Tracks : Atrocity Exhibition / Isolation / Passover / Colony / A Means To An End / Heart And Soul / 24 Hours / The Eternal / Decades
This was purchased appropriately enough in Manchester on the way to an open day at Preston Polytechnic, necessary because the campus in Poulton-le-Fylde I'd been to in January for the entrance interview was closing down that summer.
It wasn't without some trepidation that I put it on. Would the songs that sounded so compelling at low volume in December have the same impact on a sunny evening in July ? Or, since a reconciliation with my estranged friend Michael was already being arranged at this point , would my previous loathing for them be re-established ?
The album opens with "Atrocity Exhibition" a track anchored by Steve Morris's drum clatter with an insidious mixed-down bassline and churning guitar noise forming the backdrop to Ian Curtis's visions of Hell, a visit to a Victorian mental asylum, a Roman circus and possibly the Holocaust. At regular intervals our complicity is invited - "This is the way step inside" . This can be taken as an invitation to the rest of the LP - one man's private torments unveiled for those with the stomach to see it through. Curtis's voice now sounds vulnerable - the stentorian Morrisonesque baritone wobbling and cracking - given nowhere to hide by Martin Hannett's dry as tinderwood production.The title comes from a book of self-contained prescient pieces by JG Ballard about the effects of mass media events on the individual psyche although it's believed the lyrics were completed before Curtis actually read the book.
Talking of Ballard the next track "Isolation" brings to mind his other contemporary disciples in pop, John Foxx and Gary Numan. It would sit very easily on the former's "Metamatic" album released earlier in the year with its rigid metal beat, skittering synthesisers and bald repetition of the title as chorus. Stylistically it's a bit at odds with the rest of the LP but helps disprove the notion that Joy Division were working in a vacuum away from other influences. Lyrically Curtis mines the seam of childhood trauma that Tears For Fears would take to the top of the LP charts three years later.
"Passover" is a provocative title for a band criticised for flirting with Nazi imagery. The dry sound of the first track is back but the band sound enervated as if they're just waiting for Morris's relentless beat to stop. The sparse backdrop allows Curtis's lyric to take centre stage with that amazing declaration "This is the crisis I knew had to come destroying the balance I'd kept" an opening line like no other in rock music. We'll never know whether he's referring to his marital difficulties or the worsening of his epilepsy though the line "Back out of my duties when all's said and done" suggests the former.
Throughout the track he sounds weary and parched ; this is someone who's not expecting to find any manna in the desert.
The next two tracks let the rest of the band off the leash with Sumner's Pil-like guitar prominent and allowed a brief mournful solo at two points in "Colony". Hook and Morris serve up a brittle but aggressive rhythm that defies any melodic construction, Curtis summoning up his best Jim Morrison howl as he decries the surrender of a child to a mental asylum , a deep-seated fear for anyone with a mental health complaint. We know what sort of colony he has in mind here ; the word doesn't need to be uttered.
"A Means To An End" allows Peter Hook , rather constrained elsewhere , to lead the track with a trademark descending bassline. With its sledgehammer beat and fractured guitar it has a rather Gang of Four feel to it. Curtis returns to a writing style found more on the first album using rhyming couplets on this song which seems to be an epitaph for his marriage particularly the last verse about retirement to warmer climes "Where dogs and vultures eat" although the tone is mournful rather than contemptuous.
Side Two is not without its angry moments particularly on the second track but overall there's a more placid reflective feel to the music. We know that it's the most dreadful peace of all that he's got in mind and its intriguing that the rest of the band go along with this although Tony Wilson said on a Factory documentary that Curtis's mistress Annik Honore was alarmed by the recent lyrics and he dismissed it as Art.
"Heart And Soul" kicks it off , Hook's bass full of foreboding soon joined by low frequency synths and Morris's unrelenting drums. Curtis comes in with copious echo which makes him sound like he's intoning the grim mantra "Heart and soul, one will burn" from some monastic ruin far from the Manchester studio where the others are anchored. There's now a fatalism in the lyrics -"Existence well what does it matter" that gave Honore justifiable cause for concern.
"Twenty-Four Hours" is a remarkable song for the band's (in particular Hook) empathy with the lyric, paraphrasing the despondency of verses two and four with plangent bass and sparse drums then thrashing about with hopeless fury in the more purposeful verses one, three and five. There's an astonishing beauty in Curtis's naked "Oh how I realised how I wanted time " as Hook descends the scale behind him.
"The Eternal" is a synth-driven ballad taken at funereal pace with Hook's bass prodding a Gothic synth drone into life. Every other beat is a processed splash in the sea of rustling synth noises out of which a plaintive electric piano melody sometimes emerges. Curtis sings as softly as his baritone allows of watching presumably a funeral procession pass by his house "possessed by a fury that burns from inside" . The last few lines of the song seem a mournful recollection of childhood spent in the garden in blissfully purposeless action.
That seems like the end but we have another track to go. "Decades" begins with the same catching drum sound as Pink Floyd's "Pow R Toc H" then a rhythm guitar leads into a harsh metallic synth riff. Curtis enters early , announcing the arrival of young men who've seen something terrible (the Allies at Belsen possibly) and realised the human condition - "We saw ourselves now as we never had seen" . After he's finished the Gothic synth is back heralding for the first time an OMD -like melody line over a rock drum beat and Curtis's sad refrain "Where have they been". This is abruptly curtailed for another short verse about enervation -"now our heart's lost forever" , then a final Gothic flourish before the chorus returns, Morris and the synths taking us out after Curtis's last line.
This of course was the end. There were compilations to come but Joy Division never entered a studio after this album was finished , Curtis's two last songs having to be recorded by New Order. It is of course part of " the Canon" and I'm not going to dissent from that. It cast a shadow over rock and pop which led numerous artists over the next two years - OMD, The Cure (twice), Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen, Ultravox, Japan, U2 - to attempt something similar and its shadow persists to this day, Young men and women of an intellectual persuasion still regard Ian Curtis as a sort of secular patron saint, the man who looked into the abyss and left a testimony for them.
It's not a record I always want to listen to but it never dates and thirty years on you can still be impressed by its vision, unique sound and the awful circumstances that gave birth to it. As the first record of my adulthood it was a damn good choice.