Hire me — Looking for an experienced web and product designer? I’m available →

This searing light, the sun and everything else

Joy Division In Winter by Kevin Cummins. Licensed from Getty Images.

We stood before Ian Curtis' earliest handwritten lyrics for Love Will Tear Us Apart. Hurried words and edits; deeply personal poetry the resonance of which its author would never know. Just a scrap of paper, and yet, the climactic exhibit, under glass and under guard; strictly no photography. Enigmatically beautiful and held in great reverence, like the Mona Lisa but‬ relatable; an artefact of our culture and of our time.

That was August 2017. Manchester Art Gallery’s True Faith exhibition explored the significance and legacy of Joy Division and New Order through the visual art their music has inspired. Author and film-maker Jon Savage co-curated the show, and earlier this year released his latest book, This searing light, the sun and everything else: Joy Division: The Oral History.

They sound like the buildings

Savage has assembled the definitive account, getting to grips with Joy Division as more than the sum of their influences, more than just a band. Something is unsettling about them, a sort of otherworldliness. To look at the group is to know how they sound, and they sound like Manchester; they sound like the buildings. And those buildings and everything of that city, in turn, represents Joy Division. Their story is, according to Factory boss Tony Wilson, “the story of the rebuilding of a city that begins with them... cultural, intellectual, academic, aesthetic”. They are the conclusion and the foreword, and they are hard to point at directly — more than just a band.

A chain of improbable, fortuitous events ensured our planet contains precisely the right environmental necessities and ingredients to support life. This oral history makes a similar case for the existence and ethereality of Joy Division; multiple factors overlapping and aligning at precisely the right moment in time for these four young men to make their mark.

It’s impossible to separate the band from their surroundings, the changing city a constitutive underpinning. First-hand accounts bring late 70s Manchester to life with such vivid detail that the memories of others assume personal form. I was an infant when the band briefly illuminated the universe, but I’m left feeling as though I also bore witness; that I could wring the substance of those sweaty gigs from my clothes.

A complete manifesto

Occasionally, someone nails the whatever-it-is-ness of Joy Division, like renowned music photographer Kevin Cummins. “The picture of them on the bridge became the picture that defined them. People told me that they knew what the band would sound like from looking at that picture. Everything about Joy Division is so inextricably linked that Joy Division couldn’t exist without that photo, and that photo couldn’t exist without Tony and Rob and the band and the way the city was at the time.”

No matter how much retrospective importance we assign to each detail, at the heart of this story are four men just going for it. Peter Saville describes them, rather beautifully, as “four friends, in something together”. Ian Curtis, Stephen Morris, Bernard Sumner, and Peter Hook are letting things flow; afraid to look too closely at what they’re doing in case they cause it to cease. And yet they’re progressive: you have Ian’s fierce poetic intellect, Stephen’s cultural dragnet, and Bernard’s obsession with experimentation. The things we uncover present a contradiction: they tell us they’re winging it, but they’re also nurturing it. They’re learning, growing, forming, and moulding Joy Division at a breakneck pace. I think only Hooky is genuinely winging it.

Everything that matters is evident in their first TV performance. They'd just found their sound, and it’s tight, with raw integrity that Martin Hannett’s spacious album production would soften. Their rigid expressions, the utilitarian clothes, the sense of defiance, Ian’s mesmeric dancing. Monochromatic image overlays provide futuristic momentum, speeding us through the urban landscape — “To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you” — fortuitously perfect editing floor cuttings added at the last minute under Wilson’s instruction. It’s a complete manifesto, dropping into living rooms across the North West.

Collective failure

Success comes into focus but so, of course, does tragedy. Ian is a polite and gentle soul, but he’s struggling with epilepsy and capable of extremes. He presents multiple versions of himself, manipulating discussions and easing fears. For a long time, you assume his death will come as a complete shock because you’re blinded like everyone else. But later, the inevitability hits hard as all the singular perspectives — multiple spins on “I didn't think much of it” — pile together into deafening alarm. You read every line thinking: come on, it’s so fucking obvious! Anger builds because the most critical person in the story is in a terrible place, and everyone’s too distracted to notice.

This Searing Light cover sketch

There’s a collective failure. Ian’s so committed and taking everything very seriously. He’s putting his heart and soul into everything, and the signs are right there in the lyrics, but Wilson thinks the anguish is just art. As the epileptic fits get more frequent, and more violent, Ian is increasingly suggestible; he’ll agree to anything. He needed direction, but the direction was all wrong. He wanted to leave, but everyone pushed him harder. Girlfriend Annik Honoré knew: “You can tell he’s suffering”, she says. Everything spirals in those final pages. It’s inevitable, and it’s awful. The band must contemplate a future without Ian. “Suddenly, we didn't have any eyes," explains Sumner. "We had everything else, but we couldn’t see where we were going.”

As the history concludes, Paul Morley reflects on Love Will Tear Us Apart. It’s overfamiliar — the one everyone knows — so the snob in him doesn’t want to admit that it’s their best song, but it endures. It has materiality; a friction that demands your attention when it comes on the radio. It takes multiple interpretations, continuously releases new meaning, and distils so much of that whatever-it-is-ness that made Joy Division unique. Sonically, it’s incredible, but it’s also an extraordinary and intimate piece of writing. Those words deserve their place in the gallery; the climactic exhibit, under glass, enigmatically beautiful and held in great reverence.

This searing light, the sun and everything else: Joy Division: The Oral History, by Jon Savage, was published by Faber & Faber, April 2019.