‘She’s Lost Control’, the 1979 classic by Joy Division, is one of the band’s most mystifying and divisive songs of their back catalogue as well as of all time. An iconic piece of post-punk, cold and swirling like the morning cloud that floats across the moors overlooking the band’s native Manchester, like all of the band’s best work, it was brought to life by the minimalist production of Martin Hannett.
Ian Curtis’ haunting lyrics tell the story of a young woman experiencing a violent epileptic seizure. The song had a darkly autobiographical edge as Curtis suffered from the same condition. However, the darkness of the lyrics is reaffirmed when you realise that story of the woman was based on someone Curtis knew personally.
The main inspiration for the story came from a woman with whom he had become acquainted when we worked as an Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer at Macclesfield occupational rehabilitation centre between 1978 and ’79. The woman was desperate to find employment but was struggling due to her condition. Furthermore, she’d suffer violent fits when she’d come to meetings with Curtis. This made an indelible mark on him. At one point, the woman stopped attending her appointments at the meeting. At first, Curtis thought she must have found a job, but later, he found out that she had died of a seizure. Her death, Curtis’ lived experiences and the stigma they both faced due to their condition is what inspired the song.
Aside from the awareness of epilepsy and neurological impairments that the song helped to cultivate, it’s also famous for another reason, Stephen Morris’ drums. This is also what happens to make it their most perplexing and divisive song amongst fans. Morris’ drum track has assumed the guise of an urban musical legend.
His Kraftwerk-esque, mechanistic drum beat drives the song along, creating a tension that allows it to build up to its famous climax. For recording, each drum was recorded separately, as Martin Hannett obsessively pursued a clean drum sound with no “bleed through”, as is hilariously recounted in 24 Hour Party People. ‘Bleeding’ is the term for when one drum’s sound is added to the signal of another by accident.
The division the drums stoke comes from the classic hissing sound that underpins the track. It is widely thought to have been a synth-drum, namely the syndrum that was used, but many aren’t convinced due to books and films such as 24 Hour Party People and Control.
The debate stems from two scenes. One is in the dramatised biopic, 24 Hour Party People. In the film, during the recording sessions for the song, we witness Morris record the drumbeat on the roof of the studio, and owing to Hannett’s obsession, re-recording the beat into the early hours, long after the other band members had left. When he’s on the roof, he plays a rack tom to get that classic sound that many argue is the syndrum.
The other scene is in 2007’s Closer. Not only does it recount the incident that inspired the song, but it also has its own version of the events of its recording. One of the scenes depicts Morris spraying an aerosol can into the microphone, mimicking percussion. It is even claimed in some pieces of discourse that Hannett recorded Morris spraying it in a cupboard, but owing again to his perfectionism and obsession with getting the “perfect sound”, Morris tumbled out of the closet begging for air.
As there are two versions of the song, this makes getting to the bottom of it very difficult. On the Unknown Pleasures version, it certainly seems like it’s the syndrum being used, most audible at the end. However, on the 12″ version, it definitely sounds like an aerosol and a tom were used to complement each other in the way that a snare and hi-hat do.
It is likely that we’ll never get to the bottom of this mystery unless Stephen Morris or one of the other band members comes out with a definitive statement. Listen to both versions and have a think; both arguments certainly make bold claims.
Listen to ‘She’s Lost Control’ below.