Emerging from the industrial desolation of Manchester and originally known as Warsaw, Joy Division expressed, in uncompromising terms, the angst of the great wrong place in which we live, and their updating/refinement of the oppressive weight of heavy metal music combined with singer Ian Curtis’ tormented lyrics and Martin Hannett’s crystalline production to make a qualitative leap onto totally original ground. The band came to an end when Curtis hung himself — hours before they were to leave on their first American tour, thus (though it may be cynical to say so) proving the strength of his convictions. The surviving trio, with one new member, continued, finding far greater commercial success as New Order.
Following the self-release of the 7-inch An Ideal for Living, a skillful but rather unexceptional quartet of Bowie-influenced guitar punk songs, Joy Division did tracks for a local compilation and then signed with the incipient Factory label. (Three of these early tracks, as well as other rarities, can be found on the Substance compilation.)
Unknown Pleasures contrasts the message of decay and bemused acceptance of life’s paradoxes with the energy and excitement of a band set loose in a studio for the first time. The tension of originality constrained by inadequate instrumental skills — simple synthesizers and guitar set against the Peter Hook/Stephen Morris rhythm section’s more obvious punk roots — gives the record a powerfully immediate air; Hannett glazes the chilling, despondent music (including the classic “She’s Lost Control”) with a Teutonic sheen, fusing medium and message into a dark, holistic brilliance. The grim songs are punctuated by the sounds of ambulance sirens and breaking glass, picturing a world speeding towards incomprehensible chaos. Very highly recommended.
With group and producer gaining confidence and ambition, Closer sounds emptier and more distant, with occasional use of strangely distorted synthesizer and jagged shards of guitar, both played by Bernard Albrecht (aka Dicken aka Sumner). Meanwhile, a dislocated Curtis meanders through a world that has robbed him of joy and hope. From the blunt anomie of “Isolation” to the accusatory chorus of the martial-beat “A Means to an End” to the somber piano-based “The Eternal,” Curtis’ commanding vocals dominate the record. On Closer, refinement of the Joy Division ethos produces a purgatory of sound and words. A stunning, deeply personal album.
More than a year after Curtis’ suicide (in May 1980, immediately prior to the release of both Closer and the band’s single best-known song, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”), Joy Division’s outtakes were gathered (along with a few previously issued rarities) on one disc of the two-record Still. (The second record documents the group’s final concert.) Besides four previously unissued tracks from the Unknown Pleasures sessions, Still contains a long, enthusiastic (but carefully controlled) rendition of the obviously influential Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray,” also recorded live. One of the most notable aspects of the album’s engrossing concert half is the inclusion of “Ceremony,” a then-new song that would provide the bridge between Joy Division and New Order as the latter’s first single. As a compilation, Still lacks the coherent intensity of the other two albums, but features a good representation of the various facets of Joy Division’s intimate, desperate music.
Both of Joy Division’s John Peel sessions (January 1979 and November 1979) were issued on four-song EPs and later compiled onto an album. Since both contain material the group had not yet recorded, these artifacts are of immense interest. The first previews “Transmission” and “She’s Lost Control,” while the second boasts a brilliant rendition of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and a foretaste of “Twenty Four Hours.”
Also of enormous historical value is the Substance CD (also available, in the UK, on DAT), which includes a seven-track “appendix” to the vinyl album’s ten songs. This posthumous antidote to Joy Division’s willful obscurity draws almost nothing from the band’s two albums, instead focusing on singles, rarities and the band’s early contributions to Factory and Fast label compilations. Although annoyingly unannotated, Substance offers both non-LP classics (“Transmission,” “Love Will Tear Us Apart”) and high-quality esoterica (like “Atmosphere,” a gently oppressive number first issued on a French flexi-disc).
Although there aren’t any household names on it (judging by the accented English, a lot of them may be Italian), the tribute album is quite wonderful, an imaginative (and refreshingly un-derivative) assortment of interpretations that preserve Joy Division’s dark mood in settings that range from gentle piano ballads (“Love Will Tear Us Apart” performed by the Carnival of Fools) and mild acid-pop (Allison Run’s “Ceremony”) to the manic guitar storm of “Atmosphere” played by Hitchcock’s Scream. The only thing missing is P.J. Proby’s legendary version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”: “Why’s the room so gol-darned cold?”