There’s little to live on with Joy Division. Much like Nirvana, only worse, Joy Division lasted for a glimpse. Naturally, that glimpse has become an unfolding saga, carried on by fans and critics alike; however, when it comes to source material, it’s fairly meager. Both Unknown Pleasures and Closer happen to be two of the greatest records of all time, the latter being the most depressing LP in existence, but altogether they measure out to be roughly 84 minutes. That’s less than your average film today. Sure, there are B-sides (plenty of ’em), but in terms of a discography, there isn’t much there.
What’s worse, there’s hardly any video. Because the band was so young and rising, coupled with frontman Ian Curtis’ battle with epilepsy, there isn’t much footage of the group – at least not professionally shot. In all honesty, some fans might be more familiar with those who have portrayed Curtis than the singer himself. Really, save for 1997’s Heart and Soul box set (which actually only features half of Curtis’ face) and maybe a couple of black and white posters, where else would fans see him? They didn’t even manage to make it to the States. It’s almost as if he’s always been a spirit.
Even watching old footage on YouTube, it doesn’t seem like he’s really there at all. His malleable body, milk white skin, and those eyes. His eyes never turn to anyone in particular. They’re just distant, his whole demeanor is – sort of like the pale face of Michael Myers a la 1978’s Halloween. Spooky, sure. But it really takes the music to another level. Unlike past icons like Jim Morrison or even Kurt Cobain, Curtis’ legend doesn’t really precede his music. In fact, most fans probably don’t find out about Curtis’ suicide until after they’ve discovered Joy Division. That’s an important facet to consider, especially given the nature of the music itself.
It’s depressing. It’s morbid. It’s vivid. But, it’s human. That’s because it’s probably the most honest music you’ll ever hear. This music doesn’t just speak to you. It encapsulates you. When Curtis murmurs, “What once was innocence, turned on its side,” on “Twenty Four Hours”, and follows it up with “Grey clouds hang over me, marks every move,” it doesn’t so much as hit you as it pains you. It’s like a form of possession. In other words, you don’t go into Joy Division searching for Curtis. No, Curtis finds you.
That’s why seeing him “in the flesh” through old clips feels odd, almost spooky even. In this particular video, taken from their live performance on The Wedge, an old music-oriented program in the UK, the band pummels through a tight cut of “Transmission”. At the time, this would be the band’s last single prior to Curtis’ unfortunate suicide. It’s sort of fitting then that this would be both one of the band’s most popular songs and also pave the way for New Order, specifically in terms of its sound and direction. While there are certain shots here that focus on guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris, pay attention to Curtis. More specifically, keep on his eyes.
It’s been over 30 years since Joy Division unleashed Unknown Pleasures. If anything, its popularity only seems to increase year after year. This year, especially. With Hook performing the album in its entirety (alongside his new band, The Light) and the forthcoming +- release, you can expect to hear more about the band for months to come. No problem there. Despite all the knock offs (Interpol, for one) and the trendsetters, the band manages to work with a pristine legacy, one that’s flawless in design. Its diamond discography – even if Unknown Pleasures had been it, we’d still be chatting them up today – alongside its mythical songwriter lends itself to a great piece of rock ‘n’ roll history.
What’s more, songwriters today could churn out song after song, utilizing every DIY medium known to man, and still not feel as human and organic as Curtis does. That’s the one quality that will always keep this band from losing its luster. Are there regrets? Sure. (God it would have been wonderful to hear a studio cut of “Ceremony”.) But that’s what makes it all the more alluring. Because nothing in life is that interesting without mystery. That right there is enough to live on.