Music: The Story of Joy Division (1/3)

Part 1: The Music
Moving through the silence without motion
by Kilian

There was a galvanizing word on the street shaking English postwar youth, straight in meaning, short in sound and drastic in aftermath: punk. A legendary Sex Pistols gig in 1976 in Manchester is said to have inspired most visitors to found a band themselves. Impressed by this do-it-yourself-mentality young Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner invited twenty-year-old Ian Curtis and drummer Stephen Morris to their recently set up ensemble. At the early beginnings one went with the flow of unwashed and rough rebellion of the no future wave. When the band recorded their first EP An Ideal for Living punk was the most influential root of their early sound, although there were already David Bowie and Iggy Pop at the back of their minds. The quartet named Warsaw after the David Bowie song Warszawa subliminally strived for a musical style beyond punk rock but didn't have a concrete concept regarding this vague intention yet. Such hidden treasures are known to grow in the musical and mental underworld of continuous and progressing activity. The time had not been right yet at this point but finally came in the course of the band's increasing popularity in the region of Manchester, accelerated by the television appearance in prominent music reporter Tony Wilson's show. He later founded the very important label Factory Records and contracted the four, who now called themselves Joy Division.

Abandoning the punk routine the gate was open to what should later become a prototype of the novelty called post punk. With swapped roles bass player Peter Hook undertook melodies in high bass octaves while the distorted staccato rhythmics of Bernard Sumner's guitar delivered the projection screen for Stephen Morris' perfectly fit in and thus unobtrusive drums. Over this rhizome of common harmonies, solid accentuations and spheric timbre Ian Curtis' vocals rose in a now much darker and deeper baritone voice. In contrast to the “post”-mentality employed on records the band still indulged the spirit of punk on stage, scuffles and brawls included. This strange ambiguity must be seen against the background of punk's overall pop cultural character. What was it if not a transitional phenomenon or more radical a turning point in popular music which emerged in large parts out of the conflicts within English society, namely as a working class youth cultural protest. Breaking with traditions of the 70s colourful and complex progressive rock, space rock as well as glam rock epics - punk prepared the 80s with its clean synthie-pop and basically bridged a gap. Despite all social and cultural implications worth mentioning in a contemporary history of the second half of the twentieth century punk can be seen as a merely mediocre musical period which gained its most importance through the following artistic movements it paved the way for. Joy Division populated this innovative borderland between punk and its counter-rebellious colonies. Many difficulties and potentials of such a constellation were experienced in the further development of the band.

A key role in this process is attributed to Factory producer Martin Hannett. Recording the first full length album Unknown Pleasures in 1979 he extracted the essence from the noisy aggression of the live performances and refined it to the sound later to be known as post punk. Although the band was at first dissatisfied with Hannett's transfiguration he got the others to agree. Thus we owe Joy Division as we know them to a great extent to his production channelling their brilliance in the act of recording. He called it an “incredible depth” that could be gained from the powerful but vague live gigs. In the studio he upgraded the songs with unpretentious synthesizers and employed sophisticated techniques of recording to enable a deep soundscape. Hannett meticulously separated every instrument and even single parts of the drums during the recording procedure to create a clean clarity which resulted in a completely new tone. Reverberating and at the same time razor-sharp in the foreground, muffled and blurred in the background and with conjuring vocals that rose over the whole instrumental spectacle this was the decisive sound of Joy Division. The album made history in pop music radiating on bands to come and inspiring generations of musicians.

After the resounding Unknown Pleasures the second studio album refined the musical mechanisms of its predecessor. Closer was as deep and spheric as the first album, but in contrast to it thicker and more dense (the staccato articulated Colony) and more experimental (the distraught opener Atrocity Exhibition). Synthesizers were employed more dominant making the second track Isolation a musical bonfire albeit the song's lyrics suggested a completely different mood. In accordance to this paradox Curtis' slowly babbling baritone voice was sporadically surrealistically distorted. Reverb added to the drums put them in balance with the stringed instruments. Peter Hook's bass still dominated as a melody maker (e.g. in the impulsive Twenty Four Hours), while Bernard Sumner's guitar emphasized its loud roots in rock music. More aggressive and greedy than on the predecessor the rudiments of punk were still audible (A Means to an End) thus as well contributing melodies to the songs. Ultimately the album ended up in the long tracks The Eternal and Decades through which the dark and acherontic atmosphere became Joy Division's figurehead.

sources of pictures:
Tube by Anton Corbijn:
Cover of Unknown Pleasures by Peter Saville: