Muddying the myth of Joy Division

The truth is, Joy Division were “a bit of a joke” –  until suddenly they weren’t.

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Joy Division are now a global brand. Here, Jon Savage restores them to the local – to the time, place and people who shaped them. Perhaps you know about all that already: the Seventies, Manchester, Factory Records, their mad-genius producer, the derelict warehouse in which they rehearsed, and singer Ian Curtis’s suicide less than three years after it all began. There are memoirs, biographies, websites, films and merchandise. What else is there to add?

Whether or not the material is familiar, Savage’s thoughtful orchestration of the band’s oral history is illuminating. It muddies the clean lines of their now mythical narrative, chronicling the false starts, the ejected founder members, the different looks and names. They were “a bit of a joke” until suddenly they weren’t. There is no particular moment or song to pin this on, just that, at a certain point, they stopped trying to sound like anyone else. Tony Wilson, co-founder of Factory, said, “I still don’t know where Joy Division came from.” These interviews and anecdotes map what they came out of without forcing an explanation of how or why.

Manchester was the first industrial city but by the mid-Seventies much of its industry had come to a stop. Provincial Britain was a place of boredom and violence, suspicious of difference, ambition and pleasure. Steven Morris, Joy Division’s drummer, recalls going to a café that had a jukebox which the owner would unplug whenever anyone put a record on. These were the last years of counterculture, and Manchester also had its collectives, manifestos, situationism, independent record shops and radical bookshops. Joy Division became an expression of something universal that could only have been created then and there.

Those iconic pictures of the band hunched inside their coats in the snow were not as romantic as they now appear. The Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn was shocked: “You come to England, and
there’s extreme poverty and people drinking and smoking and having just a little shirt on and a thin coat and they stand outside in winter.” Joy Division were “four young guys who were standing there smoking, shaking, like this – ‘Are we OK?’ – underdressed, malnourished”.

Forming a band was simple. Finding the right manager, producer, record company and designer was not. Joy Division underplay their luck as much as they underplay their talent. It’s what these interviewees take for granted that is particularly revealing. The band seem not to notice the hard work they put in. Guitarist Bernard Sumner, who built his own synthesiser, says that “Music’s like anything else: you have to educate yourself, or be educated by it, until you’re good at it. Those were the days of our education.”

Martin Hannett, who transformed their sound in the studio, “was just some sort of strange rumour of a character that seemed to be on the edges of the music business somehow” (Paul Morley). Every crucial presence was just as unlikely and yet they were doing something extraordinary. As Morley says: “You didn’t have to run away to the circus, they were the circus.”

Joy Division’s sound evolved out of four people doing their own thing, unable anyway to hear each other as their equipment was so bad. They were also learning together. Curtis said if anyone joined them, “it would have to be someone who couldn’t really play, so that [they] could learn to play like us”. Bassist Peter Hook describes the band as perfectly balanced: “It was very equal: it was the four of us and you were all going in the right direction.” With no way to record rehearsals, the music, as Hook says “only existed when the four of you played it together”.

Liz Naylor was writing for Manchester’s esteemed fanzine, City Fun. When she got hold of Unknown Pleasures, she didn’t have a record player and so she took it to one of those dilapidated dance halls where bands used to play, with mould blooming on the walls, and heard the record for the first time over a bad PA in that vast, dank space – which suited it perfectly. “They were like an extension of me… Other bands I’d go and see and I’d have an opinion on, but Joy Division were my ambient world.” Sumner relates the empty spaces that the music evokes to more personal loss: “All that was left was a chemical factory. It’s all gone – the houses, the people… So, for me, Joy Division was about the death of my community and my childhood.”

The book’s blurb describes Curtis as “shamanic” and “visionary”, which is not only reductive but at odds with the subtleties of Savage’s approach. We are reminded of how young and susceptible Curtis was,
how distressed and unwell. His epilepsy and depression were little understood, poorly diagnosed and crudely treated. There is an agony of hindsight in the final pages. Morley remembers that as Curtis’s lyrics became more desperate, his voice became more suave, making it harder to detect his pain. His widow Deborah could see that “People admired him for the things that were destroying him.” It may be hard to understand now why no one intervened, but as Hook says, “There were no adults… Ian told us he was all right, and we believed him. I don’t know what else you’re supposed to do at 21.”

The touring was relentless. Hook: “It was horrible, the pain of witnessing Ian. He was obviously ill, he was obviously really struggling, but… he didn’t want to stop.” The weekend of his suicide is given in fractured slow-motion: a long shock from which those involved have yet to recover.

These interviews are a precious archive. Several of the key figures here are now gone. Manchester has been transformed and Factory is now a heritage industry. “Yes, it’s a fabulous story,” said Wilson, “the story of the rebuilding of a city that begins with them, the story of a tragic suicide, a moral story and a cultural, academic, intellectual, aesthetic story, but at the heart of it, it’s only here because they wrote great songs, and great songs never die.” 

Lavinia Greenlaw’s most recent poetry collection is “The Built Moment” (Faber)

This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else. Joy Division: The Oral History
Jon Savage
Faber & Faber, 336pp, £20

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special