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Joy Division: a shrine to themselves

The 35-year afterlife of a band that became trapped in time

David Bennun | July 10th 2015

It is 35 years since the brief career of the Manchester quartet Joy Division was ended by the suicide of their singer, Ian Curtis, ahead of a planned tour of the United States. To mark the anniversary, a new website, joydivisionofficial.com, has been set up. It is currently promoting reissues of their two studio albums, “Unknown Pleasures” and “Closer”, and two collections of songs, “Substance” and “Still”, both out later this month.

Over a blank white background, the homepage offers this plain statement: “The British group Joy Division wrote and recorded 43 songs and played over 120 shows in just 29 months between 1978 and 1980.” The verbal brevity and visual setting – stark backdrops, woodland landscapes – are telling. Joy Division were not only Britain’s most celebrated post-punk band, influencing Radiohead, Interpol, Depeche Mode and the Walkmen, among many others, with their spacious, dark, eerie sound, their condensed energy and Curtis’s haunted lyricism. They were also the first to become an unmistakable brand, and thereafter a mini-industry. Their merchandise has never stopped selling, and in the 20 years following their disbandment no fewer than eight Joy Division compilations and box sets were released. The sombre minimalism of Peter Saville's graphic design, which appeared on their album covers, is now so much part of the band's mythos that any other aesthetic would be unthinkable. Joy Division have come to resemble the stone tomb that Saville put on the cover of “Closer”, depicting a sepulchral mourning scene. They serve as a piece of monumental sculpture memorialising those 29 months.

This didn’t come about entirely by accident; nor was there a grand plan. First, the Sex Pistols jolted into life the imaginations of a handful of young Mancunians with a now-famous 1976 show at The Lesser Free Trade Hall. Then a regional television celebrity and champion of new music, Tony Wilson, co-created first a club and then a label, named Factory, to stir a small corner of post-industrial Manchester from its torpor and decay. The producer Martin Hannett imposed, with the bloody-minded certainty of the true visionary, a new and different sound upon the would-be punks in his charge, and Saville devised those beautiful, spare sleeves. Finally – it is futile to pretend this was not crucial – Curtis’s senseless death transformed him from what his bandmate Stephen Morris described as “an ordinary bloke” into a rock’n’roll martyr, a suffering St Sebastian for introspective indie fans. Remove any one of those factors and you surely would not have what Joy Division are today.

Which is a band whose reputation is the gold standard of pop music as a heritage business. Their dissolution was absolute in the way Nirvana’s later would be, and for the same reason, creating an afterlife that was, from the start, unimpeachable: they could never disappoint you. New Order – the once-brilliant band the other members formed after Curtis’s death – have continued, in the way bands do, with line-up changes and diminishing returns on recordings and reunion tours. But with Joy Division, those 43 songs and 120 shows are all there ever will be. Scarcity, as well as remarkable quality, accords them value.

A mere eight years after Curtis died, the Joy Division song “Atmosphere” was re-released with a new video made by the photographer Anton Corbijn, who is as integral to the band’s iconography as Saville, and who would go on to direct an Ian Curtis biopic, “Control”. This video overtly fetishised the death cult surrounding Curtis, and was heavily criticised for it. Yet it was an omen of sorts. Just as its great north-west rival, Liverpool, became bogged down in Beatle-based nostalgia from which it has yet to fully extricate itself, so Manchester suffers pervasive Factory-itis, remaining largely in thrall to an enterprise that ended in 1992. Factory helped revolutionise British counter-culture, first with Joy Division and New Order, then with the Hacienda nightclub and the band Happy Mondays. On their emergence in 2010, the Manchester band Delphic summed up the problem to the BBC: “We’re very proud of Manchester but we were inspired by what we didn’t like in Manchester, and that was Manchester refusing to move on. We felt it was in danger of drowning under its heritage. We wanted to help it look forward and were sick of the Madchester stereotypes.”

Joy Division are an emblem of the way today’s radical innovation becomes tomorrow’s worshipful tradition; of how a culture that does not renew itself is always in danger of becoming a shrine to itself. Their music has lost none of its melancholy power or taut intensity. But the band, as an idea, as a memory, feels like a spectre that envelops the living present. The odd thing is that, even in this, they were ahead of their time. Their biggest hit, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, came out a month after Curtis (and with him the band) died. A month later came their second and final album, “Closer”, with its severe monochrome cover. From that moment on, Joy Division became trapped in time, a gaze fixed perpetually backwards at a gravestone, and everything else they had been evaporated. The more that pop music becomes retrospectively obsessed, the more they seem to exemplify that obsession.

Substance and Still are both released on July 24th

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