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How Joy Division captured the horrors of 1970s Britain

“Listen to the silence, let it ring on / Eyes, dark grey lenses frightened of the sun / We would have a fine time living in the night / Left to blind destruction, waiting for our sight.” – Joy Division, Transmission.

Britain in the 1970s was not a place you wanted to be. Socially and economically, it was in its worst state of the post-war era, far worse than the current juncture where we find ourselves. It was the age of the three-day working week, strikes by many different professions. Most notably, the dustmen went on an extended strike, with heaps of rubbish piled up “ten-foot-high” on the street, reflecting just how horrific things had descended. 

There were electrical outages, and Britain was in a mountain of debt, forced to be bailed out by the IMF due to the “sclerotic” economic state it found itself in. Labelled the ‘sick man of Europe’, this culminated in the truly awful ‘Winter of Discontent’ from 1978-79 and the election of Margaret Thatcher in May ’79.  

Understandably, things looked very bleak for the younger generation. The dire socio-economic state gave rise to the punk movement, and out of it came new-wave, post-punk and goth. Out of this massive cultural reaction to the hopelessness of time and their parent’s and government’s complacency came a band named Warsaw who were formed in Salford in late 1976. 

Rare footage of Joy Division performing ‘Transmission’

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After witnessing Sex Pistols‘ now hallowed show at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall that June, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner were galvanised. It was this that gave them the push they needed to start a band. Before too long, they renamed themselves Joy Division in early 1978 in a bid to avoid confusion with London punk band Warsaw Pakt, taking their new name from the sexual slavery wing of a Nazi concentration camp mentioned in the 1955 novel House of Dolls

Even from this point, the band’s bleak surroundings were matched by an even more tragic artistic vision. The horrors they were soundtracking weren’t of the supernatural, romantic or campy, but were very real. 

Aside from the obvious socio-economic factors, the band’s lyrics were driven by frontman Ian Curtis’ numerous personal and health problems. He had a failing marriage, clinical depression and severe epilepsy. As the quartet’s popularity quickly rose, his condition made it harder for him to perform, and he would famously suffer seizures whilst on stage. As if things couldn’t get any more horrific, Curtis’ suicide in May 1983, aged just 23, infused the band’s music with an even greater sense of human darkness ad infinitum. Outside the peripheries of music, Joy Division are perhaps the darkest band of all time.

Augmenting this darkness was the band’s gloomy, minimalist sound. Like taking a late-night car ride around the dangerous, bombed-out setting of inner-city Manchester, their music could not have soundtracked the spirit of the era any better. In 1979, the band’s producer, Martin Hannett, described it as “dancing music with Gothic overtones”. Curtis’ style of baritone and the band’s minimalist songwriting style would become staples of the goth genre as the 1970s moved into the ’80s.

(Credit: Kevin Cummins)

This Stygian core would be quickly picked up on by the press and fans alike. In 1980, Melody Maker labelled the band “masters of this Gothic gloom”. In 1979, the band’s manager, the iconic Tony Wilson, had described the band’s sound as “gothic” when comparing them to the mainstream. Retrospectively, Jon Savage asserted that Curtis masterminded “the definitive Northern gothic statement”.

In June 1978, the band self-released their debut EP, An Ideal for Living. The front cover featured a cartoon of a Hitler Youth member beating a drum. Again this augmented their horror-filled spirit and even fuelled speculation that they were Nazis. This use of Nazi imagery even proked the band “to keep on doing it, because that’s the kind of people we are,” according to Stephen Morris. Just to clarify, though, the band were not Nazis and were far from it. 

Their song names are another very apparent reflection of how they were soundtracking the debilitated horrors of ’70s Britain. ‘Disorder’, ‘Shadowplay’, ‘She’s Lost Control’, ‘Wilderness’, ‘Isolation’, ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ – all conjure up gloomy images that perfectly finished off their atmospheric formula. These songs, brought to life by the icy and minimal production of Hannett was a sonic embodiment of talking a walk upon the frozen moors, looked down at the emotional vacuum of Manchester below. 

The themes of Curtis’ lyrics were painful, sad and also mixed with his interest in literature. In his lyrics, there exists the romantic, sci-fi, and of course, the surreal irony of the beat generation. There’s also more nihilistic Nietzchean and Kafkaesque flecks that helped give Curtis the ammo he needed to bring his stark social commentary to life. 

Joy Division are a juxtaposition. Their music is timeless, with countless budding musicians citing their work as influential, but on the other hand, their music is very dated due to just how much of a graphic picture of the grim 1970s Britain it painted. 

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