Hall of Records: The Best of Joy Division



The late Ian Curtis was a people pleaser — at least, that’s how Joy Division bassist Peter Hook sees it.  He compartmentalized the various aspects of his life and personality so rigidly that Hook didn’t even know Curtis’ wife Debbie had given birth to their daughter during the recording of the band’s 1979 debut Unknown Pleasures.  To Hook and the other two members of Joy Division — drummer Stephen Morris and guitarist Bernard Sumner — Ian was one of the “lads,” chortling when their roadie pointed out a shockingly massive turd left floating in a portable toilet, and who teamed up with the rest of the band in a massive prank on their tour headliners the Buzzcocks, beginning with dumping ten pounds of live maggots into the backstage area in which their crew was monitoring their performance.  To Annik Honoré, the startlingly attractive journalist and tour promoter with whom Curtis conducted an emotionally intense but strangely chaste affair — his epilepsy medication made physically consummating their relationship impossible he was the “cultured” reader and movie-goer that he couldn’t be with anyone in his Mancunian orbit (in fact, Hook claims Curtis became more distant with the other band members once she came into the picture).  To Curtis’ long-suffering wife Deborah neé Woodruff he was, I suspect, the person that his parents wanted him to be: a respectable family man with a solid nine-to-five job, which in Ian’s case was a low-paying gig with the civil service.  Unfortunately, Curtis was miserable, and he took the brunt of his unhappiness out on Deborah, who describes Ian in her remarkable memoir Touching from a Distance as controlling, paranoid, and insecure as often as he could be kind, thoughtful, and generous: in one of many disquieting anecdotes, he threw a Bloody Mary into her face because he was overcome with jealousy when she danced with one of her younger uncles — at their engagement party.  On another occasion, he forced her into public sex as retribution for dancing in a low-cut dress at her cousin’s wedding, but he ignored her on the night of their own nuptials.  When I’m feeling contrary about Curtis and Joy Division, I sometimes think that their greatest tragedy is that he/they shoehorned Deborah into a life into which she was forbidden to express herself creatively — Touching from a Distance is as compelling a piece of writing as anything her husband put his name on.  She abandoned her education in the summer of 1973 — at the age of 17 — because Curtis told her he didn’t want anyone thinking he was dating a “schoolgirl.”

Yet as I read Hook and Deborah Curtis’ separate accounts of those shockingly brief but remarkably productive two years — from Morris entering the fold in August of 1977, thus cementing their sound, to Curtis’ suicide in May of 1980, thus finishing the band’s first phase for good — I began to have sympathy for this troubled man, whose death at twenty-three puts him four years younger than Cobain, Hendrix, Joplin, and his hero Jim Morrison.  To begin with, his disturbing obsession with control — though not serious enough for the National Front, his Nazi fixation was not purely an art pose, and politically, he voted Conservative — should be put in context of his frequent self-harming.  Cutting doesn’t figure into most generalized accounts of Curtis’ life — these two memoirs were the first I’d read of it — but according to Deborah Curtis, while experimenting as a teenager with various prescription drugs, Ian would burn cigarettes into his skin or hit his leg with a spiked running shoe, just to see how much pain he could bear in his anaesthetized state.  As with Ian’s macabre fixation with death, which began at an early age and reflected itself in his love of such songs as Jacques Brel’s “My Death” and David Bowie’s “Rock and Roll Suicide,” these behaviors do not appear spontaneously.  According to the 2000 text revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, self-harm is often associated with those who have a history of trauma and abuse — emotional, physical, or sexual — and can be symptomatic of borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, as well as several other disorders.  Deborah Curtis, who knew him as well as anybody, doesn’t mention or even entertain the possibility of trauma or abuse in Touching from a Distance, and to the best of my knowledge, his parents have never been interviewed on this subject — or in any capacity whatsoever.  Which is tragic as it is a thorny prospect for potential exploration — it would provide a great deal of insight into what drove his self-destructive urges if a little bit more of that curtain were to be lifted.

Ian’s epileptic seizures on the other hand, have been well documented, and those in of themselves, combined with the difficulty managing the separate lives he shared with Deborah and Annik, would be overwhelming for any young man, especially for one with an unusual drive for control — he could keep his record collection in perfect order, but doing the same for the women in his life proved impossible, not to mention cruel to them both.  But another thing that you don’t hear very much in accounts of the group is the side effects his epilepsy medication had on him — aside from keeping him from consummating his relationship with Annik, which certainly would have happened if things had been different, they made him even moodier than usual, which to hear Deborah tell it is saying something.  According to her, before his medication regimen, Ian would “fluctuate between ultra-politeness and blind rage,” but his behavior afterward resembled what psychiatrists call “rapid cycling,” a form of bipolar disorder in which one shifts from one extreme to the next, euphoria and tearful melancholy, quickly and sometimes with great intensity.  Ian was prescribed Phenobarbitol, an anti-convulsant also utilized for bipolar disorder, which in Ian’s case was not closely regulated by his doctor, who should have been closely monitoring his mood for such tell-tale swings. Meanwhile, Ian’s copious alcohol intake — it’s a depressant, after all — could only have been making his condition worse.  Bernard Sumner notes, “I think there was something a little bit special about Ian.  I know people say that, but I really do mean it.  I can’t stop saying this…I really do think it was the tablets that killed him.  I really do.  I know it.”

Having said that, I’m not sure how much this would have brought into focus Joy Division’s still-unsettling music, which I’d long admired but never fully appreciated, if Rhino’s exceptional 2008 best-of hadn’t done the trick first.  Of course, this band, along with their Mark II manifestation New Order, has been compiled to death, but unlike the 1988 grab bag Substance or 1995’s poorly selected Permanent, this one keeps it short, and to essentials: fourteen tracks, with the instrumental “Incubation” the only questionable inclusion.  It doesn’t bother with their juvenilia, namely the tentative An Ideal For Living EP, nor does it front load the strongest material, choosing to sequence things more or less chronologically, in order of recording date, which honors their aesthetic progression a lot more sensibly than release date, and the newly remastered mix is stately, sharp, and spacious.  Cultists of course will sniff that the only way to go are the two proper studio albums, but though the last few weeks have given me a greater appreciation for both 1979’s Unknown Pleasures and 1980’s Closer, neither matches this compilation’s focus, perhaps because most of Joy Division’s greatest songs appeared on singles and odd one-off compilations.  The intense “Transmission,” with its rallying cry to “dance, dance, dance to the radio,” and the sorrowful cri de cœur “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” so stirring and powerful Deborah made the title his epitaph even though the lyric concerns the dissolution of their relationship, are both well-established classics.  But what about the gorgeous funeral march “Atmosphere” or the gripping “Dead Souls,” the A and B sides, respectively, of a French-only single and released under a German title (Licht und Blindheit — “Light and Blindness”)?  Or the mechanical, more “controlled” single version of the landmark “She’s Lost Control,” not so much about epilepsy, though obviously that’s there, as it is about the fear of being at the mercy of your body, of circumstance, of the inevitable turn of the Earth: “Well I had to phone her friend to state my case/And say she’s lost control again/And she showed up all the errors and mistakes/And said I’ve lost control again/But she expressed herself in many different ways/Until she lost control again/And walked upon the edge of no escape/And laughed I’ve lost control.”  It’s no wonder that Anton Corbijn titled Curtis’ bio-pic, adapted from Deborah’s memoir, Control — the word gets to the man’s very essence.

The remainder of the compilation is remarkably astute, and wise in its restraint — personal favorites like the opening of Closer, the grueling “Atrocity Exhibition,” would have completely upset the record’s flow, and after two admirably clunky openers, it’s one classic after another, honoring rockers more often than dirges, including the Doors-y “Shadowplay” (compare Curtis’ “To the center of the city in the night, waiting for you” to Morrison’s sleazier “Are you a lucky little lady in the city of light/Or another lost angel in the city of night”) and the anguished “Isolation,” which ends the record on choppy squelches that presage the familiar sound of skipping CDs years before digital technology (and for that matter, recalls the end of New Order’s playful “Every Little Counts,” recorded in 1986).  My favorite Joy Division track however, is one no one ever talks about, the haunting, desperate “Twenty Four Hours,” which might have been one of the songs Annik Honoré was referring to when she told Factory Records prexy Tony Wilson she hated Closer because she was worried Ian’s suffering wasn’t a fictional construct, and that she feared for his well-being — worries that fell on deaf ears, as with the exception of Deborah, almost no one else in Ian’s orbit scrutinized his lyrics, let alone take them as anything other than Rock God posturing.  I myself am not much for “authenticity” in these matters — suicide is many things but it’s not a character builder, and I put balance above most other things — but my God, “Twenty Four Hours” is an overwhelmingly powerful piece of music.  Essentially a one chord rave-up linked to a quieter but unbearably tense bridge, it’s one of the most desolate songs I’ve ever heard, completely convincing in its passion and dolor: “Now that I realize how everything’s gone wrong/Gotta find some therapy, this treatment takes too long/Deep in the heart of where sympathy held sway/Gotta find my destiny, before it gets too late.”  After which the music shifts to the chord that begins the bridge, and abruptly ends, without resolve, leaving the sentiment adrift in mid-air.  Which is how I prefer to end the narrative — open to possibility — rather than the one Curtis chose in real life.  It may be too late for his destiny, but the song is his final offering, allotting a little bit more time — and hope — to you and me.


© Michael Tatum

‘Here are the Young Men’: Classic Joy Division live footage, 1979-1980

While you won’t find many people questioning the aesthetic merit of Joy Division’s music, it’s also hard to argue that the tragic suicide of singer Ian Curtis didn’t contribute mightily to the band’s enduring allure. But there was another component that nurtured JD’s mystique—scarcity. All a fan in the US could readily get without paying a hefty import premium were Unknown Pleasures, Closer, and the iffy, posthumous, blood-from-a-stone compilation Still. A lot of single and EP tracks were difficult to come by here until the Substance compilation arrived in 1988. The Heart & Soul set eliminated a lot of scarcity issues as regards JD material, but that didn’t arrive until the late ‘90s.

Resorting to bootlegs wasn’t such a great option, as a hell of a lot of JD boots sounded like total garbage. I remember when a much sought-after Italian JD bootleg called Dante’s Inferno turned up in a record shop I frequented, when I was 17. I snatched that thing up fast and excitedly brought it home to play it, only to find that the music was barely audible. Was I pissed off? OH YES, I was pissed off.




Concert videos were even slimmer pickings. While today, between DVD and YouTube there’s plentiful Joy Division vid easily available, in the ‘80s pretty much the only JD concert footage available through legitimate channels was the Factory release Here Are the Young Men. Inexplicably, it’s never been released on DVD (except by pirates), but if you’re the gotta-own-it type, old VHS copies are priced within reach of mere mortals. The video’s title is borrowed from the lyrics of the song “Decades,” and the video is compiled from footage shot at three shows—the Manchester Apollo on October 28 and 29, 1979, and at Effenaar in Eindhoven, Netherlands, on January 18, 1980. Included at the end, but not included in the track listing on the box, was the music video the band produced for the single “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”




Since this was pretty primitive looking stuff in the first place, worrying about finding the “best” version on YouTube would have been quixotic, and anyway, I kind of like the rawness of this. As mushy as it looks and sounds, a lot of these performances are face-melters, particularly the stuff from the Dutch show. I selected this version because a few of the band’s BBC television appearances are tacked onto the end. Enjoy.


© Ron Kretsch

L’immagine della Factory Records

La Factory Records è stata probabilmente la più importante casa discografica indipendente inglese tra il 1978 e il 1992. Fu fondata a Manchester e produsse gruppi musicali di grande impatto nella storia della musica ma in più inaugurò un modo di concepire la produzione musicale legato intensamente alla comunicazione e a un’immagine grafica complessiva: più che una semplice casa discografica fu quello che oggi definiremmo un “brand” (e un produttore di “contenuti”), un simbolo riconoscibile sonoramente ma anche visivamente, grazie alle copertine e ai manifesti realizzati prima dal grafico Peter Saville e poi da tanti altri artisti. A 35 anni dall’uscita del primo disco della Factory abbiamo scelto le 100 copertine più belle del suo famoso catalogo, che insieme alla qualità delle sue produzioni musicali restano tra le cose più memorabili del suo successo.

Nel 1978 Tony Wilson, conduttore del programma televisivo di rock alternativo So It Goes (che ospitò il debutto televisivo di gruppi come i Sex Pistols e i Buzzcocks), decise aprire un club – il Factory Club – per cercare di promuovere i nuovi gruppi di Manchester (tra gli altri, Joy Division, Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio). Insieme all’amico e manager musicale Alan Erasmus e a Peter Saville, un giovane grafico dedicato a realizzare le locandine delle serate, riuscirono in poco tempo ad ottenere un discreto successo e decisero di incidere un doppio EP con i pezzi dei gruppi migliori che si erano esibiti al Factory fino ad allora.


Nel 1979 uscì così il primo disco della nuova Factory Records, “A Factory Sample”, con canzoni dei Cabaret Voltaire, Joy Division e Durutti Column, che andò esaurito in pochissimo tempo e inaugurò l’insolito sistema di catalogazione dell’etichetta (che viene spesso reso visivamente come una tavola periodica): ad ogni uscita discografica veniva assegnato un numero di serie, che veniva dato anche a manifesti, concerti e ad altri oggetti collegati e prodotti dalla Factory (A Factory Sample, infatti, ha come sigla FAC-2 perché il primo numero del catalogo era stato assegnato a un manifesto realizzato da Saville per un concerto del 1978).


A maggio del 1979, poi, uscì l’album d’esordio dei Joy Division, Unknown Pleasure (FACT-10), e tutto il resto è storia del rock degli anni Ottanta (una storia raccontata, tra gli altri, dal regista Michael Winterbottom nel film 24 Hour Party People, del 2002). La copertina di Unknown Pleasure è sicuramente una delle più famose di sempre: realizzata da Peter Saville, è la riproduzione di cento impulsi consecutivi della prima pulsar mai scoperto. La band mostrò l’immagine tratta dalla Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy a Saville, che semplicemente invertì i colori, dal nero su bianco al bianco su nero, creando una delle immagini più riprodotte e note della storia della musica.


Saville realizzò anche la copertina di Closer (FACT-25), il secondo e ultimo album dei Joy Division, pubblicato nel 1980 a un mese dal suicidio del cantante Ian Curtis: una sorta di epitaffio grafico, con una foto realizzata da Bernard Pierre Wolff raffigurante la tomba della famiglia Appiani nel Cimitero monumentale di Staglieno di Genova. Saville propose questa foto al gruppo prima del suicidio di Curtis, che insieme agli altri componenti della band fu entusiasta dell’idea: così, insieme a Tony Wilson, decisero di tenerla, contribuendo al grandissimo successo del disco.


Dopo la morte di Ian Curtis i Joy Division si sciolsero, diventando i New Order: Peter Saville continuò a realizzare tutte le copertine del gruppo, a cominciare dal primo singolo Ceremony (FAC-33), passando per Movement (FACT-50), Blue Monday (FAC-73), con la riproduzione di un floppy disk, così curata da rendere impossibile per la Factory ricevere in tempo le varie parti per assemblarla, fino a Power, Corruption and Lies (FACT-75), del 1983, il disco della svolta elettronica e tecnologica per il gruppo, resa in maniera perfetta dalla copertina: una natura morta dell’artista francese Henri Fantin-Latour abbinata a una combinazione di colori, elaborata sulla base di un codice in cui ogni colore faceva riferimento ad un numero o ad una lettera. Per ottenere il permesso di usare l’opera di Fantin-Latour, di proprietà del National Heritage Trust ed esposta alla National Gallery di Londra, fu decisivo l’intervento del boss della Factory Tony Wilson, il quale riuscì a convincere il direttore del museo dicendogli che il quadro apparteneva al popolo britannico tanto quanto al National Heritage Trust.

© Antonella Vendola


Shadowplayers: The rise and fall of Factory Records

Peter Saville - Tony Wilson - Alan Erasmus - 1979


James Nice’s history of Factory Records begins at the end, with the death of its principal founder Tony Wilson from cancer in 2007. Having outlined Wilson’s circumstances – practically penniless, despite having sold millions of records by the likes of Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays – Nice gets on with telling the tale of a high-minded, anti-corporate, post-punk record label that reshaped the musical landscape and later buckled under the weight of its ambition and ineptitude.

Crucially, this isn’t Wilson’s story, which has already been told in books, documentaries and feature films, but that of a dizzying array of artists, musicians, managers, writers, music fanatics and chancers who helped to build up one of the most important labels in British popular culture.

Factory was born in 1978 in response to the rapidly growing music scene in Manchester. In keeping with punk’s DIY ethos, Wilson, a local television presenter and indefatigable music lover, threw his life savings into the company that he called “an experiment in art” alongside the band manager and sometime actor Alan Erasmus.

Having already successfully provided a live platform for bands at the Russell Club in Hulme, the pair recruited producer Martin Hannett and graphic designer Peter Saville to help release records by Joy Division, the Durutti Column and A Certain Ratio. Rob Gretton, Joy Division’s manager, would also prove a pivotal character in the Factory story, his ear for a promising band proving considerably more reliable than Wilson’s.

Pieced together though archive interviews, old NME and Melody Maker reviews and latter-day conversations, Shadowplayers offers a meticulously researched year-by-year account of the label’s beginnings, its triumphs and eventual dissolution. Nice brings an encyclopaedic zeal to his recollections of such fleeting musical oddities as Crawling Chaos, Swamp Children, Biting Tongues and The Wendys, alongside Factory’s more famous players.

The author refuses to indulge in sensationalist storytelling – the suicide of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis is dealt with in just three pages. And he seeks to put to bed some of the more outlandish stories, such as the rumour that Factory lost three and a half pence on every copy sold of New Order’s Blue Monday.

This painstaking, no-nonsense approach has its drawbacks. Nice’s insistence on including every showcase, support slot, recorded rarity and B-side in chronological order may make for one of the more reliable Factory accounts, but not always the most thrilling. Yet he does offer some intriguing snapshots such as the “folding parties” in which bands and associates would gather to help package the early Factory samplers, and the time Madonna was pelted with tin cans while performing “Holiday” at the Hacienda.

By the late Eighties, Factory was less a regular label than a multi-media empire comprising bars, shops, offices and the Hacienda nightclub. But even in its perceived heyday at the centre of the “Madchester” scene, the infrastructure was crumbling, the Hacienda had been hijacked by guns and gangs and the coffers were empty, leading to its inglorious collapse in 1992. Now, 32 years after it began, the story of Factory remains both an inspiration and a cautionary tale.

While Nice’s book stands as a corrective to some of the crass mythologising, it might also act as a model textbook in how not to run a record label while changing the face of modern culture.