The Complete BBC Recordings
By: Eric G.
What's left to say? By turning the mirror onto itself, Joy Division led punk out of its socio-political rut and into the realm of personal disaster and the art of falling apart. It all happened so fast. Joy Division hadn't even released its second album by its first and final casualty- the suicide by hanging of vocalist Ian Curtis. Joy Division's music was simple and restrained in a very polite and English way, but it housed some of the deepest emotions ever caught on tape. Ian Curtis' lyrics set Joy Division apart from its peers. Curtis calumniated himself to the point where he had no choice but to live out his words lest he should look disingenuous.
These BBC sessions capture Joy Division in all its glory- dark, deliberate, naïve, and disturbingly beautiful. From Peter Hook's rudimentary bass lines to Bernard Sumner's haunting and shrill guitar arpeggios to Stephen Morris' robotic drumming, Joy Division mixed a strangely danceable version of punk with Ian Curtis' uniquely open and contrite lyrics. The lyrics mattered for the first time in a punk context. They made you really feel what was being conveyed without the trappings of typical singer-songwriter pretensions. Curtis' angst-ridden baritone cut through all the noise and grabbed you by the heart and dragged you through his personal hell. His voice was an ugly beauty- the paradox of which is the essence of Joy Division.
Listening to Joy Division is a release that few other bands can match. "Exercise One" opens with unrepentant feedback and builds into a staccato, repetitive death knell. The guitar pierces through the descent, opening space for Curtis to preach his doom. "Insight" unfurls like a bad dream that you can barely remember the next morning. The swaying bass line leads the melody into an alarming climax where what sounds like a kettle whistle blows its top. Curtis was far too young to have such a command of his lyrical ability: "Guess your dreams always end/they don't rise up just descend/but I don't care anymore/I've lost the will to want more/I'm not afraid not at all/I've watched them all as they fall/but I remember when we were young."
How much Curtis' epilepsy and depression influenced his writing is irrelevant. What does matter is how he expressed what he wrote. Curtis flailed like a maniac on stage. The audience never knew whether he was having a seizure or not (neither did the band). This was part of the band's eerie appeal. Curtis resented the fact that his performances were blurred with his illness, and it pushed him even deeper into his depression. You can feel the intensity of his desperation in "Transmission": "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 to know/to synchronize love to the beat of the show…and we could dance." Sumner's unforgettable guitar melody acts as Curtis' duet partner in the verses, culminating with him in the explosive chorus.
"Love Will Tear Us Apart" is simply one of the finest pop songs ever written. Hook's bass melody is the quintessential example of how he turned the bass guitar into a lead instrument. Sumner aborted his guitars in favor of distant, melodic keyboards while Curtis strummed that one unforgettable chord. It was also Curtis' finest set of lyrics: "when routine bites hard/and ambitions are low/and resentment rides high/but emotions won't grow/and, we're changing our ways, taking different doors/and love will tear us apart." The version here is raw, and, while it lacks the studio version's ghostly sheen, it does sound more immediate and urgent. It is hopelessness and resignation brilliantly packaged as pop (and it charted top ten weeks after Curtis' death).
Live Joy Division was always on the brink of falling apart, but it pulled through even the most disastrous circumstances (like Peter Hook having to pin Curtis down to keep him from swallowing his own tongue), and these BBC sessions give us a peek at the energy and crisis at the core of the band before studio agendas had their way. The two "never before heard' tracks are alternate takes of "Transmission" and "She's Lost Control"- essential for their sense of emergency and disorder but ultimately anticlimactic. The rare interview that caps the disc reveals little in the way of Curtis' condition or the inner workings of the band- it's merely a polite exchange with an overly jolly British journalist. It is strange to hear Curtis' Mancunian lilt, though.
The Complete BBC Recordings is probably not the last attempt to flog the corpse of Joy Division, but it is actually a justifiable release as these songs (with the exception of one or two) were omitted from the comprehensive Heart And Soul box set. Whether it's seen as exploitation of Joy Division's legend or not- I'm all for these small reminders of Joy Division's impact and importance coming out every few years.