Sunday, September 23, 2007

Here Are The Young Men

21st October 1979.

Not a day that is burned into many people's consciousness, indeed I had to look up the actual date myself, but in a life that's been littered with bad decisions, that was the day I made one of my worst.

Picture the scene. A grey autumn night in Sheffield. A row with the then girlfriend had put me in a foul mood, the sort of mood that needs a few pints to put right. Having those few pints sat in a pub in town with a few mates, we had a decision to make. We had tickets to see Buzzcocks at the Top Rank we have a few more beers in the pub, or do we get ourselves off and catch the support? Sod it, we're settled, get the ales in.

So we missed the support band. Not normally a big deal, except tonight the support band was Joy Division. They never came back to Sheffield, and I never got to see them.

As it was, I came to Joy Division quite late. Probably early 1980, I picked up a copy of 'Transmission' and thought yeah, this lot are worth watching out for...but then it all ended suddenly and all too abruptly, on 18 May 1980.

All that remains is Joy Division's recorded legacy - Two studio albums followed by a number of attempts to sweep up the remaining odds and sods through compilations and box sets.

The two studio albums - Unknown Pleasures and Closer - and the initial posthumous collection of unreleased and live material - Still - have just been re-released as collectors' editions, each paired with live recordings from different stages in the band's career.

Much has been written about Unknown Pleasures and I can't help but echo much of what has already been said. For me, no other album is so evocative of the time and place in which it was made - whilst remaining completely and utterly timeless. Again much has been written about Martin Hannett's role in forming the sound of the album and it is interesting, in the fascinating articles that accompany each album, to read just how much tension there was between the group and the producer and, to this day, to read about the level of dissatisfaction the group still has with the final sound of the album. Grudging acceptance that Hannett might just have been right is as good as it gets! Anyway, what do the band know. What I know is that this is, for me, unquestionably the finest debut album ever recorded and maybe one of the finest albums ever made, period.

Closer is, if anything, a better album than its predecessor, but one that is inevitably interpreted in the context of Ian Curtis's death - the lyrics, mood of the album and (most obviously) the cover design all point, if you are so minded, to Curtis's impending death. To my mind this is a lazy way to view the album - Curtis was very much alive while the album was being recorded and had a hand in the choice of cover. Who really knows what his state of mind was at the time? It is impossible to listen to Closer without the benefit (curse?) of hindsight but, if you try to remove that context and hear it solely on its merits as a body of music, it still has the power to move and uplift. Reflective and sombre, without being miserable or self-pitying, the album has depths that allow it to sound fresh nearly thirty years on.

Still inevitably suffers by comparison with its two predecessors, and for the omission of the non-album singles and the majestic 'Atmosphere', which would have been better use of the vinyl originally taken by a sloppy live cover of 'Sister Ray'. The studio tracks that were included, however, do not dilute the group's legacy and in certain cases actually enhance it. The live concert included with the original release has historical significance as the group's last concert, but it is not the finest gig the group played.

All three concerts included with the re-releases do go some way to demonstrate the claims of Sumner and Hook that they were a far better live band than they were in the studio but from where I'm sat, nothing they produced live comes anywhere near to the majesty of their two studio masterpieces.

But then, what do I know? I never saw them live.

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