Joy Division

The lead singer should've just taken a Prozac

Strongest album: Unknown Pleasures
Must to avoid: Still

Geez, are these guys depressing. These former Stiff Kittens invented this miserable little sub-genre called "goth", laying the groundwork for a generation of insufferable self-absorbed poseurs. However, you shouldn't write Joy Division off; their work towers over all of their many imitators, the Cure included. Part of the reason is that lead singer Ian Curtis' gloom wasn't an affectation or pose; on the eve of their first American tour, he hung himself over a wrenching love triangle. His premature 1980 death hangs over these records with a ghostly presence, informing our every listen - like it or not, the listener is acutely aware that this is the voice of a man near the end of his life and sanity, which infuses the best of these records with a haunting poignancy. As for the music itself, the band behind Curtis created what might arguably be referred to as the most influential British rock of the '80s. You have to mentally put yourself in a time machine to realize how startingly original Unknown Pleasures must have sounded back in the 1979: the world had never heard music like this. Virtually devoid of any American elements, this was coldly European hypno-rock informed by Bowie and Kraftwerk but possessing a dramatic intensity and depth that their predecessors never had, effectively employing the density and weight of heavy metal for true metal-machine music light-years ahead of its time (though the sound would be all over the place within a couple of years). You can thereotically trace Joy Division's influence to the cutting edge of '90s Now (Nine Inch Nails, (especially) Radiohead) except that most of the bands that follow in Joy Division's footsteps probably think they're ripping off Depeche Mode. Not so! All those good things said, I do have to warn you, though - this band certainly isn't for everybody. They indeed are dark and highly depressing, and most of their dirges you can't dance to. The best of their work, however, contains a stirring dose of humanity that elevates it above the gloom.

Come to the dark side, my son. Visit Shadowplay.

An Ideal For Living EP (1978) **1/2

Joy Division began, like almost every other English band formed in 1977, as Sex Pistols-inspired punks. The four songs on this EP sound like Ziggy Stardust played at Diamond Dogs tempo: dirgey, grey, static. "Warsaw" rushes in powerfully, but nothing else on this release is very striking. Ian Curtis sings agressively in a normal tenor that's far less interesting than his later sub-Jim Morrison bass croon; the rest of the band sounds more normal, and less interesting, as well. All of this material was released on 1988's Substance compilation, so there's no real reason to purchase the original EP (even if you're able to find it).

Warsaw (rec. 1978; rel. 1995)

Joy Division actually recorded their first album in 1978, but due to a recording engineer's tampering with the sound (he apparently added some synths to the mix without the band's permission, and they were understandably a bit miffed) they decided to never release it. It's been available on bootleg for years; this is the first official release. Some of these songs were re-recorded for later albums and singles. I don't have this (I've never seen it available) but I'm on the lookout - supposedly it sounds much punkier than their official debut, so it should be interesting.

P.S. The title comes from David Bowie's "Warsawzaw", and was the name the band recorded this album under, before their final name change to Joy Division.

Unknown Pleasures (1979) *****

Everyone from U2 to Nirvana have something rooted here on one of the most influential albums of all time. '90s rock's moans of despair were first heard here, and we've yet to hear the end of it. Yet on this album, Curtis' gloom is tempered and at times undercut by the exhilaration of his bandmates, who are clearly thrilled to be in the studio for the first time and able to work out all sorts of interesting ideas. The tension makes for a highly immediate and compelling listen. Bernard Sumner's simple, jagged guitar lines are more up front than they'd ever be again, but even at this juncture his guitar serves mostly as decorative blur - the heart of the band lies within Peter Hook's subliminal bass and Steve Morris' robotic drums, both of which act as lead instruments. Drawing from the darker and dirgier side of heavy metal - "Interzone" sounds like Black Sabbath at 78rpm - as well as the aforementioned electronic, coldly European sounds of Eno-era Bowie, Joy Division create a startlingly original and highly unsettling post-punk sound. It begins brightly enough with the textbook hooks and forward momentum of "Disorder", with its "lights are flashing, cars are crashing," the sound of which appear later in "Shadowplay." Very quickly, though, it moves into dark, uncharted territory, as Curtis shares a drink and walks outside, looking for a friend of his at the centre of the city or at least one honest man, only to find "Wilderness". He falls to his knees, begging to know "where will it end?"; at 22, he remembers when he was young, his voice already echoing from beyond the grave. He witnesses a loved one break down in the absolute classic "She's Lost Control". Curtis' obsessiveness might sound melodramatic and overwrought - is it my imagination or does he compare himself to Jesus H. Christ at one point? - in other hands, but he makes the listener truly feel as if he's taken one step into the void and falling, dragging you with him. Producer Martin Hannett gives the music a coldly efficient sheen to add to this icily Teutonic masterpiece. Nothing else the band did ever came close to this peak, to my ears; even if you think you might not like Joy Division, you ought to at least give this a listen if you are at all interested in how modern rock got to where it is.

Closer (1980) ***

A lot of people prefer this to the debut, but not I. The band has certainly refined its sound and ethos the second time out, but the fact that Joy Division are actually closer at succeeding at what they set out to accomplish is a drawback: since they wanted to create music of the dirgiest and most depressing power, this is slower, moodier, and contains less hookcraft than Unknown Pleasures. The band really does sound eerily robotic on tracks like the opener, "Atrocity Exhibition," which isn't a good thing, for the most part. They get the mood right - Curtis' voice sounds even scarier, dislocated as if he's channeling his voice through a seance - but most of these songs are just mood-pieces. There are a handful of classics, however: the chilly synthesizers of "Isolation," which sounds likes the keyboards and the drums and the rest of the band are all playing in a different room to arresting effect; the driving, accusatory "A Means To An End,"; and the closer, the haunting "Decades."

Still (1981) **

After Curtis' untimely death, Factory emptied the vaults with these leftovers. Most of these outtakes wouldn't have enlivened Unknown Pleasures or even Closer, though "Ice Age" and the punky "Walked In Line" are worthwhile. Considering that "Dead Souls" and "Glass" - the other two decent songs - are repeated on Substance, this compilation's addition to Joy Division's ouvre is made even more marginal. The nine studio outtakes - even the good ones I mentioned above - all suffer from poor mixing, a distant and muffled sound, and a general sense of unfinished songwriting.

This release does have its archival value, though. After hearing the same demi-metal chords repeated in song after song, it becomes apparent that Sumner wasn't much of a guitarist (probably why they regulated his playing to background blur). It's also made apparent that the band owed as much to Black Sabbath as any other influence. The chief lesson, however, is learned on the next 11 tracks, which were recorded live. Naked of studio overdubs, Joy Division are revealed as a thin-sounding unit that barely holds itself together. The painfully out-of-tune keyboards and the out-of-whack sound system are the hardest to take. Through their brilliant arrangements in the studio, Joy Division could cover up their compositional deficiencies (lack of melody, too much repetition); live, these flaws are excruciatingly clear. The low point is an endless cover of "Sister Ray," that is not redeemed by the joke Curtis mumbles at the end: "You ought to hear our version of "Louie, Louie" - Wow." For completists/fanatics only.

Substance 1977-1980 (1988) ***1/2

This looks like a greatest hits package, but it isn't; the only overlap with Joy Division's two album releases is "She's Lost Control." The rest consists of singles and B-sides, including the entirety of An Ideal For Living. As you might have guessed, it's inconsistent, but there isn't a single track that isn't interesting; if about half of these tracks are novelties, then they are very high quality novelties ("Atmosphere," especially; "Novelty," isn't too bad, either). The two classic singles are "Transmission," which you can actually dance too - "Dance, dance, dance to the radio!" exhorts Curtis, as the band displays a side that would flourish when they mutated into New Order after his death; and "Love Will Tear Us Apart," the greatest love song of the '80s, and Joy Division's best (and best known) song: Curtis may have payed the ultimate price for being a tortured romantic, but for three minutes we can take the trip down that agonizing lane along with him, without following his gloom all the way to the foolish end.

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