Joy Division = Modern Art

Joy DivisionI had a recent conversation with some friends who were trying to convince me that modern art was, indeed, art. Instead of a realistic depiction of a material object, modern art represented emotions and themes, and it’s what you get from each piece – or what you bring to it while viewing it – that mattered.

Now I’m a simple guy when it comes to art. I like my pictures of flowers to actually look like flowers, people to look like people…you get the idea. I’ve never gotten modern art, with the exception of Claes Oldenburg, whom I liked because I had never seen really big hamburgers and giant saws sticking out of the ground – tee, hee!

I think I have the same approach to my music. I don’t want to study a piece of music to see what it represents, or what it doesn’t represent. I’m really not that big a fan of political songs anymore. I like songs that you can hum, songs that by the very chord structure, voicing and instrumentation can elicit emotion whether happiness, sadness or anger.

Which brings me to Joy Division.

Joy Division is one of those bands that I keep hearing about – a band that changed the face of music, one of the most important bands in the past 30 years, etc. In his fantastic book Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life, John Sellers recounts his obsession with Joy Division, observing the anniversary of lead singer Ian Curtis’ death and visiting the band’s hometown (Manchester, England). Countless books, documentaries and even tribute bands have surfaced.

According to the Music Guide argues that Joy Division “became the first band in the post-punk movement by…emphasizing not anger and energy but mood and expression, pointing ahead to the rise of melancholy alternative music in the ’80s” (Courtesy Wikipedia). Bands that can look to Joy Division as an influence include the Cure, Bauhaus, U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and New Order, which was formed after Curtis’ death.

So why don’t I like them?

The music is extremely somber; most people suggest not listening to a lot of Joy Division if you’re feeling down and depressed. Poor Ian Curtis sounds tone deaf at times, singing off-key with throaty vibrato. And I’m not hearing a lot of melody.

But I’m not going to give up. I’m going to try the modern art approach, reading about the band and getting some context. I’m going to listen to their albums several times to see if anything grows on me, and I’ll report back.

Who knows? I may learn something here. Maybe someday I’ll even like Led Zeppelin and the Doors.

Series NavigationJoy Division in Context >>

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Peter Lee


  1. I’m in the same boat with you on Joy Division. I understand their influence and my girl Paloma is a big fan, but their stuff just has never resonated with me. Now, on the other hand, I am a big fan of New Order (who formed from the remains of Joy Division).

  2. While I haven’t gone too deep into New Order’s catalogue – just their Top 40 material – I can definitely hear a big difference: better singing, (a little) happier mood and more of a melody. “True Faith” is a great song – but a really weird video…

  3. More background info:

    Peter Hooke and Bernard Sumner were childhood friends and decided to form a band after a Sex Pistols concert. They had no musical experience. Peter learned quickly, Bernard did not. In order to cover up his extremely sloppy playing, Bernard would turn his amplifier up as loud as it went so it would distort. Peter realized the only way he could be heard through this wall of noise was playing higher pitched. Hooke’s high-pitched bass-lines carrying the melody became incredibly important in Joy Division’s sound, and eventually in just about every good band of that era.

    (Early) The Cure is the most direct ripoff of Joy Division that exists. Take Joy Division, change the vocals, and replace a good drummer with a crappy one, and you get The Cure. (Early) U2 was more talented on their instruments, less original, and less dark and droning; much the same can be said about a lot of Joy Division bands. They all sound very polished and watered down by comparison.

    Really, though, what makes Joy Division so significant is how music sounded before them and how it sounded after them. If I could name a very short list of bands which had the most profound impact on how music sounds, Joy Division would be on that list. New Order probably would, too (EXTREME importance in electronic and dance music, especially on the record Low Life).

    Every member in Joy Division also had a very distinct and recognizable style of playing. It’s very easy to recognize Stephen Morris’s drumming, Bernard Sumner’s guitar and keyboard playing, Ian Curtis’s voice (which, I’ll admit, sounds off a lot of the time), and Peter Hooke’s bass melodies. Of course, a lot of people lifted a lot off that sound (or sounds–as some Joy Division songs sound very different from others). Listen to “Ceremony,”–originally a Joy Division song, but never recorded in the studio until after Ian had died and New Order was formed (listen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVdheR0bUwI ) and tell me you can’t hear Bono belting instead of Sumner’s mousy voice. The instrumentals of U2’s first 2 records sound stylistically identical and the 3rd record is only different because The Edge took John McGeoch’s chimey guitar sound, the drum and bass remaining the same thoughout).

  4. That quintessential Joy Division ‘sound’ was crafted by Martin Hannett (With a little help from AMS digital delay). Hooky himself admits that he hated Unknown Pleasures when he first heard it. Compare ‘Warsaw’ from the An Ideal for Living EP to anything on U.P. or Closer and the difference is clear. The spacious almost sparse sound is Hannett, The tight synth like drums are Hannett (not to take anything away from Morris’ skills as a drummer). Ian’s dark, personal lyrics and dissonant vocals match that sound beautifully.

    I disagree with the comment about The Cure, a talented and influential group in their own right who were Joy Division’s peers rather than imitators. Let’s not forget that JD owe a debt to The Velvet Underground,Iggy, Bowie and Roxy Music as well…that is the nature of music.

    Ultimately, You can’t force yourself to like a band simply because they are critically acclaimed.

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