“Punk enabled you to say, ‘Fuck you…’ But sooner or later someone was going to want to say more than ‘fuck you.’ Someone was going to want to say, ‘I’m fucked.'” That observation, from Rob Dickinson, formerly of the Catherine Wheel, does more to explain the mystery of what occurred in Manchester in the Eighties than anything I’ve ever heard or read. Because without a doubt there was something about the Sex Pistols’ shows at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in June and July of 1976 that served as some kind of catalyst. Among the attendees were people like Morrissey, Bernard Sumner and Mark E. Smith as well as members of the Buzzcocks (who opened for the Sex Pistols’ in the second show). The list of attendees of the first show sounds like something impossible and apocryphal, a page out of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. The unlikeliness of such a gathering and the dubious nature of the claims of some to have attended is pointed out to great comic effect in Michael Winterbottom’s brilliant film 24 Hour Party People. But even more unreal are the kinds of bands that develop in the wake of the Sex Pistols’ visit: The Smiths, Joy Division, The Fall. These are all bands who in wildly disparate ways develop their own way of saying “I’m fucked” in language clear, articulate and distinctive. If many bands started out trying to wail like Johnny Rotten and took pride in their inability to play their instruments, they soon developed their own sound that could never be confused with another’s.
It was a special issue of Mojo released in 2006 that got me really interested in Joy Division again. I adored Winterbottom’s film, and the magazine dedicated to “Morrissey and The Story of Manchester” read like the movie’s liner notes. After pouring through it over and over again for months I eventually mailed it to my friend Eric in Michigan. Although my love for The Smiths knows no bounds, it was the story of Joy Division that really grabbed me. Given the attention devoted in the magazine to the band’s debut album Unknown Pleasures, one might become convinced that their success was in some ways a fluke: the result of their lucky collaboration with mad, mad producer Martin Hannett. This proves not to be the case, but given the band’s memorable if brief appearance in 24 Hour Party People, I was absolutely thrilled when I heard that an Ian Curtis biopic was being released directed by Anton Corbijn.
Control stretches the drama told in mere minutes in Winterbottom’s film into an unenlightening and familiar sounding two hour episode of Behind the Music. See, it turns out that Curtis was the real genius, not Hannett. In the film, super cool and brilliant front man (but tortured, tortured) teams with a collection of zeroes who can play instruments but know when to fade into the background, until evil mistress arrives on the scene and brings it all crashing down. It was hard to be disappointed however, considering the trailer and marketing for the film had pretty much tipped me off to what I was in for. That’s when my friend Eric paid back the gift of the tattered magazine by recommending the documentary on the band by Grant Gee.
Joy Division proved to be everything that Control isn’t and is all the better for it. Although Gee attempts to frame the film as the story of a city and how it essentially rebuilds itself, miraculously, from within, the real success of the documentary is that it tackles, seemingly without meaning to, many of the questions that revolve around the band, including many that are probably unanswerable. In doing so it underlines the fact that trying to pin down musical genius is a fool’s errand, yet one that proves an enlightening exercise nonetheless.
For instance, there is no sign of the brooding, pose-striking Ian Curtis of Control here. Although that film’s poster seems designed with the specific purpose of furnishing dorm rooms with wall decoration, Joy Division reminds us of a different image, one that appeared as an NME cover image taken by photographer Kevin Cummins. Instead of the recipe for cool affectation of staring off into space (cool is after all, disinterest, specifically, disinterest in you) Curtis is dragging on a cigarette and looking directly into the camera. Indeed the documentary paints a picture of the most unlikely front man you can imagine: one who was intensely interested in other people (the explanation that She’s Lost Control was inspired by the fatal seizure of a woman who he knew from the Job Centre where he was employed is followed by observations that he seemed to genuinely care about the people he attempted to place in employment). As the band’s success began to take off, rather than claiming that he had a monopoly on the lion’s share of the talent, Curtis worried that he was dragging the band down and wasn’t up to the challenge (which suggests that he thought his band mates were). While the NME cover pic is a telling artifact, Cummins points out that the most recognizable image of the band is indeed, one of the entire band, during an amazing sequence where the photographer walks us through the photo shoot that culminates in that iconic shot. It is the band from afar, on a bridge in the distance in the snow, taken as they huddle in their coats for warmth. Taken because they personified cool no doubt? Just the opposite. What prompted the photographer to snap the picture was, as he describes in voice over, the fact that the scene looked “so bleak,” the band “so un-rock-n-roll-like.”
The sequence detailing Martin Hannett’s collaboration that culminated in Unknown Pleasures ends up making the band’s creativity even more mysterious rather than explaining it away. The surviving band members seem to be in agreement that they hate the album, and it’s clear that in many ways it is a demonstration of Hannett’s genius. During an interview Hannett calls them “heaven sent” for basically being a bunch of clueless kids, malleable, open to experiment in any way Hannett saw fit since they didn’t know any better. But any of the live performances included in the film are confirmation that the band was amazing. Pleasures just happens to be the result of a talented partnership. In any case the influence of the digital and electronic is evident in later work by the band members: they will eventually explore its possibilities exhaustively as New Order.
“Because Joy Division ends, because it all ends with a jolt, the jolt of a rope,” intones Gee near the close of the film, “there’s a tendency to end the story there. I think the important thing is not to end the story there.” While Gee ignores the tendency, he does not do so for very long. But the point is made, without the Ian Curtis of Control how on Earth do you explain New Order? Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Peter Hook, while admitting that often they didn’t even pay attention to Curtis’ lyrics, seem befuddled that anyone would suggest that they stop. Whereas most bands collapse without their front man, New Order went on to dizzying levels of success. While Control sells us again the same story of the introverted moody genius, singular and inexplicable, separate from the common herd, Joy Division reveals four young men who liked to have a laugh, have a drink; who are pretty much guys you could meet anywhere and yet how you (and apparently practically everyone interviewed) wonder could produce something so dark.