While cleaning out the garage I found some old notebooks with my early writing in it. I found this essay on Joy Division written in the middle of one of these notebooks. This one must have dated back to 2003 or so. Although unpolished and a bit pretentious, I thought it was good enough to post. I have come to the conclusion that I won't ever be affected by a band in a way that Joy Division affected me. I'm too bitter, too experienced and too invulnerable now. It appears that they got me at just the right time.
There was something about Bernard Sumner's guitar tone that transcended the mere trappings of audio and set off resonance that cut it's way deep into your soul, to the places that you yourself were afraid to go.
Joy Division from a commercial standpoint were an anomaly. They maintained a stubborn need to preserve their integrity despite the pressure to become a cog in the machine of commercial music. Yet, they wanted success and knew that they had something good. The truth was, they had something great. Some kind of aesthetic that other bands wished that they had but could never live up to. They were the proverbial "real deal"
When punk hit in the late 1970's the state of music was an elitist heirarchy of techinical prowess and commercial arena rock. To their credit, The Sex Pistols tore these trends apart and unleashed a pent-up energy and anger not only within themselves, but in an entire generation. Some people didn't get it, but four young men from Manchester did.
Without any allegiance to any preconceived notion of what music ought to be, they used their instruments as channels of a grand, intangible power and spewed it forth not knowing where it came from or bothering to ask.
Being the first band that the members were in, there was a grooming phase. Early Warsaw material punk in ever sense. Raw, unpolished, aggressive and defiant. The early songs were very much influenced by the scene of the day. The Drawback, Failures and No Love Lost suffered from a lack of depth.
Soon, the band's sound came into it's own. Songs like Digital and Glass focused more on mood and atmosphere than straight attitude.
Ian's lyrics moved from vague political statements to inner turmoil. It was apparent that punk was developing a "post" prefix and Joy Division was at the helm of this evolution.
At the same time, the instruments were stepping out of their traditional roles and covering different tasks. The bass lines soared well above the 12th fret, leading to an elegant and cello-like quality. The guitar parts knew when to shut up and when to scream. The drums would utilize electronic technology of the day and add atmosphere to the mix. Ian Curtis was not at all a technical vocalist or a "singer's singer" but delivery and presence were his strong points. His low, pulsating baritone added a dangerous element to the music.
To Ian's credit, his lyrics were absolute masterpieces of introspection. Some would say that Ian was detached, icy, even a little loony but his lack of traditional aesthetic didn't affect his ability to convey intense emotional content.
What we know as "alternative music" has an evolutionary link in Joy Division. The missing link between The Doors, The Clash, The Velvet Underground and late 80's/ early 90's alt. rock like The Pixies, The Cure, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails.
Joy Division's music had extreme power. Not in speed, technicality or even anger. The music was powerful because it animated the extremes of the human condition. Like good literature, the music covered universal themes of lost love, fear, suicide, pain and human fragility. Joy Division was everything that 90's music tried to be and what Nine Inch Nails came so close to being. Joy Division genuinely lived the tortured artist's life and to some degree died for it. There was never a band like them on the face of the earth and it is likely we won't see a band like them ever again.
The band died the night of May 30th, 1980 when singer Ian Curtis took his life. So, their ride ended. They never had the chance to sully their worth, to repeat themselves or become hypocrites. All they had was recordings of a glorious three years of cosmic, divine art. Whatever trappings of Rock n' Roll excess and success was left to be discovered by New Order. Same members, but no doubt a different band. Wisely, the survivors never tried to duplicate what Curtis brought to the table, to do so would be foolish. New Order was the phoenix rising from the ashes of Joy Division, but I prefer the earlier rendition before the fire.
Round and Round- 1988
Round and Round sounds like a product of it's era. Very 80's, very danceable and I just don't think it holds up today.
Transmission is timeless. It's not a product of it's era, it's a product of it's origin. The origin is heart, emotion and the fire of youth. Nine years difference in the two songs.
Joy Division locates me in the still moving place of terror and awakening, of sheer perverse pleasure and the aching pain of the human heart. In a way, it's a challenge to listen to because we feel the need to not venture into the darker places of the human spirit. Just as a parent warns his child not to explore these places, it is only human nature to explore them anyways.
Three chords. Yet, there was a sense that no one ever attacked these chords with this unique blend of aggression and finesse. The sound was years ahead of it's time.
This body of work is set in stone, eternal and forever unchanged. You could drink you fill from its fount and never get to the bottom of the well. It stands in timeless strength, power and purpose. It's no safer, cliqued or stagnant 25 years later, so why should 50 or 100 years be any different?
Levels of Music
Record sales aside, music can be divided into several categories. There is pure product, not intended to push any kind of artform or take itself too seriously. It has an intent, and the intent is sales.
Then there is music made from an original place, yet placed in a commercial setting. Bona fide talents usually do exist in this category but this isn't always the case. memorable material is often put out by these artist, but true longevity is rare.
Then there is sincere music played with true emotion and true talent. Rather than the music being produced for the masses, this music stands on it's own and allows the masses to come to it. Artists creating this music have a loyal following that will always support their material. The music is often a personal experience for the listener.
Still, others succeed in these things but more so. The music is felt and understood by many and the music is considered timeless. Few artists are in this category and rightly so. For the ability to move people in a universal way is a rare thing.
To the last level, or highest degree there is pure art. The music doesn't merely move, console, engage or please the listener. It changes them.
This is purely case specific and may not always happen to everyone. For not everyone finds true love and not everyone can discover music that changes their life. The listener beyond their will gets delivered to a new realm as they are opened, unzipped and laid bare through the experience. A religious experience and subsequent rebirth is felt by the listener.
For this writer of sorts, Joy Division is the only band in this last category.
So, are they my "favorite band"?
That's where the text from my notebook ends. I found the ending to be trite and poorly written. A product of being a pretentious twenty-something artist. Here's a more honest answer, written today.
I suppose that I can say that they are my most IMPORTANT band. Years later, I realize that what I know about myself and the world around me was highly informed by Joy Division. They showed me what to expect from art, good literature and film. Sincerity, emotion, taste and authenticity. If something I encounter doesn't cut the muster, I've learned to move along and mute the proverbial chatter until something else peaks my interest.
This has lead me to be disappointed more often than not. When I used to see the famous Unknown Pleasures Album cover as worn on a T-shirt, I was convinced that the wearer of such t-shirt was a kindred spirit.
I would soon discover that it was more often than not, just a fashion statement. The people wearing the shirt would often not even own the album or know any song other that "Love Will Tear US Apart". A great song for sure, but their catalog isn't nearly as exhaustive as say, The Beatles and you could easily digest their two studio albums and handful of singles.
I wasn't always disappointed, of course. I was often times pleasantly surprised when I found someone who spoke passionately about the band, about the early post punk movement in general and that usually meant that they had some opinions about other mediums of art and culture. Joy Division gave me a higher standard of what to expect from the media I consume.
So, at the end of the day I am grateful. Joy Division entered my life when I needed them most. When I encountered despair, I had the soundtrack to help me cope. When I needed to connect to music that made me feel like an individual and not a part of the mainstream, this band was there for me. When I needed to dive deep, they were my breathing apparatus. Thank you, Ian Curtis and Joy Division.