Essential Music: Transmission, by Joy Division

Transmission Joy Division2In the late 1970s, amidst the rubble of punk rock, a group of angry young men came onto the scene in Manchester, UK. Joy Division, whose name I’ll let the reader research on the Web, was fronted by deep-voiced singer Ian Curtis, and their music was, at best, gloomy, dark, and depressing, like the city they lived in. Yet it was a different kind of depression than the “no future” of the punk rockers; this was the depression of absolute despair and ultimate nothingness, rather than unemployment and the dole.

Originally called Warsaw, the group changed its name in 1978, and during that year recorded what would be their first LP: Unknown Pleasures . This album was released in June 1979 and quickly helped develop the cult following that the group would have throughout its short life. A second album, Closer, soon followed, which would be their last.Ian Curtis suffered from epilepsy, but also from depression and stress. The group had to deal with high expectations from the public and from critics – high for an independent band – and wasn’t a typical pop band. On top of that, Factory Records, while a discoverer of talent, was not a marketing powerhouse, and Joy Division’s records sold far less than they could have.

In May, 1980, Ian Curtis committed suicide, shortly after the release of what would come to be Joy Division’s most popular song: “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” The group went on to popularity after changing their name to New Order and becoming a new-wave band.

But what remains of Joy Division’s original works, limited though they may be, are a couple dozen intensely powerful songs that are not to be listened to during lonely, dark nights. Curtis’s lyrics are morose and, at times, overwhelming. Combined with his deep, rough voice, which sounds as if it comes from beyond the grave, this is the kind of music that parents don’t want to discover their teenage kids listening to.

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” is not a good example of Joy Division’s music, though it is arguably the most popular song they recorded;if one can call any of their music “popular.” What stands out as perhaps the vintage Joy Division song is “Transmission,” the A-side of the band’s first single. This song sounds as though it was written and performed by a group of boys who barely knew how to play their instruments: the dominant music in the song is a bass riff that could be played with one finger and a guitar riff of about five notes played repeatedly. As Curtis begins singing, he sounds as though he’s pushing his voice to the bottom of its range:

Listen to the silence, let it ring on
Eyes dark grey lenses frightened of the sun

But as the song goes on and the energy builds, his voice moves up to higher climes:

Well I could call out when the going gets tough
The things that we’ve learnt are no longer enough
No language, just sound, that’s all we need know
To synchronize love to the beat of the show

Curtis reaches a summit of both range and emotion as he screams, in the final verse, the approaching cataclysm:

And we could dance
Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio

I’ve put the word “dance” in bold, on the first line; that’s where the scream comes. This is one of those screams that you never forget, one of the great rock-and-roll screams, almost as good as Roger Daltry screaming in “We Won’t Get Fooled Again,” but of a different tone. Daltry screams in ecstasy, but Curtis is a man reaching his limits, howling at himself, his life, his situation, at anything but the moon. The essence of Joy Division is contained in this one word, this cry for help, understanding and relief.

Curtis was no Dylan, but some people listened to Joy Division for the lyrics; I suspect this was similar to buying Playboy for the articles. Yet these lyrics sounded the way his life would end: lonely, painful, with shards of words that gouge your skin. You don’t need to listen to the lyrics, though, to understand the tone; some of the song titles are enough to give you an idea of where Curtis was coming from: “Atrocity Exhibition,” “She’s Lost Control,” “I Remember Nothing,” “Isolation,” “Something Must Break,” “Dead Souls.”

While Joy Division’s music was gloomy, Ian Curtis definitely entered rock-and-roll history with “Transmission,” one of the rare songs where the singer’s tone mimics the story being told in that song. Where a primal scream is the ultimate crescendo. Where life is all about dancing to the radio.

Watch a live performance of Transmission: