Joy Division


I was a child when Ian Curtis took his life on 18 May 1980, forty years ago.  I did not get to experience Joy Division’s genius, intensity, and brilliance at the time.  I have always been slightly jealous of this, they are, I think, the only band before my time I wish I was there for.  I have watched countless bootlegged videos, and later, YouTube, to see them live in and around Manchester in the late 1970s.  Curtis was magnetic on stage, a mixture of misery with a very sly sense of humour.  His commanding voice dominated the scene.  I have no doubt that had he not committed suicide, Joy Division would’ve taken over the world in the 1980s, and all of music would be different today.  And most importantly, New Order would never have existed.

So for the likes of me, it was Substance that introduced me to the band.  I had first heard of Joy Division reading, of all things, Rolling Stone, its Best of the 80s edition. It was the 15 November 1989 edition.  I remember buying that, I was 16 years old and I bought it at the Save-On-Foods in Pinetree Village, Coquitlam, British Columbia.  It was, as usual, raining in suburban Vancouver.  November, in particular, is the killer month.  And I was dawdling on my way home from school, in Port Coquitlam, whereas we lived two towns over, in Port Moody.

I bought it because I was curious about 80s music.  I may have grown up in the decade, but beyond punk and post-punk, I didn’t really know a lot about the music of the decade. I mean, aside from the mainstream, of course.  In the 1980s, the mainstream was well-nigh impossible to escape, it was on MuchMusic, it was on the CBC, it was on the radio.  Vancouver had no fewer than 5 radio stations in the 80s dedicated to rock’n’roll, all of it the mainstream, plus one classic rock station that occasionally ventured as far as The Clash in its attempts to escape the rock cannon.  So, this issue of Rolling Stone was an education for me.  I was already familiar with the likes of Public Image Ltd., the Clash, Sonic Youth, Simple Minds, U2, Echo & the Bunnymen, and the like.   But this was so much more.  London Calling was, in the venerable magazine’s estimation, THE album of the 1980s, even though it had come out on 12 December 1979.  It was hard to argue with that, of course.  I was a big Prince fan, of course, and I had discovered Steve Earle by then.

I discovered all kinds of new music, like The Squeeze, Gang of Four, George Clinton, XTC, X.  And I gained a new way of listening to so many more.  But there, at #56 was an album by this band called Joy Division.  The album was Closer, and the review of it was almost rapturous.  I was put off, of course, by the idea that three-quarters of this band became New Order, but the discussion about Ian Curtis was heavy.  The review included the lyrics from ‘Isolation.’  I wanted this album, but, of course, in suburban Vancouver in 1989, that was not going to happen.  I eventually did find a used copy of Substance in a record store in Vancouver itself the following spring.  I realized this was as close as I was going to get to Closer and bought it.  I took it home.  I was stunned when I pressed play.

Rolling Stone had described Closer as this synth-heavy album, and I later learned it was.  But Substance was all full of angst-ridden punk and guitars, the synths coming later.  I no longer have the cassette version, I eventually bought it on CD in 1993, and that’s the version on my MacBook in AppleMusic.  It had a slightly different track listing, and a couple of tracks that weren’t on the cassette.

But I still remember the first time I pressed play on this album, as it burst into ‘Warsaw,’ which starts with Curtis shouting out random numbers before the music comes slamming in.  This was heavy, it was vital, it was also raw and visceral.  This was what I had yet to discover in punk, aside from DOA, that is: a raw, visceral music.  Punk was, for me, oftentimes just rock with a sneering vocal, at least insofar as I knew when I was 16.  This is why I was so attracted to hardcore. But the original, well, yeah.  It lacked what Joy Division had.

That segues into the drums that start ‘Leaders of Men,’ centred around Peter Hook’s bass, before Bernard Sumner’s guitars kick in, and then Curtis’ vocals.  It’s hard to overstate how captivated I was by his voice, all the desperation, all the misery, the gloaming in it.  And the tragedy of the fact he had been dead for a decade by the first time I heard it.  He had something no other frontman I had ever heard had.  I still don’t quite know what it was.  Watching him on video, it was the way he moved, the way he owned the stage and the crowd, and recorded, I guess it’s the same thing, this commanding, towering presence.  His voice, across this album, is punk, intense, hollow, and lost.

Substance was essentially a form of a best-of, a singles compilation released by Factory Records in 1988, at the same time that New Order released its own Substance.  I do have that album somewhere, though largely for ‘Blue Monday,’ one of the greatest songs ever written.  Otherwise, I can’t stand them.  Anyway.  By the time we get to ‘Digital,’ we see how fragile Curtis was:

Feel it closing in
Feel it closing in
The fear of whom I call
Every time I call
I feel it closing in
I feel it closing in
Day in, day out
Day in, day out
Day in, day out
Day in, day out
Day in, day out
Day in, day out.

And his voice just gets hoarser and louder as he shouts ‘Day in, day out,’ over a distorted bass line and guitar, Steven Morris’ drums pounding, echoed, and insistent, as insistent as Curtis’ lyrics.

The first time I heard ‘She’s Lost Control,’ I was hooked.  Starting off with some post-punk echo on the drums, that The Cure would go onto popularize, Hook’s bass skitters across the tracks, as Curtis’ voice, deep-set and detached:

Confusion in her eyes that says it all.
She’s lost control.
And she’s clinging to the nearest passer by,
She’s lost control.
And she gave away the secrets of her past,
And said I’ve lost control again,
And a voice that told her when and where to act,
She said I’ve lost control again.
I’ve always wondered if this was Curtis gender-bending, or if it was about his wife, or who?  But the song is just this brilliant composition, with Sumner’s guitars exploding into this trebly riff, buried in the mix below the bass and drums.


‘Dead Souls’ is almost a mellow track, rolling drum line, and what would eventually be recognized as a classic Peter Hook bassline, and Sumner’s guitar soaring above it all.  Curtis also played a mean guitar, but it seems he left the axe to Sumner often enough, Curtis focusing either on the synth or just his vocals.  After a crescendo of guitars, Sumner steps off the distortion, and this pretty, slashing riff travels over the bass and drums, and then the guitars build up again, the drumline is the same, and then Curtis’ vocals are detached and essential:
Someone take these dreams away
That point me to another day
A duel of personalities
That stretch all true realities.
That keep calling me
They keep calling me
Keep on calling me
They keep calling me.
Where figures from the past stand tall
And mocking voices ring the halls
Imperialistic house of prayer
Conquistadors who took their share.
Unlike most of Joy Division’s ouevre, rather than create a quiet spot for Curtis’ vocals, here Sumner’s guitar and Curtis’ voice duel for our ears.  This was something I hadn’t heard much of, outside of hardcore, where the guitars and and vocals challenged each other, rather than the instrumentation softening for the vocals.  It was just this whole new way of making music I had never even considered before.  I loved it.

The CD and cassette differ on the placement of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart,’ on the cassette, it was the last track, on the CD, it’s in the middle. I don’t like that, it’s their most recognizable track.  It belonged at the end.
But, on the CD, there is this middle passage of fury, alienation, isolation, and pure visciousness in the music that I was blown away by the first time I heard it in 1990 and remain so now, thirty years later.  It begins with ‘No Love Lost,’ which might be my favourite of all Joy Division tracks.  The song begins with a simple bass line from Hook, before Morris comes in, first twirling on his high hat and then a simple 4/4 beat.  And then, the duelling guitars.  Curtis in the left speaker, or maybe it’s Sumner, and then Sumner in the right, or maybe it’s Curtis.  Don’t care.  These duelling guitars are the shit.  Relatively free of distortion and affects, the left channel soars upwards, and then crashes down.  And then the right channel is this dirty, filthy riff that just flies flat over the music, before crashing.  And then Curtis’ vocals are high in the mix for once, dominating the track, echoed and multiplied for the chorus.  And then this spooky spoken word bit in the middle, with the guitars blasting in both channels, along with bass and drums:
Through the wire screen, the eyes of those standing outside looked in
At her as into the cage of some rare creature in a zoo.
In the hand of one of the assistants she saw the same instrument
Which they had that morning inserted deep into her body.
She shuddered
No life at all in the house of dolls.
No love lost.
No love lost.
This gave me the chills there first time I heard it, I’m not sure I ever got over, it’s just so fucking devastating.


The CD then segues into ‘Failures,’ a searing, hard-rocking track about, well, failures.  Whether Curtis was talking of himself, I don’t know, but I’m not sure, in the end, I care.  This is one of the most vicious tracks I had ever heard c. 1990, both guitars charging across the rhythm section, taking no prisoners.

I remember the first time I cranked on the CD, I was living in the Motordome on East 8th, at Clark Drive.  We didn’t have a phone.  Or heat.  Me and Steve had our rooms next to each other in the basement.  Skippy lived upstairs in the front room, and Jay lived in the backroom upstairs.  The place was hardcore, it was nasty and gross.  But, though Steve and I occasionally got at each other’s throats, we all got on well.  Skip had a cat, Ni (after the Knights Who Say Ni), this big, fat, mouser.  He kept the house rodent free, at least until he met his maker.  There was a detached car garage down in the alley that a local prostitute used for her tricks.  Anyway.  I was blasting this in the living room, and Steve and Jay were home with me, Skip was off somewhere.  They were both stunned that this middle passage was Joy Division.  We all loved Joy Division, but this was a new sound for them.  And it is, in a way, at odds with the band’s larger reputation as synth-driven.
‘These Days’ should be the last track of the CD, not the stupid remix of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ that appears.  Emerging out of a bubbly synth riff, Morris’ drums emerge, classic post-punk.  And then the bass, and the guitar flitters over the track.  Curtis’ lyrics:
Morning seems strange, almost out of place.
Searched hard for you and your special ways.
These days, these days.
Spent all my time, learnt a killer’s art.
Took threats and abuse ’till I’d learned the part.
Can you stay for these days?
These days, these days.
Used outward deception to get away,
Broken heart romance to make it pay.
These days, these days.
We’ll drift through it all, it’s the modern age.
Take care of it all now these debts are paid.
Can you stay for these days?
Was he singing to himself, or to his wife, as their marriage fell apart?  Or was it for Annik Honoré? The synth of this track is the glue that holds together this rather pretty song.


And then, finally, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart.’  This is Joy Division’s biggest song, of course.  It is also a towering song, and had Curtis survived, I’m sure he would hate it now.  But I don’t.  I remember playing the cassette one night back in Ottawa in 1992, and my girlfriend, Tracy, who was most decidedly not into a lot of the nastier music I was, hated this song, it was violent, she said, and dangerous, and gave her the creeps.  Maybe she was right.  Whatevs.
The start of this song, with Hook’s bass, then Sumner’s guitar, and the way Morris’ drums arrive on the scene, and then the song emerges out of this with that gorgeous synth riff, this time it’s Sumner playing it, and Hook’s bass riff carries the song over Morris’ pounding drums (this is what Tracy though the song violent).  And Curtis sings of his wife, Deborah, as their marriage was coming apart. I always read these lyrics in light of the well-known story of Curtis having met the Belgian photographer Annik Honoré.  Curtis was not a nice man in his marriage, it turns out, he was dominating and controlling, as Deborah much later recalled.  And then he had an affair with Honoré, and was consumed by guilt, as he had a child with Deborah, but wanted to be with Honoré.  Apparently he even asked Sumner to tell him what to do, which Sumner refused to do.  But, man, this song, the lyrics, which he sings so sweetly, are devastating:
When routine bites hard
And ambitions are low
And resentment rides high
But emotions won’t grow.
And we’re changing our ways
Taking different roads
Love, love will tear us apart again
Love, love will tear us apart again.
Why is the bedroom so cold?
Turned away on your side
Is my timing that flawed?
Our respect run so dry?
Yet there’s still this appeal
That we’ve kept through our lives
But love, love will tear us apart again
Love, love will tear us apart again.
Do you cry out in your sleep?
All my failings exposed
Gets a taste in my mouth
As desperation takes hold.
And it’s something so good
Just can’t function no more?
Love, love will tear us apart again
Love, love will tear us apart again
Love, love will tear us apart again
Love, love will tear up apart again.


Curtis died just the night before Joy Division were due to leave for America for a tour behind Closer.  I did eventually get my hands on that album at this hole-in-the-wall record store on Dalhousie Street in Ottawa, south of Rideau Street where I also, incidentally, got Bauhaus’ two volume singles collection at the same time.  It also blew me away, but even not, after all these years, and having the entirety of Joy Division’s discography, as well as a few bootlegged live albums, it is still Substance I play the most.  My buddy, Maxime, argues the Joy Division are the greatest band ever.  He may be right.