“Punk enabled you to say ‘fuck you’, but it couldn’t go any further,” said Factory records founder Tony Wilson. “It was a single, venomous, two-syllable phrase of anger. Sooner or later, someone was going to say more; someone was going to want to say ‘I’m fucked.’” That ‘someone’ was Joy Division. And specifically, it was Ian Curtis, who killed himself in May 1980, at the age of 23.
The Manchester-based band was formed by lyricist and vocalist Curtis, drummer Stephen Morris, guitarist/keyboardist Bernard Sumner, and bassist Peter Hook, and was famously formed after the latter two met at a Sex Pistol’s gig. The group produced only two studio albums, Unknown Pleasures (1979) and Closer (1980), but both are considered as something close to sacred by fans. To those who know the story and the music, Joy Division, and Ian Curtis in particular, will always hold a special place in their hearts. Here are Guitars Exchange’s choice of their best 10 songs:
10) Love Will Tear Us Apart (1980)
“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…”
This lyric was written at a time in Ian Curtis’ life when he was torn between his relationship with his wife, Deborah Curtis, and his lover Annik Honore. He was also battling severe epilepsy and was reportedly dreading his role in Joy Division’s first ever tour of America. “Ian's personal life – that was all going badly,” said Stephen Morris of his emotional state at that time.
Love Will Tear Us Apart was released in April 1980 but didn’t chart. Curtis hung himself in his kitchen the following month. The single was re-released in June 1980 and became Joy Division’s biggest hit. Peter Hook has said that the song represents their best work. "That song has everything," he said. "A great bass line, wonderful synths, a great showcase of Steve's drumming, the simple yet effective guitar that became one of our trademarks." It’s unlike anything else in their entire back catalogue, and the irony is that their biggest hit didn’t even appear on either of their two album releases. On 23 June, 2012, the NME named it as the greatest song in the magazine's 60 years of existence.
9) A Means To An End (1980)
“A house somewhere on foreign soil, Where aging lovers call,
Is this your goal, your final needs, Where dogs and vultures eat,
Committed still I turn to go,I put my trust in you,I put my trust in you”
Curtis’s voice is particularly hypnotic on a track that is Closer’s highlight for many. Joy Division’s live sound was very different to their studio albums and this was in great part due to the iconoclastic producer Martin Hannett. The story that he forced Morris to dismantle his drum kit and rebuild it with parts from a toilet may be apocryphal, but it certainly says something about his passion to create something unique. According to Hannett: "There was a lot of space in [Joy Division's] sound. They were a gift to a producer, because they didn't have a clue. They didn't argue.” There is evidence that the band would not agree on that point, but as time passed they came to accept that Hannett had been right to impose himself. Joy Division’s final sound is as much due to Hannett as it is to all four members of the band.
8) Decades (1979)
“Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders, Here are the young men, well where have they been? We knocked on the doors of Hell's darker chamber, Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in.”
Decades is the final song on Closer, and it closed the chapter on Joy Division. The song is about doomed young lives, and the front cover of the album pictured a religious, sculptural-type scene with, presumably, a mother on her knees before a young man lying on his death bed. The washed-out synths on this track brings an atmosphere of starkness, longing and despair, while Curtis sounds utterly defeated; it makes you feel like you are standing in front of a huge, bottomless pit.
7) Dead Souls (1980)
The title for Dead Souls, the original B-side to Atmosphere, was taken from Nikolai Gogol’s classic novel of the same name. The song draws listeners into a trance-like state with an instrumental intro that lasts well over two minutes, before Curtis comes in with the unforgettable lines: “Someone take these dreams away, That point me to another day, A duel of personalities, That stretch all true realities.” The monotone drumming and driving rhythm guitar then provide the backdrop to the shout of: “They keep calling me, Keep on calling me”, as Curtis chillingly conjures up the phantoms in his mind. In a fit of madness Gogol destroyed a large part of his novel before his death, and what is left ends half-way through a sentence; a fitting context of anguish for this incredible song.
6) Twenty Four Hours (1980)
“So this is permanence, love's shattered pride. What once was innocence, turned on its side. A cloud hangs over me, marks every move, Deep in the memory, of what once was love.”
Morris’s normally understated drumbeats are transformed here into something unpredictable and frenetic. It almost feels like the song is anxious to get somewhere, and as if it is desperately trying to escape from something. It has been suggested that the end lyric ‘Gotta find my destiny, before it gets too late’ offers a glimpse of hope, but this critic, when thinking about Curtis’s fate, reads it as exactly the opposite.
5) Shadowplay (1979)
“To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you,
To the depths of the ocean where all hopes sank, searching for you,
I was moving through the silence without motion, waiting for you,
In a room with a window in the corner I found truth.”
Shadowplay can be viewed as a transitional song from the more punk-oriented sound of the first album to the more atmospheric feel of the second, and in some ways can be said to offer a glimpse of the band’s musical direction. Don’t miss the YouTube video that shows Curtis staring at the floor as the Granada TV presenter gives a rather long-winded introduction before Hook’s ominous bassline kicks in…
4) Passover (1980)
“This is the crisis I knew had to come, Destroying the balance I'd kept,
Turning around to the next set of lies, Wondering what will come next.”
Passover is unusual in that lyrically it seems to be a reflection of Curtis’s feelings about the bands’ growing popularity. He looks for “sanctuary from these feverish smiles” and asks “Is this the gift that I wanted to give?” Sumner’s guitar randomly cuts through Morris’s incessant drumming – and the result is outstanding.
3) Atmosphere (1980)
“Walk in silence, Don't walk away, in silence,
See the danger, Always danger…”
This glacial song again provides a contrast to Joy Division’s other work and creates an atmosphere that is full of dark and fluctuating energy that never finds its release. It is anthemic and the video, with its bizarre images of monks with pointed hoods walking on a beach, works perfectly with its lyrical theme of isolation and self-delusion. Atmosphere was specifically chosen by British DJ John Peel to play on his radio show following the announcement of Curtis’s death.
2) Transmission (1979)
“Radio live transmission, Radio live transmission…”
Curtis’s deep baritone voice is rarely put to such good use as it is at the start of Transmission, which manages to be bleak, erratic and pop-oriented all at the same time. On the video Hook can be seen playing a Rickenbacker and Sumner a Shergold Masquerader, while Curtis seems, as he often does, to be in a trance, while he acts out his unique arm-flailing dance. Many fans associated this manic movement with his epilepsy, and in fact he did sometimes have fits during a show, which made it difficult for some to know exactly what was going on. His bandmates have said that most of the time however, Curtis was simply lost in the music. “Dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio!” Curtis wildly intones, in a line that marvellously fuses a kind of call to have fun with someone screaming commands at a rally.
1) New Dawn Fades (1979)
Difficult as it has been to try to order 10 from so many great songs, New Dawn Fades here takes the number one spot. Firstly the eerie opening sounds, apparently ‘a backward sample from Insight’, sparks the listener’s attention before the heavy drumbeat and distinctive guitar riff kick in, as if some enormous statement is about to be made. At first slow and menacing, the song speeds up before Curtis starts to sing: “A change of speed, a change of style. A change of scene, with no regrets, A chance to watch, admire the distance, Still occupied, though you forget,” which suggests to this critic a person who has to transform everything and wants to put the past behind them, but at the same time feels distant and alienated from the world. “Different colours, different shades, Over each mistakes were made. I took the blame. Directionless so plain to see, A loaded gun won't set you free. So you say,” Curtis continues, in words that need little further explanation. As the song builds the singer’s voice sounds increasingly strained and frantic as he sings “I’ve walked on water, run through fire, can’t seem to feel it anymore,” before letting rip with the despairing and heart-wrenching: “It was me, waiting for me, hoping for something more; Me, seeing me this time, hoping for something else.” Sumner and Hook play contrasting guitar riffs as the song builds to its peak which, combined with the lyrics, creates a simply devastating effect. It is also something very human, vulnerable, and sublime; like those who made it happen.
RIP Ian Curtis (15 July, 1956 – 18 May, 1980)