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This weekend I’ll mostly be listening to… Still, Joy Division. June 22, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....

It’s pretty much the middle of Summer. The sun unseasonably splitting the Irish sky for the last few weeks. The temperatures high. So what better time than to bring out a Joy Division album?

And a strange album too. As Peter Saville, Factory label designer, said on the excellent Joy Division documentary released in 2007, the group released only two albums and a number of singles and all else is merchandising. And this is Exhibit A in that latter respect being the earliest artefact to appear in the wake of their final proper album. A strange mixture it is too of live performance and tracks which didn’t make it onto the other albums, all recorded between 1978 and 1980 with all but one of them from 1979 and 1980. Yet how many groups would wish that their output reached the heights that this merchandise did?

Even it’s physical construction, the responsibility of Saville, is something else. Dull grey cardboard with a matt finish that is more like a packet than an album cover. Overly precise type that offers it a faintly neo-classical air somehow at odds with the cardboard but also perfectly in tune with it. And all that works to perfectly encapsulate both the spirit of Joy Division and a sense of its end. The mundane aspect of its materials wedded to the transcendent intent of its contents.

And the music itself? I’ve never had much time of the live stuff, and the general consensus appears to be that it wasn’t much cop, but then I’ve never had much time for live albums full stop. Yet it has its moments and it does provide an interesting document, an echo of what it must have been like to be there in the audience – perhaps not least in the pretty dismal sound quality. Yeah. That’s what it was probably like. Plus atmosphere. So to speak.

The studio tracks, though, are substantial, ranging from songs which captured the spikier side of their output such as Exercise One (the sound at the beginning of it I think is taken from an industrial process), Ice Age and Walked in Line to more reflective though no less powerful material, such as Dead Souls – perhaps my favourite of all their songs. Tracks like The Sound of Music and The Only Mistake are oddly substantial, and one wonders why they weren’t put on the albums.

And somehow I find this – for all its flaws – in some ways, and just by a nose, their most satisfying album. I think perhaps it’s a bit like listening to the Beatles, that sense of a group discovering musical possibilities that would later be reworked and extended by others and listening to them, due to these being non-album cuts, at a point where they were less finished but perhaps more primal. So there’s no end of reference points for a huge swathe of the territory of post punk and what would become indie inhabited. But, as with the Beatles in their time, crucially Joy Division got there first. And the lyrical contents? Some interesting, some might say provocative, stuff. Are the conquistador’s who took their share or those who walked in line to be celebrated or condemned. There’s a crucial ambiguity there.

If this truly was just merchandising, or if that all it was, then this would be worthless, but somehow as with almost all they touched it transcends that. There’s a danger here too, although it’s more a danger with Joy Division more broadly. In the wake of two films (24 Hour Party People being excellent not just because of its scope but because of the portrayal of JD), a number of documentaries and a small industry devoted to their memory, it can be difficult to remember just how good they and their music actually was. “Unknown Pleasures” and “Closer” have achieved a mythic status, perhaps out of all proportion to their very real excellence. And I’ve got to be honest, by the time I’d seen Control that was it for me. One more bloody documentary would be one too many. There was a sense that that mythos was far too easily morphing into a continuum of nostalgia on the part of those in their late forties and early fifties dressed up in overly reverential garb (though full disclosure, I’m slowly working through Peter Hook’s recent book on JD, and enjoying it).

In an odd way “Still” functions precisely as a means of counter-acting that, the rawness and those spiky compositions reminding the listener that Joy Division started out as a punk band. No harm in that.

Walked in Line

Ice Age

Dead Souls

Exercise One


The Only Mistake

New Dawn Fades (Live)


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