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Salt Lake City Weekly Sad, sad. Joy! Joy!

A new Joy Division box set turns the light on an almost forgotten band.

By Ben Fulton

JANUARY 12, 1998:  Of all the infernal jokes turned out by the music industry, box sets are relatively benign.

But box sets still suck. Big time. They're elaborate affairs, stuffed with all the marketing promise of a Personal Pan Pizza. Clearly, someone out there is working hard to make sure you feel at one with the product. "It's complete! It's elite! It's the box set!"

Thankfully, the new Heart and Soul (London) collection by Joy Division fails on all these levels. That's good, however. Because if any band redefined ideas of success and failure it was Joy Division, one of the precious few rock bands to reach the summit of honest, brutal, heart-breaking beauty.

That's not some overheated phrase turned out for attention. That's God's own truth. Like the Beatles and the Velvet Underground before them, and like Nirvana and My Bloody Valentine after them, Joy Division let me sleep comfortably in the knowledge that 90 percent of all music produced by other bands is almost certainly bound to be harmless pablum.

First, some background: Much like inner-city Detroit, Manchester, England, of the late '70s overflowed with the kind of urban decay that sent minds reeling. Textile mills and factories lay empty. Working-class youth lived on the dole, worked mind-numbing jobs, or formed bands. Bernard Sumner, later the band's guitarist, and Peter Hook, later the band's bassist, first took up instruments after seeing the Sex Pistols at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976. Almost one year later, with Ian Curtis on vocals and Steve Morris on drums, they played their first gig as Warsaw.

Morris was the only trained musician. Sumner and Hook learned from instruction books. Curtis was a married man, epileptic, read Nietzsche and Jung, listened to loads of Bowie and Kraftwerk, and sang in a voice loosely approximating Jim Morrison.

After recording an EP they promptly changed names to Joy Division, wore simple dress shirts and pants matched with even simpler hair styles — a huge contrast to their punk-rock peers — and spent endless nights rehearsing in an upstairs warehouse. In the short space of 19 months they recorded two monumental LPs (Unknown Pleasures and Closer), three classic singles ("Transmission," "Atmosphere," "Love Will Tear Us Apart"), and some studio outtakes. They toured Europe to increasingly positive audience response. Then, a day before their first tour of America, Curtis was found dead in his kitchen, hanging from a rope. Sumner, Hook and Morris later reformed with a new member to make music as New Order, which is another story.

Joy bringer, rock crooner: Ian Curtis takes a backstage break, circa 1979.

So far, so bland, right? Except for the suicide, which made mythological status ripe for the picking. It did for Kurt Cobain. Joy Division's brief lifespan, fortunately, passed outside the mainstream media. They never dated supermodels, never bared their souls for Rolling Stone interviews and, best of all, never cared about words like "alternative." Joy Division made music. Deep, dark, passionate music. This little-known legacy is theirs. Never mind the trappings of conventional "success." Put any of today's angst-filled standard-bearers beside Curtis' astonishing achievement and they look like toddlers in the sandbox. Curtis, who died at 23, said more than Trent Reznor will have mustered by age 50. And Marilyn Manson? Don't make me piss myself.

What made Joy Division unique is simple: Most bands pushed out music from the mold of American rhythm and blues. Pulling away from the pack, Curtis and his bandmates sifted the swagger out of rock music and replaced it with an icy-warm, metallic luster that built skyscraper songs out of the most elemental musical gestures.

Describing Curtis' lyrical method is not so simple. He sang about wonder, fear, losing control and, as pretentious as it sounds, humanity's struggles with time and history. In "Love Will Tear Us Apart" he also wrote the most terrifying song ever about affairs of the heart. God's own truth? Oh yes.

Joy Division played every song as if grasping for understanding in the world. Most searched for answers, others pleaded for mercy, and one, "Transmission," explored the possibility of bliss. Not one song took the easy way out, but they could rock like bastards over the simplest hook with no lyrics. Fittingly, they called that song "Incubation."

But if they hinted at some kind of understanding in their music, the listener could only watch it evaporate near the end of each song, just as it came into focus. It was an uncanny effect that had everyone, myself included, hitting the replay button like a caged rat banging away for another hit of laboratory drug.

Sound far-fetched? Consider British journalist Paul Morley's words in Heart and Soul's 80-page booklet: "Everything they make me feel — or suggest I feel — is a central metaphor for everything I feel, about me, the world, music, emotion, love, death, time, God, and so on."

Timid souls will say this music is "sad," "depressing." Well, so what? All great music, happy or sad, has something of the ghost in it — a soul or spirit.

How does Heart and Soul rate as a box set? All of Closer and Unknown Pleasures is here. So are the singles and a few messy outtakes. The fourth disc of live material is marginal compared to the best bootlegs recorded in Holland. Some failure. Lots of success. It's an essential purchase if you have the time and will for some of the best music ever created this side of the last half of our century. God's own truth, I swear.


This column is dedicated to the memory of Christina Joslin, 1968-1997.


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