Rock and Roll Book Club: An oral history of Joy Division

Jon Savage's 'This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else.'
Jon Savage's 'This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Jon Savage's new oral history of Joy Division isn't for the casual fan...but is there such a thing as a casual Joy Division fan? The band's two full-length releases, Unknown Pleasures (1979) and Closer (1980), aren't the kind of thing you just toss on the turntable for a dinner party unless it's a very rainy night in Manchester.

What the post-punk quartet lack in accessibility, they make up in the devotion of hard-core fans and music critics around the world. When The Current polled our audience in 2016 on the 893 most essential albums of all time, both albums made the list: Unknown Pleasures at #124 (just ahead of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska) and Closer at #349 (just ahead of Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga).

Jon Savage's new book This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else is the latest volume in a pile of documentation capturing the band's brief career. The book largely consists of transcribed interview material that was gathered but not used for the 2007 documentary Joy Division, which was written by Savage and directed by Grant Gee.

It's a remarkable cache of memories and insights, but it's of greatest value to established Joy Division fans who are ready to dive deep on everything from recording sessions to tours to personal relationships and, of course, the band's tragic end when frontman Ian Curtis died of suicide in 1980.

While Savage's respondents are open about the growing depression that ultimately claimed Curtis's life, the irony of the Joy Division story is that aside from that personal tumult, being in the band seems to have been an unusually happy experience, at least compared to other being-in-legendary-band stories.

Singer Curtis, guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris quickly found their calling, and their kindred spirits, in mid-1970s Manchester. An extended opening section sets the scene unsparingly. "There was a greyness that we might associate with the eradication of red-brick terraced housing and its replacement by concrete gulags," says musician C.P. Lee, "a feeling of hopelessness that was matched by the aspirations of the time."

After seeing the Sex Pistols, Hook and Sumner immediately decided to start a band. "I bought How to Play the Guitar," says Sumner, "he bought How to Play the Bass." Joy Division would develop out of an aesthetic more than any kind of traditional musical forms, and their music sounds like it: steady thrumming under Curtis's doomy voice, with enough studio experimentation to keep things interesting.

One of the book's most intriguing revelations is that the success of Joy Division's iconic debut was something of a disconnect from what the band and their fans thought made them special. Unknown Pleasures, all the band members agreed, was slower and stranger than their captivating live shows, which were highlighted by Curtis's mesmerizing dancing.

Producer Martin Hannett had a specific vision for putting Joy Division on record; certainly their previous releases hadn't done them justice either, and Hannett found a way of mixing the band's droning chords and melodic bass lines with Curtis's distinctive vocals, and making the most of the group's sonic adventures. Sumner explains, by way of example:

There's an interesting thing that Martin did on "She's Lost Control," which is probably one of my favorite rhythm tracks of Steve's. Steve did a lot of it with electronic drums, which hadn't been used much at all before, certainly not by anyone in Manchester at that stage. Martin had a great idea of getting Steve in a vocal booth doing the hi-hat pattern with an aerosol spray. Unfortunately, I think it was fly spray or something, it nearly killed Steve — you know, pssst, pssst, all the way through the track.

"There must be only me and Bernard in the whole bleeding world that don't like Unknown Pleasures," says Hook. That may be true, and Factory record label art director Peter Saville gave the record one of the most recognizable cover images in history: the graph from a pulsar, "the jazziest one in space apparently," suggested by Morris.

The band took a stronger hand on Closer, ensuring it was engineered to sound as big as they tried to sound onstage. The album was to prove an incredibly poignant release, coming out two months after Curtis's death. The gravestone relief on the cover proved tragically prophetic; the band decided to stick with it because Curtis had helped select the image, which matched his often despairing lyrics.

Another of the book's revelations: "Love Will Tear Us Apart," by far Joy Division's best-known song, was in fact a response to the Captain & Tennille's sunny "Love Will Keep Us Together." After hearing a cover of the latter hit, Curtis told Morris, "Wouldn't it be better if they did something really nasty to it, instead of like being a twee pop song? 'Love will rip us to shreds,' or something like that?"

Given later revelations about the Captain and Tennille's distanced relationship, Curtis's song may have been closer to the truth all around. For his part, he was torn between a wife he'd married young and a girlfriend with whom he became emotionally intimate — although, she's said, their relationship never became sexual.

There's no separating Joy Division's legacy from the legend of Curtis, one of music's storied greats who died too soon. His widow Deborah tells Savage he saw Jim Morrison as a model of "somebody who got famous and died," but writer Jon Wozencroft resists any romanticization.

The fan is left with this kind of myth of Ian, the rock suicide, which I think does him an extreme disservice. I think it's a very personal tragedy. I think it's got absolutely nothing to do with the demise of people such as Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin or Kurt Cobain. I think it's incredibly sad and poignant and tragic in the closest familial sense.

Curtis had epilepsy, and all sources agree that his seizures were very dramatic, very dangerous. Doctors advised him to stay away from triggers like exhaustion, psychoactive substances, and flashing lights...which more or less describes the life of a rock star, and Curtis refused to adopt any such regime. His impassioned onstage dancing would lead to seizures, frightening fans.

Savage, who's been following the band since the beginning, seems to have little interest in airing dirty laundry. While the latter-day feud between Hook and Sumner — who joined with Morris for the more pop-friendly New Order after Curtis's death — has been well-documented, nobody's talking much trash here.

What you get in This Searing Light is a lot of deep-dive information on the Manchester scene, the band's memorable gigs (Savage lists every one, in sequence as the narrative progresses), photo sessions, tour shenanigans ("Twinny stole 48 Duvels!"), and the like.

Joy Division, it seems, lived their brief life as a band in a sort of dream scenario: they had a sustainable scene, a record label that supported them, peers like Buzzcocks, and an appreciative public that never seems to have asked too much of them. When Curtis died, the band were on the eve of an American tour that would likely have taken them all to the next level.

The book's title comes from an account of seeing Joy Division live. Factory co-founder Tony Wilson remembers, "There was this searing light, the sun, and everything else was just dimness."

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