And then it happened – Curtis succumbed to his depression, the band was in tatters and the cult of Ian Curtis began to develop.
Back Catalogue – Joy Division
A voice screams. "3, 5, 0, 1, 2, 5, Go!" And they were off. The opening to Joy Division's debut An Ideal for Living EP conveys how urgent and confounding these out of kilter rhythms must have seemed even in the already splintered punk scene of 1978. Urgency is the line that runs through all of Joy Division's work – there was less than two years between this self financed release and the suicide of Ian Curtis. In this brief time the group produced enough material for two official albums, countless bootlegs, a multitude of radio sessions and a handful of legendary singles. Over the next two issues of Incendiary we'll sort out the confusing range of overlapping JD releases. Next month charts how New Order grew, reached stadium size and then fell back to earth.
Warsaw (The RCA Tapes) – Recorded May '78
So, to take a lesson in bloody-mindedness from the group themselves, we'll start with a bootleg, albeit a widely available one. The only way to truly sort through the various releases on offer under the JD banner is to approach them chronologically; not in terms of release dates but of recording. This was the band's first album proper, recorded at the behest of an excited young A&R man who knew what he was onto. It was just under 6 months since they had gained a stable line-up but the 11 raw punk snippets captured here show that they were already deviating from the tried and tested formula of the genre into something a little more intriguing. Admittedly this is really a historical document, mainly of interest to those tracking their changing sound: the slow, repetitive Transmission on here bears little resemblance to the unstoppable behemoth released the following year. Scarily it shows how easily they could have sunk without trace had they not bought themselves out of their major label contract early on...
Unknown Pleasures – May '79
...allowing them to make this, quite possibly the best self-financed release ever. Listening to the early material and then skipping forward a year is something of a shock. Stephen Morris' robotic drumming suggests metronome implants, Peter Hook's bass is now pushed to the front of the mix and Bernard's guitar is crystal clear. Curtis' lyrics have jumped from oblique, repetitive statements designed to disturb and enrage, to more detailed stories that explore emotions and feelings, especially the sense of helplessness. Martin 'Zero' Hannet was responsible for creating the haunting sound of the album, but that's not to say it's all dark and foreboding. Indeed, opening track Disorder is one of the most optimistic songs ever written, a true sing along rock'n'roll masterpiece that sticks two fingers up at the world (and, incidentally, at the idea that Curtis was a depressed, distanced character). Nowadays, as the album can frequently be found in the "top 100 albums ever" charts, it's easy to forget just how ambitious, sprawling and groundbreaking it must have been at the time (not to say IGNORED -ed).
Closer – July '80
Ignoring the praises lavished on Unknown Pleasures Closer is certainly the fuller and more influential of the band's two LPs. Recorded within a year of Unknown Pleasures the band's sound had progressed in leaps and bounds although the recording also reflects the internal cracks that were beginning to appear. The previous autumn the band made the most of the critical acclaim heaped on their debut by chucking in their jobs. The band became a fulltime proposition and they supported The Buzzcocks' on their UK tour. However, with Curtis feeling guilty over his infidelity and with his illness worsening the lyrics seem to dig even deeper into his own woes ("Now that I've realised how it's all gone wrong / Gotta find some therapy, this treatment takes too long"). Far more disparate in style, jumping from luscious synth pop arrangements on Isolation to the near-spoken word of The Eternal, it is the high water mark of their career. It paved the way for most alternative music of the 80s.
And then it happened – Curtis succumbed to his depression, the band was in tatters and the cult of Ian Curtis began to develop. Finally working out some of the basic rules of "how to run a record company" (although it's fair to say these rules were never mastered) Factory and, later, London began to put together compilations to fulfil the seemingly endless demand for Joy Division material. Using the vast array of unreleased material leftover these compilations vary in quality and there's only really two worth bothering with.
Substance 1977-1980 – July '88
Following the punk ethic of not ripping off fans by keeping albums and singles as separate entities (or, depending on who you believe, simply to sell more records) the place to find their three definitive songs (Transmission, Love Will Tear Us Apart and Atmosphere) is on this collection. Simply a run through of A-sides and B-sides (with the odd EP/flexidisc track thrown in for good measure) it is a reliable introduction to the group. The downside is that it lacks the coherence to be appreciated as a whole and can be off putting to a newcomer – its odds and sods nature throws up some of the band's weaker offerings.
Heart & Soul – September '99
Superseding the much derided Still this is by far the simplest way to investigate Joy Division. In true "feel the width" style the entire Joy Division back catalogue (bar one or two odd mixes) is distributed across two discs with the bonus of a third disc of radio sessions and a fourth consisting of some of the best quality live bootlegs available. The raw Love Will Tear Us Apart Peel Session (also available on "The Complete BBC recordings") is worth the price alone, proving that without the delicacy of Hannett's production the sheer force of the band is quite astounding. However the most poignant moment comes with a dodgy rehearsal tape, recorded (slightly ominously at 'Graveyard Studios, Prestwich') mere days before Ian's suicide. Here they tried out two new songs showcasing another step forward, namely Ceremony and In A Lonely Place. Hearing his slightly distorted voice not far from death just reminds us how good that third album could have been. As it was those two songs formed the start of a different story...
Words: James Waterson.