Archive for April 13th, 2019

April 13, 2019

The Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Faber and Faber, £20, out now

Joy DivisionWhat more is there is there to say about Joy Division? It’s a fair question, given the memoirs of Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Deborah Curtis, the band-biographies by Paul Morley, Lindsay Reade and Mick Middles, all those books on Factory Records and its various alumni… It’s a name that must crop up in print as much as that of any band of the 20th century.

Well, never mind all that because it turns out there’s quite a lot more; and surely no greater person to say it – or rather, compile lots and lots of interviews of other people saying it – than John Savage, preeminent punk chronicler and author of England’s Dreaming, probably the best book about punk ever written. Here are three decade’s worth of interviews with not just the major players, but anyone who ever passed the band in the street (or so it feels like), all neatly intercut to create a simultaneously encyclopaedic and free-flowing narrative of their life and times.

Of particular interest to the Joy Division and New Order fanatic are the comments of the elusive Stephen Morris, the only surviving member of the original group not to have published a memoir (although not to worry, it’s coming out next month) and a man generally painted as a bit impenetrable in both of his erstwhile bandmates’ tomes. Reading that the inspiration for his uniquely sparse drumming began with imagining if “[Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band drummer] John French [had] lived in Germany for a long time and listened to a lot of krautrock” was enlightening, as are his thoughts on recording the band’s monumental duo of albums with famously difficult producing wunderkind Martin Hannett.

Hidden depths are also revealed in Rob Gretton, indomitable manager of the group. Although he gets a lot of ink in the other books, here we get excerpts from the journals he religiously kept showing his attitudes towards, amongst other things, nascent Joy Division classics (“Transmission – very good – maybe screams too much?”). There’s also a telling anecdote related by former New Manchester Review journalist Bob Dickinson in which the young reporter, on assignment to interview the band, has to deal with Gretton bursting in mid-interview with a pile of proto-electro and hip-hip records imported from America. These, he urges the group, are the kind of rhythms they should be adopting: “synthesised drumming, dance-floor.”

That’s a big deal, and it’s not, as far as I’m aware, been touched on that heavily in previous commentaries; even before New Order’s wholesale embrace of electronica, a big chunk of Joy Division’s appeal was its chilly, anti-rockist rhythm section, a flavour that was, in Dickinson’s words, “unearthly and not-quite-human”… That Gretton’s influence could have affected that (not to mention their later dance-heavy direction) was fascinating to me, and it’s the abundance of moments like these – small but eye-opening vignettes, as recounted by someone not previously given airtime in the Joy Division canon – that make this book special. Well worth a read even if you’ve heard it all before, there’s guaranteed to be some insightful nuggets for you in this utterly comprehensive work.

Review by Tom