Following on from Anton Corbijn's excellent biopic CONTROL, comes this 95 minute documentary on one of our finest bands. JOY DIVISION crams in interviews and anecdotes from key figures in and around the group, together with concert and TV footage which tell a remarkable story.
A Sex Pistols gig at Manchester's Free Trade Hall led to the formation of a band called Warsaw (their name inspired by a track on David Bowie's excellent LOW album), and the seeds were sown for the emergence of a vital force in music. Soon, the band would take on a new name, which caused a good deal of controversy in the press and practically none amongst their followers. This documentary sees band members joined by the late Tony Wilson, writer Paul Morley and other members of the JD story to provide an authoritative and often sad commentary on a key period in music history. Here was a band that broke down the barriers of punk, moving from the days of The Electric Circus and a debut EP (An Ideal For Living) to a first album which eventually turned out to be one of the finest to come out of this famous city.
While I'd long held the opinion that CLOSER contained their best work, UNKNOWN PLEASURES has lately got under my skin in ways I'm unable to describe and may well become my JD drug of choice. With doom-laden bass, mesmeric guitar play and those magnificent vocals, UNKNOWN PLEASURES gives us dance tracks, mini anthems for doomed youth, rabble-rousing concessions to their more boisterous followers and moments of icy beauty that still leave me totally stunned. If UP really was like imagining a sci-fi interpretation of Manchester from a speeding car, then CLOSER (which really was a closer for the band) took us to a different place. Look at the album cover, listen to the music and absorb the lyrics. This is a journey of despair, but also one of great beauty and it leads to the tomb.
Memories of these moments in time are punctuated by recollections of Ian Curtis; the lead singer who was tortured by the onset of epileptic fits which got progressively worse. His relationship with Annik Honore (who also features in this doc) formed a part of Ian's final days and her presence in his life, together with his suicide and the aftermath, are recalled here with refreshing honesty by some of those who knew him best. It's hard to pick out highlights from this engrossing documentary, but the concert and TV footage are of exceptional value, with the likes of 'Transmission' and 'She's Lost Control' showing a band at the peak of their powers. Of course, this footage will bring back memories for those of us lucky enough to see them perform live. I saw them on two occasions. The first was a gig at Derby's Assembly Rooms on 22nd October 1979 as support to the mighty BUZZCOCKS. While my memories of many gigs have been diluted by the passage of time and by the number of beers I consumed at certain gigs, this is one I remember well. I can still see Ian Curtis onstage, his antics both physically and mentally exhausting to watch as he danced, twitched and twisted to the music. My second experience came at Derby's Ajanta Theatre; a rundown club where the likes of BAUHAUS and KILLING JOKE trod the boards before a rabid audience who would eventually lay waste to the seating area while THE DAMNED exhorted us to 'Smash It Up'. This concert - on 18th April 1980 - turned out to be JD's penultimate gig: exactly one month later, Ian Curtis committed suicide. Memory tells me JD were supported by SECTION 25 that night, and that JD were really on fire. The sound system was sorely lacking compared to the Assembly Rooms equipment (which itself was never the best) but somehow this smaller, more intimate venue suited their music down to the ground. Sure, The Ajanta was a far cry from more famous venues such as London's Marquee Club (look out for a feature on The Marquee in the near future) but it had an atmosphere all of its own. That night, JOY DIVISION's music again took us to a very special place and I recall vacating my usual place amidst the pogoing throng down the front, and instead standing on a seat to actually watch the band. I'm glad I did because I never saw them again. After Ian's tragic death, JOY DIVISION became NEW ORDER who I caught live on two occasions but, as they say, that's another story.
This documentary shows that the heady days of the late 70s/early 80s were really special times but also contained great sadness. For many teenagers, the news of Ian's death - along with Malcolm Owen from THE RUTS and Sid Vicious - showed us that people sometimes died young when they should have had the rest of a long life in front of them. Jon Savage makes the point in Deborah Curtis' book 'Touching From A Distance' that a large part of the audience had yet to experience death in their family and their hero's passing hit home particularly hard because many of them identified with Curtis. I hope and trust that Ian went to a better place, free from the fear and pain he experienced during his last few years amongst us.
This documentary charts the highs and lows of an extraordinary band whose influence still looms large some three decades. When Dave McCullough wrote about Ian's life and passing in Sounds magazine http://www.new-order.net/terminal1.demon.co.uk/JoySounds5-80.htmorder.net/terminal1.demon.co.uk/JoySounds5-80.htm the resulting piece ended with the words "That man died for you, that man saw the madness in your area". At the time, the article caused an outcry, and I still think it was OTT with regard to this closing line. Maybe Ian was driven to take his own life because he was tired and frightened. Please click on the link and read Dave's piece, and then raise your glass to an absent friend.