Monday, September 17, 2007

Day In, Day Out *

*or 'oh no, not another bloody piece about Joy Division'
It is always a fairly dubious experience when one's obsessions, particularly those most internalised, most personal, become public property; become, my God, spread all over the newspapers. I am happy, in the main, pottering along with a little set of interests few others care about - or, certainly, no one in my immediate enviroment, in my (God help me) peer group. As a young man, being very taken with Louis-Ferdinand Celine or, say, Kenneth Anger wasn't the best way to make friends - it wasn't, let me tell you, the quickest route to getting the girls interested.
I recall the release of Cronenberg's provocative but very flawed adaptation of Naked Lunch - suddenly you had poorly informed articles about William S. Burroughs appearing in the mainstream press ... shocking, that was, to me. I had thought I was on pretty safe ground with Uncle Bill, here was an interest of mine, surely, never designed for overground consumption.

Now here we go again - a sudden flurry (I originally wrote, parapraxis-wise, slurry) of Joy Division related activity; the imminent release of the Ian Curtis biopic Closer, a documentary about the band currently picking up awards at international film festivals, the repackaging (again!) of the back catalogue, the recent , very sad, death of Tony (that's Anthony H. to you and me) Wilson - all these conspire to push the lads back under the beady eye of Grub Street ... the one place Joy Division doesn't belong. Jesus, I even picked up a copy of The Observer yesterday to be confronted by another lengthy article about the film and the group - the second in a month or so (albeit one penned by Paul Morley and featured in the Observer Music Monthly glossy magazine ... still, it sits awkwardly between the adverts for booze, expensive sound systems and James Blunt's new album). The mainstream media, it seems to me, is particularly ill-suited to dealing with pop music - one glance over the album reviews in The Guardian, say, is enough to convince one of the futility of (in the main) Oxbridge-educated snobs struggling to get to grip with the gnarly soul of pop music - an art form both too trivial and far, far too important to be left to the mainstream.

Joy Division, and this seems such an embarrassingly obvious thing to write, was always the obsession of the loner. Every performance of theirs I saw, I saw alone - playing a copy of 'Transmission' to some friends (doctrinaire punks, in the main) to complete incomprehension, watching them perform on the TV programme Something Else to a background rumble of guffaws and laughter ... these are moments designed to make you love them all the fiercer, but alone. Joy Division's music seems to inhabit a peculiar interzone between community and solitude ... they made the sort of records designed for hunching over the stereo, alone in your bedroom. Of course, at the gigs, it used to be a shock to see others dressed in the Factory style ... wasn't that just me?
Going home on the Tube after seeing them, for instance, at the Electric Ballroom (A Certain Ratio supporting ... is this the gig I saw Simon Topping take a Coke can full on the head? "Fuck off!" he said) , who could you tell what you had just seen? No one else I knew would have cared, and it would have been hard to put it into words in any case. Was it a great gig, by conventional rock standards? I don't know, I couldn't care less ... I do know that seeing Curtis perform in that way was nothing to do with entertainment.

Factory workers taking a break

Joy Division's music, it seems to me, always sounds so bloody archetypal ... the songs sound so right, so inevitable, almost as though they had always existed and were just waiting for someone to actually hear them, to pull them out of the air and give them form. Every song, every album seems carved in stone (not, I think, merely a response to the Factory predilection for tombstone imagery) - one can hardly imagine a note, a word changed now we have them in their final, their canonical forms. As they went on (during their sadly truncated lifetime) they, unlike my beloved A Certain Ratio, seem to become more and more like themselves. The music became more and more Joy Division. Every element of Joy Division seems absolutely integral to the overall design; not just the contribution made by Curtis' lyrics and performance style but Stephen Morris' drumming (surely one of the most under-rated musicians in pop music? Up there with Moe Tucker and Klaus Dinger), Hook's bass, Albrecht's/Rubble's/Dicken's/Sumner's angular guitar ... every element fits.

The young men in situ

(The whole Factory set-up, the ethos, appealed to me; it was exactly what I was looking for - serious young men in grey and black demob clothes and Hitler Jugend haircuts, the sly sense of humour, the unapologetic high-art gloss, the groups creating a way out of the morass music found itself in after the initial charge of Punk had burned itself out, leaving us with the ludicrous and lumpen likes of the U.K Subs.
Factory artifacts were so tactile, so beautiful; the heavy paper sleeve of A Certain Ratio's 'All Night Party'/'The Thin Boys' 7", Lenny Bruce dead on one side, Tony Perkins on the other; the plastic wallet and insert of ACR's tape release The Graveyard and the Ballroom; the mysterious image adorning the textured sleeve of Unknown Pleasures; the sandpaper sheathing The Return of The Durutti Column (designed to destroy your record collection!); even the embossed sleeve of the Crawling Chaos 7" 'Sex Machine';

(and I never think of Joy Division as morbid or death-obsessed, rather as life-affirming and uplifting. They made, for my money, the most human, the most vunerable music. Paradoxically, the more electronic, the more machine-like they became, the more human. They were, for me, the real Northen Soul. I believe Curtis genuinely meant it when he sang "love life, makes you feel higher." Even now, listening to their music (and that of New Order) makes me feel alive and responsive, makes me feel moved, engages my heart and guts and brain. Isn't that what art is supposed to do?);

(and I hate all those awful rock'n'roll cliches, "live fast, die young" and all that claptrap. Joy Division was so unrock'n'roll - it was so perfect that they looked like weird bank clerks from some science fiction 1930s that never existed. They struck me as four young men who worked hard and achieved something of real and lasting value. The admirable thing about Joy Division is the honesty; they just got on with the job - playing live, practicing, recording. So much 'entertainment' these days has palpable designs on you, on your money, on your attention, on your sense of worth ... Joy Division didn't clamour for your love, didn't bully or cajole, just got quietly down to work. Art, real art, stays with us, long after the people who made it or the conditions that obtained have disappeared - stays and exists on its own terms. That's art, that's music, that's life);

(and I love Barney's description of his response when he got the phone call telling him of Curtis' suicide - "I put the phone down and went and washed my face with cold water. Then I got back on the phone and took it like a man." I like that, they had real courage, the men of Joy Division, real spine. it makes me feel very proud of the lads);

(and it's none of my business why Curtis did what he did ... perhaps, at the end, he was too tired. What is enough, for me, is that he had a hand in creating something of definitive value and meaning, music that inspires and exorts. Something that had an impact on me in ways that I can only guess at. I grew up listening to the music of Joy Division and New Order, is it absurd to think it had a part in making me (for better or worse) the person I am today? Tony Wilson wouldn't have thought so. That's good enough for me)).


Blogger Tim Footman said...

I always think of Joy Division when I see the clips of the children playing in Michael Apted's 7Up and its sequels. They're about the right age - black and white clearly suits them (ask Corbijn) - and there's something, as you imply, documentarian about their music. This is this. There it is. Take or leave.

2:03 PM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Whenever I see clips or photos of the Factory mob together I always think of a bunch of WWII evacuee children just off the train.
J.D were so stubborn, so self contained - the complete lack of sycophancy was one of the things I loved about them. These days so many seem ready to jump through rings, to piss all over themselves in an effort to suck up to the audience - J.D just got on with the job.

5:02 PM  
Anonymous Molly said...

Really brilliant writing from the Green Goblin. I once played Joy Division really loudly on the 'Sounds' system when I worked in W H Smiths. Goodness me, it seemed like time had stopped for a moment. Just truly unique. They've also produced some of the most moving music ever. But the kind of music that really hurts and heals at the same time. Like a wobbly tooth - it really hurts to push it, but my, that hurt is kind of nice.

Sadness often brings genius. And Curtis had both. The darkness takes you closest to the things you fear. But the fear brings with it the moments of glory.

I bet you did this in one sitting as's not fair.

8:21 PM  
Anonymous Mollusc said...

PS - I really like Paul Morley too. Much under-rated writer I reckon.

8:22 PM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Something of a double imperative, listening to Joy Division - very uplifting, but very sad too.
I'm not given to sentimentality but have often found myself welling up when listening to them,; just thinking about that quote from Barney can bring it on, too. Call me a silly old bugger.

Morley? He's a good lad. Always an interesting writer, and one of the few I'd trust on the vexed subject of Joy Division.

7:28 AM  
Blogger murmurists said...

Great piece of writing, Anthony. Not a thing I disagree with. JD and most of NO - sublime, and for all the reasons you cite.

7:56 AM  
Blogger murmurists said...

Oh, and a PS ... Seem to recall that the sandpaper LP cover idea was nicked from a Situationist bookcover idea - was it 'Leaving the 20th Century', by, I think, Christopher Gray?

8:08 AM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Yes, someone did a sandpaper cover before ... both Wilson and Peter Saville were well into the Situationists, so they seem likely candidates.

3:58 PM  
Anonymous Molls said...

I liked listening to that today. It just makes me want to cry.

Well...just tell everyone it was the onions I was chopping.

I wonder what his daughter must think. All of those little pictures of her in a muffly, snuffly baby-gro. Totally oblivious to what was going on at the time. Poor little kid. I thought those pictures of him as a little boy were so poignant too.

It's so sad when the really talented people just go to the darkness. It's heartbreaking. What a waste.

8:30 PM  
Anonymous Molls said...

I wonder if we ever really know what is going to happen when we stand there in those smudgy white knee high socks and brown sandals. It's a bit depressing when you realise that years and years have passed in a blink.

I think I better shut up now before I start waffling about sad things.

8:32 PM  
Blogger St. Anthony said...

Joy Division's music, it seems to me, is nostalgic for a time that hasn't yet happened, or will never come to pass.
He said.

7:13 PM  

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