‘Closer’ by Joy Division is 40. Why Do We Still Care?

joy division

A 40th Anniversary Edition of Closer is out on July 17th.

On the 18th of July, Closer by Joy Division sees the anniversary of 40 years since its original release. It marked a creative highpoint of the new band who were beginning to grow in the national sphere due to critical praise from the likes of the NME. A combination of mesmerizing live performances, a powerful and original sound and a lyrical approach which touched on the darker recesses of the human soul and condition set them apart from many.

It was to be their swansong though. As the band got itself ready to embark on a tour of America, Curtis took his own life. His debilitating epilepsy, along with other internal pressures, led to a building depression which eventually had a tragic outcome. This album was set to be a step forward for the band, but all plans were shelved in the aftermath. Due to delays from the record label, it actually came out after his death. It sold well upon release, but its reputation and standing have both grown over the years since.

But why is it considered to be so important? The band had yet to really make its mark on the public consciousness despite being well spoken of in the press. Radio play and TV appearances were not especially common other than the likes of John Peel, The Old Grey Whistle Test and Here It Goes. A final live date in Birmingham for the band only saw 150 present. They had toured a few dates in Europe but nothing extensively yet. And nothing in North America. The UK scene was brimming with bands in the post-punk era who were striving to make their mark in one way or the other. Joy Division were in among this group of bands attempting to breakthrough. Many of their contemporaries fell to the wayside and have been lost to the mists of time. Joy Division and Closer still burns bright though.

There are a number of factors that help contribute towards the legend of this band and particularly this album. I will try and set them out below.

The Establishment of Factory Records

It is perhaps easy to picture Tony Wilson sitting at his desk, mailing out cheques, while slagging off The Smiths in the company of various associates and cohorts. For a time, they were one of the most recognisable and credible labels on the go. Ground-breaking acts, artists, photographers and producers were all associated with them at different spells. Wilson, being a public figure, was not shy about getting his label and acts into the spotlight. Whether it resulted in good or bad publicity. But it all had to start from somewhere. And Joy Division were at the heart of it.

It grew out of a club who hosted many touring acts, along with the up and coming punk outfits. These included the likes of Cabaret Voltaire, Durutti Column and Joy Division. An EP was released of acts who had played there which provided the spark for the label to start off. Singles were released from bands such as OMD and A Certain Ratio, but it was Joy Division who provided them with their first LP. They continued to work together as both were finding their feet. That partnership was cut short long before it should have but the label continued to grow and thrive. New Order and Happy Mondays were their obvious star acts, but they also saw releases from James, Electronic, Crispy Ambulance, and The Railway Children.

Yet it was not long after their heights in the late ’80s, that their demise came around. They were rocked by a series of tragedies and financial strife. Martin Hannett died of a heart attack, while Dave Rowbotham of Durrutti Column was found murdered. The recording of Yes Please! by Happy Mondays in Barbados was a disaster and Republic from New Order cost £400,000 to record. They also had the costs of running the Hacienda to take into consideration. It all added up to bring about its closure. But what a ride it was!

The Birth of New Order

The remaining band members were obviously in a state of shock upon receiving the news of the death of Ian Curtis. There was the small matter of the release of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ as a single and Closer. The decision had been made that if any member left the band, then Joy Division would not continue. It had been stated that their future had been thrown into doubt regardless due to Curtis’s condition bringing about cancelled tour dates and his inability to perform. They decided to form a new band under the guise of New Order. Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris brought in Gillian Gilbert once the decision had been made that Sumner would undertake vocal duties. It was not going to be easy to escape the shadow.

Their early releases were still very much in the vein of Joy Division’s dark lyrical content and melodic approach. They soon learned how to self-produce and took on a sound that employed greater use of synthesisers and programmed drums. Visiting some of the clubs in New York, influences were soaked up from dance music and its electronic elements. It was Power, Corruption and Lies and the single ‘Blue Monday’ that really saw their evolution. They had used technology with a guitar sound initially with Closer, but this saw its peak. The subsequent years saw them switch between the styles, occasionally being more of a traditional guitar band; others being indebted to the Balearic acid house style that was coming out of Ibiza and heavily played at the Hac. From being the young band so excited about their first trip to the US, they now found their music regularly played on the airwaves and the major clubs. They toured constantly and became one of the ‘must-see’ bands around.

It was inevitable that the workload would exert a toll on them. The collapse of Factory after the release of Republic created something of a vacuum. That album did see one of their highest charting songs in ‘Regret’ though. The decision was made to take a break to concentrate on side projects such as Electronic and The Other Two. Gilbert decided to step away from touring in order to take care of her and Stephen’s children. Breaks between recording now became longer and tensions led to the departure of Peter Hook. This saw a number of legal challenges over the release of new material and income and royalties due to the bassist. This was settled out of court eventually but the likelihood of either party working together is extremely remote. Hook now tours with his band Peter Hook and the Light, while New Order brought in Tom Chapman to fill his spot. It seems a pity for a group of friends who started off together to end up like this. Their dreams of making it upon the release of Closer became a reality though.

The Birthplace of Madchester

The explosion of colours, sounds and fashion which came out of England’s North West was something that many believed came overnight. One day it was not there and the next it was. It coincided with the growth of dance music across the country, barriers being done away it, ending of hostility and the introduction of ecstasy into the mainstream. Everything seemed possible now and change was inevitable. Not as simple as that of course as we found out but for a brief while it seemed that way. Thousands flocked to clubs to soak in the new music coming out as it became the place to be. Those who were at the forefront of it all seemed to have emerged fully formed and pristine. Not so. The primary bands who were integral to its popularity spent many years toiling in the obscurity before breaking through. Many took a long time to finally get their rewards. And often took a few uncertain steps along the way.

Happy Mondays saw their initial steps as a jangly guitar-based band who annoyed the owners in the Hacienda by constantly trying to sneak in un-noticed before embracing a more dance approach to their sound. The Stone Roses went through a few line-up changes, and a gothic approach, before stumbling on the sound which made them big. James were more of a twee sounding indie band at Factory before developing more of a swagger. They had to flog t-shirts to fund their own releases just as things blew up. The Charlatans were considered a brother band to The Stone Roses as a regular support act to them. Inspiral Carpets got the attention of John Peel through releases on their own label. 808 State grew out of a hugely successful live set that was performed at various venues around town. They all managed to tap into the prevailing zeitgeist, and it was not long before the national media caught up on it. Several key releases followed in the 1989/90 period and they became household names.

But as any movement becomes popular, there is an inevitable decline. Many bands seized on the sound and aimed to copy it to varying degrees of success. It began to be seen as more of a fashion sense and the music produced began to suffer. The Happy Mondays recording of ‘Yes Please!’ devolved into a crack addled mess which cost a fortune. The Stone Roses lost some years battling in the courts for release from their label before the release of Second Coming. It underperformed and they broke up not long after as infighting split them. Some of the other key players had releases that had varying degrees of success. The press began to switch their attention to the emerging grunge sound coming out of Seattle, shoegaze and what became known as Britpop. Many of the main players owe their popularity to that of Closer. It showed that traditional guitar bands were unafraid to employ electronic sounds to change things up.

The Growth of Indie Music

As the original punk era reached its climax, many bands left in its wake were left with its key messages. Virtuosity was not all important, passion and integrity were, the future is yours and you can do it yourself. Bands saw that they were no longer dependent on the major record labels to produce and release their music. It might sound rather amateurish but at least it was your name on a physical product which fans could buy. The likes of Rough Trade, Stiff Records, Fast Product, Postcard and Factory became names in their own right. They gained a reputation for a close relationship with the bands they worked with and a genuine sense they believed in the music. Bands also saw that they could explore different sounds and express emotional content which might have been frowned upon before. Synths, funk elements or world music elements for instance. Many bands ventured into a variety of different emerging genres. Expressing one’s inner feelings to a jangly, hook-laden guitar beat became the prevailing trend in many instances.

Two of the biggest bands in this period were The Smiths and The Cure. The former chose to employ a combination of Johnny Marr’s ’60s sounding Rickenbacker over Morrissey’s angst-ridden tales of ordinary people. The latter preferred a darker, more gothic to their music to Robert Smith’s often bleak yet beautiful lyrics. They represented both ends of the spectrum but a whole range of bands existed in between. Some gained a small yet passionate fanbase, while others changed their approach and became more mainstream. Indie rock at its basics provided a contrast to the prevailing trends at the time. It escaped the slick yet dated production technics of charting pop music and the aggression of most metal bands. It could be sneered at for its lack of musical sophistication and a perceived lack of ambition. What it possessed in spades was a sincerity and openness to try something different. Rail against what was in fashion in a sense.

The two bands mentioned certainly took on the messages of Closer and made something of their own. But a whole generation of bands have been influenced by its themes, music stylings and mood since then. Editors, Interpol, The Horrors, The Rapture, Bloc Party, Placebo, The National and Radiohead have all in different ways taken on aspects of it in their output. The dark reach of Curtis has even been mentioned with bands like Fontaines D.C.. There will always be an indie disco which plays one of his tracks, new bands will touch on the darker shade of music, lyricists will crop with an emotionally raw and open approach, and their t-shirts will always be sold.

Closer seems to be a timeless record. It is not one that will age. For Joy Division, it marked their end. For many, it was just the start for them.

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