“You cry out in your sleep/And all my failings exposed,” mourns lan Curtis on the extraordinary, emotional “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” This song, currently in the British singles chart, has its potent appeal hidden on paper. What’s so new, in terms of popular music, about lyrics that deal with the a.m. realization that something about a relationship can go disastrously wrong? The answer is nothing. What produces the overwhelming effect of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is what happens inside it. Like the very few true craftsmen in music, Curtis and his group Joy Division have a sensibility about the potential of music. Like Peter Gabriel and Bowie before him, it’s this terrible power that results in something so brilliant it’s almost dangerous.
Using an addictive, haunting melody line that dances away on synthesizer from the rhythm section, using a hint of familiar hommage to the traditions of rock music, Curtis juxtaposes against the humming melody a superb anti-romantic lyric. It throws the song just enough off balance to hook you for good. “Why is the bedroom so cold?” goes one line. It evokes a winter dawn, a restlessness, a knowingness–and in knowing–a despair. Curtis’ voice–normally fascinatingly close to being almost flat–shifts imperceptibly on this track. What he does is adopt the phrasing, the lilt, of a traditional crooner. This additional element of surprise merely makes the seduction more successful. Head and heart music–the combination is quietly tumultuous. When rock music is this good it has an almost indefinable purity that is both exultant and painful.
The success of Joy Division (both their single and second album Closer are currently in the chart) is a double-headed affair, one side of which is about the potency of myth in rock–more of that later–the other a sign of the times. They are spearheading a large turnover in financial terms for the Manchester-based independent Factory label, out-selling Bob Marley’s Uprising according to the independent distributors, even though that album has been higher in the charts for weeks. The recession in the record industry (as in all industries, people are swiftly dispensable it seems; directors’ cars are not) is overtly starting to show its positive side: the success of the small independents. As a direct result, a new music is starting to break ground into the mainstream.
Able to produce and survive at a fraction of the cost, the independents have actually been successful in their terms since they started in 1976. Now with the sagging major companies in disarray, the music and attitudes that have been satisfying the cognoscenti for the past two years are attracting a much larger, more noticeable following. This is reflected in the charts with Echo and the Bunnymen (who along with Teardrop Explodes refer directly back to the experimental electronics of Gary Numan and John Foxx with the addition of a taste of contemporary “psychedelia”–for want of a better word) whose Crocodile album on Korova came in around l0 days after its release and Foxx’s own “Burning Car” single which made a similar rapid entry.
What Eno started and Bowie expanded on Low, has been a major influence here. Rough Trade, reaping the success of one shop with a small rapid turnover, of knowing exactly what was going on away from the mainstream, who the audience were and–important–how many of them were around, have enjoyed four years of post-punk success. Their label has done equally credibly for the past two. On this their latest release is Cabaret Voltaire’s The Voice Of America. Following a string of singles from the RT label (including Excerpts From The Soundtrack Of Accidents vs. Casuality–they’re into tricksy mind twisters like that), Voltaire produce electronic music that is more experimental and perhaps less additively based than many of the other bands. Voice Of America is hard to listen to at one sitting. Minimalistic to the point of fever pitch, it’s white heat musique: a basic combination of edgy synthesized drum and a fair portion of pre-tape effects. If you concentrate, it is, in fact, quite visual: cars go backwards down a motorway in your mind, sounds start at the top then ascend until the physical response of listening is like going up in a glaring neon white-white elevator. Demandlng, tonal–occasionally amusing, Voltaire produce sounds, not vocals and distinguishable musical sections. With graphics straight out of John Heartfield’s wastepaper bin, they inhabit a post-nuclear landscape. The effect is too calculated, the difference between them and Joy Division the difference between the desolation of man-made fiber and one of human spirit.
It may not be done to compare, and in too many ways Joy Division are really incomparable. The new music may have familiar hommages–to the Doors, to the Berlin bunker of Low, to the track titles that effect entry to a disaster zone: “Premonition,” “News From Nowhere,” “Isolation,” etc., but the essence that isolates Joy Division’s music is its humanity; its unselfconscious quality. Odd perhaps when it’s perfectly obvious a lot of torment in search of the perfect balance–sound and effect–has gone on. Yet the results, amidst intellect and studio crafting, are overlayed first and foremost with enormous emotional commitment and emotional contact. It’s this element that separates Joy Division from the other experimentalists, aside from the occasional quirky combination of the oddly familiar (the start of “Isolation” is I swear a jolt back to “Walking The Dog”) molded to the unexpected.
Taking their name from the term given to the prostitutes’ wing of a concentration camp, the group pursue that bleak and savage image–they present a scenario of beautiful, desolate honor. Modern humanity in feverish limbo. Curtis’ voice mixed back lends to the music poignant sorrow–not just for himself, but for us all. Yet it remains both terrible and wonderful, its contradiction–the intense melancholia of lyric and the voluptuousness of music–a powerful, demanding thing.
It’s the emotional response to Joy Division’s Closer that now presents the real problem. From being a band appreciated mainly by the few in the know, they’ve come to the charts with the album at a time that may have been accelerated by events. Closer’s cover is a gothic painting depicting the mourning for a Christ-like figure laid out on a tomb; Factory’s catalogue number is picked out in Roman numerals, the titles written in Roman lettering. The design has proved to have been put into operation many weeks before tragedy hit the band. Yet now that gravestone effect is doubly emotive, just as now to hear Ian Curtis sing on “Passover”: “I’m watching the reel as it comes to a close” and seeking “sanctuary from those feverish smiles” has an impact that must be accentuated by events. This May, Ian Curtis, 23 years old, hanged himself, three days before Joy Division were due to start an American tour. Not to say that Closer would not have been as successful an album–it is, however, impossible to hear it without that fact constantly being part of a response to its apocalyptic vision. I’d be a liar if I said anything else. Hence, Joy Division and a small label’s break into the mainstream brings with it one of the familiar ironies of rock ‘n’ roll: that it becomes impossible to separate the beginnings of a growing myth from a work that would surely have stood on its own terms as a powerful major influence.
“Wondering what will come next/I was foolish to ask for so much.” How can anyone be expected to listen to this now and not experience a grievous sense of loss?
–PENNY VALENTINE FOR CREEM MAGAZINE, NOVEMBER ’80