fruit-cakey about Curtis. I always felt that his hermetically-sealed, delusions-of-grandeur fantasties were all too grounded in the desperate need to escape the oppressive grayness of Manchester. At the same time, his lyrics elevated Manchester's stark, crumbling architectural landscape into a kind of fascist playground. Curtis worked an alchemical transformation on the humble materials he'd been given.
By Andrea on 10/27/2007 at 11:45:09
Chronicle of a death foretold
Well even John Lennon was a little fruit-cakey. It goes with the territory of being a disturbed, alchemical artist.
By gordon on 10/27/2007 at 5:25:20

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