Saturday, March 7, 2009

When Gloom Became Redemptive: Joy Division's Influential Use of Depression as Musical Art

Rock and roll has been typically viewed as an upbeat, enjoyable, optimistic music even when it has seemed savage, ribald or raunchy. Rock and roll never really seemed depressed, dark or gloomy in its infancy or even just after the British Invasion when serious-minded folk found a way to worm into the consciousness of rock listeners in the mid-60s. But then there's a little factor we call drugs. Yes, d-r-u-g-s. Shocking that they played such a large role, no? Ok sarcasm aside, the way these great musicians we now immortalize were creatively driven was usually through ingesting amphetamines and smoking marijuana. The advent of LSD suddenly drove popular rock outfits to complex, avant-garde, free-form songs that incorporated Eastern, drug, political and intellectual influences while borrowing from other exotic, non-mainstream musical avenues like classical or jazz. Even in the peace and love era, the politics of the era combined with the inevitable drug abuse, turned the music bitter, angry and menacing. Witness the Stones go from the sexually-charged, sly rebellion of "Satisfaction" to the drug-hazed, violent and threatening "Gimme Shelter" in just four years). Depression has long been a central theme to great art but even the depressed and disillusioned rockers kept it under wraps in order to provide a good face and keep commercial fortunes prosperous. Why disappoint the kiddies and the chicks with your "woe is me" melancholy? There were innovators who made their personal feelings well known like Dylan or even more nakedly, John Lennon. 

The singer-songwriter movement was dominated by "confessional" singers like James Taylor who made their neuroses well known, whether you liked it or thought it was pretentious, Me-Generation hippie babble... Oops. Did I say too much? (I do prefer laid-back JT because he was relatively relaxed and at home with his whiteness, save for overbearingly cheesy pap like "How Sweet it is"). Well, when punk and then Joy Division made their arrivals, the confessional nature of rock music was laid out on the table so bare that it would have made Arthur Janov blush and run for the hills... after asking for their money so he could conduct therapy on them. No punks or post-punks were lining up for that, except Tears for Fears I suppose. With the punk movement, the idea of keeping a straight face or towing the company line when it came to "rocking out" became seen as phony, inauthentic. Saying what you really felt, no matter how many feathers it ruffled, became the order of the day. Of course, trying to continually shock and offend was a demanding, no-win game that even the anger-spewing Sex Pistols couldn't keep up without looking stale. And the future rants of John(ny Rotten) Lydon even seemed like "wink-wink" tirades at times, done to uphold his image of being the ultimate anarchist (not saying it's fake whatsoever, but let's face it- even Mr. Lydon can't be pissed at the world 24/7). After all, Johnny liked artsy stuff like Kate Bush, Kraftwerk, Can and Lou Reed. But for unfortunately prophetic reasons, the inner torment expressed by Ian Curtis' lyrics, augmented by his Joy Division bandmates' spine-tingling music, was the most genuine ever witnessed to that point in popular vocal music. It changed the way bands could express their blues. 

Yes, Black Sabbath was one of the first bands to take the power trio format to make dark and demonic sludge that became known as heavy metal. Sabbath may have reveled in depression and darkness, but mostly did so in a heavy, fist-raised stance that spoke of youthful complacency, drugged-out misery and showed an interest in the black arts. For metal, Sabbath were the forefathers of taking depressed, gloomy relationship with life, further explored by Metallica and the Death metal genre. But as for the rest, Joy Division can be labeled torchbearers of the stye. Their detached, ominous way of looking at the world brought the use of depression and gloom as redemptive art, to a level even Lennon or folk chameleon Nick Drake had never touched in their lowest of moments. It set the template for the travels through the unknown made by luminaries like Elliot Smith, Robert Smith of the Cure, Radiohead and Kurt Cobain. It even can be attributed as a genesis for, I hate to say it, EMO rock and culture, although that's a thin connection and most EMO whiners could not even hope to hold a candle to the studious, literary-gifted Ian Curtis. So what was it about Joy Division that made them that important and influential? Why did they become what they did after starting off as just dreary, artsy punk rockers? Any book on the group and/or Curtis' life might inform you, not to mention the films 24 Hour Party People (about the heyday of Factory Records) or the black-and-white Ian Curtis docudrama Control, a riveting 2007 film by Anton Corjbin. But I'm here to summarize and analyze. 

After forming in 1977 in Macclesfield, a grey old suburb of Manchester, the band then known as Warsaw exhibited punk influences but also touched on underground, scarier facets of rock. These artists who made a profound impact on the guys in Joy Division were not considered exclusive to the punk field of course but the Doors, Roxy Music, Lou Reed/the Velvet Underground (the forerunner of practically every art-rock group since) and David Bowie were major influences. Joy Division owes a lot of their innovation to the lesser known German kraut rock movement distinguished by bands like Can, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, who would come to the attention of many, not just Joy Division, with their use of electronic elements in their work. To their credit, Joy Division was not about submitting to the demons but Ian Curtis could not conquer his in the end. Curtis brought a gift for poetry to his already significant ability as a commanding, deep-voiced lead singer not unlike a Mancunian version of Jim Morrison. Because of these factors, even the more true-to-punk-rock recordings of their days as Warsaw were much different than the average band, we got something that would later become known as post-punk- another label to satisfy critics like me and make us more able to throw around terms to compare and contrast. However, there was nothing too gloomy about the music on 1978's EP An Ideal for Living. The heavily poetic, energetic crunch of these tracks only slightly hints at what was to come. On An Ideal for Living, "Warsaw," "Failures" and "No Love Lost" were power chord extravaganzas with the same kind of clever, yet amateurish aesthetic to guitar and bass by Bernard Sumner (aka Dicken or Albrecht) and Peter Hook respectively, that we'd come to relish. 

Those used to hearing Joy Division fronted by a bellowing, brooding voice would be startled to hear a rather normal-pitched punk shouter Curtis but there's no mistaking the others, which also included the propulsive, aerobic drumming of Stephen Morris. "Leaders of Men" was the only slow tempoed of the four and probably the least melodic too, gravitating toward a primitive style that groups like Mark E. Smith's the Fall would make their forte. But listening to their first EP does not reveal just how distant and disturbed Joy Division's music could potentially be. The biggest ingredient in that coming to fruition was eccentric, brilliant, but troubled producer Martin Hannett. But before they ever hooked up with Hannett, Joy Division (as they became minted by late 1978 to some controversy because it was a name derived from what the Nazis called their brothels during World War II) were just another bunch of dissonant punks out of Manchester, overshadowed even by local stars like the Buzzcocks or the Fall. But working out of the much lauded Factory Records label lended "street cred" to the take-no-prisoners Joy Division. Paired with Hannett, they all of a sudden became the most adventurous-sounding of all the post-punk acts, even being mentioned by future critics and fans as the originators of post-punk in the first place. When it comes to their own brand of punk era expression, as Sumner later explained, to paraphrase, it was not a matter of saying "fuck you" so much as a matter of saying "We're fucked." An inner reflection rather than a raised middle finger to the world. A passive method, though no less heartfelt. 

What Hannett accomplished was give them the direction they truly needed, recording with an emphasis on sound effects, tape loops, synthesizer overdubs and echo, all of which brought out a liveliness even Joy Division concerts couldn't hope to replicate. Hannett was the missing link to take what was already an intriguing unit of musicians who thought outside the box and make them a phenomenal, groundbreaking band. Nobody seemed to ever try or accomplish telling a dark story through a haunting soundscape quite the way Joy Division did. To their credit, they weren't all stoic white boys devoid of soul. They had a keen sense of rhythm and syncopation, mostly thanks to Morris, although it was still a collective effort. Much like Bowie's funky but spacey Station to Station, Joy Division had a love of dance music out of Germany or Philadelphia and even the music coming out of disco clubs. Their rebirth as New Order would definitely demonstrate that to be the case. Some have had the inaccurate notion that Curtis would have hated New Order's immersion into electronica- although their turn toward being poppier and more commercially engaging than Joy Division ever was would probably not have been Curtis' cup of tea. But in truth, he was the first one in the group who positively espoused the merits of Kraftwerk. So what was it about Hannett that made the music bubble and pop in order to achieve its arty goals, if you will? Well, his clean, but not sterile, production made the guitars sound powerful, like jets descending down on a runway. It made the bass a rumbling lynchpin amidst the noise as "Hooky" played around with his lead guitar styled fills or chords. 

Years later he'd begin playing riffs- or hooks, excuse the inevitable pun- and melodies in the bass's high register with New Order. Meanwhile, the vocals were given the prominence an Ian Curtis deserved though sometimes burying them in the mix was the proper avenue depending on a song. Stephen Morris's crisp drums- sometimes electronic ones were substituted for the normal kit- were like pistons whirring in the background, keeping it together while occasionally branching off on busy, blistering fills a la a some sort of more restrained Keith Moon prototype. Morris didn't pay a lot of attention to crash cymbal, preferring his hi-hat and the rumble he could get from his toms while playing an entrancing drum pattern. Without Hannett, Joy Division's story is wholly different and they perhaps don't sound as entrenched in that so-called gothic blackness that paints a vivid, disturbed, yet glorious drawing. While the band's impact on the American market was not fully realized until after Ian Curtis' suicide in May 1980, they were able to turn aheads right away in 1979 in the UK starting with the tremendous single "Transmission," a truly chilling masterpiece of production and scope. On this song, Curtis is captivating, transfixed within his own poetic fury and his vocals take on a new level of passion ("Dance, dance, dance, dance/Dance to the radio" is like a mantra rather than an order or call-to-arms like "Anarchy in the UK" or "White Riot"). That's not all that's worth gushing over, as a raga-like synthesizer backing (plus a chiming high pianette on top of that) gives it an East Indian touch. 

As for the instrumentalists on "Transmission," there's Morris' mechanical drum beat punctuated by sonic booms from the snare and a thunder-rattling low tom-tom, Hook's hypnotic bass and Sumner's simple but striking guitar lines. It all turns "Transmission" into the blueprint- nay, the standard- for their best up-tempo rockers. Also in 1979 came their most complete product yet, an actual LP. With their acclaimed, classic debut Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division hit the ground running. Now, Ian Curtis was a showman in the strangest sense as his herky-jerky dance moves on stage were eerily similar to the twitches of an epileptic, an affliction Curtis himself suffered with and could not be cured of ultimately. These struggles with seizures contributed to the dark curtain over the group's work and led to erratic behaviour and eventual suicide for Ian Curtis, but even his singing bore the resemblance to an epileptic either in contemplation or on the verge of a fit. As the posthumous Still (released 1981, a B-minus rating from me) and the very much necessary compilation Substance 1977-1980 (released 1988, an A rating from me) showed, there was plenty of other work done in their short prime that glistened with creativity from the depths of the abyss. What was there beyond the initial releases before Curtis' death? Well, the spirited, punky "Digital," the steely, sweeping "Autosuggestion," the brutally angered "Glass," the neurotic "Ice Age," the cold, mechanical "Walked in Line," the cool, fearful yet funky "From Safety to Where?..." the mellotron-driven, dissonant "Something Must Break," and the raw punk power charged "The Kill." 

However, the most incredibly mesmerizing of these tracks is most certainly the searingly painful, climaxing "The Only Mistake." It comes complete with another hypnotizing bass riff that the whole song is based around. You get Curtis going from low croon to impassioned scream and back while Morris' drums hardly ever sounded better, technically and technologically (Hannett providing an unforgettable phasing effect on the hi-hat). All these tracks date from various points in their sessions with Hannett leading up to Unknown Pleasures (Grade A in my book), their debut, and one can see the progression as the dates get later into the spring and summer of '79 and they get around the studio a little bit. They go from totally green, infectious art-punk go-getters into complete masters of their domain within months. Even instrumental noodlings like "Excercise One," "Komakino" and "Incubation" showed their experimental nature ran deep an did not actually need vocals to sustain drama. While they had proven they could do the booming, pilled-up, frenetic rock, the Unknown Pleasures sessions, and the album itself, had them branching out a bit, trying more chord changes and speeds. That said, "Disorder" and the absolutely fearsome "Shadowplay" are as exciting and cutting edge as rock gets in 1979. But this album goes further, with thought-out, cinematic pieces to be had. "She's Lost Control" is the most adventurous number by far, incorporating synthesizers en masse while Peter Hook's bass once again takes a starring role instrumentally and Morris pounds out a repetitive drum beat, utilizing electronic drum noises as Curtis emits a foreboding deep baritone, perhaps the most tense, disarming, yet strangely at ease vocal of any Joy Division song. 

"She's Lost Control" is a harrowing, gripping trip through the dark, chronicling the misfortune of a girl tormented by her past and perhaps recurring seizures (hence "She's lost control again"). To see it performed live and in person was to experience the true tension as Curtis's stage presence drove the point home with authority. The furious overtones were never more present than on this LP but even "She's Lost Control" is somewhat danceable, as is the similarly toned "Wilderness." The same can't be said for the quasi-metal drudgery of "New Dawn Fades" and "Interzone" (sung by Hook) which come off as the most garage-rocking, bitterly punk tracks you'll find on Unknown Pleasures... next to the frightening hopelessness of "Day of the Lords," of course. "Day of the Lords" is Curtis' most arresting and forceful vocal here. "Day of the Lords" is such a glorious listen that it's like taking a walk through hell but actually enjoying it as Curtis blurts "Where will it end?/Where will it end?" while synthesizers soar over top of a song dominated by the metal leanings of Sumner's guitar work. Meanwhile, there are lumbering, turtle-paced songs on the album too, but hardly ever do you find yourself getting bored, checking your watch and pressing skip. The majestic Curtis and Joy Division keep you on your toes and one will find it too grating to listen to the funeral "Candidate" (the weakest track on the album but not totally worthless whatsoever) and "I Remember Nothing." 
These have soundtrack levels of analysis and drama, building up the mechanical unease with production genius and musical patience. Both of the aforementioned tracks are very gothic, bone-chilling slices of Joy Division. 

While the dance and electronica influences are kept at arms length, they're not at all absent from Unknown Pleasures. "She's Lost Control" threw in the synths but "Insight" gives odd, electronic bits a bigger role with a laser-show breakdown at one point, reminiscent of some gun battle you might hear in Star Wars. Not to mention its sound effects (Hannett loved throwing in noises of chaos like breaking glass, which acted upon Nick Lowe's base instincts in "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass" indeed) and another electronic drum pad for Stephen Morriss to tap on, whilst Peter Hook takes full command with another melodic bass line. Curtis sings a song of defiance to fear and a comfort in nostalgia, like the moments where one comes to grips with depression or pain. Unknown Pleasures received quite a bit of attention in the music press in the UK, launching the band into the shine of the spotlight, somewhere where Curtis was even more at difficulty with than his anonymous role before. His epilepsy was taking over his life with no end in sight while he carried on an illicit affair with a Belgian journalist he met, while still with his wife Deborah (the two eloped as teenagers in 1976). He addressed this aspect of his life with the masterpiece of the group's short-lived career, his unintentional eulogy "Love Will Tear us Apart." One of the great singles of the 80s, kicking it off with brilliance no less, it told a tale of the ultimate destruction of love, torn down in a complete abandonment of beauty and grace. Pre-dating most of the 80s wave of British new wavers and post-punkers wearing their heart on their sleeve, "Love Will Tear us Apart" has a disturbed, yet infectious melody while Sumner plays an unforgettably light, ghostly synthesizer melody. 

Shortly after this single, released in April 1980 b/w "These Days," Curtis finally became despondent enough after all the struggles with epilepsy to end his life, hanging himself in his Macclesfield home on May 18, 1980 right before Joy Division was to conduct their first tour of the US. The true scope of Joy Division's excellence kept pouring out after Curtis' tragic demise. Another single, the majestic "Atmosphere" b/w "Dead Souls," hit the market. Featuring tribal drums and glorious snyth washes, one resembling a bird or stuttered wind chimes, "Atmosphere" is a redemptive song that urges "Don't walk away, in silence." "Atmosphere" also cautions "See the danger, always danger" as if Curtis knew that life was fraught with peril, but it could be overcome. Of course, his own problems were never overcome but Ian Curtis in his own poetic, artful way managed to convey the psychology of immense pressure, depression and disillusion. "Dead Souls" was probably the most aggressive, rock-oriented of their 1980 work featuring some more echoey, tribal drums, power chords and a throaty vocal from Curtis. It had arena rock tendencies but layered with so much dread and peril that it could never be fashioned as a traditional crowd-pleaser. The album being worked on by Joy Division when Curtis died arrived in July. A suitably dour, lucid and ethereal album, Closer (A) was a fitting follow-up and final album. The energetic, punky flavour of the debut was muted by a thicker layer of pessimism as songs now were supplied with more electronic instruments and textures, as evidenced by the dance fury of "Isolation," a nod to Kraftwerk and sign of things to come for the other three sans-Curtis. 

Overall, Closer is no better or worse than Unknown Pleasures, acting as part of an "apples vs. oranges" debate. On Closer, synthesizers were used for rhythmic roles moreso than melodic and this could be very effective. Good examples are the chilling "Decades," the final track here, running over 6 minutes, which was not an alien thing because Closer is only 9 tracks with an average running time of just under five minutes (44:26 in total). The "gloom and doom" is at every turn, this album making Unknown Pleasures sounds like smiles and sunshine by comparison. The opening, "Atrocity Exhibition," is a tour de force of guitar feedback as Curtis sings an oppressive, sadistic set of lyrics that could be a very fitting Halloween tale indeed. It makes one think of the Nazi connotations to Joy Division as Curtis sings "For entertainment they watch his body twitch." He describes a grisly, sadistic urge of some humans and invites with "This is the way, to step inside." Morris once again shows his ingenuity with drum polyrhythms by providing another hypnotic beat on the low toms, once in a while pounding out a short fill on snare for dramatic effect. The dark and sinister sound of Joy Division is in full force for "Passover," "Colony" and "Means to an End." That's just side one though and it's not the best part of the album even if it's an impressive one. Side two is the amazing jolt of originality that truly distinguishes, and in my opinion distinguishes Closer from Unknown Pleasures. Side two is incredibly downbeat even though it starts off up-tempo with the frightening and detached "Heart and Soul." "Heart and Soul" is a masterful musical and production palette of clanging, echoey drums, deep synthesizer sounds simmering below the surface and a seemingly distant, other-worldly vocal from Ian Curtis, who bellows in a wavering key but never without enticing the listener. 

"Twenty Four Hours" is a scintillating piece with another of Peter Hook's superb bass lines and a commanding vocal as if descended from the mountains. It is easily the closest thing to pure post-punk rock because as the final two tracks prove, Joy Division was something else altogether. The already-mentioned "Decades" is preceded by the sombre, melancholy, funeral "The Eternal," a song littered with a snake-like rattling sound effect creeping in and out. As well, Martin Hannett gives the drums a delay effect while piano makes its first appearance for Joy Division, playing an incredibly sad and lingering melody as Curtis contemplatively croons. It's the most easy listening and yet the most unsettling track you're going to hear out of Joy Division because it almost puts Curtis' suicide into perspective. They were all about unsettling and inventive contradictions, after all. Ian Curtis seemingly lived what he was singing about and it all ended tragically. New Order's first single from early 1981 was "Ceremony" b/w "In a Lonely Place"- two songs that were being worked on before Curtis died. Only two recordings of Joy Division performing "Ceremony" in its infancy were even put to acetate, one being of poor quality and not used, the other being a live recording two weeks before Curtis' death that captured an energetic performance marred by microphone problems that omit the first verse of lyrics. Even when the mic is picked up, the vocals are buried and rather distant. It, along with the live set it came from, was the last thing committed to tape of Curtis and became side 2 of Still. After Closer, Joy Division began being recognized even further for their impact and influence. No group had ever created such a painted picture of gloom through turning personal and external anguish and pain into such redeeming, vital music. And no group has done so since. 

The other three eventually decided to soldier on a couple months later, renaming themselves New Order, adding Morris's girlfriend and eventual wife Gillian Gilbert and making a remarkable recovery considering the critical loss of their lead singer. Their immersion into electronica would have seemed ostentatious to anyone in the Joy Division camp in 1978, but that's how things evolve sometimes. While Curtis became a cult icon, New Order eventually lost the gloomy side of their identity while adding electronic features and irresistible pop hooks to their arsenal. They began producing themselves after working with Hannett one last time, learning enough about the studio while jettisoning him because of his strange, drug-induced behaviour that would lead to his death in 1990. For 1981's Movement, New Order sounded more like Joy Division Mark II and they received mixed reviews because of this, with Curtis' deep vocals replicated shallowly by Hook and Sumner. The album was rather anonymous compared to Joy Division with the mix somehow downplaying what could have been a very good album, as the sequencers, synthesizers, tape loops and increasingly tribal-based drums all meld into one faceless, monotonous stew that lacked the refreshing spark of Joy Division. Only "Dreams Never End," "Truth," "Chosen Time" and "Doubts Even Here" rise above the ho-hum for a B-worthy album. This was an indicator that the Joy Division progression would have to be abandoned and their 1981 singles "Procession," "Everything's Gone Green," and 1982's "Temptation" and 1983's "Blue Monday" completed the transition and remodeled the group for good. 

The three players of Joy Division were able to carve out a career as a supremely fascinating techno pop group with innovations made in the field of dance during the 80s while also doing so in sporadic stints in the 90s and this decade... at least before Peter Hook declared his days with the band over in 2006 leaving their future in doubt. Morris's eventual wife Gillian Gilbert bowed out to tend to one of their ill daughters in 2001, replaced by Phil Cunningham as keyboardist. Then Peter Hooked bailed and the remnants re-formed as Bad Lieutenant in 2009. Joy Division seems like another time, another dimension, despite the fact only one member has passed on. A renewed interest in Joy Division makes them as relevant as ever. They have the benefit of nostalgia yes, but also the fact that they were cut short in their prime. And as we know throughout music history, a great creative force being stopped in its tracks makes future admirers all the more passionate, wondering what could have been. Joy Division is crystalized in their peak form, never having to go through a decline or road bumps artistically, much like how the Beatles breaking up makes them as popular as ever while we scoff at the Stones being around, taking them for granted instead of acknowledging their durability and commitment. The way JD ended no doubt affected the band to the point where they made a clear break when re-born as New Order. Until they reunited in the late 90s to record and tour again, Joy Division songs were absent live which would have irked many had New Order not been so spectacular on their own. But overall, New Order made a name for themselves but were always inextricably tied to their days as Joy Division where they made their biggest dent on the musical landscape as the darkest, most mysterious band of the late 70s and a beacon of creativity on the post-punk landscape.

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