Punks On Film #2 – Joy Division on Something Else

It surprised me to see that I hadn’t actually written about Joy Division in any length whatsoever throughout my twenty article run despite the total love I hold for all their material. I’ve read Peter Hook’s brilliant Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division and had them playing for practically all of my life.

Playing Joy Division to my friends overtime garnered a questionable array of responses, some good, some bad, however most of them usually revolved around concern for my happiness and wellbeing when listening to such macabre, haunting sounds. Overtime response has generally become more positive (as it would with greater musical maturity) but many seem somewhat reluctant to embrace the Joy Division repertoire in all its glory.

So, after my coming to grips with the aural aspect of proceedings, imagine people’s faces when I came to show them this performance! I remember various scenarios of me and someone held hostage to my music taste sitting in the school library watching the display, my eyes wide, my face a look of glorious wonder and dazzlement, and then my friends, confused, worried for Ian Curtis and mostly worried for me.

Like many other bands I’ve written about, this appearance was my introduction to Joy Division, featuring on the Punk Britannia At The BBC video compilation in around 2012 or 2013. The clip shown was only of ‘She’s Lost Control’, excluding its seminal predecessor ‘Transmission’, so there was even more for me to obsess over later in life.

Some context now – not being from the time my knowledge may be a tad patchy, but as far as I can gather Something Else was a music magazine show that had a short stint on BBC Two across the punk and post-punk era. It broadcast the only BBC appearance of The Clash (who played ‘Tommy Gun’ and ‘Clash City Rockers’) and, looking at it’s Wikipedia page (being the meticulous researcher I am) had a stunning array of artists perform throughout its innings – a punk’s dream, it seems.

Joy Division’s appearance came in only the second edition of the show which also featured performances from John Cooper Clarke and The Jam (you see what I mean by a punk’s dream?!), and came just four months after the release of debut album Unknown Pleasures, which charted at the extremely modest #71 on the U.K. albums chart.

As stated, the performance kicks off with the influential non-album single ‘Transmission’ and the infectious minimalism of Peter Hook’s bassline, the iconic aspect of the Joy Division sound. Quick to follow is a relentless, machine gun-like Morris groove and an admittedly cagey lead guitar line by a very controlled, perhaps slightly nervous Sumner. After one quick slip on a note, however, they’re in full swing.

Curtis comes in, a gentle half-croon of ‘Radio, live transmission…’. It’s just one of those songs, isn’t it? The pace, the power, the sheer energy put into every instrument and note to make the performance so brilliant.

What I always found was so good about this song is the simplicity to each part. There isn’t a high degree of difficulty in anything played, no real musical complexity, just a uniquely punk attitude and charisma into the layering and structuring of the song. It’s a song which builds and builds before turning into a warring, hard-hitting and oh-so powerful closing act.

Even a brief introduction of chords from Sumner brings out a fantastic moment of tension, a foreshadowing of the explosive ending coming soon which always grabs me, a warning of what is to come.

‘Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio’ Curtis announces, each time getting more aggressive, before the verse is just an absolutely tunelessly beautiful shout down the microphone, fulled by anger and an inability to control the velocity of the performance, summed up aptly by the fantastic ‘and we can DAAAAAAAAAANCE!’ which just about shreds every part of his throat to pieces.

A few more ‘Dance, dance, dance’ lines before a cataclysmic final few fills and a quietening groove from the workmanlike Morris, and the song seems over before it even begun. What a way to introduce yourself to the nation, and what a song.

Song number two, and the one which introduced me to Joy Division and one that many others were reluctantly introduced to by myself. Morris’ double hits of the drums are joined by the classic bassline of ‘She’s Lost Control’.

This version has a bit more pace and vigour compared to the more refined album take. The pitch of Hook’s bass is brilliant, and Curtis is, despite slurring practically every word, note perfect, slowly descending into what will become one of the moments of punk history. Summer joins in, giving an extra hit of buzz to the song. The engine is running, and the tune seems to grow and grow into a deadlier beast, Curtis shaking, swaying, before letting out a restrained yet utterly vicious growl of ‘She’s lost control’, which he has to stop himself from completely screaming.

And it begins, a quick cut to Sumner returns back to Curtis, dancing like a madman, completely taken by the sounds closing in on him, the chilling bassline, the thumping guitar and the unrelenting smashes of Morris’ drums. These are the first glimpses of the complete pandemonium waiting around the corner.

Curtis returns calmer, hardly able to open his eyes and observe his surroundings, but this facade is quickly removed by the return of the gradual buildup into the instrumental, Sumner’s distorted, crushing chords, and another incensed roar from Curtis signals that all hell has most certainly broken loose.

His eyes, his demeanour, everything about him looks utterly, utterly possessed. Uncontrollable. I love the brief cut to the camera view behind the audience who sit so innocently still, so passive, probably unable to fathom a justifiable or poignant reaction to what is taking place in front of them. They simply sit and observe while Joy Division take them on this macabre, dark but fascinating journey. I imagine their reactions were similar to those of my friends who had to sit through something that seemed to me so confusing but so intriguing; the sound, the dancing, everything.

Peter Hook’s continuously looks up from the bass to witness what’s unfolding in front of him while Sumner’s gaze is glued to to his guitar. I think the contrast between all four in terms of their body language is also something which adds an extra something to the performance – did Sumner see Curtis’ dance? Was Curtis ever in control of what he was doing?

The instruments slow, as does Curtis, and the song is brought to a gentle close by a slick line from Sumner and a gentle rumble of bass before Morris’ final two hits of the drums. Curtis leans over, some can call it a bow, some can call it getting his breath back, but it adds another layer to this iconic showing.

At the time of first viewing I wasn’t aware of Ian Curtis or his history with epilepsy, and I can’t confirm or deny whether it had a part to play here or whether he was simply intoxicated by the music itself. I think it’s safe to say, regardless of what was the key player, this performance is one of the greatest of all time. Meticulously backed by the band, Curtis leads the viewer down a path of unease, intrigue and pure musical beauty, and one that will never be forgotten.

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