Shadowplay: A Joy Division Retrospective
Click on the streaming service of your choice below to listen to the playlist as your read along.
I learned of New Order first, through my brother around 1981 when I was eleven and he brought albums and tapes home after his first year at university. I would say I first claimed them as ‘my own’ and developed my own interest in them around 1983-84 and they have laid claim as my favourite artist ever since. Naturally an exploration, discovery, and love of the predecessor band, Joy Division, followed. This is a band with much history, intrigue, and influence on the broader music community, so there is so much to say about them as people, their place in the world, and the many stories surrounding them. I am breaking this profile into two parts to address the two bands separately, but they should read together for the complete and seamless history of this legendary act.
- Leaders of Men
- Exercise One
- The Kill
- She’s Lost Control
- Dead Souls
- Love Will Tear Us Apart
- A Means to An End
- Heart and Soul
The band’s story started with Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, who were friends and who attended the infamous Sex Pistols show at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1976. Inspired by the Pistols’ performance they decided to start a band despite not knowing how to play any instruments (yes, the very cliché of punk’s DIY ethos). Bernard took up the guitar and Peter the bass, and they were joined by Terry Mason on drums. They named themselves the Stiff Kittens and start dutifully practicing. None of them could sing so they placed an ad in the local record shop and it was taken up by Ian Curtis, whom they already knew from the local scene. They shortly changed their name to Warsaw after the Bowie song ‘Warszawa’ from his Low album. Their live debut was in May of 1977, five months after coming together.
Mason proved unable to master the drums to the others’ liking and he agreeably changed roles to become the band’s manager. After a brief try with another drummer they settled on Stephen Morris and the lineup was complete. After catching the ear of local DJ Rob Gretton, he took over from Mason as manager and got them into the studio to start recording.
Leaders of Men \ An Ideal for Living EP (1978)
An odd aspect to the band at this point was an inadvertent association with Nazis. Before they hit the studio, they changed their name in order to avoid confusion with the band Warsaw Pakt and selected the name Joy Division, which was a reference to Nazi prostitutes that Curtis lifted from the book House of Dolls. Sumner was also into drawing and one of his pieces graced the cover to their first EP, An Ideal for Living, which was of a Hitler Youth. So the band gained early notoriety as some sort of Nazi-loving weirdos, though the band denied the affiliation. However, they were a group of young, disaffected lads struggling in working class Manchester and Salford, and they channelled their frustrations, as many across England were in 1978, into punk music. An Ideal for Living was their self-produced first effort and was standard punk fare for the time, though notably a little catchy, heavy on the bottom end, and featured a darkly toned singer with an emotive streak.
Digital \ A Factory Sample Compilation (1978)
Tony Wilson, a local TV personality, started a weekly showcase of emerging acts in a local nightclub and called it Factory Night. To help promote the bands and the event, a single was released that included several songs from their featured acts. The song included from Joy Division hinted at where this band was going, and that was a sound and style unlike any other. While other punk acts were thrashing away on guitars or building sonic waves of guitar, the song ‘Digital’ was led by a marching, urgent bassline paced by a sparse drumbeat, a tight, constricting guitar lick, and a shouting, echoey vocal that matched the taut style of the song. It was an early masterpiece that demanded to be taken notice and while punk in nature, didn’t easily fit into any current music categories.
Exercise One; The Kill \ Unreleased recordings (featured on Still in 1981) (1979)
The band continued to play constantly and headed out on the road to other locales, including London. On the way home from that show Ian Curtis had his first epileptic seizure – the start of what would become a growing concern. They also joined Tony Wilson’s new indie label, Factory Records, to which the contract was notoriously signed by Wilson in blood to exemplify his commitment to the band.
‘Exercise One’ showed the band further setting themselves apart, as mood became as much a part of their aural composition as the instruments themselves. The song rode on sounds you might hear in abandoned, late night streets or factories, drawing on the Manchester environment. The song also showed the increased use of play between the instruments, especially the guitar which came flitting in and around the bass and drum rhythm section, all the while Curtis’ brooding voice offset it all.
‘The Kill’ indicated they hadn’t lost the punk energy quite yet, as Barney worked up a frenzy on the guitar and Hooky once again paced with a dominant bassline. This would be, as much as anything else, the distinguishing mark of Joy Division and New Order’s sound – Hook’s bass. He played it down low, to emulate Paul Simonon of The Clash, and the sound he strove for was Jean-Jacques Burnell of The Stranglers – big, meaty lines that helped define each song (Hook’s ego would never let him take a backseat). But his unique sound, played high and with a pick so he could hear himself among the din of their music, came about chiefly through Ian Curtis’ influence, who encouraged the style and liked how it made the band sound.
Indeed, Curtis was the conductor of the band. While the whole band wrote the songs, Curtis as a non-player (though would help on guitar at times, especially when Sumner started playing more keyboards) could listen and direct the others to the best sound when they were writing and rehearsing – such as his encouragement of Hook’s unique bass-playing style, which uncharacteristic of the time was often allowed to carry the songs. There was a yin and yang element to the band’s music. Curtis’ voice and Hook’s prevalent bass give them a dark, heavier sound which was propelled by Morris’ thick drumming. However, Morris also often used quickly paced drumming on the high hat and cymbal and Sumner’s guitar was either higher toned picking or strumming of the guitar. These sounds rode over the lower end of the songs, so they had depth and contour and gave the ear much to take in.
Transmission \ Non-album single (1979)
Was this song rock? Punk? New wave? There was a wall of sound, light keyboards, and the enigmatic sound of Curtis, whose lyrics were getting better. The song was about radio but fit with this band, mysterious and dark: “Listen to the silence, let it ring on / Eyes, dark grey lenses frightened of the sun / We would have a fine time living in the night / Left to blind destruction / Waiting for our sight.” This song announced that Joy Division was something different, special, and increasingly capable. Though they hadn’t found their audience yet (it was growing in England but they were still mostly unknown in wider circles) this song eventually became a classic of their archive. Deborah Curtis, Ian’s wife, would lift the title of her book, Touching from a Distance, from this song. As my brother once said, “yes, Transmission is a dance song.” Dance, Dance, Dance, to the radio…this song was epic, slick, catchy, and one of the greatest entries in the early pages of modern rock history.
Disorder; She’s Lost Control; Shadowplay; Wilderness \ Unknown Pleasures (1979)
Ah, the album that launched a million t-shirts due to the iconic album cover (radio waves from a pulsar). Recorded with resident Factory Records producer Martin Hannett, the band achieved the perfection of their sound though at the time they thought Hannett had pulled too much of their live energy out of the songs and made them too dark. Regardless, the band’s first full-length LP was unlike anything on the charts or in the clubs. There wasn’t a bad note on the album as the band experimented more with synths and had room now to expand the play between Barney’s sparse and affecting guitar licks with Hooky’s meaty basslines. They shared the lead and carried the melody as Morris pounded with furious pace throughout. ‘Wilderness’ has the most intoxicating bassline I’ve ever heard, paired perfectly with Morris’ incredible drumming. ‘She’s Lost Control’ was notable for being about a girl that Curtis once saw have an epileptic seizure before he learned of his own condition. The lyrics took on extra meaning with him now singing them while dealing with the same affliction: “And she gave away the secrets of her past / And said I've lost control again / And a voice that told her when and where to act / She said I've lost control again.”
For the YouTube playlist I’ve chosen the band’s now famous first TV appearance, introduced by Tony Wilson, in which they play ‘Shadowplay.’ You can see, though only to a slight degree here, restrained for the TV audiences, Curtis’ erratic dance style that at times would be reminiscent of his seizures, which were becoming more frequent and had even occurred onstage.
CONTEXT: the week Unknown Pleasures came out the following were the top songs on the UK & US charts
- Le Freak – Chic
- Do Ya Think I’m Sexy – Rod Stewart
- I Will Survive – Gloria Gaynor
- What A Fool Believes – The Doobie Brothers
- Knock on Wood – Amii Stewart
- Heart of Glass – Blondie
- Reunited – Peaches and Herb
- Hot Stuff – Donna Summer
- Ring My Bell – Anita Ward
- Sunday Girl – Blondie
- Dance Away – Roxy Music
- Boogie Wonderland – Earth, Wind and Fire
- Shine a Little Love – ELO
Atmosphere; Dead Souls \ Non-album single (1980)
Riding a wave of critical praise and increased attention after the sensation of their album release, the band prepared for a tour of North America (and were scheduled to play Toronto at The Edge on May 25). In March they released this single. The B-side was “Dead Souls,” a huge, goth-like rock song in which Curtis was able to air his vocals unlike ever before and Barney was able to carry the song with a fantastic, rock-guitar riff that rode over Stephen’s usually frenetic drumming. It was a song that largely flew under the radar at the time but has become one of the band’s best known and beloved songs.
The A-side was “Atmosphere,” perhaps the most quintessential of their brooding moodiness, and which also had greater use of synth which allowed the band to achieve a more grandiose, sweeping sound offset by Ian’s stark vocals and melancholy lyrics. Unfortunately, it became the perfect funeral dirge when Ian hung himself on May 18, the night before they were to leave for their tour. On the verge of taking on the world, Joy Division was suddenly no more.
Love Will Tear Us Apart \ Non-album single (1980)
The band had spent much of the spring in the studio recording their second album. Out of those sessions came their best-known song and one of the most famous alt/indie/post-punk anthems. Originally penned as a sardonic response to the Captain and Tenille’s 1975 song, ‘Love Will Keep Us Together,’ when it was released the month following Curtis’ suicide it took on a whole new meaning, especially given that Curtis’ marriage had been disintegrating after his relationship with Belgian journalist Annik Honoré was exposed: “When the routine bites hard / And ambitions are low / And the resentment rides high / But emotions won’t grow / And we’re changing our ways / Taking different roads / Then love, love will tear us apart, again.”
Isolation; A Means to An End; Heart and Soul \ Closer (1980)
In the period following Curtis’ death all that was left for Joy Division was to release the finished album, Closer, which came out in July. Many critics claim this as the band’s best work, but I still prefer Unknown Pleasures. It was a great album and probably more appealing to some as they’d shaken off some (but not all) of the murky, underwater sound of the first album. ‘Isolation’ showed their increasing use of keyboards while ‘Heart and Soul’ exhibited Morris’ drumming prowess. The album is more varied and experimental, and hinted at the new directions the band may have been moving. There were many songs in which rhythm triumphed over melody, and moved between chaos and order, capturing the dark and light that was was Joy Division. So much potential, never realized.
They only lasted a few years but Joy Division’s influence is enormous. The dark texture of their music and the move away from a pure punk sound into a more melodic, stylized music helped launch new wave music, goth, and similar variants of post-punk music. Perhaps because the band ended before becoming big, left such a tidy and fantastic discography, and were marked with the poignancy and tragedy that the suicide of Curtis engendered, Joy Division has been elevated more than their station warranted. Yet, listening to the music all these years later, it’s hard to deny how special this band was and, within the context of their era, how important they were in developing modern rock into something more than anger, noise, and quickly delivered pop songs. Further, more than most they brought style and design to their music, and made modern rock artistic and something to be taken seriously.
Joy Division was, and remains, one of the most important bands of the modern rock era.
Read the continuing story as the band picks themselves up and launches a new chapter as New Order.