Of all the stories crystalised in rock and pop mythos, Joy Division’s chapter is certainly the most read. Not only is the often told too-soon tragedy of Ian Curtis’ suicide one of the most potent examples of lost genius, but the era of Factory Records and the Hacienda make their environment as much a character as the band themselves. It’s this fabric of incident, circumstance and music that have inspired decades of retellings, conspiracy theories and even grave robbers.
Originally released in 2007 but getting its network premiere on BBC4 this evening (Feb 27th), Joy Division is probably the most comprehensive telling there is. Far from the off-the-wall fictionalisation of 24 Hour Party People, or the brilliant but dramatic Control, the documentary is a collection of archive footage and talking heads, collating first hand accounts of the days that inspired an entire generation of artists. For fans the film is a priceless opportunity to pour over the details and otherwise unknown morsels that support the band’s legacy. But for the players themselves, the band, their friends and family, the exercise is a bit more complicated. Conversation and constant intrigue can create, for them, the strange sensation of watching a chunk of your life simply disappear into the stuff of legends.
We caught up with Stephen Morris, drummer for both Joy Division and New Order, to talk about how that feels. Morris was far from gloomy about the past, remembering his band as a “bunch of happy-go-lucky lads”, and seemed warm and reflective about their early days. But he also acknowledged the complicated questions left lingering when memory gets confused with legend - the task of qualifying fact, fiction, and everything in between.
Noisey: Hi Stephen. So, apart from the obvious shit hot output and era-bottling sound, why do you think people are so enduringly fascinated by the Joy Division story?
Stephen Morris: Because it’s unfulfilled. My theory is, because we were never given the opportunity to make that shit third album. We’ve been forever frozen in time as a spark of brilliance. If we’d fucked it up, done a third album, split up and Ian had become an actor, if it had reached a natural conclusion, then it would be different. Instead this door has come down. In a way, you have to use your imagination with Joy Division. There is a lot of room to fill in the blanks, and that’s what keeps people obsessing over it.
What is it like seeing a chapter of your life mythologised into films and documentaries?
It’s getting bloody repetitive! It feels like every time I hear it, or tell it, it gets less and less true somehow. When you sit down, as I’ve been trying to do recently, and remember things in the right order, the order you’ve got in your head bears absolutely no relation to documented fact.
It’s funny how we turn memory into a story.
You do! It’s strange the tricks that it plays. You think, ‘I could swear things took place in this building’ and then you realise it wasn’t built until 1980 so that couldn’t have happened there.
Do you prefer being more involved though? In this documentary it is you telling the story as opposed to somebody else.
We knew the writer Jon Savage very well. He knew to ask the right questions because he was there at the time so that kind of worked. It was completely different to Control and 24 Hour Party People. They were dramatisations but this was what really happened - or what seemed to really happen as far as we could remember. I think if I watched it now I would be quite sad. It was one of the last things that Tony Wilson did, and Annik Honore (girlfriend to Ian Curtis) passed away recently too. So it was good that their thoughts were captured in this one.
Is Manchester sort of the ugly romantic lead in the story?
I suppose you’d say it was gothic romantic. It was another thing we denied when we were writing but your environment will always end up in your music somewhere. Manchester, the places we went to, the bloody clubs. My abiding memory of Manchester was looking out of the rehearsal room window to thick scum on one side and rain on the other. It was just ruined, empty, derelict buildings, most of which are now these fantastic malls and restaurants. It was streets of nothing. Brick and soot. It’s all glass and steel now. But what Tony Wilson and Rob Gretton were doing with Factory made it the perfect place to be - they let us do what we wanted.
How fondly do you look back at the early days of being in a band nobody had heard of?
Well our rehearsal space was all we could get, it was a freezing cold old mill. You can’t get much more Northern than that! But when we started playing music it was fantastic. We became totally wrapped up in doing that. Joy Division only happened when we were all in the room together. That was the only way we could do it at the time. When we first started we didn’t have a tape recorder. The music existed within the collective, it was all just in our heads.
So if it wasn’t recorded anywhere, did you not end up disagreeing on how a song was supposed to go?
Oh yeah that happened all the time. We tended to rely on Ian really, as he was the only one who had anything written down. I was reading his lyric book the other day and there are some bits in that that make me laugh. We’ve made notes in it, and I remember us doing them, where we’ve written "key change" next to the lyrics of a song. I laughed because, none of us knew what a key change was, we just knew it was a "musical thing". None of us had any idea.
Lots of people in the documentary say you didn’t know what you were doing!
It’s true. Absolutely true. It’s funny, we’re redoing a lot of vinyl at the moment for an anniversary, so I was listening to the albums again, and listening to them I remembered that when we were making them we constantly said, "we’re not miserable, we’re not depressing!" I hear them again now and I think: "How the bloody hell did I think we were anything else?" People were going on about it being dark and we thought, "no we’re not, we’re just a bunch of happy go lucky lads," because we thought we were. We were disconnected from what we were actually producing somehow. It must have seemed stupid trying to defend it at the time but yeah, we didn’t have a clue.
Do you ever find it troubling revisiting certain stories, particularly some of the losses?
Again it’s funny. The things you think you won’t have any problem talking about are often the worse. Talking about the facts is no trouble, but when I start thinking about what I was doing on that day, visiting the headspace from when it happened, it all gets a bit weird. The more people that tell the story the more detached I get from it, but when I start relating to it as something that actually did happen to me, it can get a bit raw.
What’s your thoughts on the recent news story about people wanting to buy Ian Curtis’ house in Macclesfield?
The thing is, I agree that Macclesfield could do something. We get loads of people coming here because of Joy Division, but the idea of doing something at Ian’s house I just find a bit wrong, somehow. It would be good to do something, because bloody hell Macclesfield needs something! But I think Ian’s house would be a bit ghoulish somehow. I don’t want to encourage this morbid obsession because he wasn’t, at all. None of us were. It may sound weird saying that now and listening to the music, but we weren’t.
You can follow Angus on Twitter here.
Joy Division is on BBC4 at 9pm tonight (Feb 27th).