JOY DIVISION Closer (Factory)

Some albums get easier to write about with the passing of time; Joy Division’s "Closer" is very much not one of them. Released weeks after the suicide of their epileptic vocalist and songwriting guiding light Ian Curtis on the eve of an American tour, 18 years after the fact it sounds even more like the work of a troubled soul, songs like "The Eternal" and "Decades" made even more harrowing by the sickly sweet synthesiser stylings that distinguish this album from the post-punk guitar assault of their debut "Unknown Pleasures". If for some reason you still think that Thom Yorke has the monopoly on misery a spin of this will reveal his lyrics as the sixth-form Pink Floyd parodies they really are.

Any attempt to dissect this album is inevitably doomed to failure - these songs and sounds are bound up in Curtis’ tormented soul, coming from someplace even his band of professionally dour Mancunians couldn’t - or wouldn’t want to - understand. Suffice it to say that if you haven’t heard Joy Division’s music thus far, this, "Unknown Pleasures" and the "Substance 1977-1980" compilation should be high on your wants list. But be wary: Ian Curtis’ idea of a pop song was "Love Will Tear Us Apart", whilst the rest of the band ended up sashaying with the 1990 England World Cup Squad and Mrs Merton.

JOY DIVISION Permanent : Joy Division 1995 (London)

Presumably intended as a companion volume to London’s "(Best Of...)" and "(Rest Of...)" NewOrder compilations, "Permanent" similarly succeeds in making a rather bodged and hamfisted monument from its peerless raw material. Perhaps with the intention of painting a more comprehensive portrait than the wondrous "Substance 1977-1980" singles-only compilation, "Permanent" ends up falling decisively between two stools. Neither comprehensive - two versions of "Love Will Tear Us Apart", neither of which are as found on the original single, no sign of "Warsaw" or "Disorder" - nor selective - why two substandard tracks from the odds and ends collection "Still"? - "Permanent" misses the point that, for a band with Joy Division’s relatively high historical importance to recorded output ratio, investing 25 or so in "Unknown Pleasures", "Closer" and "Substance" will get you everything you need to hear by the band, with groovier artwork to boot.

On the credit side, Jon Savage’s (feted author of the first definitive volume on punk, "England’s Dreaming") sleevenotes are light years ahead of (i.e. readable, at least) Paul Morley’s space-wasting question and answer session on "(The Best Of) NewOrder", and classics like "Love Will Tear Us Apart", "Transmission", "She’s Lost Control", "Dead Souls" and the sublime "Atmosphere" will never lose their glossily unhinged, icily exquisite appeal. But if you’ve yet to discover the perverse beauty of Joy Division, I’d suggest that "Permanent" is not the best way of correcting this oversight.

JOY DIVISION Preston 28 February 1980 (NMC)

Behind that refreshingly literal title lies the kind of perversity that you'd probably expect from a Joy Division artefact released so late in the day. Whilst most bands would prefer to be remembered for the occasions when everything went spectacularly right, here the anonymous (although they bear the distinctive style of Factory Records impresario Anthony Wilson, a man so infatuated with this legendary band that he put up his life savings to pay for the recording of their debut album) sleevenotes read "...this gig in Preston. Equipment malfunction. Mostly no function. Worse gig we ever did. Complete breakdown of bloody everything. A shambles." Not that "Preston 28 February 1980" is an attempt to debunk the Joy Division legend...those sleevenotes again: "This is not a momento, this is a gig. This is not a souvenir or shifty "not the best of", this is a gig. This is not bootleg chic, this is just a gig. Just a gig by one of the greatest bands that ever lived and wrote and played".

So if you've got the albums, and really, if you're interested in what's happened in British music's two decades in the post-punk wilderness, you should have, you'll know what to expect. Whilst their studio recordings could be politely described as traumatised, in concert Joy Division lurched towards a horrorshow, especially on a night like this with the PA collapsing around them and the breaks between songs punctuated by the scattershot gunfire of disintegrating drum machines. After Ian Curtis mumbles "Some slight problems" the band drift into a version of "The Eternal" that has a five-and-a-half minute intro, steam-powered synths and drum machine cracks and clanks building until the intensity is unbearable. On some songs Curtis' vocals miss either the notes or the beat with painful consequences. You can almost hear the drumsticks fly as Stephen Morris bungles the intro to "Disorder". Unintentional comic relief arrives when someone grabs the microphone to announce "Anyone from Burnley the coach is going in five minutes". Everything is wrong, as Moby might say. But, as Lou Reed might counter, it's alright.

Those sleevenotes again: "As the world changes, electronically, we might ask "Why do we have 70 minute CDs". Because Karajan told the Sony boys that was the length of his new recording of Beethoven's fifth? No, we have 70 minute CDs so you and I can go to a Joy Division gig." And if you've ever wished you could have gone to a Joy Division gig, you know what to do.

JOY DIVISION Preston 28 February 1980 (Get Back)

Joy Division's legendary Preston gig finally makes it to (purple) vinyl, thanks eternally to the busy Italian label Get Back, who deserve much credit for continuing to plug the cavernous back catalogue gaps that even little British companies don’t seem to be bothered about. "Preston 28 February 1980" distils the same essence of a group teetering on the edge of total technical and psychological collapse, now blessed with, and I'm saddened to report this, even worse sound quality than the CD - why, I don't know, because Get Back's products usually make the grade sonically. Maybe there's something deleterious about purple dye. Whatever, if you're a Joy Division obsessive you'll need this, just to sit next to that battered copy of "Still", to remind you just how four people can make a room seem so eerily, icily cold.

JOY DIVISION Les Bains Douches (Get Back)

"Les Bains Douches" is Get Back's second and, so say the sleeve notes, final Joy Division live package. Whilst its predecessor, "Preston 28 February 1980" revelled in the ever-present threat of imminent (and actual) collapse, "Les Bains Douches", recorded in Paris and Eindhoven in December 1979 and January 1980 respectively, mostly showcases Joy Division at their performing peak.

The first side is enough to seal Joy Division's reputation as a ferocious live band: "Disorder", "Love Will Tear Us Apart", "Insight, "Shadowplay", "Transmission", bam bam bam bam bam, and the listener is punch-drunk from their staggering, searing power. What impresses most throughout "Les Bains Douches" is Stephen Morris' percussion work. He once remarked that it might be quite nice to be a drum machine, and here he gets close. Has he ever sounded better than on the raging version of "Disorder" preserved here? Or how about his thunder and lightning fills during "Love Will Tear Us Apart", or the funky syncopated intro to "Twenty Four Hours"? He mixes Ringo restraint with Moon power, and it makes an awesome clatter. And not even the thin and reedy Bontempi organ sound on "Love Will Tear Us Apart" can blunt the band's savage attack. The howling guitar squall at the close of "Day Of The Lords" would be worthy of "White Light/White Heat"-era Velvet Underground, even.

The sonics of the Paris performance, apparently derived from a radio broadcast, are rough, certainly so compared to the glacial perfection of Joy Division's studio work, but acceptable, although there's the odd skip and stick that makes it sounds as if these tracks were mastered from a grubby CD. The Eindhoven tapes that bulk up the album, however, are somewhat foggier, and, coupled with the fact that many of the best bits of band's canon have been covered in the Parisian tracks, a good deal less immediate. But they have their moments: Bernard Sumner's guitar solo towards the end of "New Dawn Fades" always reminds me of The The's "Armageddon Days (Are Here Again)" (try singing the lines "The world is on its' elbows and knees/It's forgotten the message and worships the creeds" over it!). The creaky closing "Atmosphere" is heart-wrenching: Ian Curtis sounds as if he's gradually deflating, whilst the rest of the band appear to be playing three slightly different versions of the same song.

Nevertheless, "Les Bains Douches" contains the finest live Joy Division I've yet heard, which is reason enough for its existence. Get Back's issue arrives with smart blue vinyl and gatefold packaging, and contains sleeve notes by Anthony Wilson, in his usual terse and gutsy style.

DEBORAH CURTIS Touching From A Distance Ian Curtis And Joy Division (Faber And Faber)

Although never intended as such, reading "Touching From A Distance" round about now makes it a chilling companion piece to the dayglo hedonism of Michael Winterbottom's wonderful Factory Records mockumentary "24 Hour Party People". Almost alone among rock books, it largely eschews commentary on the music to focus on the personal cost of ambition, talent and fame. Written by Ian Curtis' widow, it's a chilling, surprisingly dispassionate recollection of the events in the life of Joy Division's singer, writer and visionary, made even more poignant by the inclusion of photographs of the man from all stages of his life, as a child, husband, father and musician.

So many books about music - even the best, which usually means the most meticulously and exhaustingly researched by authors with an unshakeable passion for their subject (a few random examples might include Patrick Humphries' biography of Nick Drake or David Cavanagh's thorough retelling of the Creation Records story) - place the reader at a comfortable distance from events: instead of the coursing immediacy of great fiction the endless parade of characters and grind of proceedings usually reads more like a history text book. In contrast, and ironically, "Touching From A Distance" has a veracity that makes it read almost like a tragic, meticulously plotted, novel, pinpricked with tiny, illuminating details such as the descriptions (and, for the pilgrim in you, addresses) of the Curtis' homes and the recollection of the film Curtis watched the evening he committed suicide (Werner Herzog's "Stroszek", whose story about a European emigrant in America who kills himself to avoid choosing between two women uncomfortably summarises the state of his life at the time) and the last album he listened to (Iggy Pop's "The Idiot"). But all the way through "Touching From A Distance" the reader can't help but be struck most by the author's stoic reserve of courage as the things she holds dear crumble around her. It's impossible to read this book without feeling a rising desire to intervene and reshape the horrible, inevitable course of events it describes, surely a testament to its quiet greatness.

It seems churlish to point out, on top of all the above, the added value (is there any way to phrase it under the circumstances that doesn't sound unbearably crass?) inclusion of a complete set of Curtis' lyrics, including many untitled and previously unpublished extracts, along with the more usual biographical trivia of a discography and gig list. But, for the fact obsessive, there they are. Nevertheless, it's the main feature the reader should be here for, and that is its own ample, mournful reward.

CHRIS OTT Unknown Pleasures (Continuum)

Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of almost pocket-sized paperbacks demonstrate an interesting concept. Focussing exclusively on a single long-player, these works should, theoretically, allow for the kind of concentrated analysis that rock music is rarely afforded. There’s even been the odd pleasant macguffin as well, for example Joe Pernice’s contribution, which cleverly avoided direct discussion of the titular Smiths album by constructing an entire novella around a copy of it.

Helmed by Chris Ott, musician and former editor of respected online music magazine Pitchforkmedia.com, this dissection of Joy Division’s wondrous debut album should really hit harder than it does. Immediately defocused by the amount of precious prose spent considering the band’s formative and later years, the author’s frequent references to other publications leaves the reader somewhat wistful that he or she wasn’t enjoying them instead of this curiously unsatisfying tome, which rarely escapes from under the shadow of its awestruck admiration for producer Martin Hannett’s digital delay trickery. And the postscript, “a list of music I listened to regularly while writing this book” – included with the flimsy justification that Paul Morley, “without a doubt the most significant person in this story who was not involved with Joy Division or Factory Records in the late 1970s”, closed his memoir in a similar fashion – is three pages of pure self indulgence.(And, tellingly or otherwise, it contains nothing by Joy Division.)

Should you crave Joy Division text, Deborah Curtis’ shattering “Touching From A Distance” remains an unbeatable read, skewering the myth of celebrity from the most intimate perspective possible. Inevitably, “Unknown Pleasures” struggles to compete.

CONTROL

Let’s get the whinges out of the way first. “Control”, which retells the story of Joy Division’s fractious rise and abrupt cessation following the suicide of singer/songwriter/guitarist Ian Curtis, is unavoidably hampered by the inevitable familiarity of its story arc, something the rock biopic will be saddled with as long as there are tales of ruthless exploitation, squandered genius and incomprehensible mismanagement left to tell. Some of the stabs at humour appear to have been dropped into the script solely to give the cool kids something to snigger knowingly at, e.g. “It could be worse, you could be the lead singer of The Fall”.

And…er…that’s about it. In his first feature presentation (despite being no stranger to the moving image with a portfolio that includes Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” promo and a Captain Beefheart documentary) photographer Anton Corbijn fills the screen with luminous compositions, more black and silver than black and white, that at times are more like a sequence of stills than motion pictures. The young actors making up Joy Division are not only blessed with passable physical likenesses, they also sound convincingly like them, especially the ragged, high-tension wire act captured by the band’s live legacy. Sam Riley practically inhabits Ian Curtis, even down to the slightly lumpy-textured desperation of his singing voice. All credit to them, too, for playing live instead of lip-synching; it’s a coin-toss as to whether they make a better Joy Division tribute band than latterday New Order. Samantha Morton might just have essayed her most astonishing performance yet as Curtis’ tragically sidelined wife Deborah (on whose heartbreaking memoir “Touching From A Distance” the film is based), and even Curtis’ adulterous affair with Belgian fanzine writer Annik Honore is handled with compassion.

A heroic effort from all concerned, “Control” is surely the most inspired, considered film that could have been constructed from the source material. For anybody with even a passing interest in the band, it’s self-recommending.

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