Joy Division : reviews

by Michka Assayas

Joy Division Still M Assayas

Translated from Michka Assayas's original review in 1981.

I will try to review this posthumous record of Joy Division without using the word "sepulchral". "Still" - with its double meaning - is made of two LPs, and had been announced for quite a while; it contains cuts from "Unknown Pleasures" and "Closer" and live tracks from their last gig ever, in Birmingham, on May 2 1980. Plus "Sister Ray", a bonus track recorded live a month before, which features a real sense of humour.

As they heard everywhere that they were preparing a commemorative Joy Division record, Factory thought that it would not be such a bad idea in the end. Hence the provocative cover, which looks like a funeral tribute program. That is even more obvious for the de-luxe release, which costs the double: the album is presented in a cardboard portfolio wrapped in tissue, with a white ribbon tied up on the edge, reminescent of a visitor's book. It is a sarcastic answer - and a totally appropriate one too - to all the good souls who nobly worried whether Factory would vilely use Ian Curtis's death.

I have not exhausted the substance of these dug out songs, featured on the first LP, even after several listenings. One must admit that one does not listen to Joy Division while washing up the dishes, and since I received the thing, a fortnight ago, I did not have the time to properly listen to it. I heard it several times though. I do not say that to get to Joy Division's music, you have to draw the curtains, switch off the lights and wear a dismal face. Joy Division's music was made by normal men - if Ian Curtis hanged himself, it was because he could not stay in the normality any more - for normal men. It is only sometimes hard to take, like John Cale's or Pere Ubu's.

These two references are meaningful to me. They had an impact on my way to perceive Joy Division at first, before they disappeared behind the self-governing power and authority of the band. Just listen to a track like "The Only Mistake", probably recorded during the "Unknow Pleasures" sessions, to get the idea of John Cale's strong influence: same gloomy voice - yet not sepulchral!, same dramatization, with this typical progression of precariously appeased verses and roared and uncontrollable ones. And Joy Division inherited from Pere Ubu its apparent heaviness and its ineluctable gravity.

A lot of good that has done us, if we define Joy Division as a crossing, an unusual junction ! What is specific to any music deserving to be talked about is to make all these tedious root researches trifling and insignificant. What is specific to Joy Division is - not only - them having assimilated, but them having set up a radical and original form. Having been able to start all over from zero, through their conscious and unconscious influences. Even if I repeat myself: statistically, there is only one band every decade to achieve this.

"Still" songs arrive just in time to convince the slow ones (it is never too late). They are all elementary, simple, plain. I have heard that Joy Division puzzle their listeners. Personally, I am puzzled by other things. I invite anyone who shares this incomprehensible point of view, and perhaps you, yes YOU who are having a quick look at this page and have spotted a word in uppercase, to listen to "Dead Souls" (already released in the mystic prose of "Sordide Sentimental") and check if that experiment induces you to reflection or its opposite. If these three crushing chords, this wall of sound strong enough to crack real walls, the crescendo repetition of this appeal filled with dread "keep on calling me ..." make you shrug your shoulders, then lower your Mogadon dose. Or check carefully the speed of your phono. All the titles, from the almost punk "Ice Age" to the seeping "The Sound Of Music", will produce the same effect, at short or long term: they are the simple development of a primal scream. The live LP will allow me to insist on that point. If one believes that Joy Division on stage passed their time trying to elaborate mysterious "climates" (a concept with sinister connections), one has all his trouble for nothing. Let us forget the sound quality, often poor. During "Ceremony", you almost cannot hear the voice, except at the very end. On "New Dawn Fades", it is also rather lost. It does not matter. Martin Hannett's production and the band make up for it. It seems like we are looking at a machine with the cover lifted: all the instruments are perfectly isolated, there is no artistic softness; the band you hear is at the same time unprovided and mighty. "Transmission", for instance, bare, with the voice so close and strong, is like an explosion which takes place next door. I know nothing like it.

Commemorate Joy Division? I could not do that. First of all, there is a band, alive, New Order, and much more than that: just lend an ear to their unofficial EP, that was to be found at New Rose lately, and you will hear the record of the year. This record has not saddened me, or wrinkled my forehead with deep funeral melancholy. It has filled me with rapture, trust, and will keep on doing so. I regret that the faith that this record will always insufflate has not saved the only person who basically needed it. I advise you to buy this record.

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Update 2021-02-19    Copyright Michel ENKIRI