When Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris formed in the sludge and muck of Manchester in the late seventies to become Joy Division, none of the surviving members could have foreseen just how influential the group were and continue to be. Their special brand of brooding post-punk saw the group fill the vacant vibrancy left behind when punk fizzled out, championing a scything arthouse pursuit which made the band formerly known as Warsaw one of the most exciting bands Manchester has ever produced.
One thing that has always set the band apart is not their look or their origins but their unique sound. Complemented by both Ian Curtis’ low blow vocals and Martin Hannett’s expert production, Joy Division quickly gained a reputation for breaking new ground with their own vision of what music should sound like. It’s a singularity which has made the band legends and their music almost impossible to cover — but that hasn’t stopped people from trying.
To try and emulate a unique sound with any kind of authenticity is nigh-on impossible. There’s a distinct draw to try and replicate every note to a tee, something which, again, is nigh-on impossible and to do so, would be to lose what makes a cover song great in the first place. As we all know, to make a truly great cover track one must move the song on in a new direction. It means while Joy Division have been covered countless times, the large majority of them fall flat.
In the list below, however, you will find ten Joy Division covers which expertly find the balance between paying homage to the original song and putting their own spin on it. There are some big name figures in the list and not all from the genre you might expect. One thing that has become wildly apparent since the tragic suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis effectively ended the band, is that Joy Division’s themes are as ubiquitous as ever.
Naturally, one song will feature in the list more than others and we will give out no prizes for guessing which.
The best covers of Joy Division:
‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ – The Cure
Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is one of those songs. Entrenched in the mythology and sadness of Ian Curtis’ suicide, the track remains as a bastion of emotion. One band perfectly placed to reenact this feat of songwriting prowess is The Cure.
Recorded backstage at Livid Festival in Brisbane, Australia in 2000, the track is a perfect example of how two different vocals, music styles, viewpoints, and personalities can use the same song to display their individual art. It’s a triumph.
The beauty of this particular cover lies in the juxtaposing movements of each band. Although Robert Smith and the band pay tribute to the song’s artistry and Ian Curtis’ inspiring songcraft, they turn the song into something you’d expect to hear on The Cure’s next album. The bass line is as strong as Peter Hook would’ve liked, the synths play their role in replicating the original but this version feels totally changed by Smith’s vocal. While Curtis’ feels stark and morose, Smith’s is damaged and delicate. It sums up the artists quite succinctly.
‘Disorder’ – El Ten Eleven
Post-rock duo El Ten Eleven have been adding this cover of Joy Division’s classic ‘Disorder’ to their live sets for years but it took the good folk at KEXP to finally get that cover down on record. The Seattle based station managed to get the band down in the studio and helped them lay down a sensational cover of the Unknown Pleasures track.
Kristian Dunn and Tim Forgarty are clearly Joy Division fans. Apart from being perhaps the perfect age to enjoy the group and see them rightfully as idols, the duo deliver the kind of furious punk cover that could only have emanated from fans.
‘No Love Lost’ – LCD Soundsystem
‘No Love Lost’ may be a slightly leftfield song of Joy Division’s to cover but, hey, it is LCD Soundsystem after all. The James Murphy project has always had a habit of mixing genres and styles and he doesn’t disappoint here either. Released as a B-side in 2007, the song is a unique vision of an existing expression.
Murphy avoids trying to copy Curtis’ unique vocal and instead focuses on the original’s heavy bassline to drive the track forward. Also a live favourite of Boston band the Bon Savants, LCD take this underrated JD song to brand new heights.
‘Transmission’ – Low
Slowcore icons, Low naturally can trace back their own lineage to Joy Division and it makes this cover more than worthy of revisiting. Speaking in 2010, Alan Sparhawk said of the cover: “We did that around the same time we did our second record. I’m glad somebody liked it. I’m a huge Joy Division fan. When we started Low, it’s fair to say there were certain favourite bands that I was looking at as touchstones as far as, ‘These guys, whatever they’re doing, they’re totally owning it.’ The minimalism of them. Definitely, the tone of Ian Curtis’ lyrics were huge influences on me.”
The singer continued, “I guess the reason we did ‘Transmission’ is that we felt like… I don’t know, we were looking at other songs that were more appropriate or typical of us, but it felt like we would have done something they had already done, so I thought, ‘Well, let’s take one of the more aggressive songs and slow it down and see what happens.’”
‘Dead Souls’ – Trent Reznor & Peter Murphy
Nine Inch Nails’ version of ‘Dead Souls’ was certainly calling out to us when compiling this list but it’s hard to ignore the brilliance of having two of the spookiest singers to ever walked the earth sharing a song. When NIN’s Trent Reznor and Bauhaus’ hero Peter Murphy got together, the prediction of dark clouds above was always a good one.
The NIN song, featured as part of Brandon Lee film The Crow, was sultry and sexy in places but when Murphy joined Reznor for a series of JD covers some years later they somehow improved on that mood and made ‘Dead Souls’ feel rigid and unrelenting. Whether it is the two singers combining or the song itself but this cover is the best version of the track you’ll hear.
‘Ceremony’ – Radiohead
Back in 2007, following the release of their critically acclaimed album In Rainbows Thom Yorke and the rest of Radiohead didn’t go out on tour immediately. No, instead the band opted for something, which at the time, may have felt a little strange—they broadcast a series of in-studio webcast performances via a stream. During it, they delivered perhaps the best Joy Division and New Order’s cover of all time with their rendition of ‘Ceremony’.
Yorke and the group could have picked ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ as so many others have done when covering JD, instead they picked one of the brilliant ‘Ceremony’. The track, beginning as a Joy Division song—in fact, it was one of the last songs Ian Curtis worked on prior to his suicide and was performed at their last ever gig in 1980—became a New Order track following their formation and featured in most of their live sets. It ranks today as some of both band’s best work.
The Radiohead cover, however, leans more directly on Ian Curtis’ version and feels both authentic and yet expertly curated to pay homage to the original composition. The rhythm is metronomic, the guitar pushed through the speakers with a sharper edge, the iconic lead line is given a distorted hue all while Yorke toes the line between tribute and taking the song out all on his own.
‘She’s Lost Control’ – Grace Jones
Unlike any other band, Joy Division promoted a sense of urgent devotion that continues to swirl around the band’s mythos to this day. Here, Grace Jones proves she had her ear to the ground of the alternative rock scene during the late-seventies. In fact, Jones was so quick to pick up on the band’s power she can rightly attest to be the first artist to ever formally cover the band.
The Joy Division track goes down as one of the band’s best moments on record. Released in 1979, ‘She’s Lost Control’ would go on to typify the band’s juggernaut ability; a firepower bassline, Ian Curtis’ unique lyrical vision, all pulled together to make one of the greatest rock songs ever written. Jones though makes it completely her own.
Grace Jones’ reggae-infused cover of their Unknown Pleasures album track ‘She’s Lost Control’ sees not only the first formal cover of JD but the group’s everlasting imprint on music. Even in 1980, the retaining power of Joy Division was clear for all to see.
‘Ceremony’ – Death Cab for Cutie
During the first lockdown of 2020, covers quickly became all the rage. With no real studio time for bands to lay down their track but a huge increase in people wanting music, the balance was a difficult thing to strike. Covers were an easy way of not only giving the fans what they want but also keeping their hand in the game too.
When Ben Gibbard, the singer in both Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service decided to give his fans a treat he went through a large volume of songs. As part of one performance, Gibbard provided a simply superb cover of Joy Division’s mammoth song ‘Ceremony’. It comes near the final moments of the video, below.
‘Atmosphere’ – James Blake
On his tour supporting the 2019 album Assume Form James Blake may have delivered some of his brand new songs but he also offered a simply perfect cover of Joy Division’s darkened album track ‘Atmosphere’.
Blake is no stranger to a cover though. He’s found himself on the right end of some impressive songs, including tracks from Joni Mitchell, Bill Withers, Frank Ocean, Feist and even Beyonce — but this one felt a little different. Not only is the subject matter of the song, and the importance of the band a figure in this cover, which gave us chills, but it’s the delivery of such a song. Honest, vulnerable but in many ways comfortable.
‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ – Swans
Swans are one of those bands, quite like Joy Division but on a smaller scale, who have cultivated a devoted fanbase. The kind of fans who expect a certain style and theme to be apart of every single one of their releases. It means even their cover of Joy Division’s most notable song arrived with some expectations.
Jarboe takes on the vocals of this track and the female voice using Curtis’ lyrics turns this song into something truly spectacular. Though Michael Gira would usually handle the mic, this change-up was truly impressive and keeps all listeners revisiting Curtis lyrics which, given his talent, is always a trip worth making.