Joy Division is a band that only music critics and others very seasoned in rock history seem to know. But actually, everybody knows them, because they show up in just about every rock band’s music since 1980. Their influence is so far-reaching that it’s at a higher level, one where you don’t even know that that’s where it comes from. Without Joy Division, I can’t even imagine what the musical landscape would look like.
I can only wisely enter so far into Joy Division. When I listen to them, I cannot help but contemplate the sad and bankrupt state of this world, the carelessly evil things people sometimes do to each other, and perhaps most of all, the darkness within my own soul. And if I go too far down that road, if I descend that staircase all the way to the dank and dirty basement, I fear I may never come out.
I like Joy Division right where they are, in that basement. I can flit from room to room on the first floor, climb the stairs to see the bedrooms, and even go outside the house to bask in the sun – and I can also open the basement door, go down a few steps and sit contemplatively, listening.
A few bands who have followed in Joy Division’s extremely influential footsteps (and more who have taken it to the next level) rail and thrash, shriek and flail about, screaming all the while “I’M UPSET ABOUT SOMETHING!” They’ve taken distress, patented it, packaged it, slapped it on a plastic lunch box and sold it in Best Buy, warranty included. Joy Division is remarkable precisely because they didn’t do that. To them, distress looks like Ian Curtis with his deadpan stare, tortured by demons of which we as listeners only have the briefest indication.
Curtis, frontman and doomed casualty of Joy Division, had epilepsy. It’s a very misunderstood affliction, probably because it’s so startling and troubling to see. Perhaps in this age of understanding for people who are different in some way, it has a softer definition, but back in the late ‘70s it was still pretty weird. Make no mistake, an epileptic seizure is a big deal, but the person having one needs medical help, not horrified stares (or fascinated ones – more on that later).
Closer is only their second album, but it’s also the last release they would ever put out. In addition to 1979’s Unknown Pleasures, there were a handful of singles, as well as their debut EP An Ideal For Living, released in 1978. The name Joy Division, which sounds strange to our English-speaking ears, is the name for certain women in Nazi concentration camps during WWII – they were racially pure women set aside for the sexual service of officers in the German army, in order to create a master, Aryan race. Joy Division caused even more stir with the cover for An Ideal For Living, which featured a Hitler Youth playing a drum. The question was asked not long after that: are Joy Division Nazis? (The answer is “no.”)
And then in 1980, exactly two months before the release of Closer, Curtis committed suicide by hanging himself in the kitchen of his house. The darkness and groaning melancholy of Joy Division’s music suddenly became starkly and frighteningly real.
Closer opens with the exceptionally dark “Atrocity Exhibition.” The lyrics talk of the public’s sick desire to see something horrible as a satiation of their dark nature. Ian Curtis first saw this when Joy Division became “that band with the epileptic.” A few times, Curtis had an epileptic seizure on stage, and he adapted his dancing style to emulate his seizures. Some people came to their shows on the off-chance that he would have a seizure. Curtis had a keen sense of phoniness, so he naturally was angry.
Though it’s a great song, “Atrocity Exhibition” is not the best lead-off track. It’s long, doesn’t do a great job of getting you to engage, and is catchy only because it’s so repetitive. But like all Joy Division songs, its value is in the atmosphere it creates, not the sum of its musical parts. And that atmosphere is palpable and intense – it’s a smoke you can reach out and feel, can breathe in and feel in your lungs.
After that comes “Isolation,” a study of what gives the song its name. It speaks of a fear that is with you “every day, every evening,” all the time. I know this fear – to me, it’s the fear of all of the world’s circumstances closing I around you at once, and being left with the paralyzing but undeniable fact that you’re not up to the task of dealing with them. They’re too much for you. You are inadequate. That fear still sneaks up on me occasionally, and when it does, it causes me to fold inward, to not move, to not try. Because if I don’t try, I can’t fail.
I identify with Joy Division and Ian Curtis immensely. A lot of people do, and that’s why JD’s music remains so popular among certain people. Curtis is a symbol that lets depressed and fearful kids (and the occasional 32 year-old…) know that they’re not alone and not the first. But Curtis’ story also alerts me to the dangers of descending too far down the pit of despair. It’s important to feel every feeling, but feeling any feeling too much can be perilous.
What sets Joy Division apart from the wide gamut of bands they’ve influenced is that they don’t try to pretend that the dark, billowy place to which they take you is cool, attractive, or in any way a good place to be. Their music is devoid of glamour, polish or contrivance. The void it leaves is filled instead with the depth of Curtis’ own despair. And it’s DEEP, man…