Somehow I missed Joy Division when they were current (I was pretty young at the time). New Order, which evolved from Joy Division after lead singer Ian Curtis’ suicide, didn’t really appear on my radar much either. Because they were so British and didn’t get as much American airplay? I don’t know. Over the years, I’ve seen many references to both bands, but I’ve never explored their music. A chance reading of an excerpted passage from guitarist/keyboardist/singer Bernard Sumner’s recent autobiography Chapter and Verse changed that.
It’s an interesting book, even if you (like me) don’t/didn’t know their music. Especially the first half or so of the text, where he describes his hardscrabble childhood. At one point he writes about when the government started demolishing the old houses in his neighborhood to replace them with newer project housing. People would discover old swords, sabres, and daggers hidden up the chimneys by soldiers who had returned home from the Crimean War in the nineteenth century. In the houses left standing, a fashion for replacing original fireplaces with electric ones would often result in the discovery of more swords. As Sumner says, “the kids would collect them, creating a thriving local black market in vintage weaponry. I remember being in the wrong place at the wrong time once and being chased by a gang of kids all waving sabres.”
It was another passage, though, that was enough to draw me in and make me want to read the book, even though I didn’t know Joy Division’s/New Order’s music. The words describe an archetypal experience for many musicians – trying to escape factory jobs and dead end towns and futures for something better. From Springsteen to Axl Rose to Jeff Tweedy to Black Sabbath to the whole punk movement, it’s a common thread, but Sumner describes it so well in this vignette:
“I was about sixteen. It was a cold, depressing winter night and I was hanging around with some friends…the cold had killed the conversation.
There was a thick fog draped over Salford that night, the kind of freezing, cloying fog whose chill penetrates right to the bone. Our breath came in clouds, our shoulders were hunched and our hands thrust deep into our pockets. But what I remember most is looking up the street and seeing how the orange sodium streetlights had all been given dirty halos by the fog. Making it feel like you had the flu. The lights would have been dingy enough at the best of times, but the fog, grimy with the dirt and grit of industry, had reduced them to a string of murky globules running the length of the street.
The silence was broken by the roar of an engine and a screech of tyres. A car came racing around the corner, the headlights dazzling us for a moment, and in it I could hear a girl screaming her head off. I couldn’t see her, I couldn’t see anyone in the car, there was just this raw, terrified screaming as it shot off up the road and disappeared into the fog. Silence descended again and I just thought to myself, There’s got to be more than this.”
This feeling found expression in the music he made with Joy Division. He continues, “The sound we made was the sound of that night – cold, bleak, industrial – and it came from within.”
I don’t necessarily hear all that of course, having not shared his bleak upbringing, but the gloom and darkness in the music are unavoidable. Yet there’s also light, and a striving, a spark to transcend the bleakness.