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Gladly Possessed

By (January 1, 2008) No Comment


Soundtrack to the film by Anton Corbijn
Rhino/WEA, 2007

Director Anton Corbijn’s recent film, Control, portrays the story of Mancunian Ian Curtis and the band for which he was lead singer, lyricist, and de facto catalyst, Joy Division. Epileptic, probably clinically depressed, and obsessed with achieving something in music, his genius was to pour all this, nearly subconsciously, into his harrowing lyrics. By doing so, he helped create one of the era’s more influential bands. Tortured by his illnesses, a love affair, and the resulting break-up of his marriage (which had produced an infant daughter), he was dead by his own hand at the age of 23, on the verge of Joy Division’s first US tour. The music he and Joy Division left behind (two albums, a handful of singles) remains to this day a singular document of searing despair mixed with a subtle sort of freeing ecstasy, as if they couldn’t stop themselves from finding some sort of salvation. This is post-punk at ground zero.

But then, if you are a music fan of a certain age (and I am), you know this. While the film Control centers on Curtis and his deteriorating personal life and marriage, its secondary storyline, following the creation and burgeoning success of Joy Division, is just as compelling and worthy of a film of its own. This is one of those happy instances where a soundtrack stands strongly on its own even divorced from the images it is intended to bolster. Corbijn and the surviving members of Joy Division—guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris—have assembled a highly successful mix of band recordings, early musical influences, and an example of the band’s musical legacy. Sumner, Hook, and Morris were even moved enough to reassemble as their post-Joy Division band, New Order (a story in itself), to provide three atmospheric instrumentals that anchor the album simultaneously in the past and the present.

As opposed to the depressing number of films these day with pre-fabricated soundtracks comprised of songs designed to show off the director’s hip quotient, the Control soundtrack succeeds as a history and aural documentary of Joy Division by virtue of the expertly chosen tracks, with snippets of the film’s dialogue interspersed. Ironic, then, that Joy Division themselves make only three appearances among the soundtrack’s seventeen songs. But this is a documentary, and as such, necessarily depends on background information and legacy. Both are provided here, so acutely selected that the listener gets a fine “sense” of Joy Division with them barely present. Considering their brief career and haunting lyrics and music, this is highly appropriate.

I am a contemporary (nearly exact in many cases) of the British cast of the punk/new wave generation. Only now, thirty years later, am I able to attempt appreciating the resultant amazement. A middle-class American living in near-rural Massachusetts was listening to and having his entire soul and world-view altered by the same bands and musicians that were affecting, for instance, a group of working-class lads in urban Manchester, thousands of miles away in the UK. The circumstances of our respective lives alone would seem to preclude this. Yet there was a musical zeitgeist haunting us all (and thousands of others). It spooked and fascinated us. We were gladly possessed.

If U.S. punk rock and its U.K. progeny (rather different than its parent, with its overt socio-political and anarchic agenda) accomplished the slashing and burning of the rock music paradigm of the mid-70s, then post-punk was the resulting crop. Over-produced music, technically highly proficient musicians, and the extreme wealth of many of the most successful ones were destroyed in the punk conflagration virtually overnight. Or so it felt to many who cared about “popular” music, i.e., music that spoke to the common populace. How many love songs or vapid, white-boy variations on blues tropes of the ooh-my-baby-left-me-and-I’m-so-sad variety does one really need? Especially coming from men (and they were all men) aged 30+ living privileged lives most of their audience would never experience. Punk wiped that all away for a few glorious years for those wanting to listen.

In punk’s wake what has since become known as post-punk grew and flourished. Generally and very simplistically, post-punk took the spirit of punk’s disdain and disregard for the norm and allowed it to grow into a wondrous garden of mutated vegetation. Teenagers, male and female, picked up instruments they had never before touched and immediately played, regardless of ability. A slew of independent record labels sprung up and flourished, able to release whatever they damn well pleased. Lyrics ranged from Marxist rants to observing the world turning day-glo. Music began to draw from jazz and the classical avant-garde in a delightfully unpretentious way. Two salient features of post-punk were integral to Joy Division: a willingness to lyrically express weakness and hopelessness (antithetical to rock macho posturing) and the incorporation of elements of dance music and funk (this was the era of “disco sucks”). Yes, beneath Joy Division’s bleak view was a beat you could dance to. Spastically perhaps, but you could. This hit us with the precision of a laser; a generation with ears assaulted by the musical equivalent of junk food. Punk and post-punk purged us and made us a “blank generation,” to quote Richard Hell’s signature song. We needed to be so, for our own health and sanity.

But nothing happens in a vacuum. There had been some prior adventurers. So then, the musical influences on display in the Control soundtrack: The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, Kraftwerk, Roxy Music, and David Bowie. Virtually my own record (as in vinyl) collection and certainly Ian Curtis’s. The Velvets’ “What Goes On” provides the ancient history. (Hey, 1969 seemed like a long time ago back then.) It’s pure proto-punk in its abrasive guitars. One could have chosen any Velvet Underground rocker for this reason, but it’s the song’s opening two lines which exemplifies the skill with which this individual track was picked: “What goes on in your mind? / I think that I am falling down.” Yikes. Ian Curtis in two lines. The churning, questioning thoughts of a sensitive poet-to-be coupled with the effects of an epileptic fit.

Iggy Pop, too, could provide ancient history, but what we get instead is the more recent “Sister Midnight”. Co-written and produced by David Bowie, it appeared on Pop’s album, The Idiot, from 1977. The album was a dramatic comeback for Pop, who had been languishing in drug addiction. Salvation was found via Bowie’s intervention and assistance. No such luck for Curtis: He was found by his wife hanged with The Idiot still spinning on his turntable.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. There was some salvation for a younger Curtis from the very same person. Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust incarnation had a galvanizing, liberating effect on nearly every pre-punk in the UK (and a quite a few in the US, too), and Curtis was no exception. He was an obsessed Bowie fan as a young teen. This is sketched wonderfully in the film’s opening sequence which depicts Curtis walking home from a record shop, unwrapping Bowie’s recently-released Aladdin Sane lp, plopping down on his bed for a listen and staring intently at the incredible creature depicted on the album sleeve. (Half a world away, a boy in Assinippi, Massachusetts was doing the same thing, perhaps on the very same day at the very same time.) The song appearing on the soundtrack, “Drive-In Saturday”, depicts a near future in which young people have literally forgotten how to have romance in their lives, relying on watching videos of old love stories and listening to the visceral horniness of old Rolling Stones records. For an alienated (and I use that word knowingly with Bowie involved here) young man, this would be confirmation that, yes, there really are others out there with the same feelings, or lack thereof.

It’s exactly this romance of old films that features in another track, Roxy Music’s “2HB”, an homage to Humphrey Bogart, and in particular, Casablanca. It plays softly in the background of Control’s scene when Curtis first meets his wife-to-be, then his best friend’s girlfriend. “Oh, I was moved by your screen dream” are the lyrics we clearly hear in the film. “Drive-In Saturday” lives itself out. But it’s the song’s final line, which resonates and again shows the expert hand choosing the material:

Your memory stays
It lingers ever
Will fade away never

This could have been written by Curtis, as well as serve as his epitaph for family, friends and fans.

The above four songs provide solid musical background for the film, developing both Curtis’s character, as well as Joy Division’s musical and lyrical influences. A duo of songs provide the background for the film’s present: Cotemporaries and fellow Mancunians The Buzzcocks (“Boredom”) and punk poet John Cooper Clarke (the hilarious “Evidently Chickentown”) lay out the feel of the Manchester music scene at the time.

The Buzzcocks’ 90-miles-an-hour self-consciously-styled “pop” punk and Cooper Clarke’s laugh-aloud humor offset just how startling Joy Division sounded: somber, musically slower, and peppered with disconcerting, unidentifiable electronic sounds (no self-respecting punk band would have used electronica in any fashion at the time). This was topped by Curtis’s deep baritone intonation of lines like “Someone take these dreams away” (“Dead Souls”). Joy Division evinced a discomforting, unblinking introspection entirely at odds with punk’s in-your-face political rants and public nihilism. A few years after Joy Division’s demise, another group of Manchester contemporaries, The Smiths, would brilliantly combine aspects of all three styles. An implicit legacy, not to be underestimated.

But the lyrics and music reached people. And they still do. It’s probably a testament to the elemental, universal nature of their music that the Joy Division song (“Transmission”), covered here by the actors who play the band’s members in the film, sounds uncannily like the original. (It is also one of the film’s strengths that the actors jaw-droppingly resemble their real life counterparts, down to the most minor of characters.) Or is Joy Division’s legacy more complicated and elusive than that? What to make, then, of one of Joy Division’s more famous current progeny, The Killers, and their version of “Shadowplay”? All starts out well, but then the song begins to indulge in nearly every rock cliché and studio effect Joy Division studiously eschewed. Multi-tracked vocals and even that most egregious of rockist clichés, unbridled interjected yelps of “Woo!” make their cringe-inducing appearance. Is this a tribute, some sort of critique, or a joke?

The “feel” of Joy Division so overwhelms the album’s eighteen tracks that the only songs featured which they actually perform might even be redundant: Dead Souls (quoted above), “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, and “Atmosphere”. The latter two are, unarguably, amongst their masterpieces. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” has become, essentially, the Joy Division classic. (Yes, the title and chorus are a conscious riposte to The Captain & Tenille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”). It is, within its 3minutes and 25 seconds, a pure distillation of everything for which they aimed musically and lyrically. It is also the song of which even the more casual of listeners may be aware. Curtis’s bleak autobiographical lyrics of a marriage gone brutally sour conflict with the triumphant catchy riff and chorus, and the two aspects, play off each other, pulling the song and listener in opposite directions. The effect is disconcertingly exhilarating. Curtis, in the chorus, sounds as if he’s actually relieved love has torn him and his partner apart. A listener cannot help singing along to the chorus and, yes, dancing. This is an ecstasy of despair.

”Atmosphere” closes the film, used in a silent jump cut to a slow camera pan from a cemetery to the sky, that is something of a visual tour de force. The song matches the power. Beginning with stark, funeral drumming, it proceeds with Curtis imploring, “don’t walk away.” After each verse, with a suddenness that still startles me, a glistening electronic rain of ice and sequins pours down. I use visual terms, because there is really no other way to describe the effect. Yes, this is ecstatic.

Ice and sequins; ecstasy and despair. These were Joy Division’s strength and modus operandi, as well as an apt summation of the morphing of their major influence, glam rock, into a representation of the bleak, industrial landscape of hometown Macclesfield, in northern England. It is also a perfect description of what their secret weapon, producer Martin Hannett, bestowed upon them. As George Martin was to the Beatles, Hannett was to Joy Division: virtually a fifth member of the band. His idiosyncratic skills behind the control board employed his pioneering subtle use of synthesizers as pure sound mixed with the use of “natural” sounds. The latter is vividly illustrated in the film when Stephen Morris is shown rhythmically pushing down the button of an aerosol can to provide the basic beat for a song. Hannett wove them all into the music of a band he declared, “didn’t have a clue” as musicians (at the time they didn’t; musical naifs to a man), but with a vision and a visionary lyricist. The late Hannett immeasurably assisted in the birth of a body of work that remains remarkable.

Back to the sequins. The soundtrack wraps up with the glam rock king/queen himself, David Bowie, several incarnations beyond the Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane that first captured Ian Curtis’s imagination: “Warszawa”, a track from the “Berlin” trilogy of albums he did with Brian Eno. The song was a double influence. Prior to “Joy Division”, the band called themselves Warsaw, as a tip of the hat to this song and Bowie. The song itself is bleaker, more austere, and miles away from the previous “Drive-In Saturday”. An unsuspecting listener may well feel they’re hearing a Joy Division track. Eno’s trademark instrumental “bed” of mixed acoustic and electronic instruments clearly was an influence on Hannett and this is a perfectly appointed example. (The song was to become a latter-day influence on a entirely different musician, as well: Philip Glass would use “Warszawa” as one of the key themes in his “Low Symphony” of 1993). Bowie’s pseudo-Arabic vocalization eventually kicks in, like a visionary muezzin in a post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland. And isn’t that what Curtis and Joy Division were, essentially? I believe so, and if you needed any convincing, Control’s soundtrack provides it. It’s a call to prayer illustrated by the past, present, and future.

Peter Law grew up in Assinippi, Massachusetts, something very few people can claim with veracity. He now lives in Boston. Despite a complete inability to sing, play, or read a note of music, he is an omnivorous and passionate lover of all things musical. To quote one of his favorite songwriters, Mike Skinner (a.k.a. The Streets), “This is called irony.” He was assistant director of the Young People’s Summer Theatre in Scituate, MA for nearly 20 years and has acted in and directed numerous local theater productions. He was a member of the sketch comedy group The Great Unwashed and also a writer and performer in a local cable TV series, Palookaville. “Local” if you happened to dwell within the Brockton, MA area a few years ago.

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