When ‘Transmission’ first emerged from the darkened depths of Joy Division’s enigmatic oeuvre, it was a slow and murky dirge befitting of their first tentative steps from the shadows. However, the song that wandered into the spotlight soon crept back to the gumshoes and regrouped. Their 1978 self-titled album was scrapped, and fate matured them into the band that we now know and love.
This step back allowed them to reflect on their output a little further. As John Peel would later remark, “I always think of them in a rather romantic way as being introspective and rather Russian.” In 1979, Joy Division brought that Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky-esque introspection back out onto the stage and this time ‘Transmission’ was a faster beast with spikey edges. Sadly, the original take is lost in the obfuscated depths of the band’s beginnings, but the second shot was the one that launched them into the night sky, like some weird shining new planet from fans to abscond to.
As their debut single, released on October 7th, 1979, the lads from Salford planted the seed of post-punk while the real thing was still in bloom. Unusually, the first single came months after the initial album release. Through word of mouth and fevered reviews alone the band had managed to sell 10,000 copies, but a single was required to loft them into new territory. In Peter Hook’s mind, there was no doubting what the lead single would be.
As the bassist recalled in an interview with Radio X in 2019, “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. Later recalling: “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.”
Interestingly, when The Doors themselves first broke onto the scene Life magazine journalist Fred Powledge who usually covered politics was caught in the crosshairs as his kids were fans of Jim Morrison’s emergent band. Upon first seeing Morrison on stage in 1968 he wrote a description that could also be applied quite easily to Curtis himself: “Once you see him perform, you realise that he also seems dangerous, which, for a poet, may be a contradiction in terms.”
Although wildly different in a great many ways, if Morrison was a sort of unfathomable rock ‘n’ roll Christ at the precipice of counterculture, then Curtis was helming the same darkened movement of punk’s evolution. In this rare footage of ‘Transmission’ being performed live at the Manchester Apollo Theatre, October 28th, 1979, that same odd mix of edginess and ethereal atmosphere is very much on display as the band pump out a song as befitting of an indie disco as it is of a haunted house.
And if you’re still not sold on the schismatic similarities of Morrison and Curtis, then how’s about this section lifted from Powledge’s prescient description: “Morrison is a very good actor and a very good poet, one who speaks in short, beautiful bursts, like the Roman Catullus. His lyrics often seem obscure, but their obscurity, instead of making you hurry off to play a Pete Seeger record that you can understand, challenges you to try to interpret. You sense that Morrison is writing about weird scenes he’s been privy to, about which he would rather not be too explicit.” Enjoy the rare footage below all the same and sail off to that rarefied atmosphere that the track itself helped to lift Joy Division towards.