For better or for worse, Joy Division were the sort of pioneering band that needed a champion. Fortunately, their rise coincided with the quintessential tastemaker John Peel espousing the best in class on a nightly basis. Then, tragically, just as they were gathering a head of steam, came the death of Ian Curtis.
Peel himself would later reflect, “Obviously, the death of Ian Curtis sort of mythologised them to a degree to which I think the surviving members of the band must have found very difficult to cope with.” Explaining, “a very melancholy thing to have to live with. I still get demo tapes from America and from Europe by bands which are quite clearly influenced by nothing as much as they’re influenced by Joy Division. You get a bit fed up with it, really.”
In truth, aside from their almost sonic Fyodor Dostoyevsky-esque vibe, Joy Division were just about the most playful band in the entire punk scene. Sometimes even too playful — just ask Buzzcocks whose tour bus they besieged with an onslaught of live mice, shaving foam, five dozen eggs (there would’ve been more, but they ran out of money) and tipped ten pounds of maggots on them during a live performance in a Napoleonic strategic attack, in revenge for the classic talc in a snare drum gag.
Thus, the blow of Curtis’ death not only thrust the band into emotional grief and creative turmoil, but they also became enshrined as the darkest, almost religiously imbued band in the world when this catastrophe combined with their murky, ethereal sound. What’s more, it is a trick of retrospect that places Joy Division as a frontier post-punk band, the reality is somewhat different—they were simply one number of many in the little black notebooks of aficionados.
Moreover, if the darkness to their sound was derived from anywhere, then it was their sadly departed frontman. After all, Peter Hook had played his bass like a melody making guitar since the early days of Warsaw and the keyboard switch that they made to avoid the tag of ‘yet another punk band’ was bound to drift towards the rather glossier tones of the synth come the dawn of the shell suit post-seventies.
The tale of their transitioning sound is best summed up by John Cooper Clarke in his magnificent memoir, I Wanna Be Yours; he had been there at the start and now he was there as they were trying to reinvent themselves as New Order in the land of Aus. He writes: “After Ian’s death, the rest of the band had reinvented themselves out of necessity, throwing themselves headlong into the construction of their new corporate identity.”
Adding: “When they came out with me to Australia, although they were showing great promise, they needed to establish themselves as with Bernard Sumner as their singer and were obviously all very unsure of their direction. They were playing Joy Division stuff written just before Ian’s death while also forming their new sound as a sort of electronic pop outfit.”
Concluding: “Indeed, New Order were the frontrunners in that world. They’d become much more proficient as live performers, as you can imagine, but they were still very young and they weren’t ‘great musicians’ in inverted commas. Nevertheless, as a band, New Order made it happen: they went from nobodies to somebody to somebody else, quite effortlessly, really.”
Whether retrospectively or otherwise that ‘somebody else’ can’t be understated in either sense: they rose from the rather hated Warsaw to the moody kings of the underground ala a musical Franz Kafka’s full of enigma and gloom, then they transfigured hardship and grief into a masterpiece that seemed as different from their last outfit as a nightgown and tiara in place of soot-covered overalls and a flat peak cap.
As ever, in their transition, they were driven into the position of progenitors as much by necessity as a desire to be different proving the age-old adage that it really is the mother of invention. What they cobbled together from the rubble of their short-lived past with Movement is nothing short of a miracle. It is a sure-footed step from the shadows like Orson Welles in The Third Man. The narrative of their past was behind them, but, in truth, it would never fully leave their sound.
It is more brooding than their sub subsequent New Order efforts, but that is surely befitting considering that they were extolling musical dark matter only a matter of months earlier. Nevertheless, it prognosticated a bright new future for the band and not enough credit can be given to them for that. Not to be glib, but Hoddle & Waddle never even navigated the difficult second single, New Order managed to reinvent the wheel then turn their hovercraft into a new incarnation of a supercar in one swift, glorious Movement.