On the 20th of July, 1976, the Sex Pistols played their second gig, at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall.
What spawned from these early shows, with their raw aggression and controversial abandon, was the swirling beast of punk. With anti-authority high on their agenda, the sound of the Sex Pistols, along with the likes of The Damned and Buzzcocks, captivated the restless English youth. Attending the gig were a young Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner who, thus inspired, immediately set out to form what came to be known as Joy Division.
As the Sex Pistols burned out with the endearingly juvenile ‘Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle’, Joy Division took the dwindling image of punk and from it crafted what would later be dubbed post-punk. Much is attributed to producer Martin Hannett who, working alongside Factory Records’ hugely influential Tony Wilson, propelled Joy Division to the fore of a developing Manchester scene. Hannett’s atmospheric production of the band’s two albums, 1979’s Unknown Pleasures and 1980’s Closer, was accented by the focus on Hook’s high bass melodies and the sparse percussion of Stephen Morris.
Beyond their pioneering sound, Joy Division have since become an iconic outfit partially due to the tragic life of their frontman, Ian Curtis. Curtis’ lyrics, brooding and despairing, underpin the atmosphere of the instrumentals and his rich baritone – echoing The Doors’ Jim Morrison – provide the perfectmedium for their delivery. Curtis’ life was plagued by both epilepsy and bouts of depression, which led to the singer taking his own life on the eve of the band’s first American tour in May 1980.
For those completely new to the band, 1988’s posthumously released compilation album Substance proves the most immediately engaging. Compiling tracks from the band’s debut EP An Ideal For Living as well as B-sides and non-album singles, the album gives a comprehensive impression of the progression of Joy Division’s sound. Stand-out tracks include the punky ‘Warsaw’, the bleak yet uplifting ‘Atmosphere, and the now ubiquitous ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. The latter, released as a single following Curtis’ suicide, went on to become the group’s most successful single. It has since been covered by a plethora of bands including U2, The Cure, Arcade Fire and Bloc Party, such is its influence.
Championed by John Peel, Joy Division’s post-punk sound sparked a movement in the late 70s and early 80s which included Gang of Four, John Lydon’s Public Image Limited and the aforementioned Cure. All three typify the intelligent, dark and constantly evolving sound that Joy Division pioneered. Joy Division’s remaining members went on to form New Order, and the more synth-based sound seen in ‘Temptation’ is an example of this evolution.
The influence of Joy Division and post-punk can be seen to this day, particularly within the revival the sound enjoyed in the 00s. The success of The Strokes, Editors and Interpol are a testament to the continued influence of Ian Curtis and Joy Division, though he less said about The Wombats and ‘Let’s Dance to Joy Division’ the better…