Thursday, 13 May 2010

Joy Division Essay

Joy Division were an extremely important band in the stylistic development of popular music, following the initial punk rock explosion of 1977. In the wake of this explosion, Joy Division, though the band were only active for a total of four years, pioneered a unique style that had not been witnessed before, nor to an extent, has been wholly replicated since. This essay will first analyse the individual aspects of Joy Division's style that contributed to their overall uniqueness, and how those individual aspects were employed and adapted by later bands and artists.

Joy Division's style can be best assessed and defined in the band's work after August 1977, a significant month that saw the replacement of drummer Tony Tabac with Stephen Morris. The band, though called 'Warsaw' until early the following year, seem to have had significantly developed stylistically during the latter half of 1977, straying away from their previous punk-rock stylistics of the band's earlier formation. In an interview in September 1979 by Richard Skinner with frontman Ian Curtis and drummer Stephen Morris for BBC Radio 1, Curtis also notes his awareness of this apparent transition:

(…) we changed a lot initially when we started playing, we couldn't really play to be honest. Very loose (…) it was August in 1977 when we really started getting out own particular way.”1

In his study of Joy Division's 1979 Unknown Pleasures album, Chris Ott suggests that Joy Division's digression from punk culture did not necessarily involve just a change in music, but also a change in interests and ideals:

Simplicity, suspicion and selfishness were implicit in punk rock, and it proved its undoing, as the primary players descended into stubbornness and absurdity at breakneck speed; around them, bands jumped on the spiked leather bandwagon, using this new freedom as an excuse to exploit, smashing at their instruments in a self-absorbed bid for fame, money and girls. The band that became Joy Division grew disinterested in such uncreative chaos and aggression; whatever fame they strove for would be justified in their music.2

Simon Reynolds theorizes this transition as pertaining to a change in the musical devices used by, and the distortion of the traditional roles of, the individual members of the band:

Joy Division's originality really became apparent once they slowed down. Shedding punk's fast, distortion-thickened sound, the music grew stark and sparse. [Peter] Hook's bass carries the melody, [Bernard] Sumner's guitar leaves gaps rather than fills the mix with dense riffage, and Steve Morris's drums seem to circle the rim of the crater.3

In identifying the stylistics of Joy Division (such as those mentioned above by Reynolds) which have seemed to set them apart from previous bands and artists, tracing the employment and adaptation of these individual stylistics in the bands and artists that followed Joy Division allows us to analyse the band's overall contribution to the stylistic development of popular music. I attempt this brief identification in the following section of this essay.

One of the notable stylistic aspects of post-August 1977 Joy Division is that of Peter Hook's basslines. These basslines were often high up on the fretboard, one or two octaves higher than a traditional bass plater might compose in around that time. According to guitarist Bernard Sumner, Hook's unique playing style came about as a direct result of him not having a powerful enough amplifier to be able to hear lower frequency notes during practice: “I'm more rhythm and chords, and Hooky was melody. He used to play high lead bass because I liked my guitar to sound distorted, and the amplifier I had would only work when it was at full volume. When Hooky played low, he couldn't hear himself.”4 These high-range basslines became more prominent towards the end of Joy Division's career, with Hook eventually purchasing a six-string bass which allowed for an even higher range of notes. Somewhat counteracting Hook's predominant basslines, Sumner tended to use sparse, often single-note guitar melodies and riffs, which were so radically different from the punk 'powerchord'5 distorted guitar techniques at the time. The explanation for this phenomenon again may lie in Hook's poor amplification equipment, i.e. that, in trying to maintain his intended and preferred distorted tone, Sumner had few options but to resort to playing sparser guitar melodies and chords (than those which he previously used when mimicking a punk guitarist style), in order to still be able to hear Hook's contribution to the music. Martin Hannett, Joy Division's producer on their albums Unknown Pleasures and Closer, is also partly responsible for the development of Sumner's less predominant guitar style; Hannett often opted to reduce the presence of Sumner's guitar in the mix:

(…) on the album Hannett used one of his favourite devices - the Marshall Time Modulator – to surpress the guitars and other instruments. 'It just made things sound smaller,' says Morris.6

Another key aspect of Joy Division's post-August 1977 innovative stylistics is in that of the drumming style of Stephen Morris. As guitarist Bernard Sumner described in 1994:

Steve has his own style which is different to other drummers. To me, a drummer in the band is the clock, but Steve wouldn't be the clock, because he's passive: he would follow the rhythm of the band, which gave us our own edge.”7

In addition to his unique 'passenger-seat' drumming style, Morris also used electronic drum machines in many Joy Division recordings, further adding to the band's futuristic, 'post-punk' style. Simmonds and Synare drum synthesizers, as well as a Boss DR-55 drum machine can be heard on tracks from both the band's studio albums such as 'Insight' and 'She's Lost Control' from Unknown Pleasures and 'Decades' from Closer. This opting to use drum machines was perhaps reminiscent of the 'Krautrock' music of 1960s and 1970s German bands such as Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk. The use of synthesizers and keyboards in Joy Division's music also furthers the idea of a 'Krautrock' influence (the music of Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk all heavily featured synthesizers). The most obvious example of this (and perhaps the most important example, when considering that the song has been the band's most successful and well-known release) is in the track 'Love Will Tear Us Apart', where the key melody or 'hook' of the song is carried by the synthesizer. It seems apparent that producer Martin Hannett was in part responsible for the inclusion of synthesizers and drum machines in the recording of Unknown Pleasures and Closer, and such decisions taken by Hannett were often against the band's will. Although this musical influence may be apparent, the band categorically denied such bands as being an influence on their music, insisting that: “(...) we haven't been influenced by what's been going on elsewhere really, we were apart from everything, we sort of developed our own particular way in our own environment.”8

Above all of these defining aspects of Joy Division's style were perhaps Ian Curtis' baritone voice, his pessimistic, personal lyrics and his erratic live performance style. On a non-musical note, it is also worth mentioning Joy Division's fashion stylistics. Continuing with their digression from punk culture as I have previously mentioned, Joy Division also broke away from the fashion norms set by punks: opting for plain fitted shirts, ties and tight-fitting trousers over the established punk trend of bondage trousers, ripped t-shirts, died/spiked haircuts and visible piercings. A parallel can be drawn between Joy Division and punk culture however in that both openly utilized Nazi associations and terminology; the name 'Joy Division' refers to a prostitution section of the Nazi army, and also on the artwork for the band's debut EP, An Ideal For Living (1978), which featured a Hitler Youth member banging a drum on the front cover, and a Nazi soldier pointing a gun at a Jewish boy on the sleeve.

Ian Curtis commuted suicide on 18th May 1980, signalling the end of Joy Division. In the years since Curtis' death, many bands and artists, including those mentioned above, have employed or adapted certain aspects of Joy Division's style (which I have already discussed), and often cite the band as an inspiration. The following section of this essay presents examples of this.

The Cure were one of the first bands to adopt some of Joy Division's stylistics. Robert Smith, the band's only permanent member, established an emotional, pessimistic and occasionally nihilistic lyric writing style. The opening lyrics to The Cure's third album Pornography, 'It doesn't matter if we all die' are an example of this, and are extremely reminiscent of Ian Curtis' lyrical compositions. By the time of Pornography's release in 1982, the term 'goth' (or 'goth rock') was already being used to describe such bands as The Cure, Souxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus. Interestingly enough, Joy Division were twice appropriated with the term several years prior to this: Martin Hannett described the band as 'dancing music with gothic overtones.'9 Tony Wilson, presenting his Something Else television programme (broadcast 15th September 1979), also used the term in reference to Joy Division's music, '(…) unsettling, slightly sinister and gothic' in an interview with BBC Radio One DJ Paul Burnett and drummer Stephen Morris. 'Goth' became a music genre and youth subculture in its own right, with its musical stylistics firmly based upon those pioneered by Joy Division:

Standard [goth] musical fixtures included: scything guitar patterns and high-pitched post-Joy Division basslines that usurped the melodic role; beats either hypnotically dirge-like or tom-tom heavy and 'tribal' in some ethnically indeterminate Burundi-meets-Apache way; vocals either near operatic, harrowed, or deep, droning alloys of Jim Morrison and Ian Curtis.10

It seems then, that certain aspects of Joy Division's musical style actually contributed significantly to the creation of the 'goth' genre and subculture, making a significant imprint on popular music as a whole after the band's period of activity. Similarly, Joy Division's non-musical stylistics can also be found in goth aesthetics; the band's interest in Nazi imagery was reflected in promotional posters and album sleeves for London-based goth band Killing Joke. Leeds-based goth band The March Violets (the name derived from a Nazi reference to the Hitler-voting public of Spring 1934) also demonstrated this Nazi imagery and nomenclatural interest.

Scottish band Alternate Images also seem to have been among the first to adopt some of Joy Division's stylistics, particularly Sumner's guitar and Hook's bass style. As Reynolds writes of the respective 1981 and 1982 singles of Altered Images in Rip It Up And Start Again: 'The scratchy guitar figure on 'I Could Be Happy' and the twinkle-drone bassline of 'See Those Eyes' sound remarkably close to Barney Sumner's and Peter Hook's playing.'11

Following Curtis' death, Joy Division's single 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' (which had already been released a month previously) reached #13 in the UK singles chart, the band's most successful release. The track is perhaps one of the greatest indications of the intensity of Joy Division's contribution to the stylistic development of popular music. 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' was voted the best single of all time by NME magazine in 2002.12 The impact of the song (and in turn the stylistic influence of Joy Division) on popular musicians across the globe is extremely profound, with over twenty established artists and bands having either recorded or performed a version of the track, including acts as diverse as Bloc Party, The Cure, Broken Social Scene, Fall Out Boy, José González and Jamie Cullum. 'Love Will Tear Us Apart's importance to popular music is so apparent that Liverpool indie band the Wombats even referenced the song (both lyrically and via artwork) in their 2007 single 'Let's Dance to Joy Division'.

Ian Curtis' death itself and the untimely circumstances surrounding it appear to have also had a profound impact on a wide array of musicians, and this is often reflected in interviews, dedications and lyrical content. Robert Smith of The Cure for example, often dedicated the song 'Primary' to Curtis; Luca Prodan of Argentinian band Sumo, who was personally acquainted with members of Joy Division, released 'Divididos Por La Felicidad' in 1985 as a tribute to Curtis, to whom the song's lyrics directly refer: 'No importa lo que existió hace pocos años/los días felices se quebraron, pero así es la vida': 'It doesn't matter that he was alive until only recently/the happy days were cut short, but that's how life goes' (my translation). Also, U2 released a single entitled 'A Day Without Me' from their debut 1980 album Boy, which featured clear lyrical references to Curtis. U2's frontman Bono seems to have been greatly influenced by Curtis, seeing him as a role model figure; Reynolds quotes Factory Records label owner Tony Wilson as saying:

'Two months after Ian died, U2 were brought round to my office at Granada TV by this plugger looking to break them, and I remember Bono sitting on my desk saying how incredibly sorry he was about Ian's death, how it had really hurt Ian was the number-one singer of his generation, and he, Bono, knew he was always going to be number two.'13

Joy Division's influence on U2 was such that the latter refused to work with any other producer other than Joy Division's: Martin Hannett. This relationship proved to be unsuccessful and short-lived however, due in part to Hannett's drug problems following Curtis' suicide, and U2 went on to be produced Steve Lillywhite and Brian Eno amongst others. Within the Factory records label to which Joy Division were signed, Durutti Column, another band from Manchester, recorded a tribute to Ian Curtis entitled 'Missing Boy', which appeared on the band's second album LC (released in 1981). Also on Factory records, although perhaps without intentionally dedicating their music to Curtis, were A Certain Ratio. Simon Reynolds notes vocalist Simon Topping's obvious Curtis-influenced style of lyric writing and vocal performance:

At times ACR sounded like Joy Division getting on the good foot: singer Simon Topping more or less cloned Curtis's baritone drone, while the lyrics hinted at dark drives and shadowy states of consciousness.14

Tributes to Curtis (whether intentional or not) appeared not just in the 1980s, but through to the present day. In 2008, American punk-rock band Alkaline Trio released 'Help Me' as a single from their sixth studio album Agony & Irony. The lyrics are directed at Curtis: 'You're up there/took the stairs to the stars all alone/You left all the lights burning but nobodies home/I believe they deceived your tuneful heart too long'. The artwork for the single also pays homage to the artwork of Peter Saville on the cover of Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' single. The song was inspired by photographer and film-maker Anton Corbijn's biopic of Ian Curtis, Control, which was released the previous year. Control seems to have renewed interest in Joy Division nearly thirty years after the band's period of activity. In an interview with's Carlos Ramirez, lead singer Matt Skiba says:

'I've always been a big Joy Division Fan and I was touched by the film. I thought it captured Joy Division and Ian Curtis' life beautifully. The sincerity of their music combined with their imagery and art is like nothing else. Everything about them was artistic and unique. Our artwork and song is a tribute to a melancholic beauty that can never be replicated.'15

The work of assessing Joy Division's stylistic contribution to popular music can be potentially complicated by whether or not the band or artist selected for stylistic analysis acknowledges Joy Division as an influence. For example, in listening to Alkaline Trio (a band who actively proclaim Joy Division as a significant influence on their music), stylistic similarities between the two bands are scarce: vocalist Matt Skiba certainly does not sing in baritone, the bass guitar rarely strays from low root notes, no synthesizers can be heard nor are the acoustic drums double-tracked with electronic drums. In complete contrast, Editors, a band who actively deny any Joy Division influence in their music,16 have released music tracks that heavily feature 'Joy Division-esque' tendencies. Editors' successful 2006 single 'All Sparks' perhaps best demonstrates this: lead singer Tom Smith replicates an uncanny Ian Curtis baritone vocal style; the track features a melodic, high-up-the-fretboard bassline which is reminiscent of Peter Hook's basslines, down to the tone of the bass itself: a Rickenbacker, like Hook's. Sparse, distorted guitar parts also feature throughout the verses of the track. Obvious Joy Division-influenced stylistics are apparent even in the band's fashion: vocalist Tom Smith, bass player Russell Leetch and drummer Ed Lay all opt for slim-fitted plain shirts, plain trousers and shoes in the music video to accompany 'All Sparks'. Although an artist or band may claim Joy Division as a stylistic influence, examples of that influence may be extremely weak or even non-existent (i.e. Alkaline Trio). On the opposite end of the scale, the band or artist may be unaware of their Joy Division influence or even completely deny it (i.e. Editors). These are two extreme examples of how a band or artist's awareness of a Joy Division influence can potentially be incoherent with the band or artist's music and aesthetics. Although many bands and artists fall in a 'middle-ground' between these two extreme examples (i.e. bands that acknowledge a Joy Division influence and parallels can be drawn between the two stylistically), this point proves that care must be taken when connecting a band or artist with Joy Division stylistically, based on their claim of a Joy Division influence. Such 'middle-ground' acts that have at some point acknowledged Joy Division as an influence and stylistic parallels can be drawn between the two include the Smiths, Bloc Party, Radiohead, Coldplay and Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante.

Joy Division have certainly played a key role in the stylistic development of popular music. Very few bands have had their music re-interpreted, re-recorded or re-mixed by by other musicians as many times as Joy Division, which suggests that the band have had a vast and profound influence on musicians from all over the globe; from home bands such as U2 and The Cure to Argentina's Sumo. Joy Division's impression on popular music stylistics also seems to be a lasting one, with present-day artists such as Alkaline Trio and The Wombats paying homages to Joy Division as many as thirty years on from the band's period of activity, and clear musical stylistic parallels can be drawn between the band and present-day artists such as Editors and Interpol. Joy Division's non-musical stylistics also seem to have left a lasting impression on popular music: traces of the band's fashion aesthetics can be found in Franz Ferdinand and The Hives.


Chris Ott, Unknown Pleasures, (Continuum, 2008)

Carlos Ramirez, Agony And Irony of Alkaline Trio, ( , 09/21/2008)

Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up And Start Again: Post Punk 1978-1984, (Faber & Faber, 2005)

Jon Savage, 'Joy Division: Someone Take These Dreams Away' in Mojo Magazine (July 1994)




Alkaline Trio – Agony & Irony, (Epic, 2008)

The Durutti Column – LC, (Factory Records, 1981)

Editors – The Back Room, (Kitchenware, 2005)

Joy Division – Closer, (Factory Records, 1980)

Joy Division – The Complete BBC Recordings, (Strange Fruit, 2000)

Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures, (Factory Records, 1979)

Sumo – Divididos Por La Felicidad, (CBS, 1985)

U2 – Boy, (Island, 1980)

The Wombats – Let's Dance To Joy Division, (14th Floor, 2007)


Control, Dir: Anton Corbijn. Writ. Matt Greenhalgh, Deborah Curtis. Perf. Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Toby Kebbell, Alexandra Maria Lara. (2007)

1Joy Division, The Complete BBC Recordings, (Strange Fruit, 2000) Track 11

2Chris Ott, Unknown Pleasures, (New York 2008) p.6

3Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up And Start Again: postpunk 1978-1984, (London, 2005) p.180

4Jon Savage, 'Joy Division: Someone Take These Dreams Away' in Mojo Magazine, July 1994

5A moveable chord consisting of the root note, the 5th and the octave, usually with the root being played on either the low E or A string on a guitar.

6Simon Reynolds, 2005 p.185

7Jon Savage, July 1994

8Joy Division, The Complete BBC Recordings, (Strange Fruit, 2000) Track 11

9Simon Reynolds, 2005, p.420

10Simon Reynolds, 2005, p.423

11Simon Reynolds, 2005, p.407

13Simon Reynolds, 2005, p.451

14Simon Reynolds, 2005, p.190

15Carlos Ramirez, 'Agony And Irony of Alkaline Trio', (08/21/2008)

No comments:

Post a Comment