Not More Joy Division
I trooped along the other day with a few other dutiful souls to catch Jon Savage’s Joy Division documentary before it finished showing. It seemed appropriate to be ducking out of a beautiful sunny day to sit in a dark room for a couple of hours. Anyway, it was worth it to catch the film in a proper cinema (if you didn’t make it along, hopefully it’ll get another screening before too long).
You might think the material would be getting a bit stale by now, after two feature-film versions of the Joy Division story – Michael Winterbottom’s day-glow patchwork of comic anecdotes and the darker, straighter handling of events by Anton Corbijn. But there was nothing stale about Joy Division – Savage has done a great job of unearthing live footage that hasn’t been seen before to go with all the familiar talking heads (the project was completed before Tony Wilson’s death so he makes regular appearances). Probably the most startling find is a tape of Bernard Sumner hypnotising Ian Curtis a few weeks before his death, which is an exceptionally unnerving thing to hear.
It’s a relief that it was Jon Savage who got the chance to complete this project. If you buy the Joy Division box set Heart and Soul (and you should), you’ll find a couple of essays in the booklet by Savage and Paul Morley about the group. If I was teaching a course in journalism, I’d just photocopy the two articles and pass them around the class as perfect examples of good and bad writing. Savage tells the story brilliantly, in a plain but elegant style, while keeping himself well out of view. Morley’s contribution isn’t really about Joy Division at all, it’s more about what Joy Division have meant in the life of a certain Paul Morley – the sort of pretentious, over-written crap you’d expect from someone whose whole career has been spent aiming at the wankiest kind of high-brow legitimacy.
God knows what damage Morley would have done if he was allowed make his own documentary. As it is, Savage takes the same approach that he did in print – he would have been perfectly entitled to include a few clips of himself being interviewed, but the only appearance the writer makes is a brief glimpse of his review from the time Unknown Pleasures came out first (a bloody good review it was too, you can find it in the collection of his articles that came out a few years ago called Time Travel). Morley pops up a few times too without getting in the way of things.
Towards the end of the film, one of the interviewees (I think it was Peter Saville) describes the rise and fall of Joy Division as “one of the last true stories in pop”. If I had a euro for every time I’ve heard such-and-such a group called “the last X in Y” I’d be a good deal more solvent than I am today. In this case it doesn’t just sound like your standard cliché, though, and the obvious question to ask about the whole remarkable journey, from Warsaw to the Hacienda, is would it ever happen today or tomorrow?
Savage puts a quote from Marshall Berman about the experience of modern life at the very start of the documentary, which is a nice touch – he’s always been one for drawing on smart cultural theorists, not in a pretentious show-off sort of way, but for the light they can shed on what’s happening in pop culture. Berman himself had a useful answer to cultural pessimists who reckon all the best tunes have already been played, because the conditions that made previous high points possible no longer exist: “Why shouldn’t other conditions inspire other triumphs, today, tomorrow, or any other day? … When people are faced with the closing of familiar horizons, we open up new horizons; when we are disappointed in some of our hopes, we discover or create new visions that inspire new hopes.”
That’s worth bearing in mind as a general point. Talking about this case in particular, it certainly doesn’t seem likely that we will ever see a rock star like Ian Curtis again. And thank Christ – it’s not worth having any poor sod go through that experience so everyone else can get a bit of a vicarious thrill. Besides, with tabloid culture having progressed in leaps and bounds since the 70s, you can’t really imagine a band getting to the level Joy Division reached while Curtis was still alive without having their personal entrails poured over in morbid detail – his affair with the Belgian girl would get royal coverage. It would all tend to ruin the mystique. Self-destructive pop stars tend to be clownish figures these days.
We might still hope that bands these days would match the musical innovation of Curtis and company. In fact, I’d settle for much less – it would be a good thing if musicians just started off from the point Joy Division had already reached nearly thirty years ago. The idea of combining rock and dance sounds should really be the ABC of smart pop music by now, but you still have to trudge your way through countless bands that seem completely oblivious to anything that’s happened since Kraftwerk first appeared.
There’s plenty of honourable exceptions to that rule of course – Radiohead and LCD Soundsystem have been fighting a good fight for the last few years (Thom Yorke and James Murphy are probably the closest thing we have to the bizarre, un-photogenic front-men who thrived in the post-punk years), along with a few lesser but still interesting groups. Be that as it may, the sheer bloody conservatism of guitar rock has been a dreadful sight to behold for too long. Maybe a few musicians will get past the funny stories and the doomy mythology and learn a few sonic lessons, giving the rest of us something worth getting excited about.
(While they’re at it, they might also consider another lesson that Jon Savage pointed out: “It’s also worth restating that the band, and its lyricist, were products of a particular time in cultural history, when there was an urge to read a certain sort of highbrow literature, and when intelligence was not a dirty word.”)
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