The Story Behind The Song: How Joy Division created their pounding debut single ‘Transmission’
Joy Division’s story started in emphatic fashion when they released their pounding debut single ‘Transmission’ on October 7th, 1979, but little did those four lads from Salford know how much the release would plant the seed for the future, a track which would go on and usher in a brand new sound that was darker than ever before.
The song may have been released after Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures found its way on to the airwaves in the summer of 1979 but, in fact, the number represented a different time for the band, it portrayed their frustrated and furious early beginnings. ‘Transmission’ would be the band’s very first single but the cut we are all familiar with isn’t the original and, in actual fact, the track was first recorded in 1978 for the band’s aborted self-titled album. It was later re-recorded the following year at a faster tempo and released by record label Factory as the band’s debut single, one that helped Joy Division become the voice of angsty teens across Britain.
The song stands out as the moment Joy Division broke free from their restrictions and started to become one of the best bands on the planet. The song set the precedent for the band discovering their sound, a contributing factor as to why they aborted their planned debut album as, at the time, it didn’t feel like the Joy Division they knew they could be. That said, they were safe in their minds that a song like ‘Transmission’ was too good to leave on the shelf. Together, they re-grouped and headed to Stockport’s Strawberry Studios in April 1979, armed with producer Martin Hannett at the helm who significantly altered their live sound, a fact that greatly displeased the band. However, in 2006, Hook commented that in retrospect Hannett had done a good job and “created the Joy Division sound” on Unknown Pleasures.
Remarkably, ‘Transmission’ wasn’t released until months after the release of their debut album, one which still managed to sell 10,000 records despite the band not even releasing a single which is a testament to word of mouth coupled with a splattering of positive reviews. Bassist Peter Hook spoke with Radio X in 2019 about the now-iconic song and how he knew from the very first time they played it live they were on to something. “The first time I noticed anything different was when we’d written a song that weekend,” Hook noted. And we had a gig on the Thursday, so we thought we’d play that song at the gig,” he added.
“We played the new song, which was ‘Transmission’ – and everyone in the whole place stopped literally what they were doing to listen and to turn round and watch us. It was an absolutely bizarre moment. It really made the hair on your arms stand up and shivers down your spine,” Hook went on to say
He continued to shed a light on the inner workings of the band. Hooky may have been the brawn but Ian Curtis, who sadly lost his battle to suicide in 1980, was most certainly the musical brain. Hooky remembers: “Everybody said we sounded like The Doors, and I remember saying to Ian Curtis one day, ‘Who ARE The Doors?’ I didn’t even know who they were talking about at all.
“He said, ‘Ohhhh, I’ll lend you an LP’. He leant me the Doors’ first LP, which as soon as I put it on, I nearly fell over because we DID sound like The Doors! So we thought, Bernard [Sumner, guitarist] and I, that it’d be funny to play a Doors song as a joke, as Joy Division, because of what everybody said. And we learnt ‘Riders On The Storm’.”
‘Transmission’ started a new era for the band and opened doors for Joy Division who quickly became one of the most important artists of their generation. It’s hard to reminisce on the band without thinking about how their career was cut painfully short when Ian Curtis lost his battle to suicide less than a year since the release of their debut single. Although they were only together for such a short space of time, Joy Division helped change alternative music forever with their dark lyrics coupled with Curtis’ trademark delivery which were so unlike anybody else at the time.