Joy Division left us with the most relentlessly depressing body of songs since Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. In some ways, though, this singularity of approach, this lack of light touches to add color to the palate, is responsible for making them enduringly fascinating. On the one hand, this particular expression of monochrome melancholy articulates a seriousness of artistic approach that was unique then, and is still rare now.
On the other, it speaks of primal drives that consume the subject in uncontrollable motions and moods. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that those drives speak through the melancholy, much as an elaborate and coherent paranoid fantasy might piece itself together through the medium of the hapless schizophrenic. Joy Division sought out these other voices, voices that came from somewhere else, but they earthed them in the Manchester, England of the 1970s. In doing so, they became a channel for a very interesting current of nihilistic art.
Joy Division came together in late 1976/early 1977 at the peak of punk’s intensity but the background influences that came to bear on their music and lyrics ran much deeper than punk. In some ways, Joy Division were uniquely representative of a certain current of 1970s English culture. That particular current could be said to begin with the publication in 1970 of the part work magazine Man, Myth & Magic. This encyclopaedic study of occultism boasted both Aleister Crowley’s literary executor, John Symonds, and his most gifted disciple, Kenneth Grant, amongst its editors. Then in 1971 came Colin Wilson’s vast tome, The Occult. Between them, these two publications were responsible for publicizing occultism to a mass market to an extent that has never been equaled since.
On TV, 1971 saw the broadcast of The Power of the Witch, a documentary about Wicca in the UK featuring Alex Sanders and Doreen Valiente. On Christmas day 1972, Nigel Kneale’s TV play The Stone Tape was broadcast on the BBC. This tale of a high tech sonic research company uncovering the sounds of past lives buried in the material fabric of an old building is an important foundational text in English hauntology. In 1973, the TV series Leap in the Dark began, a programme that would explore various real life supernatural tales through documentary and drama. And so, through Penda’s Fen  (1974) to Children of the Stones (1977), literally dozens if not hundreds of TV shows took the supernatural and the paranormal as subject matter. This occult-infused 70s England was more recently depicted in the film The Falling  (2014), and is really a more enduring and subversive counter current to the deadening effects of post-modernity than that provided by punk.
Also of relevance was the introduction of William Burroughs to the mainstream courtesy of David Bowie in a 1974 issue of Rolling Stone. Ian Curtis always cited Burroughs as an important influence although it’s difficult to see much of Burroughs in his lyrics, save for the opening line of “Digital” (“Feel it closing in”) echoing the opening line of The Naked Lunch (“I can feel the heat closing in”). Nonetheless, the semi-hallucinatory disjunctions of the cut-up technique do perhaps give a clue to Ian’s fractured sense of paranoia.
This then was the sort of stuff that was swilling around the cultural pot in mid-1970s England and, for working class lads growing up in Brutalist estates, it offered some sort of prospect of transcendent escapism. Certainly, there was nothing of beauty in the immediate environment. “I don’t think I saw a tree until I was about nine,” says Bernard Sumner in the film Joy Division. This statement resembles a comment made by Ozzy Osbourne: “The only flower you saw in Aston was on a gravestone.” In the case of Black Sabbath, and of their West Midlands neighbors Judas Priest, this absent pastoral was replaced with the sound of heavy engineering and the genre of heavy metal was born.
But unlike the West Midlands heavy metal pioneers who grew up at the tail end of the legacy of Victorian industry, Joy Division were growing up when that legacy was being demolished and replaced by those ugly new estates. Sumner: “Before long, the council began getting rid of parts of this alleged eyesore (i.e. Salford) and plans were put into action to take people out of the old Victorian streets and rehouse them in new tower blocks . . . The architects thought only in terms of concrete and Le Courbusier, not community . . . Witnessing this had a big psychological impact on me; it made me a bit hard emotionally . . . Everything had gone; even the school had been pulled down. It was almost as if someone was actively trying to erase my memories.”
Perhaps it was only Throbbing Gristle who provided a better soundtrack to this new landscape than Joy Division. But unlike TG, Joy Division continued to aspire towards a certain type of beauty, however bleak. In the absence of a pastoral tradition to draw upon and with the demolition of the more recent industrial past, they sought to incorporate elements of the era’s paranormal obsession into their music. Although this element is not foregrounded, it crops up in the repeated references to voices and visions that seem to present themselves to Ian:
“Someone take these dreams away. . .
They keep calling me” (“Dead Souls”)
“And of a voice that told her when and where to act” (“She’s Lost Control”)
“Radio, live transmission” (“Transmission”)
“Take my hand and I’ll show you what was and will be” (“Atrocity Exhibition”)
“I travelled far and wide to many different times
What did you see there?” (“Wilderness”)
This sense of channeling other lives was codified in the sessions of hypnosis that Bernard put Ian through a couple of times. Inspired by a book on hypnotic regression, Bernard took Ian back to his childhood and then further back to various past lives. Although the results of the regression (appended to Sumner’s autobiography) are of little interest, it is very telling that both men readily accepted the possibility of channeling dead souls.
One area of the past that resurfaced in Joy Division’s work was, notoriously, the Nazi era. The name ‘Joy Division’ came from the book House of Dolls where it was used to refer to the camps that housed prostitutes. The first EP, An Ideal for Living, had an image of a Hitler Youth drummer on the front. One of the songs on the EP references Rudolf Hess’s prison number “31G 350125”. And, at the last night of the Electric Circus, Bernard shouts to the crowd, “Have you all forgot Rudolf Hess?” a statement recorded and released on Virgin’s live album from the night. These Nazi associations used to be much more potent than they are now, but when Paul Morley disingenuously dismissed them by saying, “At the time, whenever any of that happened, those of us within it had not a moment’s doubt that it was anything dicey, you just sort of trusted somehow the instincts of locals that it was not dicey,” he was downplaying their importance. Leaving aside the irony of rebutting accusations of Nazism with an appeal to tribal affiliation, the more interesting way to think of Joy Division’s interest in Nazism is by considering the way in which the Nazis were being somewhat lazily conflated with the era’s obsession with the paranormal and the occult. An important landmark in this respect was Trevor Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny which was published in 1973, a popular addition to the growing canon of work dealing with the Nazis and the occult. As Nicholas Goodrich Clarke puts it in Black Sun, “Nazism was felt to be the embodiment of evil in a modern twentieth-century regime, a monstrous pagan relapse in the Christian community of Europe.”
Needless to say, the members of the group have always refuted accusations of Nazi affiliation and there is no reason to doubt them but it has always been an obstacle for some people who find the association difficult to digest. In his book of collected essays, Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher dedicates a chapter to Joy Division. Although he doesn’t really address the Nazi allegations he is keen to rehabilitate their image by suggesting that their music is just as good as black music: “[A] group like PiL’s take on dub, now, sounds a little laborious, a little literal, whereas, Joy Division, like The Fall, came off as a white anglo equivalent of dub. Both Joy Division and The Fall were ‘black’ in the priorities and economies of their sound: bass-heavy and rhythm-driven.” I don’t think the analogy with funk makes a lot of sense but I think that Fisher feels a need to draw it because doing so confers a sense of cultural legitimacy to Joy Division that would be not be the case otherwise. After all, these are already four white males even before one begins to consider any possible taint of Nazism; for some people, that in itself is enough to render them suspect. In fact, though, the sound of Joy Division is defined by a sharp differentiation between the guitar and bass melodies. The bass and drums never work as a backdrop for the guitar and vocals, each instrument follows a distinct melodic or rhythmic path. If anything, the better analogy would be with musical counterpoint because most Joy Division songs contain complementary melodic lines. Particularly on Unknown Pleasures, this separation of the instrumental units was accentuated by Martin Hannett’s production which introduced an additional element of space and internal distance to the mix.
To some extent, I’m convinced that Joy Division’s obvious fascination with the subject of Nazism was rooted in an appreciation of the ritualistic elements of National Socialism; the rallies, uniforms, etc, as well as the popular studies relating to Nazis and the occult. This interest in the Nazis seems to have come from Ian and Bernard who discussed the subject at some length. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that they didn’t hold political viewpoints similar to the Nazi’s, there was certainly a degree of interest that was more than superficial. The material surroundings of the North West of England in the 1970s were utterly demeaning and it is hardly surprising that intelligent and sensitive youngsters should latch on to something at once so proximate and so alien, and, of course, so controversial. At another point in history they might have been able to find solace in religion. But, as Ian had learned from his reading of Nietzsche, God was dead and the possibility of finding some sort of redemptive comfort in a higher realm of existence was no longer allowed. Even the landscape was ugly, so the only way they felt that they could hope to commune with beauty in some way was to open themselves up to a sense of ontological otherness, a hidden, occult world.
So, a broad interest in past lives and the paranormal along with the pagan ritualism of Nazism were both very much in the background of Joy Division’s influences. What this signified in the context of Joy Division’s music was an urgent need to create some sense of escape from the confined and limiting environment of north west England. In fact, the lyrics often contrasted the sensation of urban claustrophobia with dream-like other worlds. To take one example, the opening verse of “Shadowplay” moves effortlessly from urban noir, through placeless vignettes, to romantic isolationism:
“To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you
To the depths of the ocean where all hope sank, searching for you
I was moving through the silence without motion, waiting for you
In a room with a window in the corner I found truth”
On “Interzone”, Ian depicts a wasted environment that seems to have a makeshift religious edge:
“I walked through the city limits
Attracted by some force within it
Around a corner where a prophet lay
A wire fence where the children played”
These lines almost seem to echo some of the concerns of The Wasteland. Certainly, there is a clear sense of contested spaces, edgelands, where some sort of atavistic spiritual residue still lingers like violence and dirt. This ‘force’ to which Ian is attracted is a significant factor in understanding Joy Division. Unlike other punk bands, Joy Division seemed to position themselves as aloof from social concerns. They always seemed to have their eyes focussed on something more grandiose, something suffused with the glamour of ancient rites and faraway places, but with their feet stuck in filthy Manchester.
With the songs on Closer there is much less of a sense of being trapped in an oppressive and violent urban environment. The non-places of vision and dream have become more prominent:
“You’ll see the horrors of a faraway place” (“Atrocity Exhibition”)
“But if you could just see the beauty
These things I could never describe” (“Isolation”)
“A house somewhere on foreign soil” (“A Means to an End”)
“Watch from the wings as the scenes were replaying” (“Decades”)
A growing sense of unreality, a rootlessness, was creeping more and more into the lyrics, no doubt largely due to Ian’s worsening epilepsy and the drugs he was prescribed for it. But more than this there was also a feeling that they had managed to finally extricate themselves from the mundane reality of Manchester, and they could now replace it with. . . what? Where on earth could they now focus this original artistic vision? For Ian, this unanswerable question seems to have been a factor in his 1980 suicide.
For serious, artistic young men growing up in the 1970s it was very important to find kindred currents and movements to give some structure to their vision. For Joy Division, leaving aside the influence of punk, there was a vague confluence of Nazi paganism, Nietzschean existentialism, the paranormal, and William Burroughs. When you put all these things together it’s easy to see how they offer a vision of something transcendent, or at least other, together with the logical apparatus to deny the possibility of its existence. It was this double bind, I believe, that put such pressure on Ian in an artistic sense. He was carrying the weight of the absent numen and was hopelessly aware of the sense of loss it engendered:
“Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders
Here are the young men, well where have they been?” (“Decades”)
The ultimate futility of the quest for the numinous has now become apparent. It seems that it was only ever a sham, a refusal masking itself as an opportunity:
“Each ritual showed up the door for our wanderings
Open then shut, then slammed in our face” (“Decades”)
“Decades” probably sums up better than anything else the reality of Joy Division’s monastic organisation; not in any sense of austerity or abstinence, but in the sense of removing yourself from society in order to find a direct connection with the numinous. In this respect, the band’s ‘no girlfriends’ rule when on tour makes a certain amount of sense.
Ian’s quest involved him in opening himself up to the possibility of hearing voices and seeing visions in the hope that they would reveal another side to reality. But there was no revelatory transmission, just the white noise of other voices and other times. His epileptic choreography put him physically in the place of a marionette, just as his psychic investigations put him spiritually in the place of a radio receiver. In his book, An Ideal For Living, Mark Johnson has suggested that his weird dancing was akin to certain Japanese techniques of hypnotism, and that he may have had a certain hypnotic effect on his audience. But, whatever the truth of this, he was certainly trying to hypnotize himself. He was trying to open himself to an ultimate communication, something that would render life meaningful.
If the four members of Joy Division had lived at a time when access to a strong, living spiritual tradition and a powerful religious vision was possible they would probably have become immersed in it (at least, Bernard and Ian might). But instead they were forced to try and create something for themselves that could stand in for the absence of the numen. It is remarkable that they were able to improvise something so strikingly grandiose. Unfortunately, they really had nowhere to go after this initial articulation. The next step in their artistic progression was denied to them because they were divorced from any possibility of apprehending the numen.
Ian owned a copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (reproduced in So this is Permanence) and immediately before hanging himself he was listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. In the Tarot, the Fool is represented by the value 0, signifying that he knows nothing, i.e. that he has knowledge of the undifferentiated world that lies anterior to conscious apprehension. Ian’s dangerous psychic explorations were an attempt to realize this higher understanding of gnostic wisdom but he lacked the esoteric knowledge that might have taken him to the next level of apprehension. As is often the case, the alternative to a mastery of spiritual knowledge is not regular consensus reality but nihilism. If you can’t become the wise fool, you feel like an idiot.
And so, Joy Division’s legacy is a corpus of creative nihilism that reaches spontaneously toward the numinous. Ian was keenly aware of the “wholly other” but he remained unable to properly codify or comprehend it. He was instead forced to piece together a makeshift grimoire of rootless voices and images. A fragment from one of his notebooks seems to express his disillusion with both the idea of the numinous and with the world: “I used to think there was a God, that in the end everything would be alright, eternal sunshine. Today the sun is shining, everyone says how lovely it is and how we’re going to have the best summer in years, but I feel sick, we’re all sick – diseased is a better word to describe our state of mind and body in putting up with the filth around us.”
I think this describes quite eloquently the debilitating effects of living in a society that has turned its face away from the numinous.
1. Joy Division film, United Kingdom: Grant Gee, 2007.
2. Ozzy Osbourne, quoted in Dominic Sandbrook, The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination (London: Allen Lane, 2015), p. 11.
3. Bernard Sumner, Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me (London: Bantam Press, 2014), pp. 42-5.
4. Joy Division op. cit.
5. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism and the Politics of Identity (New York: New York University Press, 2002), p. 107.
6. Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Winchester: Zero Books, 2014), p. 55.
7. Ian Curtis, So this is Permanence (London: Faber & Faber, 2014), p. 109.