This summer marks 39 years since the death of Ian Curtis. At times it can feel as though his suicide casts a shadow so vast as to obscure entirely the deeper and more viscerally engaging story of his band and their music. Joy Division: four ingenuous seers from the northwest slums, punching bags for heavy industry and the great beyond, fighting back with Debord, fags, bass riffs and epaulettes.
This is the story that consensus loves to tell about Joy Division, whose name itself has become shorthand for authenticity and meaning. But shorthand and consensus have always felt like things that could only serve to cheapen the art that Curtis, guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris made together at the end of the 1970s. All that human fervour, ossified into another bootleg T-shirt at Camden Market, the graveyard of the fad? No.
History deplores a mystery, and Curtis' death is ultimately impossible to interpret. It's this mystery that has seen the event elevated by lore to a macabre kind of prominence, an act of unknowable impulse in a moment of private desperation that seems to have been transliterated over time into something else entirely – suicide as artistic duty, a public service, hardline civic upkeep. It’s likely that no one will ever know for sure why Ian Curtis killed himself. The idea that it was to preserve and protect his band’s music, to ensure it never lost any of its strange power and potency, is almost certainly wrong. The fact that it served to do just those things is also unavoidably true.
This spring, a new oral history of Joy Division emerged into the world. The pop and youth culture historian Jon Savage put it together, gathering testimonies and anecdotes from a symphonic cast of voices that includes everyone you'd expect – the surviving band members, Factory boss Tony Wilson, the band's manager Rob Gretton and producer Martin Hannett, the music and culture writer Paul Morley, Curtis' wife Deborah and his mistress, Annik Honoré – and plenty more who you perhaps wouldn't: fanzine writers who were active at the time, live witnesses, a Wigan Casino DJ, forgotten friends, an investigative photographer.
Overall, the book serves to tell the at times unbearably vivid and absorbing story of a band who seemed to operate at the behest of some unseen guiding hand, playing music from somewhere else. It's called This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else. It is a wonderful book with a beautiful title. I spoke to Jon Savage about it.
VICE: Why did you want to present the book as an oral history?
Jon Savage: Oral histories are great, because you get the words of the people who were most involved directly, rather than me trying to explain what was going through Joy Division's heads. I get very irritated by the fact an enormous amount of music writing is about personal experience. The stories are invariably dull, yet they form the basis of so much music writing now – "I was there"; "I went to see X then," etc, etc. Well, who cares? I don’t. And nor does the reader, really.
I think a lot of that kind of writing serves to pad out a consensus, as well. You can have a million people who’ve all been touched by the same experience, but if they’re not articulating it in an interesting way, all you get is massed layers of filler.
Yes, and the problem for me, as a pop-culture historian and youth-culture historian, is exactly that – those received ideas. I just hate them. I made a documentary about Brian Epstein 20 years ago. Everybody we spoke to kept trotting out the same Beatles stories – we had to get really brutal with them and say, "Look, we’ve heard all this a hundred times – just fucking tell us what happened!" All the music documentaries on BBC4 are so cliched; they reduce something that was very exciting and involving and new into mush. A younger audience must fucking hate it.
Those BBC4 talking heads docs are quite similar to the "I Love the 80s" ones on Channel 4. Both service the same kind of consensus culture – it’s the same subcultural clips over and over, all attached to the same strands of newsreel footage…
In calling the book This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else, I wanted to take the Joy Division story away from the received ideas of gloom and doom. Because no one knew Ian was going to commit suicide until he did it – the idea that the work of Joy Division is retrospectively smeared by Ian's death is just wrong, because that’s not how it was experienced at the time. As a historian, I’m not interested in what people think 40 years later. Or even one year later! So I stop with Ian’s death. I don’t go on and say, "… and then New Order played Joy Division songs", etc. It’s the story of Joy Division, and it’s a good story because it takes place over a short time-scale.
The parts of the book I found most shocking were when people would speculate about what Ian Curtis might be doing now, if he were still around. I found that really jarring, but then that sensation was followed by an immediate sense of shame for perceiving Joy Division as a band of such pure, personal sacrifice that even speculating on the idea of Ian going on to be a visual artist, or a novelist, or anything other than just being in Joy Division, felt almost blasphemous to me. I felt the shame because I realised that was just a really shit way of thinking. And I wondered if any similar ideas played into you putting the book together and whether you came at it wanting to protect, in amber, the mythos that has gathered around the band, or if you wanted to dig around, uncover something new?
I always want to do something new. I’m not going to spend a year trotting out some rote old crap, because that’s boring for me – I want to be excited, and then that translates to the reader. I was only on the periphery [of the band’s world]. I was friends with Rob Gretton, Tony Wilson and Martin Hannett more than I was the band themselves, who were agreeable but insular, as in fact bands should be. But there’s a disguised autobiography in the book of me trying to come to terms with May, 1980, because I can’t remember anything about that month in which Ian died. The shock of the event was probably compounded by the fact I’d lost my grandfather shortly before and hadn’t known how to grieve for either. It was only when Kurt Cobain died, actually, that I went back to Ian’s suicide to try to unlock it.
When I’d finished the book, I feel I did understand why what happened, happened. To me, it was a combination of circumstances ganging up on Ian, as well as a certain predisposition. It was the same with Kurt – if someone is going to kill themselves, they’re going to kill themselves. It’s a thing in the head that I don’t understand, because I’ve never had that impulse. Paul Morley talks about it very well in the book. His father had committed suicide just before Ian, and he talks about the strange thrill of the idea in a very interesting way.
One of the quotes that really stayed with me is from an old interview with Martin Hannett, when he says that Ian Curtis was "channeling the Gestalt"… but throughout, you have this symphony of different voices in the book that all complement each other, with someone like Peter Hook – who’s obviously very blunt – talking in a totally different way to the likes of Hannett and Morley.
You get the individual characteristics: Hooky’s bluntness and emotion; Bernard Sumner being thoughtful and sarcastic; Stephen Morris, the psychedelic tech-head. They gave me fantastic interviews for the film [Sumner, Morris and Hook’s contributions to the book were gathered during Savage’s work on the 2007 film, Joy Division], and it was before they’d all fallen out, so it’s not tainted by any of that ill-feeling…
To me, it felt as though all those voices were circling this energy at the core of the story, and I wondered if you felt that Ian was the AWOL protagonist of the book, or just the person who was closest to the "searing light" of its title?
Well, you could call the book In Search of Ian Curtis. And we will always be in search of Ian Curtis, because no matter how many books or films there are, he remains a question, an enigma, a rebus, that will never be solved. And the book doesn’t attempt to solve that, by the way…
Do you not think so? It felt as though all the different voices were working to gradually box in this idea of who he was, getting closer to some kind of truth in that respect…
No, it’s not really what I wanted to do. I know this is dreadful, but as terrible as Ian’s death was, I don’t find the actual fact of it that interesting. It might seem heretical, but what I do find interesting, and why I did the book, is the music and the performances. Going back to that question you asked me: the only way I can really talk about Ian "channeling" something is in the context of some other energetic plane. In other words, something out of the ken of the everyday. It’s not something that people like talking about because it sounds pretentious or wanky, but it isn’t – there’s more in this world than what we know. We only use a certain percentage of our cerebral potential. It is possible to travel through time. It is possible to channel things.
One of my favourite Joy Division songs was always "Dead Souls" – it just frightens the hell out of me. I still get hairs on the back of my neck when he sings, "They keep calling me," referring to all these voices and figures of the past – and I think, 'Yeah, you were actually experiencing that.' So I do think Ian was a channel, a shaman, and I don’t think he ended up being fully in control of it because that’s something that’s very hard to control. Jim Morrison of The Doors was similar, although obviously from California rather than Macclesfield. Like Jim, Ian was conducting some kind of experiment on himself and the audience to see how far he could go, and I think Ian went very far out – I’ve seen hundreds of performers but never anyone like him; James Brown, Johnny Rotten, David Bowie, whoever… Because they all had stagecraft; they knew what to do and when to do it. Ian came out on stage, had a brief calibration, then went nuts; no holds barred. And you can’t keep doing that. It’s too exhausting.
What were your initial experiences of going to Manchester and seeing Joy Division live?
The first time was October, 1977. By that stage, London punk had become awful: terrible groups, everyone was taking cocaine – ugggh! – it was just the worst; so different to how it had been even a year before. I was completely disinterested and starting to listen to electronic music: [Kraftwerk album] Trans-Europe Express, "I Feel Love" by Donna Summer, Magic Fly by Space, [David Bowie’s] Low, and then a little bit later on Heroes – huge records that seemed to be more about the future than punk was. Punk already seemed over. But I’d interviewed Howard Devoto about his new group the Buzzcocks, who I thought were fantastic. I went with them to the last night at the Electric Circus, which was this punk club in Manchester in the middle of this bloody post-war bomb-site – a derelict 1930s council estate, which was just trashed.
They had some competent punk groups on, who were terrible, then all these weird groups. The Buzzcocks and The Fall played, but the groups I really liked were the real outliers. There was a group called The Prefects from Birmingham who had one song they played that night that was just the singer Rob Lloyd shouting, "I've got VD! I’ve got VD!" over and over.
And then Warsaw came on, who obviously became Joy Division. What I loved about that period was listening to groups reaching for something they couldn’t attain, whose ambitions were bigger than their ability. I remember at the time there was a particular sound that I can’t even describe, but that made you think, 'They really want to do something, they can’t get there yet, but it’s interesting,' and that’s what I thought about Warsaw, so I wrote something nice about them for Sounds, the magazine I was with at the time. Because of that write-up, I got a letter from Rob Gretton when he became Joy Division’s manager the next year, enclosing a tape of the album they’d made with Richard Searling at RCA, saying, "You’ve written nice stuff about us, we’ve just done this album, it’s crap, but you might wanna hear it…"
Is that the one with the Northern Soul track on it?
Yeah, their version of "Keep On Keeping On", which is just fantastic and described at great length in the book. The album didn’t work out, but I liked the fact Rob said it was crap; it amused me, that northern bluntness. I got in touch with Tony Wilson and he helped me get a job in Granada Television that I really wanted, on the proviso that I’d write about his groups. I did posters for Factory Records and Joy Division too; it was very loose in a way that London wasn’t – if you were a journalist in London, people didn’t like you doing other things. Which I found very boring – why can’t you do other things? I don’t like being told what to do. Fuck off!
What did you want to learn when you were putting the book together?
I didn’t really want to learn, I just wanted to be there; to experience the whole thing.
The reason I ask is because the opening sections of the book map this sprawling social history of Manchester in a way that is really fascinating, and brings in this kind of buried occult history of the city that I think has perhaps been lost over time.
Manchester’s a completely fascinating city. I was very friendly with Martin Hannett and we used to smoke a few joints in the middle of the night and drive round the oddest parts of Manchester, which were all half-derelict. I just loved it. There was this kind of urban drift that goes into basic Situationist ideas of mapping and changing the city, that were in the music and that Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson were very interested in. "Shadowplay", a key early song, has the lyric, "To the centre of the city, where all roads meet / waiting for you…" Joy Division are cinematic and ambient and great for hearing while you’re travelling. There's something very widescreen about them.
It feels as though they existed in a feedback loop with the city itself. Their music sounds as though they were sucking in the city and then expelling it through their own experiences.
Yes… When I moved to Manchester, which was strange to me as a Londoner, I oriented myself around the city through the music of Joy Division.
I wanted to touch on the cast of characters in the book who were drawn towards Joy Division. People like Paul Morley, Tony Wilson, Martin Hannett, Peter Saville, Anton Corbijn – so many who were pulled into the orbit of the band seem to have indelibly touched pop culture. I’m not sure it’s comparable, really, to many other groups in British history.
Yes, obviously it’s to do with the strength of the band themselves, but also it’s Tony Wilson. Tony was a complex, contradictory and sometimes very troublesome character, so my feelings for him are basically very good but also slightly ambivalent. Tony could be difficult. But his great function was as a catalyst. It wasn’t just about a band or Factory as a record company, it was about creating a cultural force, a whole way of looking at the world.
It feels slightly heretical to me when people lump Joy Division in as a “post-punk" group – other than some kind of chronological kinship, it felt like they had their own unique energy.
Well, I don’t accept that term – it’s handy, but people didn’t call things “post-punk” at the time. It’s ahistorical. And if you listen to Joy Division next to a group like Gang of Four, Joy Division still sound fantastic. Gang of Four sound dreadful! It’s interesting what lasts and what doesn’t… what transcends time. You can theorise on that – it might be Martin, it might be the lyrics – but they just do. There’s some kind of alchemy there that defies easy explanation.
I wondered if there was any anecdote or reflection in the book that sums it up best for you?
There were bits that I really like. I like all the stuff about the psychogeography of the city and I love Tony Wilson’s quote at the start, which is unusually reflective for him. When he says, "I still don’t know where Joy Division came from."
It’s the sort of quote that stays with you, isn’t it.
And also it’s true. The book is a record of what happens, it doesn’t seek to explain. Because as I said earlier, there are some things that you just can’t explain.
This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else is out now in the UK and US on hardback and ebook through Faber & Faber.