By the time I heard my first Joy Division song, the compelling and chilling "Atmosphere", lead singer Ian Curtis had been dead for almost a year. After only two years as a band, two studio albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, a twelve inch single version of the song "Atmosphere", and the day before they were to start their American tour, Ian Curtis hung himself May 19th 1980.
I'm sure many people have spent hours, days, months even, pouring over the lyrics and song titles, looking for any indication Ian might have given that he was planning on killing himself, and with power of hindsight have no doubt been very successful. Considering the fact that the band's lyrics were fixated on exploring the darker recesses of the soul, I'm willing to bet that if you were liberal enough in your interpretations, you could not only find the reasons for his suicide within the lyrics, but the exact time and location as well!
Far too many people I knew liked the band for all the wrong reasons, as a kind of death cult sprung up around the memory of Ian Curtis. It was like the band had ceased to exist as a musical entity, and became a vehicle for worshipping suicide. After all, wasn't suicide the ultimate expression of the nihilism that punk and then subsequently new wave music was all about?
That attitude never sat well with me, as I always found something rather life affirming about most of punk rock, Johnny Rotten's rants about no future notwithstanding. You can't sing about resistance with the amount of energy that the Clash did and not have hope for the future. That's not to say I didn't like Joy Division, because I did. They had a unique sound, and their lyrics, while somewhat melodramatic, at least made a stab at emotional depth and itelligence.
So when I saw that Paul Morley, who had been the New Music Express' (NME) Manchester stringer (Manchester England being Joy Division's home city), had written Joy Division: Piece By Piece I was intrigued enough to want to check it out. What Morley has done is gather together the articles he wrote about Joy Division and the Manchester music scene from when he first started writing for NME back in 1976/77 up until a voiceover he wrote for a 2005 radio broadcast about the band in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Ian Curtis's death.
Thankfully he's done more than just put together a book of old articles, scripts, and liner notes and called it a history of the band. Instead he has created a narration that recounts the background surrounding the writing of the articles, and places them in their context both professionally and personally. One of the things he makes clear is he was just as raw and untested as the bands he was covering.
Now anybody who followed the new music of the late seventies and early eighties will remember is is that seemingly out of nowhere Manchester became a hotbed of pop music. If London had been the home of punk in England, then Manchester was where the post-punk movement was created. Being one of the few cities where the town council didn't prohibit the Sex Pistols from playing, Manchester ended up being a stop on the "Anarchy In The U.K." tour twice.
According to Morley it was these two visits that were at the root of the explosion that not only saw the creation of Joy Division, but The Buzzcocks, Howard Devoto's Magazine, The Fall, and maybe, most importantly of all, was the impetus for the creation of Martin Hannett's Factory Records. Not only did they record and produce most of the above, they were responsible for Manchester's second wave of post-punk performers in the early 1980s with bands like A Certain Ratio and Duretti Column.
In the mid to late seventies Manchester was struggling through a recession caused by being an industrial city without industry and in desperate need of an infusion of some type of new energy. As Morley was writing his first article for NME about the Manchester music scene he was also dealing with the fact that his father had just committed suicide. Morley makes it clear that his father's suicide and the state that Manchester was in at the time were definitely related. He's also honest enough to admit that it obviously coloured what he wrote, and because of that he couldn't write off a quartet of guys called Warsaw, who would become Joy Division, no matter how lost they appeared on stage.
He never claims any precognition: no "I saw the greatness in them before they were great". Instead the implication is that on some level, because his father had felt so little hope that he wasn't able to continue, Morley wasn't going to be the one to dash anybody's hopes if he saw anything at all that suggested they could be going somewhere.
I have to admit that I found Morley's language a little too grandiose for the topic; popular music is fun, and occasionally intelligent, but is still more reliant on craft than artistry. Whenever I read people who write about popular music as if its of vital importance, I'm left with the feeling that they are working under the following premise: If what I write about is important, than I'm important, so I must make it sound as important as possible. Joy Division were an exciting pop group that were part of an exciting music scene in the late seventies and early eighties, but the real reason they are still remembered as well as they are to this day is because their lead singer committed suicide.
Paul Morley has done a good job of recreating the atmosphere and energy that was part of the alternative music scene during the late seventies when Joy Division were at their peak. He is also able to provide us with an insider's view — as much as anybody can be an insider when suicide is involved — of the turbulent and sad history of the late Ian Curtis. Yet in the end, no matter how hard he tries to make a case for it, there's nothing really earth-shattering about the subject matter and nothing about the book justifies its 380-plus pages.