Joy Division were one of several prominent bands who were inspired by the Sex Pistols’ famous 1976 gig in Manchester – members of The Buzzcocks, The Fall, The Smiths, and Simply Red were reportedly also in attendance. Producer Martin Hannett was instrumental in shaping them, drenching them in reverb and bringing out the most chilling aspects of their sound, creating post-punk masterpieces.
Having said that, Joy Division already had a unique sound – Peter Hook’s bass was the dominant instrument, often played in the high registers and creating the melodic interest, while Bernard Sumner’s guitar threw out shards of noise. Stephen Morris’ drums were machine-like and efficient, while Ian Curtis was most arresting of all, with his doom-laden, chilling lyrics and vocals.
The group only made two studio albums before Curtis’ suicide; both are excellent, each with its own distinct flavour. The compilation Substance collects the material from their non-album singles – while it’s less consistent than their studio albums, it collates some of their most essential material.
Joy Division’s appeal has persisted – near where I live, on the other side of the world from Manchester, there’s a famous Ian Curtis wall.
After Curtis’ death, the group promoted Sumner to lead vocalist, bought in Morris’ girlfriend Gillian Gilbert as keyboard player, and re-branded as New Order. There’s certainly a distance between Joy Division pieces like ‘Atmosphere’ and New Order’s 1989 football anthem ‘World In Motion’, even through both group’s share common musical elements.
Joy Division Album Reviews
Joy Division’s debut Unknown Pleasures documents an uneasy reconciliation between the punk inspired aggression of Joy Division’s live show and previous recordings as Warsaw, and the glassy, ominous sound from producer Martin Hannett. With the gloominess and foreboding in Ian Curtis’ lyrics, the pairing of Hannett’s atmospheric production with Joy Division proved inspired, creating a landmark debut. All the members show their distinctive styles; opener ‘Disorder’ showcases Stephen Morris’ robotic drumming, guitarist Bernard Sumner utilises a synthesizer of the foreboding closer ‘I Remember Nothing’, and Hook’s bass is the lead instrument. But Ian Curtis is the star, and the reverb-drenched austerity puts the spotlight on his chilling vocals.
The strongest tracks are ‘She’s Lost Control’ and the dramatic closer ‘I Remember Nothing’, autobiographical tales from Curtis about epilepsy and his failing marriage. The album version of ‘She’s Lost Control’ is substantially more intense and superior to the single version featured on Substance.
Unknown Pleasures is a very strong debut statement, a chilling mixture of punk and atmosphere.
Unknown Pleasures was bleak, but Closer is even more stark and unsettling. The difference largely comes from the slower songs – while most of Unknown Pleasures was uptempo, Closer features songs that are slow and mournful, and Curtis’ vocal style has shifted to an affected baritone. His suicide before the album’s release has only enhanced its reputation as a significant record.
A lot of the emotional heft of Closer comes from the final two songs – ‘The Eternal’ and ‘Decades’. ‘The Eternal’ is punctuated by a simple piano figure, while ‘Decades’ is anchored by Hook’s lead bass lines, but both are melodic and stately. The best song, however, is the driving ‘Twenty Four Hours’. Elsewhere, ‘Passover’ is another beautiful tune, while the refrain “Heart and soul, one will burn” is deeply unsettling.
It’s emotionally unsettling, but Closer is a surprisingly gorgeous album, successfully fusing beauty to Joy Division’s omnipresent intensity.
Substance is a compilation of the non-album singles and EPs released by Joy Division during their three year history. It has very little crossover with the two studio albums – the only track in common is an inferior version of Unknown Pleasures‘ ‘She’s Lost Control’.
Substance begins with the An Ideal For Living EP, which captures Joy Division before Martin Hannett got hold of them; documenting them as a punk band rather than the post-punk outfit they’d become. As a collection, it’s less consistent in tone and in quality than their studio albums, but it contains some of their most notable tracks. ‘Transmission’ was Joy Division’s first single, released between Unknown Pleasures and Closer, while Licht und Blindheit featured the stark, unsettling ‘Atmosphere’ and the driving ‘Dead Souls’. ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is perhaps the band’s best known song, with its synthesiser hook.
It’s uneven, but Substance is a useful appendix to Joy Division’s studio albums, rounding up some of their best work.
Ten Favourite Joy Division Songs
Twenty Four Hours
She’s Lost Control
Love Will Tear Us Apart
I Remember Nothing