I’ve been thinking about Manchester quite a bit lately. It has been partly prompted by my ongoing Fall Peel Sessions Project but also inspired by my recent trip.
As we drove down Whitworth Street having arrived at Piccadilly Station, we passed the Hacienda Apartments. Standing on the spot of the eponymous club, it demonstrated just how much time has passed since my first trips to the city in the 1980s, nipping across from Liverpool Poly, as it was.
It prompted me to read Peter Hook’s (aka Hooky) story of his time leading up to and during Joy Division, “Unknown Pleasures”. It’s an easy read, not quite as skilled as Steve Hanley’s book about life in the Fall, “The Big Midweek”. It does though give a picture from the inside of what this extraordinary band were about and how they became what they were. I’m now starting the follow-up, “Substance”, which covers his time in New Order.
A few themes emerge from both books:
- None of Joy Division or their support network grasped the significance of Ian Curtis’s epilepsy, or rather they chose to ignore it and rely on Curtis’s work ethic to drag the band along. He wasn’t rested when he should have been. He always ensured that the show did go on and ultimately he paid the price with his health and maybe even his life
- The same applies to the signs of Curtis’s mental turmoil – the dark lyrics, the self-harming, the erratic behaviour. They even chalked his first suicide attempt via an overdose down to “he’s tried it once, that’s suicide out of his system” and therefore it came as a surprise to his bandmates when he hung itself at his family home
- Hooky thinks Bernard Sumner is a prick and thinks Steve and Gillian Morris are a bit boring (I’ll qualify this by saying that I haven’t read Bernard’s book and I know that there are always two sides to every story)
It is clear that there was a unique set of influences and circumstances that incubated the bands sound. Their musical skill was newly developing and they relied on their view of their own prowess to inform their songcraft. This manifested itself in a number of ways – Steve’s metronomic drumming, Hooky’s melodic bass playing not just following the chords, Bernard’s icy guitar and Curtis’s unique charisma. They listened to the right people to ensure that this sense of being different remained, namely Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson’s management and Martin Hannett’s production. If you listen to “Unknown Pleasures” now, it still sounds fresh and timeless. There are reasons for that and they weren’t accidental.
So when Curtis died, the band just kept going. Let’s stop a moment to consider the incredible insane timeline:
- 18 May 1980 – Ian Curtis commits suicide. At this point, the band hadn’t released “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (a month away) or their second album “Closer” (still two months away)
- 30 July 1980 – New Order play their first gig in Manchester, twelve days after “Closer” is released
- 22 January 1981 – New Order release their first single “Ceremony”, just over eight months after Curtis’s passing
So New Order were gigging within two months of Joy Division effectively ending and releasing records within two weeks of splitting up too.
Now I’m fifty years old and I, unfortunately, have suffered the deaths of fair few close members of my family in recent years. It has been tough and one thing I’ve learned is that people grieve in different ways. But these guys were barely in their twenties and were mourning a friend and contemporary. It is impossible to fathom their emotional state. Rob Gretton told them to keep working and that’s what they did. Judging from Hooky’s account, whilst they felt it was for the best at the time, it clearly served to defer the grieving process and generate significant regrets.
I also didn’t perceive that there was a mood in the band’s management to capitalise on Curtis’s death by releasing the already recorded Joy Division material so soon after the suicide. This wasn’t a commercial imperative, more of an emotional one. They were just keeping on with business as usual whilst trying to figure out what to do next.
Which is part of where the problems started. They considered trying alternate vocalists from outside of the band and the three remaining members also shared the vocals between them. Ultimately Bernie ended up taking the lead duties accidentally. Martin Hannett was recording all three of their vocals to feature simultaneously on “Ceremony” and accidentally deleted all but Bernard’s. The problem with this, beyond Sumner’s reticence and nervousness as a frontman were that he also couldn’t play guitar or keyboards and sing at the same time. Necessity became the mother of invention and Gillian Gilbert (also Steve Morris’s girlfriend) joined to take up the slack. This partly gave birth to the New Order sonic template whereby, the crescendos in the band’s sound tend to coincide with the instrumental passages because Bernard couldn’t sing over the loud bits nor play them whilst singing either.
Youtube is now a treasure trove of early New Order and Joy Division footage. Whilst everyone is familiar with the Joy Divisions clips from “Granada Reports” and BBC’s “Something Else”, here’s a couple of songs from 1981’s “Celebration” programme.
Growing up in the Black Country, I have little recollection of either BBC Midlands or Central TV supporting the local music scene. Now I know that the Tony Wilson connection (as host of Granada’s local evening news programme) was significant but Granada did seem minded to commission a disproportionate number of music programmes, particularly focusing on the punk and new wave scene. This was admirable and has served to create a fantastic archive of the period. Manchester was central to great music that emerged during the late 70s and 80s and one can’t help that the television coverage begat continuing inspiration.
“Celebration” was recorded on 23 April 1981, the day before they started recording their first LP. The filming was somewhat difficult. The unionisation of Granada’s studios meant that New Order couldn’t use their own crew for lighting and sound. That said, the footage shows a band starting to emerge. It is clear that this is the last shedding of the Joy Division chrysalis. The music hasn’t integrated the use of electronics that was just around the corner with “Temptation” and “Everything’s Gone Green”. Hooky acknowledges the change in instrumentation was transformative and gave New Order a distinct sound that moved them away from their former template, notwithstanding a different vocalist.
A canny bit of management was sending New Order over to tour the USA in the early days. Curtis’s suicide was on the eve of Joy Division’s first American tour which was obviously cancelled and the band clearly felt that this was an opportunity missed, commercially, artistically and socially. Hooky’s recanting of the antics whilst New Order were in America during late 1980 clearly showed a band letting off much-needed steam. This served as a release for the band but in the longer term probably deferred the process of grieving.
In hindsight, it transpires that I didn’t give their first album “Movement” a fair hearing. My friend Simon had bought the second LP, “Power, Corruption and Lies”, which I taped and loved. I went back to Dudley Library and borrowed the debut album. It didn’t have the immediacy of “Power etc”. It also wasn’t a Joy Division album which had already justifiably moved toward legendary status. The band had already moved significantly beyond their debut and therefore it seemed less relevant just a couple of years after it had been made.
“Movement” had a few other flaws which worked against it. Starting with the immediate “Dreams Never Ends” meant that it was a little front loaded. All of those who tried singing were lacking in confidence and therefore an album that already neither melodically or lyrically stood up against what came before or afterwards was further undermined. It also was still tentatively embracing the new technology which forged New Order’s own and different identity.
Looking back on it now, all of those issues still exist. What does stand out though is that whilst it was a progression from Joy Division, it was ultimately a very brave album. They probably didn’t know a different way of doing things but they were starting to gain in confidence musically and in hindsight, it shouldn’t be neglected. It bears little relationship to the tuneful pop of “True Faith” or “Bizarre Love Triangle” but it was a stepping stone.
One recurring comment from Hooky that I tend to agree with is that their initial lack of musical learning served them better and the more they learned about the rules of songwriting and performance, the less of their identity was evident. They didn’t need to know where a middle eight needed to go or what key Bernie’s voice best suited. By being in blissful ignorance of these things, it produced riskier music. I’m sure this is true of many bands.
I don’t think we’ll see the like of their career again. The managerial neglect that followed Curtis’s death was essentially the creative fuel. As Hook recognises, whilst Joy Division were critically adored with a significant cult following, they were commercially small fry. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” posthumously got to the dizzy heights of 13 (unlucky for some). That was as good as it got, in terms of chart performance.
Nowadays even after two albums that performed commercially okay but were critically lauded, if a band’s frontman were to die, they wouldn’t be back at the coal face in a couple of weeks.
In any event, though, let’s hope my theory is never tested.