Friday, December 28, 2007

77 Barton Street

“Joy Division’s guitarist, Bernard Sumner, recalls teenage years blighted by the simpering commerciality of the pop charts: he told me recently, with a wince, that one of the reasons he’d wanted to form a band was hearing the song ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’. Not enough attention has been paid to how depressing light entertainment can be....The teenagers who formed Joy Division found their role models in bands from a previous era that had ‘lifted the lid on things’, as Sumner puts it: the Doors, the Stooges, Can and The Velvet Underground. Like other post-punk bands, Joy Division believed that music could be a medium for unsettling ideas. They also believed in the DIY aesthetic (putting out records on their own label, or a small independent label), and rejected punk and all the sloganeering that had gone with it. Tony Wilson, a hugely influential figure who ran Joy Division’s record label, Factory, explained the shift: ‘Punk enabled you to say “Fuck you,” but somehow it couldn’t go any further. Sooner or later someone was going to want to say “I’m fucked,” and that was Joy Division.’”

—Dave Haslam, “77 Barton Street,” from the London Review of Books, 3 January 2008

A lot of this is journalistic oversimplification: plenty of punk bands were self-excoriating, and as for sloganeering, a buddy of mine and I recently spent half an hour trying to unpack the lyrics of the Sex Pistols’ “Holidays in the Sun” (here’s a sample: “Claustrophobia / There’s too much paranoia / There’re too many closets / So when will we fall?”; I’m sure there must a slogan in there somewhere). The idea that Joy Division rejected punk will be puzzling to anyone familiar with “Interzone” or “Shadowplay” or “Disorder” or “Ice Age” or any of their music, really. And the DIY aesthetic they embraced was central to the ideology of punk, even if in practice many bands (the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Gang of Four) ultimately abandoned it—to their regret.

And some of what Haslam reports in the full article is hard to credit: apparently Ian Curtis’ bandmates now claim that they didn’t pay any attention to his despairing lyrics. But the article—a review of two recent books on Joy Division, as well as Anton Corbijn’s film Control (2007)—is worth reading. And despite my major misgivings (I only lasted through 20 minutes of 24-Hour Party People (2002)), it makes me want to see Control. I’ll post again on Joy Division when I do.

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