Part 13 of a series that will run every Friday throughout 2012 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays

When I was 15 (20 years ago) life was a bit confusing. Of course – life is like that for most 15 year olds. To show what a rebel I was, I’d do silly things like completely shave the sides of my head bald and die my remaining hair bleached blonde (an unfortunate fashion choice). As can be the case with teenagers – fashion can be tied into musical choices. Though I still had a healthy love of hip-hop, I was veering more and more towards punk, post-punk and music that can sometimes be considered goth (though I tend to hate that designation and most of the bands that I listen to aren’t fond of it).

As I got into The Cure I sought out other similarly minded bands. I spent hours in my high school’s library reading scholarly music books trying to find other bands that had that same bass heavy sound The Cure had for their 1st four records. Echo & The Bunnymen, early U2, The Church, etc…(all fairly mainstream – hell, I was 15. The internet was a few years away). I finally came across the Joy Division entry. As I read about the saga of Joy Division / New Order I would continually stare at a black and white photograph from the late 70’s – essentially pictures of kids not much older than I was. The brief synopsis of the band in this book is forever etched in my memory, as Joy Division are one of just a handful of bands that I can truly say changed my life. The blurb was along the lines of:

“Band from Manchester, UK makes a punk record as Warsaw. Unhappy with it, the tracks were tinkered with, incorporating synthesizers for their debut album Unknown Pleasures. By this time they had also changed their name to Joy Division. On the eve of embarking on their 1st US tour, lead singer Ian Curtis – who suffered from epilepsy – hung himself, leaving the future of the band in doubt. Their 2nd record Closer was released shortly after along with hit single “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. The band reformed as New Order and found international success in their new guise, embracing a more electronic stance…”

To the best of my recollection that was it – an almost word for word account of the Joy Division entry that I read all those years ago. As a punk wannabe I did what any 15-year-old would do – I asked my Dad to take me to the music shop. I was in luck – they had cassettes of both albums as well as a compilation entitled Still. I purchased all 3 with my paper route money (at the cost of $7.99 each) and as soon I got home popped them into my Sony Walkman. That week I listened to nothing else – Joy Division as I delivered my papers before school. Joy Division as I walked to the bus stop. Joy Division even as I walked the halls at school between classes. In these albums I found my true love of music (though The Cure also pushed me towards this). Punk and post punk was IT for me. To this day, I have to say that this style of music is my all time favorite. Although there isn’t a weak spot in their discography, I am continually blown away by their 2nd and last full length Closer.

This is the way step inside:

Atrocity Exhibition starts off the album with a tribal drum pattern before Peter Hook’s bass kicks in, anchoring the song down. Really noisy guitar lines are laid down by Bernard Sumner over top. Somehow it all fits musically. Ian Curtis’ vocals are impassioned – a plea to join him. Is this one of the best opening songs on an album in history? I think so.  Is Ian talking about himself in the lyrics? There is no way to actually know, but my gut has always told me – yes, this is a damning self-analysis. Haunting.

Asylums with doors open wide,
Where people had paid to see inside,
For entertainment they watch his body twist,
Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist.’

This is the way, step inside.
This is the way, step inside…

Isolation starts out as a driving post punk song, again anchored down by the bass. Keyboards kick in giving it a more modern feel. I’ve always smiled at the fact that this song shares its title with a song by John Lennon – another one of my idols. The song builds towards a post punk climax, drums becoming higher in the mix as the song progresses. The lyrics are self-explanatory in their darkness, which works well from an artistic vantage point, contrasted against the (slightly) more up music.

Mother I tried please believe me,
I’m doing the best that I can.
I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through,
I’m ashamed of the person I am.

Isolation, isolation, isolation

Passover the music in this song is just jaw dropping. I have listened to this literally thousands of times over the last 20 years and it never fails to give me chills. The bass drives the song, with well-timed guitar refrains. The drum kit has an echo sound to it that perfectly compliments the vocals of Ian Curtis. I’ve listened to this song in my car, driving late at night trying to clear my head – you simply will never forget it once you have heard it. When it comes to Joy Division talk always centers around Ian Curtis, and after that conversation is exhausted, it falls back to Peter Hook’s bass. In this song Stephen Morris on drums and Bernard Sumner on guitar really shine (as they do throughout the album). Joy Division were a band, not a vehicle for Ian Curtis. Stunning.

Watching the reel as it comes to a close,
Brutally taking its time,
People who change for no reason at all,
It’s happening all of the time.
Can I go on with this train of events?
Disturbing and purging my mind,
Back out of my duties, when all’s said and done,
I know that I’ll lose every time.

Moving along in our God given ways,
Safety is sat by the fire,
Sanctuary from these feverish smiles,
Left with a mark on the door,
Is this the gift that I wanted to give?
Forgive and forget’s what they teach,
Or pass through the deserts and wastelands once more,
And watch as they drop by the beach.

Colony sounds like Ian is singing through a megaphone. Noisy guitar in this one, very repetitive bass line again holding the song down. A guitar solo of sorts a little ways into the song really moves it to the next level as Ian’s voice then comes over the proceedings in an agitated state. A deeper album cut, sure. Essential to the record though.

I can’t see why all these confrontations,
I can’t see why all these dislocations,
No family life, this makes me feel uneasy,
Stood alone here in this colony.
In this colony, in this colony, in this colony, in this colony.

Dear God in his wisdom took you by the hand,
God in his wisdom made you understand.
God in his wisdom took you by the hand,
God in his wisdom made you understand.

A Means To An End bass kicks off the song in rousing fashion, angular guitar line comes in over top of it. Ian Curtis’ voice comes in a few seconds later, seemingly holding back concealed rage / sadness. As the song progresses he repeats phrases / lyrics, allowing more venom to shine through.

We fought for good, stood side by side,
Our friendship never died.
On stranger waves, the lows and highs,
Our vision touched the sky,
Immortalists with points to prove,
I put my trust in you.
I put my trust in you.
I put my trust in you.

Heart and Soul whispered vocals, an incessant bass line, and a scattered drum beat. Ominous guitar lines throughout. A very dark song (though not as dark as the ones to come).  Reviewing the lyrics to this album in a book I purchased years ago, I am struck by how…out of place and dark these lyrics are. Are they even lyrics? Poetry from a man who knew his days were numbered? Awe inspiring.

Existence well what does it matter?
I exist on the best terms I can.
The past is now part of my future,
The present is well out of hand.
The present is well out of hand.

Heart and soul, one will burn.
Heart and soul, one will burn.

Twenty Four Hours Slow bass to begin the song before the band kicks into high gear…almost revisiting the punk-ish feel of their early incarnation as Warsaw. Music slows down to the galloping bass again, this time incorporating Ian’s dour voice / lyrics. Music moves back into a jam session, then slows down again before racing towards its stirring finale. Absolutely amazing, and again proves that Joy Division were a band. The stars aligned for these young lads.

I never realised the lengths I’d have to go,
All the darkest corners of a sense I didn’t know.
Just for one moment, I heard somebody call,
Looked beyond the day in hand, there’s nothing there at all.

Now that I’ve realised how it’s all gone wrong,
Gotta find some therapy, this treatment takes too long.
Deep in the heart of where sympathy held sway,
Gotta find my destiny, before it gets too late.

The Eternal Quite frankly, this song is disturbing. This is music for a funeral, foretelling the horrors that came to be. This is not a band pretending to be sad while they drive around in their sports cars and live in mansions. This is a man at wit’s end – spilling his guts and putting his soul into the song. It is uncomfortable to listen to at times. The bass plods along while keyboards embellish the mood.

Procession moves on, the shouting is over,
Praise to the glory of loved ones now gone.
Talking aloud as they sit round their tables,
Scattering flowers washed down by the rain.
Stood by the gate at the foot of the garden,
Watching them pass like clouds in the sky,
Try to cry out in the heat of the moment,
Possessed by a fury that burns from inside.

Cry like a child, though these years make me older,
With children my time is so wastefully spent,
A burden to keep, though their inner communion,
Accept like a curse an unlucky deal.
Played by the gate at the foot of the garden,
My view stretches out from the fence to the wall,
No words could explain, no actions determine,
Just watching the trees and the leaves as they fall.

Decades Is this the light at the end of the record? Something to lift the mood? No, not on this record. The sound begins with a repetitive keyboard piece (perhaps pointing the way towards New Order). Bass is lower in the mix than the rest of the record. The song builds towards its rousing conclusion where the synths interlock with the rest of the music to give a coda of sorts to the entire album. Ian’s ghostly vocals permeate the atmosphere (for fellow JD fans, no pun intended), striking an emotional chord. A perfect ending to the album.

Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders,
Here are the young men, well where have they been?
We knocked on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber,
Pushed to the limit, we dragged ourselves in,
Watched from the wings as the scenes were replaying,
We saw ourselves now as we never had seen.
Portrayal of the trauma and degeneration,
The sorrows we suffered and never were free.

Where have they been?
Where have they been?
Where have they been?
Where have they been?

Weary inside, now our heart’s lost forever,
Can’t replace the fear, or the thrill of the chase,
Each ritual showed up the door for our wanderings,
Open then shut, then slammed in our face.

Where have they been?
Where have they been?
Where have they been?
Where have they been?

I could have honestly talked about anything Joy Division released with affection. Most of the artists I love have a track or even an album where you can say “Ah, yeah. That didn’t work for me”. Not Joy Division. They progressed from punk to post punk to…otherworldly music in a span of just 3 years. Ian Curtis was just 23 when he hung himself. 23! Was it due to epilepsy? His personal life? Everything written is just speculation in my opinion. I do know that this album is that rare artistic feat that allows the artist to express his inner demons while also serving those words in an appealing fashion to the listener. Two other bands who have pulled off this rare feat – The Chameleons and The Sound.

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” didn’t appear on this record though it is from the same sessions. That too is a masterpiece in nuance and emotional confession. Truly, a song that deservedly made Joy Division somewhat of a household name.

There are Joy Division fans upset that Peter Hook is now playing these songs under the guise of Peter Hook and the Light. Peter Hook was a huge part of Joy Division and I urge you to check out what he is doing. To see these songs brought to life after 30+ years is absolutely amazing. Today’s hipsters are tomorrow’s parents and grandparents. Ian Curtis….well, he is eternal and forever a tortured artist aged 23.

Join me next week as I discuss The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails.

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