Sunday, 7 October 2012
90 Substance - Joy Division
Purchased : July 1988
Tracks : Warsaw / Leaders Of Men / Digital / Autosuggestion / Transmission / She's Lost Control / Incubation / Dead Souls / Atmosphere / Love Will Tear Us Apart
This was purchased from Save Records in Rochdale, perhaps on my way up to a pre-season game. It was useful to discover that Save had a price ceiling ( possibly £5.99 ) even for new releases such as this one.
This post is concerned with the vinyl version; the cassette and CD versions had an extra seven tracks. I eventually bought the latter because the vinyl copy is a fraction too large and, played on the machine I acquired in 2005 , kept bumping the sides.
With New Order off in Ibiza for most of 1988 and Happy Mondays not yet a commercial concern Factory decided the time was right for a Joy Division counterpart to the New Order compilation of the same name the previous year. With the band largely pre-dating 12 inch extended versions and Wilson and co knowing that the surving members would be deeply averse to any re-working of the JD back catalogue these 10 tracks are all original versions arranged in chronological order. As Joy Division only made three singles for general release in the UK the numbers are made up with tracks from an initial EP released on their own label and others given away ( literally in one case ) for less commercial projects.
So the album begins with two tracks from the "An Ideal For Living" EP released in January 1978. This wasn't quite their first recording ; they had played at the Manchester punk club Electric Circus in October 1977 while still known as Warsaw and a song from that performance "At A Later Date" appeared on a commemorative LP but Virgin owned the rights to that. Warsaw were a punk band and the formerly eponymous song reflects that with its barked "countdown" intro, hectic pace and Ian Curtis's snarled vocal that sounds more like contemporary Howard Devoto than the man who sang on Closer. The numbers actually refer to the prison number allocated to Rudolf Hess and the whole song has been interpeted as the imagined reflections of the ageing Nazi alone in Spandau Prison. I'm not going to go over the whole Nazi controversy here except to note the extra frisson that comes from knowing that there had been another Ian from Manchester ( or thereabouts ) a decade earlier who had taken his obsession with the Nazis to a different place. The song itself is rough and simplistic but some of the elements of the classic JD sound are already there in the crisp taut drumming and Peter Hook's overloaded bass.
"Leaders Of Men" takes a step further by slowing the pace down and swapping conventional power-chording for the abrasive thrash heard on future songs such as "Atrocity Exhibition" . Hook and Steve Morris lay down an ominous rumble and with lines like "The leaders of men made a promise for a new life" it sounds like another song about the Nazis and their manipulation of propaganda. Curtis is still to find his own voice; on this one he sounds like Hugh Cornwell with a bit of a sore throat.
"Digital" takes us a big step forward being one of the first tracks recorded with Martin "Zero" Hannett. It was recorded in 1978 and released early in 1979 as part of a four disc package A Factory Sampler also featuring Durutti Column, Cabaret Voltaire and, bizarrely, third-rate stand-up John Dowie. This song is no laughing matter. Curtis outlines an unspecified claustrophobic dread with a plea for help at the end - "I need you here today, don't ever fade away" - in his now recognisable baritone. Hook's bassline fizzes with suppressed violence while Bernard Sumner mixes up clipped rhythm playing with post-punk figures .
The longest track here, "Auto-Suggestion" is an out-take from the recording sessions for "Unknown Pleasures" mystifyingly given away to Bob Last's rival post-punk label Fast Product for inclusion on their second Earcom EP alongside two utterly forgotten bands. Although most of the song is taken at a dirge-like pace based around Hook's simple three-note bassline with Morris's drums echoing away like it was recorded at the bottom of Gaping Gill, it actually carries an uncharacteristically positive message about taking control of one's life. To reinforce this the pace actually picks up on the repeated key line "Say you tried" with Curtis getting louder and Sumner getting close to replicating John McKay ( one of rock music's great disappearing acts ) on Hong Kong Garden. The track ends with single beats from Morris dissolving into the abyss.
"Transmission" was their first conventional 7" single on Factory in 1979 although typically it was released after , and not included on , the debut LP. Although Factory's hopes of a chart hit proved optimistic in what turned out to be the peak year for singles sales they were probably right to identify it as the song most likely to succeed and it did lead to their last TV appearance on BBC2's groundbreaking but strangely forgotten Something Else ( in her book Curtis's widow wrongly recalls this as a second appearance on Granada Reports ) . It's simply awesome, an account of shared agoraphobic alienation where ecstasy is best found in getting off to the radio - "Synchronise love to the beat of the show". You could see this as the band deftly identifying then writing for their core audience but its theme draws the dots between Angie Baby and The Smiths's Rubber Ring. Very few moments in music are as terrifying as Curtis's desperate scream of "And we could dance ! " before the final chorus, all the more effective as the previous verses are sung in a dislocated murmur . The other guys step up to the plate with Hook's relentless bassline shadowed by Hannett's synthesiser and Morris seemingly parodying disco ( tellingly no one in the Something Else audience is dancing while they perform this ) with excess hi-hat work.
Side Two starts with the other song performed for Something Else, "She's Lost Control" . We've already covered this song on the "Unknown Pleasures" post but this is a different version released on the B-side of the UK release of "Atmosphere" ( perhaps influenced by a pretty awful version by Grace Jones featuring on the B-side of her then- recent hit Private Life ). It's extended with an extra verse making the song more personal but the major change is in the sound with the drums much more metallic and much of Sumner's guitar work substituted by synthesisers . It sounds much more akin to "Isolation" on "Closer" and the contemporary work of John Foxx.
"Incubation" is a curious inclusion. It's their only instrumental and appeared on a free flexi only available at trendy record shops in April 1980. To me it seems a relatively slight slab of driving doom-rock with the band not really utilising the space created by the absence of a vocal to bring anything new to the party.
"Dead Souls" is probably my favourite Joy Division song . It was originally released in France in March 1980 on the other side to "Atmosphere" in a ridicuously limited pressing which didn't do anything for Factory's relationship with their fans ( and probably didn't help their other acts to get a fair hearing ) . It was then left off the UK release of "Atmosphere" in favour of "She's Lost Control" , finally becoming generally available on the 1981 compilation "Still" ( which we won't come to for a long while ) . It's appearance here is part atonement for that but there are no doubts as to its merit. If any of their songs really predicted Curtis's suicide it's this one ( there's no discrenible connection to the Russian novel of the same name ). It starts off as an ominous rumble with Morris playing around a rock solid backbeat and Sumner's guitar a pale whiny presence until at 50 seconds in there's an eruption with Hook's hitherto quiet bass leading a charge up and down the scale and Sumner thrashing away in support. There's a brief period of calm before another maelstrom out of which Curtis emerges - even later than Bowie on Sound and Vision - plaintive and wistful about the allure of the dead leading to the appalling chorus - "They keep calling me !" After a brief ad lib to the second chorus he's gone leaving the band to carry on without him. Nine Inch Nails did a respectful cover version ( for the 1993 film The Crow which carries its own story of personal tragedy ) but it doesn't come close.
After a complicated release history that I'm still not sure I've got my head around, "Atmosphere" became a belated second hit single in advance of this LP in June 1988 , an incongruous presence alongside Bros, Kylie and Sabrina. It's one of their slower songs with Sumner's guitar banished until the last 30 seconds in favour of shrill synths while Hook plays one of his most recognisable melodic basslines and Morris skitters like incessant rain. Curtis sings the first couple of verses in a slurred, very low register voice reminiscent of Nick Cave, the main reason why it's not one of my favourites. The lyric is rather opaque but the hookline "Don't walk away" is clear enough.
That leaves us with "Love Will Tear Us Apart". My own relationship with this song has been partly covered in the posts on Power Corruption And Lies and No Parlez. In 1988 I was greeting it like an old friend and my appreciation of it has only grown over the years. I interpret it as a second more contritional take on the failure of his marriage after the vicious " Novelty" ( B-side to "Transmission" ) the lyrics of which Deborah Curtis couldn't bear to reproduce in her book. It's the tightly-wound arrangement that makes it so compelling, Morris's controlled aggression set off against the uncharacteristically melodic keyboard line and Curtis's world-weary vocal. New Order have made many great records but this last ( fully recorded ) hurrah from the old band always leaves one wondering what might have been.