In the course of its four-year existence, Manchester, UK band Joy Division pioneered a new sound in rock that would come to be identified as post-punk. Combining the energy and power of punk and metal with a uniquely dark, gothic sensibility, Joy Division captured a level of introspection and emotional depth hitherto unknown in rock music—they were the original heavies.
They played their final concert on May 2nd, 1980, in Birmingham, UK. A couple of weeks later, in the early morning hours of May 18th, on the eve of the band’s first American tour, lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide by hanging, thus bringing the story of Joy Division to an abrupt and unexpected conclusion. In the years since, as the legend of the band has continued to grow, the story has been told in detail numerous times, both through films, such as Ian Curtis biopic Control (2007) directed by Anton Corbijn, the 2007 documentary Joy Division directed by Grant Gee, and the 2002 comedy-drama 24 Hour Party People directed by Michael Winterbottom, and books, such as Curtis’s widow Deborah Curtis’s 1995 biography Touching From A Distance. Now, nearly 40 years after the band’s demise, a new oral history by noted British music journalist Jon Savage has appeared from London’s Faber & Faber which purports to be the last word on the band.
This Searing Light, The Sun And Everything Else: Joy Division: The Oral History
(Faber & Faber, 2019)
A handsome 320-page hardcover edition with a shiny chrome cover, This Searing Light concisely and chronologically re-tells the brief but spectacular story of this enormously influential band, from the member’s early years in and around post-war Manchester, through the band’s late 1970s beginnings in the bombed out and derelict city, to their fast rise as leaders of the burgeoning post-punk movement in the UK and Europe, to the eventual tragedy of Curtis’s suicide. Testimony comes from a modest but authoritative chorus of voices, including surviving band members Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris, numerous participants in the Manchester and Factory Records scenes of the time, various photographers and journalists from the period, colleagues and musical peers such as the late Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks and Richard Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire, as well as various friends, family members, and lovers.
Surprisingly, we also hear from several key players who have been gone for some time. Factory founder and guru Tony Wilson, who passed in 2007, is a constant presence throughout (Savage’s title comes from a Wilson quote), as is Factory’s house producer Martin Hannett, who died in 1991. And there is Curtis himself, who is quoted from various extant interviews. Additionally, many other interviews and articles spanning decades are quoted throughout, as is Deborah Curtis’s book, all of which give the book a somewhat cobbled-together feeling. Other oral histories I’ve read have a more holistic feel, generally being the continuous (and recent) work of a single writer’s interviews and process. This book is something of an oral history compilation, which—given the brevity of the story and our current distance from it in time—makes some sense. Nonetheless, there is a sense of incompleteness, though it fittingly mirrors the actual narrative.
But what a narrative it is. Fans of the band will delight in the intimacy of the many stories and anecdotes, some of which are being shared publicly for the first time. It was particularly fascinating to read the considerable accounts from the surviving band members, all of which bring to life the excitement and challenges these four young men—then in their late teens and early twenties—experienced during their meteoric rise. We really get to know them as ordinary young men who like to drink beer, play pranks on one another, work boring day jobs, and struggle to grow up. We also get a good dose of loss and regret, as each of them reflect on their inability to grasp the growing seriousness of Curtis’s physical and mental problems. As his epilepsy worsened, leading to increasing seizures, often on stage, and his personal life unravels, all in direct proportion to the band’s increasing success, no one, not even the de facto grownup Wilson, is able to step in and do the adult thing, which would have been to stop touring and performing and to possibly save his life. The blame, such as it is, is shared widely, and there is a sense throughout the book of a collective reckoning.
The city of Manchester itself also figures prominently. While it echoes the stories of many cities throughout the post-industrial 1970s, I was intrigued to learn of the particulars of this uniquely devastated and distinctly Northern hub. The emergence of the Factory scene there, which included A Certain Ratio, Section 25, Crispy Ambulance, and Durutti Column, among others, alone would constitute an important historical moment, further cementing the significance of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as a golden era. But the book also reminds us that in Manchester at the time, alongside Joy Division, was also The Fall and Buzzcocks. Now that’s an impressive triumvirate!
Though it has been told before, it is good to have the story of Joy Division in a single compact and condensed volume. This Searing Light, The Sun And Everything Else represents the consolidated authoritative history of this important band, and as such it may in fact prove to be the last word on the topic. For fans of Joy Division, and of punk, post-punk, and British music generally, this is a must read.