Joy Division – and later New Order – was inspired by a healthy hamper of classic punk and proto-punk groups of the late 1960s and ‘70s. In his late teen years, Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis was particularly fond of Roxy Music, David Bowie and The Velvet Underground and to some people’s surprise – given his fashion choices while with Joy Division – wore his hair long and would often be seen wearing makeup to emulate some of his glam-era heroes.
Meanwhile, Curtis’ future bandmates, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, were inspired to form the early rumblings of a band after attending the famously influential Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in June 1976. Allegedly, Morrisey, Mark E. Smith, Mick Hucknall, John Cooper Clarke and future Factory Records boss Tony Wilson were also in attendance.
“It was just about the attitude,” Peter Hook said, discussing the Sex Pistols gig in a recent Far Out interview. “The fact that what they were doing was so different. The week before, I’d been to see Led Zeppelin, and that was great; they played fantastically, but they weren’t inspiring – as in, come along and change your life, inspiring. So, yeah, the Sex Pistols spoke to me and said, ‘pack it in’, okay, ‘give up your job, and get out and join the circus’.”
The following day, Hook bought a bass guitar and joined his friend Sumner to start jamming together. They later met Curtis on their search for a singer and named the early incarnation of the band “Warsaw” after the track ‘Warszawa’ from Bowie’s 1977 album Low.
The later name, Joy Division, was inspired by the translated name used for the prostitution wings of the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. This name reflected the band’s (especially Curtis’) fascination with modern military history and also coincided with the punk orientation whereby extra merit could be achieved with a little shock factor.
Shock factor had been a central part of the countercultural rock scene since the 1960s and was particularly rife in the performances of proto-punk bands like Iggy Pop and The Stooges, where indecent exposure, Nazi costumes, self-mutilation and heavy drug-taking was the bread and butter of proceedings.
Another band that liked to shock their audiences and rattle the cage of the older generations was The Velvet Underground. Instead of the crazy on-stage antics, Lou Reed and Co. would prefer to keep their scenes of grime and depravity mostly to the lyrics. Of their back catalogue, no song exemplifies this songwriting knack more than the epic, ‘Sister Ray’, from the New York band’s second album, White Light/White Heat.
Lou Reed once described the track: “‘Sister Ray’ was done as a joke—no, not as a joke, but it has eight characters in it, and this guy gets killed, and nobody does anything. It was built around this story that I wrote about this scene of total debauchery and decay. I like to think of ‘Sister Ray’ as a transvestite smack dealer. The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear.”
Joy Division clearly had a lot of appreciation for the 17-minute track and covered it during some of their shows in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Most famously, Joy Division recorded their live performance of ‘Sister Ray’ at The Moonlight Club in April 1980, just a month before Curtis’ tragic death. This version appeared on the 1981 compilation album Still.
Less well-known is the New Order rendition of ‘Sister Ray’ which was recorded live in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in December 1988. Listen to the rare recording sung by Bernard Sumner below.