There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Post-punk begins, and in some ways ends, with Joy Division. The foreboding Manchester, England, quartet was one of the first on the block to deconstruct punk’s hyperkinetic energy, opening up the dark spaces between the music’s crunching chord changes and taking the plunge into the aural abyss it createdsometimes literally. Ian Curtis, the band’s weirdly charismatic frontman, hanged himself just a few days before the group was to begin its first U.S. tour, in 1980a career move that ushered in both his band’s demise and its commercial ascension. The group’s records, recorded for the legendary Factory Communications Ltd., whose sound it largely defined, hit their highest chart positions in Britain only after Curtis’ death. In the United States, meanwhile, the mordant “Love Will Tear Us Apart” single got written up in the rock press as the best suicide note you’ll ever dance to. That song, in particular, was an event. DJs at pre-alternative clubs with “progressive” nights latched onto the track, and suddenly dance floors were teeming with ex-pogoers who’d apparently been practicing more graceful moves and cultivating world-wearier looks when their friends weren’t around.
On the evidence of the band’s best work, all of which is collected on Rhino’s belated release of the four-disc Heart and Soul box set, those days were the end of the world as we knew it, and no one was feeling particularly fine. “She gave away the secrets of her past and said, ‘I’ve lost control again,’” Curtis chanted on the menacing “She’s Lost Control,” a track from the group’s landmark debut album, Unknown Pleasures. He could just as easily have been singing about himself. Curtis’ resigned lyrical stance and monotone delivery always suggested that he was the one giving away secretsdark ones, tooabout himself, certainly, but also about a downward cultural spiral into ennui and hyperindustrialism. An epileptic subject to frequent seizures, Curtis also knew about losing control physically, so much so that, as the box set’s copious liner notes suggest, it was sometimes difficult to discern the singer’s twitching onstage dance moves from the disease with which he was afflicted. But even this seems symbolic: At its best, Joy Division raised the barriers between heart and soul into painfully sharp relief”one will burn,” Curtis sings on the set’s title trackand then incinerated them.
But that was only after the group found its voice. Early Joy Division (which was known for a time as Warsaw, after a track on David Bowie’s Low) played inspired but pretty much pro forma punk. Heart and Soul’s third disc kicks off with four tracks from the 1978 EP An Ideal for Living. The throbbing “Leaders of Men” hints at what’s to come, but careening buzzfests such as the classic “Warsaw” and “Failures” are, relatively speaking, traditionally arranged. Guitar and vocals are mostly front-and-center, with a streamlined rhythmic foundation anchoring them to the vaguely experimental pop-punk that future New Order-ers Bernard Albrecht (guitar), Peter Hook (bass), and Stephen Morris (drums) attacked like the 21- and 22-year-olds they were. Like Wire or Gang of FourJoy Division’s kindred spirits during this phase of its careerCurtis & Co. specialized in short, sharp shocks of angular guitar, sneering vocals, and sloganeering lyrics. Like the best punk, in other words, the band’s early sound is a joy forever, if not exactly a thing of beauty.
That would come later. When Joy Division finally developed its signature style, it was more abstract and conceptual than punk’s brutal formalism would allow, but also, somehow, even more visceral. Hiring producer Martin Hannett was the key. Like the pairing of Brian Eno and Talking Heads, the selection was alchemical, with Hannett morphing into the band’s fifth member and conjuring the stark sonic backdrop against which Joy Division’s music went from combustible to epic. Ironically, though, Hannett made the band sound claustrophobic and far more chaotic than it was as a live act, as evidenced by the concert tracks on Heart and Soul’s fourth disc. More than 20 years out, the studio strategy now seems to have been one of matching peculiar aural atmospherics to even more peculiar psychological ones. Listening to the droning, nearly shapeless keyboard washes and echo-chamber bass lines of the set’s opening disc, which tracks Unknown Pleasures, and its second, which includes all of the band’s sophomore LP, Closer, is like hearing the soundtrack inside Curtis’ head. The music is spare, brainy, and bitterly cold.
For all the group’s legendary passion, Joy Division’s albums were emotionally distant, with a palpable sonic chasm stranding both the band from its listeners and Curtis from his mates. The vocalist, in fact, often sounds as if he’s off in his own interior, headphoned world, not even listening to the music he’s singing over. One of the group’s best-known songs, “Isolation,” captures this imperfect dynamic perfectly: With its martial drums, its sardonically shimmering synths, and Curtis’ maniacal recitation of the words (“Mother I tried, please believe me/I’m doing the best that I can/I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through/I’m ashamed of the person I am”), “Isolation” is deeply disturbing, almost alarmingand, most important, not cathartic in the least.
And yet it’s nearly impossible to imagine either of the last two Radiohead albums without its influence. R.E.M. also owes Joy Division a debt of gratitude for the tuneful melancholia that the Athens, Ga., quartet sweetened and rode to the top of the charts. Joy Division provided a template for goth and industrial as well, though, mercifully, the band never indulged in the costume-party cartoonery that undermined groups such as Siouxsie and the Banshees or the Sisters of Mercy or, even more mercifully, the silly psychosexual posturing of Nine Inch Nails. And though thematically they’re miles apart, it’s unlikely that A Flock of Seagulls would have ever transmitted its “Space Age Love Song” if not for Joy Division’s minor-key example.
But starkly original though it was, Joy Division had its own antecedents. The band would have certainly come to its sound more slowly, if at all, without records by Bowie, the Velvet Underground, and the Sex Pistols to nudge it along. And as Curtis developed his level-abusing singing style, he seems to have studied the manic vocalese of Jim Morrison. Just trade the Lizard King’s baritone for a warbling, uncertain tenor and substitute Curtis’ depression for Morrison’s drug-addled megalomania, and you’ve got the recipe for the kind of edgy and impassioned distress that Curtis cooked up on nearly every side Joy Division recorded.
The band had plenty of like-minded contemporaries, too, several of which are collected on The Night Watch: An LTM Compilation, a two-disc collection of material from the Les Temps Modernes label. Launched in 1984, LTM is the plaything of James Nice, a music-obsessed British intellectual with a talent for sleeve design and a fondness for the writing of William S. Burroughs and the New Wave-inflected power pop of the Monochrome Set, both of which would eventually appear on the LTM imprint.
Nice reports in the compilation’s entertaining liner notes thatas he promised himself he wouldhe left the music business at age 25, becoming a lawyer and “a home-owning suit.” By 1997, however, he was back in action, having “revert[ed] to type” and gotten back to the important business of reissuing the music he obviously adores.
Music fans everywhere are the luckier for it. As The Night Watch reflects, Nice is post-punk’s chief archivist, and his self-professed “Factory-centric” label has specialized in reissuing vintage material of the sort recorded by Josef K, an influential Scottish band with connections to Aztec Camera; the Hannett-produced Names, whose ethereally chiming “Nightshift” inspired the disc’s title; and onetime Factory reject Crispy Ambulance. The Crispies were particularly worthy fellow travelers, scratching out Joy Division’s brooding pathos and writing compelling DOR ditties in its place. The Night Watch includes the band’s “Concorde Square” and “Bardo Plane,” two tracks of punk-edged dance-pop that both explain and belie the critical drubbing the group took during its day. Crispy Ambulance was certainly no Joy Division, it’s true, but as the 81-track Heart and Soul set attests, one was enough, thank you very much.
In fact, one Joy Division was more than enough to help launch at least a dozen other bands you probably care about and to coax nearly as many musical styles into existence. For serious rock fans of all stripes, the music we’ve loved over the past 20 years hasn’t just been New Wave or grunge or goth or industrial or electronica. It hasn’t even been post-punk, that elastic term used and abused by music writers everywhere. More strictly speaking, from R.E.M. to Nirvana, from A Flock of Seagulls to Tortoise, and from Sonic Youth to Tricky, the best modern rock music has been post-Joy Division, a point Heart and Soul makes emphatically clear. CP