Joy Division is miles away from my regular musical wheel-house which is more often of a rootsy nature as it digs deep into bluegrass, blues, and americana which does not in any way describe Joy Division with their abrasive guitar, stuttering new wave drum beat, and ominous tones. Growing up they were barely on my radar, just an odd name and super-catchy song, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, which would pop up occasionally on cool radio stations. This was especially true when I first came across them in the early 1990’s while in high school and college when my interest was mostly focused on the Grateful Dead, Phish, and similar bands. The 90s were a much different time for musical discovery, if you wanted to hear and uncover all the various nooks and crannies of a band you had to work for it. There was no internet guiding your every decision with endless Amazon reviews, YouTube videos, social media, and blogs. You read magazines, talked to friends who knew more, made friends with record store clerks, and sometimes when all of that failed you simply picked up an album with a cool cover, slapped down your money, and took a chance.
Joy Division was that band for me. I have longed loved the 80s new wave sound that was so prevalent when I was a child. Joy Division seemed like patient zero for much of that sound, with its aggressive danceable-edge and dark, brooding, punk-sheen. Though Joy Division was much more than that. Their music was thoughtful, challenging, and forward-looking. Listening to them is a full-body experience as the intensity of their music matched the intensity of their lyrics. For me there was no one singular moment of discovery, one a-ha moment of musical awakening in regards to Joy Division, it was a slow burn, like ribs on a grill done to perfection, not with an instant sear but with a simmering, indirect heat. I was always vaguely aware of Joy Division, mostly through their most well-known song, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, but with no context it was easy to dismiss them as a classic one-hit, new wave wonder. Beyond ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, they were just a band with an intriguing name and a tragic story (lead singer Ian Curtis’ suicide at age 23 that brought the band to an end after a brief three years) that eventually spawned New Order. They were not played regularly on the radio and there was very little written about them at the time. None of my friends were into them. I tried to find their albums at the library to sample, but their limited catalogue made that an impossible journey. Instead I went to my local record store and started flipping through the J’s. Tucked in between Journey and Judas Priest I found a couple Joy Division albums, a greatest hits collection and an album with a stark black and white photo showing four figures grieving around a man lying on a bed. It was a powerful image that immediately captivated me. The album was Joy Division’s posthumous second album and masterpiece, ‘Closer’. The cover image became even more shocking when I found out it was released a mere two months after Curtis’ suicide (though the cover design was chosen well before his death).
Upon first listen, ‘Closer’s’ abrasive sound and intense lyrics were shocking to ears more inclined to the lyrical poetry of Robert Hunter and the swirling jams of the Dead, but something kept pulling me to go deeper and deeper into the music. Maybe it was singer Ian Curtis’ powerful, heart wrenching words. In hindsight knowing what would happen to the band and the short time they would be around, the urgency and desperation of Curtis’ lyrics take on an even greater importance. I connected with the music and wanted to know more of their story and music. The band’s music would prove to be just as intriguing as their tragic story. As I learned of their story there developed even more of an odd connection through an odd trio of dates. As Warsaw (Joy Division’s original name) they played their first ever show on my birthday, May 29, when they debuted at the Electric Circus in Manchester in 1977. Curtis’ untimely death was on May 18, my Dad’s birthday, and he was cremated on May 23 my wife’s birthday.
Since that first discovery Joy Division has always held a very unique place in my musical pantheon. It is a band who I will never have the opportunity to see live, who will never release any new music, and who only exists in the two studio albums, one EP, and handful of live releases that have come out over the years in various box sets. There is no treasure trove of live albums or unreleased songs waiting to be released. This lack of material only further deepens the mystical narrative of the band. The story no matter how brief is one that never gets old to revisit. There are always new twists and turns and winding paths on which to discover new musical plateaus and landscapes. Curtis was able to say all that he needed to say in a brief window. He told his story and said goodbye. It is a lifetime of work completed in three years.