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>Unknown Pleasures – Joy Division

25 February, 2010 3 comments

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Did I say that Horses was arguably the best debut album ever?  There are many would argue that Unknown Pleasures runs it close.  And they’d be right.

Strangely, there are at least two people who would take issue with that assertion – Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner, who both came away hugely dissatisfied with the finished product, feeling that producer Martin Hannett had delivered an album that did not reflect Joy Division’s live sound accurately enough.  And in that sense, they are right too, for this is as much Martin Hannett’s album as it is Joy Division’s.

And in truth, it is the production that lifts this album from being merely great to being an absolute classic.  Production that is (Pseud’s Corner alert) both of its time and absolutely timeless – that reflects brilliantly the sound and feel of Manchester in the late 1970s, yet has not dated in the same way that much other production work of the time has.

But that is not to say that the production is all – the quality of the songwriting, and the way in which the musician’s obvious limitations are used to the advantage of the overall sound, and above all, Ian Curtis’s voice – both stentorian and vulnerable at the same time – mean that the source material is immensely powerful in its own right.

And it’s not just the music – the overall product – that striking cover adds to the atmosphere of the package enormously.  And how many labels would allow a band’s debut album to go out with no mention of the band’s name (or, indeed, the album title) to appear on the cover?

But ultimately it is the music that makes this album a classic.  Even without the benefit of hindsight, there is an air of paranoia, of unease, about the album.  And yet it is not a depressing album.  If anything, it’s an uplifting album – at the risk of coming over all emo, there is an air of understanding about Curtis’s lyrics and singing – “I know things seem bad, but they can, and will, get better”.

Unfortunately for Ian Curtis, it didn’t get better.  The guide he was waiting for never did come and take him by the hand.

Categories: Joy Division

>Day 197: Under the Lights

28 September, 2009 Leave a comment

>Today’s soundtrack: Joy Division – Closer

A quiet day today, following last night’s excitement – just a bit of shopping, baking and car racing.

It was the Singapore Grand Prix today, played out at night, under the lights around the city streets. Very spectacular, the lighting and scenery making the event look more like a video game than a ‘real’ race.

It was at the corresponding event last year that the Renault team took matters into their own hands by instructing Nelson Piquet Jr to deliberately crash, thereby handing victory to his teammate, Fernando Alonso. Piquet, no doubt ‘piqued’ (you see what I did there?) by his recent dismissal from the Renault team, grassed up his ex-team, causing Flavio Briatore to be banned from racing forthwith and another senior team member to be banned for five years. Renault itself received a suspended sentence but, more damagingly, saw its major sponsors distancing themselves financially from the team which may ultimately cause them to leave Formula One next season.

And a good thing too, I say. It is inconceivable to me that you can ‘engineer’ a crash in a Formula One race – especially on a street circuit – that you can guarantee will not endanger the lives of drivers, stewards and the general public in some way. Luckily, no-one was injured in Singapore last year – but that was by no means a foregone conclusion.

And so to this year’s race. Hamilton on Pole, the Red Bulls not far behind, the Brawns nowhere. And yet again events transpired to keep the Brawns – and Jenson Button in particular – way out in front of the Championship. Having established a big lead in the first half of the season, it seems that even if they were to wilfully try and chuck away the title, it’s still Brawn’s almost by default, as the other teams continually fail to capitalise. Vettel gained a couple of points on Button and Barrichello, but it’s all too little, too late.

Breadmaker in overdrive today – a sandwich loaf (with added wheatgerm) for Mrs W, than a series of pizza bases for tonight’s tea – a pizza each, with a shared garlic bread.

I’ve got the pizza down to a fine art now. Dough mixed, rolled and rising on pizza trays, toppings sliced and set out in little bowls to be added according to personal taste. We seem to have settled on passata and mozzarella, with a selection of spiced meats, red onion, garlic, mushroom, sweetcorn – and chillies for me. Oh, and the garlic bread improves with each baking, too. Butter and crushed garlic combined and malted in the microwave and spread on the pizza base, then topped with copious herbage and more mozzarella. Delicious!

Oh, and Pedro has developed a taste for pizza crusts. Crispy, probably good for his teeth, and I can’t see how it would hurt his tender bowels either. Keeps him quiet while we’re eating, anyway.

So to today’s soundtrack. Joy Division – for the first time, I believe. I came to Joy Division quite late – really following Ian Curtis’s death – and to my eternal shame and regret, I missed seeing them when they supported Buzzcocks back in 1980. A couple more pints in the pub was more appealing than the support act. We’ll see them next time, we said. Well, next time, Ian Curtis was dead, and Joy Division had become New Order.

I got a bit obsessive about Joy Division in the early eighties – as did many people I suppose. I’m sure a lot of this was due to Curtis’s suicide and the myths that sprung up (and were manufactured) around that – and the re-interpretation of his lyrics in the context of his suicide.

However even now, nearly thirty years after the event, I’m still mildly obsessed with Joy Division, snapping up films, documentaries, books and reissued CDs as they become available. Why so? Well, it’s a classic rock and roll story, isn’t it? But ultimately, the music demands it. Brooding, layered and produced with feeling and depth by the (also doomed) Martin Hannett, the music moves me now as much as it did then.

Closer was their second – and final – album, and it still retains an air of mystery about it. Even the title. Is it ‘Closer’ – as in ‘nearer’…or is it ‘Closer’ – as in the opposite of ‘Opener’? I don’t know – and I don’t really care that much. I like the ambiguity.

And I love the music. I love the early use of synthesisers, the power of the bass lines, the weariness to Curtis’s voice.

Most of the video evidence out there comes from Joy Division’s earlier work – there don’t seem to be many films of them performing ‘Closer’ material. But to appreciate Joy Division, you need to see Ian Curtis perform. Lost in the music, carried away in his strange, air-drumming, butterfly-winged dancing, you can see what lies behind the myth.

This is Transmission – with added John Cooper Clarke at the beginning and end – in the Arndale, if I’m not mistaken!

>Here Are The Young Men

23 September, 2007 Leave a comment

>21st October 1979.

Not a day that is burned into many people’s consciousness, indeed I had to look up the actual date myself, but in a life that’s been littered with bad decisions, that was the day I made one of my worst.

Picture the scene. A grey autumn night in Sheffield. A row with the then girlfriend had put me in a foul mood, the sort of mood that needs a few pints to put right. Having those few pints sat in a pub in town with a few mates, we had a decision to make. We had tickets to see Buzzcocks at the Top Rank so…do we have a few more beers in the pub, or do we get ourselves off and catch the support? Sod it, we’re settled, get the ales in.

So we missed the support band. Not normally a big deal, except tonight the support band was Joy Division. They never came back to Sheffield, and I never got to see them.

As it was, I came to Joy Division quite late. Probably early 1980, I picked up a copy of ‘Transmission’ and thought yeah, this lot are worth watching out for…but then it all ended suddenly and all too abruptly, on 18 May 1980.

All that remains is Joy Division’s recorded legacy – Two studio albums followed by a number of attempts to sweep up the remaining odds and sods through compilations and box sets.

The two studio albums – Unknown Pleasures and Closer – and the initial posthumous collection of unreleased and live material – Still – have just been re-released as collectors’ editions, each paired with live recordings from different stages in the band’s career.

Much has been written about Unknown Pleasures and I can’t help but echo much of what has already been said. For me, no other album is so evocative of the time and place in which it was made – whilst remaining completely and utterly timeless. Again much has been written about Martin Hannett’s role in forming the sound of the album and it is interesting, in the fascinating articles that accompany each album, to read just how much tension there was between the group and the producer and, to this day, to read about the level of dissatisfaction the group still has with the final sound of the album. Grudging acceptance that Hannett might just have been right is as good as it gets! Anyway, what do the band know. What I know is that this is, for me, unquestionably the finest debut album ever recorded and maybe one of the finest albums ever made, period.

Closer is, if anything, a better album than its predecessor, but one that is inevitably interpreted in the context of Ian Curtis’s death – the lyrics, mood of the album and (most obviously) the cover design all point, if you are so minded, to Curtis’s impending death. To my mind this is a lazy way to view the album – Curtis was very much alive while the album was being recorded and had a hand in the choice of cover. Who really knows what his state of mind was at the time? It is impossible to listen to Closer without the benefit (curse?) of hindsight but, if you try to remove that context and hear it solely on its merits as a body of music, it still has the power to move and uplift. Reflective and sombre, without being miserable or self-pitying, the album has depths that allow it to sound fresh nearly thirty years on.

Still inevitably suffers by comparison with its two predecessors, and for the omission of the non-album singles and the majestic ‘Atmosphere’, which would have been better use of the vinyl originally taken by a sloppy live cover of ‘Sister Ray’. The studio tracks that were included, however, do not dilute the group’s legacy and in certain cases actually enhance it. The live concert included with the original release has historical significance as the group’s last concert, but it is not the finest gig the group played.

All three concerts included with the re-releases do go some way to demonstrate the claims of Sumner and Hook that they were a far better live band than they were in the studio but from where I’m sat, nothing they produced live comes anywhere near to the majesty of their two studio masterpieces.

But then, what do I know? I never saw them live.

Categories: Joy Division