Ian Curtis would have been 65 years of age. Today.
Secretly we know that rock stars never die too young. There are only three options for the high rolling (ex) rocker. The first choice is a big bang early death and lifelong fame. Ian Curtis, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon and the two Jims – Hendrix and Morrison – mobilized this path to posterity. The other option is looking like Mick Jagger, a broken down rooster in a jumpsuit, who is only attractive to pencil-neck models so starved of carbohydrates that their brain has ceased functioning. In a calorie-starved hallucination, even Mick looks sexy. The final option is to become Keith Richards – cool beyond belief – with a face like the worn tread of a Doc Marten boot and a mouth that works ten seconds out of phase with his brain. Keith is clearly living in two time zones most of the time.
The early death of pop music icons encourages nostalgia. Factory Records, having lost both its founder Tony Wilson and talisman Ian Curtis, has spilt and split its history into two films: 24 Hour Party People and Control. Such cinematic memorials are only a taste of the obsessional fan behaviour that juts from pop mortality. In February 2006 for example, the BBC Radio 2 listeners voted for the best song of the last twenty five years. The palette of performers from which to choose was odd enough: the Pop Idol winner Will Young, Queen, Kate Bush, Robbie Williams and Joy Division. The omissions were odd: where were The Smiths, New Order, The Stone Roses (“Waterfall anyone?), The Happy Mondays or Oasis’s “Wonderwall”?
While aware of the gaps, let’s try to understand this list. Queen produced high quality stadium rock. Will Young who? Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” is a better choice. It changed the structure of popular music, lifted the standards of lyric writing and produced one of the strangest dance sequences in a video. Ever.
And the winner was … Robbie Williams for “Angels.” The decision caused controversy. The BBC website was filled with complaints.
You’ve got to be kidding
I’m actually embarrassed to be British if that is the best song we have produced in the last 25 years!!
A sad day for music
Predictable and laughable
“Angels” is a fine song, but it is a ballad used by ugly boys at discos to stick their tongue in the ear of some unwilling pubescent girl. For me, there was only one choice from the list, and the BBC complainants generally agreed.
While I am biased in that I thought Love Will Tear Us Apart should have won…
It [Angels] certainly isn’t anywhere near as good as Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division or Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush
Have Radio 2 listeners even heard of Joy Division? A band who, through two albums, have had a bigger impact on music, and continue to do so, over the last 25 years than Robbie Williams ever will.
The punters’ passionate certainty in their determinations was fascinating to watch. Enthusiasts of music – let alone life – require support and encouragement. Without this bubbling energy, we are left with Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs which,just like Fever Pitch, transformed blokey egomania into a slapped up bestseller.
We need music bloggers at the moment because there are far fewer great pop journalists than great pop songs. Greil Marcus is the Baron of Beat and the finest chronicler of the King. While Marcus is the Emperor of rock, Paul Morley is the Yoda of pop. His Words and Music spans from the second century BC to 2003. The image of a hot panted Kylie Minogue driving through a post-industrial city singing ‘na na na – na na na na na – na na na – na na na na na’ is the propulsive rhythm of his prose.
What has made Morley a stellar music writer is his obsession to convince the entire planet that Joy Division is the best group to ever crawl from the sonic ghetto and into the light of popular music. His mania is convincing. Morley was given a gift through birth, growing up in the right time and place, to be the chronicler of post-punk Manchester. His obsession with New Order and Joy Division has accompanied him throughout a writing career.
Not surprisingly, he believed ‘Love will tear us apart’ to be the greatest song ever written, not just the best British track of the last quarter of a century. While his reasons are personal, there is also a musicological basis for his decision. The trajectory of dance in the last twenty years was foreshadowed in the shift between the eight and ninth bar.
In the space between these bars, something happens. The music transfers from a minor to a major key. On a dance floor, the repercussions of that movement is a feeling of euphoria, that anything is possible, we can dance all night and be young forever. There is also a shift from the guitar-based past of rock music towards the synthesized future of dance music. The change is significant, self-evident and pronounced.
To ignore these two bars and displace Joy Division from the most significant pop of the last thirty years is to forget how dull rock music has been through much of its history. After disco’s demise, rock was a soundtrack for growing old. Dance music remains the endlessly transgressive, inventive and dynamic genre. Sampling translates and transforms aural and tactile memories into a bricolage of possibilities. Digitized divas warble with a re-energized beat and imported rhythms from Spain, Italy, France and Germany. Techno, offering a break with Motown’s past, fused with the intensely European sounds of Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream.
While Kraftwerk is frequently praised by critics (who have never heard their music), what makes this German powerhouse so important is that they prised open the gaps between the notes. They knew the musical value of silence and shock of unexpected noise. Their embrace of technology created new theories of meter, melody and mixing. These fusions continued through the 1980s with Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode, Heaven 17 and Human League. Techno brought this merger of the corporeal and computer into clearer profile.
There is a trace of this rhythmic journey in the first nine bars of Joy Division’s ‘Love will tear us apart.’ Certainly it is an evocative, powerful track, but its beginning is shocking in its innovation. While BBC 2 listeners did not vote it the best song of the last twenty five years, I claim a smaller significance. ‘Love will tear us apart’ encloses the two most important bars of music in the twentieth century.
Beyond the bars, beyond the song itself, the context of the track makes it even more significant. There is well-deep tragedy evoked through the chorus. The single only entered the upper reaches of the British chart in the weeks after Ian Curtis killed himself. Love tore him apart, but death brought the song a wide audience.
Joy Division produced frightening music and Curtis captured the fear. The jagged dancing, terror-filled eyes and melancholic intensity of the lyrics combined to cast a long shadow over Manchester music.
Ian Curtis has become so singular and potent in popular memory through a combination of words and vision: Kevin Cummins’ photographs and Paul Morley’s journalism. Ian Curtis has tragedy tethered to him and his music, encasing all the conventional baggage of heterosexual masculine angst that is finding a new audience, soundtrack and iconography with the release of Control.
What makes Curtis significant, and adds even greater intensity to ‘Love will tear us apart’ is what happened after his death. The three remaining members added a woman – Gillian Gilbert – to their ranks, and continued to produce music under the name New Order. Few bands survive the death of their lead singer. Ian Curtis and the first nine bars of ‘Love will tear us apart’ allowed this survival to occur by fading out the thrash of punk and fading in the synthesizer soar.
Manchester is one of the birthplaces of the industrial revolution. The rip of change to time, work and identity scarred the landscape. Manchester’s urban environment, so integral to theories of commerce, culture and politics, offers a stark reminder of the uneven nature of globalization. Manchester, in moving from the ‘old’ industries to the new creative industries of music, screen, design and tourism, is now in the business of marketing differences, rather than homogeneity. After the death of Curtis, Manchester could export music as it had once exported textiles.
Like wrinkles on a forehead, a city reveals its past. Manchester’s derelict cotton mills are overwritten by the popular music that created a newer vision. These sounds and images – from Take That to 808 State, the Buzzcocks to Simply Red, The Smiths to M-People, and New Order to the Happy Mondays – interlinked the histories of music and Manchester. It would be impossible to write of contemporary electronica without a sizeable chapter based in the north of England. The industrial past punctuates present rhythms.
It is no surprise that the Pied Piper trajectory of Joy Division’s ninth bar was followed by so many. New Order learnt to dance with black armbands, like most of us. In remembering the greatest songs of the last twenty five years, few can claim a moment of creative genius. Between the eight and ninth bar, Ian Curtis arched beyond his own death. He sung to the future, but could not control it.