Ben Winch's Reviews > Joy Division: Piece by Piece

Joy Division by Paul Morley
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Apr 13, 12

bookshelves: music

Sometimes it's hardest to write about the things you love best. Joy Division, for me, is one of those things - 'ground zero' in my comprehension of rock music and the most life-changing band ever, comparable to Kubrick's Clockwork Orange or Borges' Labyrinths as an artistic epiphany. I will never get over this band. 23 years ago I first saw them (via late-night Australian TV) doing 'Transmission' in Manchester's BBC studios and I still remember my mounting shock as the footage unfolded: the rawness, the realness, the focused concentration. Sumner's guitar and the comprehension: 'I could do that!' Hook's and Morris's precision and power. The baffling, hypnotic, eyes-wide-opened presence of Curtis turned to howl-in-the-wilderness as the song peaked, and the look of utter relief that flooded his features as they reached the final few refrains without incident and his body wilted and eyes fell shut. My dad, mum and best friend Reed Cathcart in the room around me. Mum to Dad as the tension mounted: 'I can't believe you like this.' Dad to Reed (who perhaps was not as hypnotised as I was) re Curtis: 'Look at him. He's really feeling it.' Me to Dad: 'It's not just him, it's the band.' And that's just it: this was a BAND. A group of equals. Which is why the cult of personality that's grown up around Curtis baffles me. Touching From A Distance? I only bought it for the lyrics (back then I didn't have the internet), and read the main body of the text grudgingly, curious despite myself but incensed that the first major book on my favourite band should contain so little information on the music. A biography by the one key Curtis intimate who was barred from almost all the gigs?! Worse still, mention Joy Division these days (since Touching..., since Control) and you're as likely to get the response 'Ian Curtis was a bastard!' as any kind of meaningful comment on the music. I mean Jeez, how many of us would fare well in a tell-all biography by an ex-girlfriend? Besides which, has anyone read a biography of the sainted John Lennon lately? Me, I could give two shits what Curtis did in his spare time, which is why when it comes to recommending a book on his band I'm gonna have to make it this one, despite its faults. Not that Morley – or anyone from the original Factory camp – seems all that interested in uncovering 'the truth'. Light on information and heavy on bluster, every story about Factory Records seems to attest to the enduring influence of founder Tony Wilson's stated philosophy: 'Between truth and legend, print the legend,' and Morley's high concept pontificating is no exception. Approaching his task as if he were one of the 12 apostles, with this approach supposedly legitimised by Wilson's having prophesied it, Morley does nothing to counter the prevailing image of Mancunians as shameless self-promoters, and little to cut through the fog of myth. But the fact remains: Morley was there, and he loved the music. And another fact almost (but only almost) absolves him, and all the key players, of such congenital wankery: in the late 70s Manchester really was the site of some sort of minor miracle, which allowed four boys from the provincial grey suburbs to create a sound that not only epitomised urban European sophistication but seemed to have come from Mars. What was their secret? Producer Martin Hannett? Maybe – though again, given the cloud of myth surrounding him (the existing Hannett biography is so facile that I couldn't make it past the first 10 pages), we'll probably never know. I'd say Hannett had something to do with it, though I've also always agreed with the band that he fluffed the production of Unknown Pleasures, bleaching it of power even while creating the techniques that enabled Closer (the masterpiece) in the process. Curtis, then? To a degree. His commitment, for sure – the same take-no-prisoners approach that would later characterise Kurt Cobain, a powerful force to have in your corner. But add to that the seemingly-selfless sheer unpretentiousness of his bandmates - who would later (as New Order) refuse to pose for photos, mime for videos or move to London - and I think you begin to grasp the Mancunian paradox. Because, at street level, the Manchester of the late-70s surely must have been one of the least forgiving environments for the budding wanker in England. Even today, after the wave of glitzy 'urban renewal', it's a commonsensical kind of place. And if you ask me you can see this in the way the boys from Joy Division conducted themselves: zero flash, shorn of ego, dressed neat with hair cut short, almost military but without the pose that military costume would imply. Yet from this foundation they were able to lift off to another realm. 30 years later, go into Dry Bar (opened by New Order in Manchester's then-derelict Northern Quarter in the 90s) and the classic black-and-white Kevin Cummins photos seem to have been beamed in from another reality; 'How could this have happened here?' they seem to say. Astonishingly, people keep on drinking in the plush surroundings, apparently oblivious to the paradox - to the figure of Curtis as if hewn from stone, eyes transfixed by the unimaginable, among all this torpid revelry. No exaggeration, the story of Joy Division is – or should be – one of the most moving in rock music. But whether it can be told, I can't say. If you're curious, this book will help a little. The documentary – simply entitled Joy Division – which came out soon after Control will help a little more. And Control itself probably won't hurt. RIP Ian and power to the others for keeping on. Life-changing.
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