Joy Division: The Rest is Mystery

In late May of 1980, Joy Division had planned their first tour of the United States. Planned, that is, until just a few days before they were board the plane, Ian Curtis committed suicide. Life had been a few notches higher than hectic for Curtis for the months before the planned tour. He was juggling a family (Debbie and their one-year-old daughter Natalie), a girlfriend (Annick Honoré), and a band on the verge (they’d just recorded their second record, Closer, and were all set to tour the world), not to mention his epilepsy getting the better of him both on and off stage. They’d had to cancel several shows in England, and he’d already made an attempt on his life on April 6. All of the above would have been heavy load even without the disorder. Something had to break.

Joy Division

Even with his life’s story on film with the Anton Corbijn-directed Control (2007) and many books written, there remains so much mystery around Ian Curtis. “He seemed able to surrender control of his life as if it was nothing to do with him at all,” his widow Debbie writes of him at the time of his overdose (p. 115). Indeed, he wasn’t much in control as the band went straight back to doing shows. “Ian went straight from his suicide attempt to a gig at Derby Hall, Bury, on 8 April 1980,” Debbie writes. He only sang two songs at that fabled show, which ended in an outright riot. Something, nay, many things had to break.

Just four years earlier on June 4, 1976, the Sex Pistols played another much-fabled show in Manchester to a few dozen people and even more empty chairs (the scene in the movie 24-Hour Party People supposedly has it about right). Supposedly everyone there left that show dead-set on starting a band. There’s even a book about it: I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed the World by Dave Nolan (Blake Publishing, 2006). In attendance were Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto (of the nascent Buzzcocks, who organized the gig but weren’t ready to play), Kevin Cummins (photographer who took many great pictures of the British punk and post-punk scene, including the one above), Mark E. Smith (The Fall), Mick Hucknall (Simply Red), Tony Wilson (TV personality and future Factory Records owner), Paul Morley (writer; chronicler of the Factory scene for NME; future co-counder of The Art of Noise), Rob Gretton (future manager), Martin Hannett (future producer), Morrissey (duh), and Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook (who of course went on to immediately start the band that would become Joy Division). Peter Hook gets all of this down in his newly released Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division (!t Books, 2013), and like Debbie Curtis, he was right there when it all went down, albeit facing a different facet of there.

Peter Hook: Unknown Pleasures“Inside Joy Division” is an apt subtitle for this story as Hook was as inside as one gets. Playing high on the bass, as apparently Ian liked it, Hook’s bass-lines are some of the most distinctive in rock music of any kind. Hook’s prose in the book is even-handed, heartfelt, and hilarious. He’s open about what he remembers and what he can’t, and he struggles throughout with the mystery surrounding Curtis. As troubled and tortured as he was, Curtis always said he was okay, and everyone believed him to the very end. A lot of it was apparently written right in his lyrics, giving them an eerie hindsight prescience. Debbie, Annick, Tony, Martin, Rob, Steve, Bernard, Peter–no one near him believed he was singing about himself. It was his art.

Like Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and Darby Crash, Ian Curtis was the stormy center of an iconoclastic young band. They were all “serious young men with important things on their minds,” as Tim Keegan describes Joy Division in The First Tim I Heard Joy Divsion/New Order (see below). All of these singers left behind a legacy of longing, but Peter Hook’s book helps explain the groupthink that may have contributed to their early deaths. It’s tragic and truthful, complex and comedic, and essential reading for any fan of the band.

The First Time I Heard Joy DivisionAs many did at the Sex Pistols gig above, everyone has that moment with a band. Scott Heim has set out to capture them–poignant and palpable–in his The First Time I Heard... series. The Joy Division/New Order entry boasts tales from members of Lush, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Maps, Rothko, Stereolab, Swervedriver, The Wedding Present, Bedhead, Silkworm, and Jessamine, as well as writers such as James Greer (once of Guided By Voices himself), Daniel Allen Cox, Sheri Joseph, Mark Gluth, and Sylvia Sellers-Garcia, among many others.

Having missed his one chance to see Joy Divsion before Curtis died, Philip King describes seeing New Order for the first time a few months later: “My memory of the show was the band looking very numb and solitary as though they were all on their own separate islands, having to deal with their grief on their own–and there being a very conspicuous space, center stage, where Ian Curtis would have stood.” The song “Ceremony” stands in that liminal space between Joy Division and New Order, between the presence and absence of Ian Curtis. Joy Division only performed the song live once just a week before Curtis died, and it became New Order’s first single. Illustrating that middle, and the lasting influence of both bands, here’s Radiohead doing a rather Pixiefied version of “Ceremony” [runtime: 5:01]:


Like that song, The First Time I Heard Joy Division/New Order illustrates the how important the Ian Curtis mythos is to the experience of these two bands but also how much it’s just about rocking out to great music.

I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling.
— Joy Division, “Disorder,” Unknown Pleasures

Chris Ott: Unknown PleasuresChris Ott describes Joy Division’s music as “potent as any drug: overwhelming, stupefying, and certainly addictive” (p. xvi), and Simon Reynolds cites Unknown Pleasures as one of the trinity of “postpunk landmarks” from 1979, along with Talking Heads’ Fear of Music and Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box (p. 164; to which I would add Gang of Four‘s Entertainment!). Joy Division’s odd conventions are among the “hallmarks of indie sound” (Reynolds, 2007). One can hear their punky proto-goth in everything from Low, Codeine, Radiohead, and Godflesh to the more obvious Bedhead, Bloc Party, and Interpol — the latter of whose resemblance prompted my friend Max Bristol to quip, “Joy Division is a band, not a genre.” Joking aside, their legacy still lingers.

Listening to Joy Division as much as I have over the years and particularly in the past few weeks, a few key things about them emerge. As most of the above witnesses and writers are quick to point out, their chemistry is undeniable. As large as the presence and subsequent absence of Ian Curtis looms, Joy Division was the distinct product of these four guys. Think about most other truly great bands: They are something beyond their sum. It wouldn’t be what it is otherwise. Another thing that becomes evident is that they were still growing. Joy Division only recorded two full-length records and a handful of singles. Some of them are rock n’ roll romps reminiscent of Chuck Berry, some of them are Sex-Pistols punky, some of them hint at the goth/industrial bent that others would later pick up, and some of them are something else entirely. Their sound just wasn’t quite developed yet. With that said, it’s also obvious that they are one of the greatest groups to ever do it. There’s no mystery about that.


Astor, Tom (Producer), Gee, Grant (Director), & Savage, Jon (Writer). (2007). Joy Division [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: Hudson Productions.

Corbijn, Anton (Producer/Director), & Greenhaigh, Matt (Writer). (2007). Control [Motion picture]. United STates: 3 Dogs & a Pony.

Curtis, Deborah. (1995). Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division. London: Faber & Faber.

Eaton, Andrew (Producer), Winterbottom, Michael (Director), & Boyce, Frank Cottrell (Writer). (2002). 24 Hour Party People [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Revolution Films.

Heim, Scott (ed.). (2012). The First Time I Heard Joy Division/New Order. Boston, MA: Rosecliff Press.

Hook, Peter. (2013). Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division. New York: !t Books.

Nolan, Dave. (2006).  I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed the World. London: Blake Publishing.

Ott, Chris. (2004). 33 1/3: Unknown Pleasures. New York: Continuum.

Reynolds, Simon. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. New York: Penguin.

Reynolds, Simon. (2007). Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing about Hip Rock and Hip-hop. London: Faber & Faber.


Full disclosure: I have an essay in the forthcoming collection The First Time I Heard My Bloody Valentine.

Jonathan Lethem and David Byrne Explain It All

Jonathan Lethem and David Byrne were both featured in Seed Magazine‘s “Seed Salon” in 2007 though not in conversation with each other: Lethem was in the March issue with Janna Levin, while Byrne was paired with Daniel Levitin in the June issue.* In his This is Your Brain on Music (Penguin, 2006), the latter writes,

David Byrne is generally known for his abstract, arty lyrics, with a touch of the cerebral. In his solo performance of ‘Lilies of the Valley’, he sings about being alone and scared. Part of our appreciation for this lyric is enhanced by knowing something about the artist, or at least the artist’s persona, as an eccentric intellectual, who rarely revealed something as raw and transparent as being afraid (p. 244).

How Music WorksIn How Music Works (McSweeney’s, 2012), Byrne reveals less fear and more fearlessness. He eschews what he calls the “crowded shelf” of aging-rock-star biographies and instead brings together a career’s worth of insight on the practice and process of music-making, from performing and using studio technology to building a business and maintaining a community. Byrne’s attention to the neglected factors that contribute to music-making (e.g., the physical context of its performance, the physical context of its reception by the listener, the available recording technology, live amplification, collaborators, producers, instruments, etc.) make this book a must-read for anyone interested in music or making it. It’s also beautifully put together, with tons of color photographs and an elaborate, cushioned cover.

Twenty-six years ago, Byrne predicted that computers would have little influence on the arts by 2007 (Long, 1987, p.94), but How Music Works more than makes up for his former oversights. It’s as comprehensive as it is constructive. As with previous books, Byrne strays in ways one wouldn’t expect, and always in ways you’ll want to follow.

Talking Heads

Byrne credits CBGB for the scene he and Talking Heads came up in. “The mere existence of CBGB facilitated the creation of the bands and songs that touched our hearts and souls,” he writes. “It was the right size, the right shape, and in the right place” (p. 253). In relation to the other New York bands of the time, James Wolcott describes Talking Heads as “deceptively light, a model airplane with a erratic flight pattern” (p. 135). NME‘s Paul Rambali wrote that their 1979 record, Fear of Music, “doesn’t sound like an album at all, just songs caught in full flight and grouped together in a pleasant combination” (quoted in Sheppard, 2008, p. 322). Jonathan Lethem, who wrote one of my favorite novels of all-time partially concerned with flight and partially set in the New York of the time (Fortress of Solitude; Vintage, 2004), triangulates his musings in Fear of Music (the book; Continuum, 2012) using Fear of Music (the record), his adolescent self (who first heard the record), and his grown-up self (who’s writing the book). Initial sketches of the album were recorded by a mobile studio van parked outside Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz’s apartment in New York. With cables running from the van up through the windows, they hashed out the basic tracks. It was art as ephemera, a provisional situation at best, and it gave them the creative constraints that both Byrne and collaborator Brian Eno crave so much.

Fear of Music

On “Mind,” David Byrne adopts the voice of a “paternal narrator without flaw or dysfunction,” as Ian Gittins (2004, p. 53) puts it. Lethem characterizes the song as decidedly liminal, a narrator arising from the negative space between identities. Much of Fear of Music (the book) emerges similarly in interludes between Lethem’s song-by-song analysis. The interstitial chapters pose such questions as “Is Fear of Music a Talking Heads Record?,” “Is Fear of Music a David Byrne Album?,” “Is Fear of Music a Text?,” “Is Fear of Music a Science Fiction Record?,” and “Is Fear of Music a New York Album?,” Lethem looks for the heart of the record from all angles. The Bottom Line is that if you love this record, you’ll love Lethem’s book — and that’s not necessarily true of all of the books in this series.

Brain Eno, who’d also produced 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food, joined in again as the fifth Talking Head on Fear of Music. His collaborations with Byrne and the band redefined the studio-as-instrument idea. On the funked-up “Animals,” Eno ran the bass drum signal through a synthesizer, added an echo, then filtered out the distortion (Tamm, 1995). Practices like this eventually became commonplace, but Eno and Talking Heads were pushing boundaries. All of their pushing on “Animals” landed them squarely On the One (that start-stop hallmark of Classic Funk). “A studio is a situation with literally infinite possibilities,” Eno would later say (quoted in Sheppard, 2008). Even so, as Byrne discusses at length in How Music Works, as a band Talking Heads were still very much a live act. Eno pushed them beyond that on Fear of Music, with “more overdubs and wiggly treatments,” as Byrne (2012) puts it (p. 46). Ever tying the record and book together, Lethem relates the urgency of “Animals” to “I Zimbra” and its structure to “Memories Can’t Wait.” If he didn’t find this record’s heart in this book’s pages, no one else is likely to locate it.

Most of the entries in the 33 1/3 Series show a propensity for close reading, but Lethem’s Fear of Music is exactly what these books were made for: lyrical geeking-out, unfettered fandom, great writing about great music.

A conversation between Jonathan Lethem and David Byrne would be undeniably generative, especially given their obvious overlapping areas of interest. Reading these two books together hints at a small piece of the awesomeness that such a dialogue might entail.


Bly, Adam. (2010). Science is Culture: Conversations at the New Intersection of Science and Society. New York: Harper Perennial.

Byrne, David. (2012). How Music Works. San Francisco: McSweeney’s.

Gittins, Ian. (2004). Talking Heads: Once in a Lifetime: The Stories Behind Every Song. London: Carlton Books.

Lethem, Jonathan. (2004). The Fortress of Solitude: A Novel. New York: Vintage.

Lethem, Jonathan. (2012). Fear of Music. New York: Continuum.

Levitin, Daniel, J. (2006). This is Your Brain on Music. New York: Penguin.

Long, Marion. (1987, January). The Seers’ Catalog. Omni Magazine, pp. 36-40, 94-99.

Sheppard, David. (2008). On Some Faraway beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Tamm, Eric. (1995). Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound. New York: Da Capo Press.

Wolcott, James. (2012). Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in the Seventies. New York: Anchor.


Special thanks to Doug Armato for the tip on James Wolcott’s book.

* Both of these conversations are included in Adam Bly’s SEED Salon anthology, Science is Culture (Harper Perennial, 2010).