Saturday, October 06, 2007

Love Will Tear Us Apart

I'm yet to see "Control", the bio pic of Ian Curtis that opened on Thursday, but will try and fit it in during the week. In preparation, perhaps, I'm playing their music, that is, Joy Division's music. Its easy to forget - amidst all the talk of them being "legends" with that short clip of "Shadowplay" on So It Goes, or "Love Will Tear Us Apart" back in the top 50 - the way I discovered them, how they came into my life and changed it forever. My story, I once thought was unique, but since I've spoken to loads of people (mostly men, admittedly) who can repeat the same thing. It may seem hard to believe that there was a time when Joy Division weren't famous - and perhaps they always were - but music moved on quickly in the late 70s, early 80s, and the nostalgia industry had hardly begun. I was fourteen, it was the start of what must have been my fourth year - the start of preparation for O levels. Never someone who fitted in at school, I think adolescence, slow and awkward in my case, must have thrown me all out of kilter; though there's probably few or no pictures from that time. I'd been into music for a while, but a few old records - the Very Best of David Bowie, Blondie, ABBA, "A Day in the Life" - with pop music of the day heard very second-hand. Everyone at school seemed to have an older brother or sister who'd trained them in music since they were 11 or 12. Instead I was amazed by the carbon copy of the Beatles that you could hear on the Stars on 45 medley. I'd bought the album, and pause button ready had been trying to recreate my own medleys. Money was tight so if I bought a record it had to have 3 or 4 hits on it, songs that I liked, I'd never liked the ska of the Beat, or the mod of the Jam - and was even less fond of the heavy rock that most kids seemed to be into. It was into this context, that one night I happened to switch on the radio after 10.00 and hear John Peel. Whether for the first time or not - I think I must have heard it before and that this must have been a deliberate ruse - I'd somehow worked out that this was the only way to hear different music. Perhaps I saw it as a secret "crib" method, to catch up with the music before I got into the playground. He played the whole of the 4th side of "Still", the soon to be released posthumous album from Joy Division. I was transfixed. I'd never heard of them - I'd never heard "Love Will Tear Us Apart" incredibly - but this dark, dense music - and side 4 of "Still" includes some of their best songs, albeit live. Over the next couple of weeks I turned on the album charts to hear a couple of other tracks, but it was probably a month - so maybe late October, early November 1981, when I finally tracked down this starkly packaged double album at Fred's records on Cannock market. It felt like buying contraband, the word "Still" on the front - but, at £4.99 for a double, a bargain. Fred, as ever, handed it over in a brown paper bag. I took it back home and played it through headphones on my dad's stereo. Whereas he'd tolerated Beatles, ABBA, even Blondie, Joy Division, where - to him (and gloriously, to me) - all the songs sounded the same, a bass-heavy thud, with this almost incomprehensible vocal grumble over the top -for the next few years any record I'd play that was loud he'd say, "is this Joy Division?" So, "Still" is my favourite Joy Division album, partly because it was my first, and I didn't know anything about Ian Curtis being dead, not then, or that the band was no more and about to raise up as "New Order." My more savvy mate, Dave, already had "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and "Ceremony" - and would soon get "Closer" and "Unknown Pleasures" and the odd singles ("Atmosphere") that made Joy Division such a difficult band to collect. I guess, in 1981, "Still" was much more than just a new album, it was the only way of getting a Joy Division compilation. It also included this strange bluesy live cover "Sister Ray". I read the credits (Morrison - Reed - Tucker - Cale) but had no idea it was the Velvet Underground, another band I'd read about with intrigue. The live album was even muddier than the stark demos on the first disc, but with songs like "Shadowplay" and "Isolation" seemed to compile the best bits of their first two albums. I guess the stark beauty of "Closer" and the visceral power of "Unknown Pleasures" were later loves, and it was this murkiness that dragged me - and my friends towards "Still". By this time I'd begun to spend a precious few pennies on Record Mirror or - occasionally - the impenetrable NME, and must have edged towards an understanding of what Joy Division were, where they'd come from. But, remember, there was no Mojo, no internet, no mention of them in rock encyclopedias, and no information at all on those bewildering Factory sleeves. I'm looking forward to "Control" not to see my landscape - I'd have been 10 in 1977, Curtis and the rest of Joy Division were the generation before mine - which was suburban, but safer, already (post-Thatcher) undergoing change. Its interesting that its in black and white - I remember the seventies and early eighties, the early eighties in particular, most definitely in colour, a washed out colour from old photos perhaps, but the promise of new fabrics, burgundy jeans and yellow jumpers, leading to the extravagant dressing-up box of the New Romantics. Black and white was heavy metal colours; yet by the time - three years later - when I went to see my first night club gig (the Cocteau Twins at Birmingham Powerhouse) my transformation had completed, the black and white of the underground venue, and, as I walked down the stairs, the original (and now much played) version of "Sister Ray", by the Velvet Underground, played in full as the DJ waited for the place to fill up. We'd got there much too early. I was too young for Joy Division, but they were my band in a very private way, and one that over the years I've been shocked to share. I would soon see a very different New Order live, and years later, when they played outside the Town Hall welcoming the Commonwealth Games to Manchester it seemed absurd to hear my favourite, "Temptation" (7" from John Menzies, Walsall), played in this corporate square. Even this year, I heard "Love Will Tear Us Apart", played by Nouvelle Vague at their Manchester gig, and the crowd kept singing the chorus after the song should have stopped, a secular hymn, a shared experience. I'm saying, in some ways, that though Joy Division were the start of things for me, they were also the end of things as well. That lineage between the Velvets, Iggy Pop and Bowie and Joy Division was very real - but the only band to really take on from Joy Division was New Order, who went the direction that perhaps the Ian Curtis of the 2nd side of "Closer" would also have followed had he been able. I don't see echoes in the bands supposedly influenced by Joy Division, since they remain, with that small, repackaged, chaotic back catalogue, uncategorisable, still metallically modern, a band that I know many people adore - but who would, I guess, remain as impenetrable as ever to many. It might seem quixotic that "Still" would still be in my all time top ten albums, slightly ahead of "Unknown Pleasures" and "Closer", but there's something in it unformed-ness, its starkness, its murky depths that remains, for me, the essence of so much of my musical loves, desires, hopes and despairs.

No comments: