Joy Division's Heart And Soul
By Richard Abowitz
From Gadfly July 1998


Unlike other bands to emerge from England in the Sex Pistols' wake, Manchester’s Joy Division cloaked themselves in mystery. The group disdained interviews, and their albums contained no liner notes, group picture, or even a list of the band members. Their mystique was cultivated, but it was the death of singer Ian Curtis (on May 18, 1980, the eve of the band’s first US tour), followed by the remaining members' quick reemergence as the successful dance band New Order, which brought down the official veil of silence on Joy Division.

Despite the little known about the group, Joy Division's music inspired a generation of British mope rockers, shoe gazers and Goths, including the Smiths, the Cure and Bauhaus. In this country, too, Joy Division's recorded legacy attracted a cult following of alienated boys in black and darksider girls in white pancake make-up. Both of the band's official albums (Unknown Pleasures and Closer) have been released here, as well as a posthumous collection of outtakes grouped with a live concert (Still) and two previous compilations (Substance Joy Division 1977-1980 and Permanent: Joy Division). Bootlegs of Joy Division's concerts are available on disc, and tapes are actively traded on the internet. There are a number of books on the band such as Mark Johnson’s An Ideal for Living: An History of Joy Division.

But instead of dispelling the fog, all of this activity worked to construct a myth around the group. Ian Curtis was viewed by his fans as a sort of prophet for martyred love: his suicide, at 23, a blow for the ideal, a refusal to accept the failings in this veil of tears. All of that changed in 1995 with the publication of Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division by Deborah Curtis. In its pages, Ian Curtis is revealed by his estranged wife as an epileptic whose depression was exaggerated by hard drinking and by the barbiturates used to prevent his seizures (which sometimes happened in the middle of concerts). Deborah Curtis presents a selfish and self-absorbed man who was a disloyal husband and an indifferent father to their young daughter. She shows band members and management helping to hide Curtis's adultery and pressuring him to continue in the band even after repeated suicide attempts made it clear that the responsibility could kill him. So determined is she to shine a light in every corner, that we are even told what record Ian Curtis listened to while hanging himself (Iggy Pop's The Idiot). Ian Curtis is not just knocked off his pedestal; he is left less an artist than fodder for the Jerry Springer show.

The release of the 4cd Heart and Soul last year in England (available in the US only as an expensive import) returns the focus from Ian Curtis to Joy Division. Now, almost twenty years after their first recordings, Joy Division holds up. To be honest, Curtis isn't the most talented singer—he is frequently flat and has a tendency to let his voice trail off at the end of phrases—nor is Joy Division the tightest of bands. But they had whatever the peculiar elements of ambition, effort, talent, personality and chemistry that when mixed result in a band capable of producing magic. Ian Curtis had a mesmerizing voice, deep and thick, and while he frequently moaned his laconic and troubled lyrics, he could also scream out with hurt and passion. Only Stephen Morris's synthdrum contains a hint of the music which followed in Joy Division's wake; unlike the dance pop Joy Division inspired, Bernard Sumner's guitar playing is worthy of Black Sabbath. Full of feedback, it relies on notes more often than chords, echoing the melody, which is carried on most songs by Peter Hook's bass.

Compiled and sequenced by writer Jon Savage, Heart and Soul argues implicitly that Joy Division's greatness can survive a straightforward presentation. Heart and Soul traces the prodigious growth of Joy Division from early post-punk recordings as Warsaw to "Love will Tear Us Apart," a final single, recorded heavy with keyboard and with Curtis affecting a vocal style closer to Sinatra than Johnny Rotten. Also included are previously unreleased concert recordings made over the band's final seven months together. Savage provides an accompanying booklet with complete lyrics, extensive liner notes and band photographs. "It advances the story line," Savage says. "It makes Ian into something that he really was but never could be because their was this mystery about the band. Still, I think the mystique holds up in an essential way because the music is so good."