Deciphering the Mystery of Joy Division

A new book explores how the group turned itself into a portal for some of the most alien and beautiful information ever to be broadcast through the medium of a rock-and-roll band.

For bands in the era of Joy Division, it was a time of music that sounded like ideas. (Jon Savage)

The approach to Joy Division is forbidding. This band comes sealed in a myth of monumental severity, outside rock and roll to some degree, its achievement arrested at the point of maximum force by the suicide, in 1980, of singer Ian Curtis. Reading the fragmentary testimonies in This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else, Jon Savage’s oral history of Joy Division, I was put in mind of “Cold Dark Matter,” the 1991 installation by the British artist Cornelia Parker. With the British army, Parker arranged for a garden shed to be blown up. Having meticulously recorded the explosion, she then collected and assembled the debris in a facsimile of the shed at the moment of disintegration, every shard and smithereen now fixed in space, flying but stopped, with a core of white light at the center.

The glare and the bloom of illumination at the core of Joy Division are a mystery. Not the mystery of why Curtis took his own life—the immediate subjective reasons for that become miserably clear as you read this book. But the mystery of how four working-class Northern English boys, mostly interested, as a unit, in beer and ciggies, and without ever really talking about it, contrived to turn themselves into a portal for some of the most alien and beautiful information ever to be broadcast through the medium of a rock-and-roll band.

Local conditions had something to do with it. Manchester was their city, the late ’70s was their time, and punk rock was their precipitator. Postindustrial vacancies, barbs of energy. They were in the tiny, existentially provoked audience when the Sex Pistols played the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976. “There were so few people there that you just talked to them,” says the bassist Peter Hook in This Searing Light, “because if something awful had happened, you’d talk to the person next to you, wouldn’t you? If you watched a crash, you’d say ‘Oh Jesus, that was bad, wasn’t it?’” The band was formed that night.

Post-punk: what a great term. We’re all post-punk. Punk happened, and then—at some point—we did. For bands in the era of Joy Division, it meant music that sounded like ideas. Tony Wilson, trickster-broadcaster and high theorist of the Manchester Geist, signed them to his new label, Factory. “The degraded city was part of Joy Division’s life,” said Wilson. “The idea of the city is a theme that runs through this whole thing, Manchester being the archetypal modern city.” Martin Hannett became their producer—dimensional slippage was his fixation, the little blips and space-smears and echoes of otherness with which he would open up the Joy Division sound.

And as musicians, they were, each of them, unique: Peter Hook’s aggressively melodic, high-fretted bass playing, the instrument itself slung somewhere around his knees, was like a hum or lamentation inside the skull; the guitarist Bernard Sumner combined his own cold architecture with the Eastern snarl of the Stooges’ Ron Asheton; Stephen Morris played the drums as if setting (and then frowningly solving) a series of bitter mechanical problems; and the groggy, cavernous baritone of Ian Curtis, singing in the accent of an evacuated Jim Morrison, marked out a ritual space in the middle of the music.

So along the horizontal axis, so to speak, these were the coordinates: the people and the circumstances, the run of time. Ian Curtis had a wife and a job and a baby daughter and a little house in Macclesfield, outside Manchester. He liked knocking around with his mates and playing in his band. But he also lived on the vertical axis: timelessness, separation. He had visions. “Someone take these dreams away / That point me to another day,” he sang in “Dead Souls.” Were they petit mal episodes, precursors to the epilepsy that would blight his last couple of years? They had their own imagery and atmosphere: Rome, Egypt, the Third Reich. Curtis would space out into arenas of fascist grandeur, smelling blood: “I traveled far and wide through many different times, / What did you see there?/ I saw the saints with their toys, / What did you see there? / I saw all knowledge destroyed.”

Things converged, or radiated outward in a web—it was impossible to tell which. At any rate, the momentum was irresistible, to the band and those around it. Rock and roll was left far behind as 1979’s Unknown Pleasures—still recognizable, just, as a rock album—was vacuumed up into the inhuman latitudes of 1980’s Closer. Music-press photographers, sent to cover the mumbling, disparate Joy Division, would be startled to find an unaccommodated but entirely coherent band aesthetic beaming through their lenses. Curtis, who in performance would dance like someone trying to give himself a fit, to induce an electrical event, staring fixedly while whipping up a vortex of trapped panic with his body, had his first grand mal seizure; his marriage began to break down; and as the music of Joy Division towered ever more remotely, his lyrics became excruciatingly personal. “This is the crisis I knew had to come / Destroying the balance I’ve kept.” The band’s reputation was growing. Curtis was channeling Kafka, Burroughs, Munch, the 20th century, himself. Personal-impersonal, human-inhuman. And yet somehow it was all hidden, hooded, none of it discussed or made explicit. This perhaps is the answer, or an answer, to the mystery: that gruffness, Englishness, willed monotony, beer, understatement, and a kind of climatic depression all provided the perfect cover for the growth of an artistic monstrosity.

Savage’s book is excellent. With Joy Division, eventually, words peter out or fritter away into uselessness. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying, of course, but reading the dazzled witnesses in This Searing Light, and the undone experts, and the bandmates fumbling with the abrupt immensity of their singer’s absence, everything partial, broken, everything occluded in some respect, the oral-history method makes more and more sense. Where would this band have gone had Curtis lived? Joy Division, the entity, had dance music in it, an electronic future, and also great depths of romanticism awaiting discovery: The posthumous single “Atmosphere” is bombastically gorgeous. In the mid-’90s, when Ryan Giggs was tearing down the left wing for Manchester United, black hair flying behind a pale face and billowy red shirt flattened against his ribs, United fans would serenade him to the tune of Joy Division’s biggest hit, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”: “Giggs, Giggs will tear you apart a-gain.” A most unexpected fate for this saddest and fiercest of bands: folk music.