This Searing Light

I have recently read Jon Savage’s book about Joy Division- This Searing Light, The Sun And Everything Else: Joy Division: The Oral History. When I first heard about it I wasn’t sure an oral history, constructed from interviews old and new, was what I wanted from a Joy Division book by Jon Savage, one of the best writers of his generation. What I wanted was Jon’s writing, his thoughts and words, his insights. But within pages of starting the book I was realised I was wrong- the selection of quotes from interviews, the perspectives of the participants and eye witnesses, is exactly the way the story of Joy Division should be told. Some of the excerpts and quotes are familiar, from the Joy Division documentary from 2007, from interviews and articles I’ve read elsewhere. Some are taken from reviews and contemporary music press accounts. Some are new. The genius of Jon’s assemblage of the quotes is in the constant forward momentum of the story, told from within the band and from outside it, and the way he manages to make time shift. Clearly we all know the ending and some of the passages are from interviews with Sumner, Hook and Morris talking now about then, but despite them having the benefit of hindsight the book has a real immediacy, as if events are unfolding in front of your eyes. The shifting focus from one person to another, with interviews conducted at different points between 1978 and 2018, is really well done. The final few chapters, hurtling into 1980 and Ian’s increasing issues with his epilepsy and the side effects of the medication, the ongoing situation with Ian, Deborah Curtis and Annik Honore and the sense within the group that they should stop and give Ian a rest- while at the same time they’re making Transmission, Atmosphere, Dead Souls, Closer and Love Will Tear Us Apart- is brilliantly portrayed, heartrendingly so as the whirlpool sucks Ian further into it, and the loss of control by all involved. If you have any interest in the Joy Division story or the music they made, I can’t recommend it enough.

Fittingly, for a group so defined by the graphic presentation of the art and the beauty of Peter Saville’s work, it is a superbly put together book too, from the shiny reflective cover with the book title in the font used for Closer and grainy band photo, to the selection of gig shots and posters. There are a pair of quotes placed at the end of two of the chapters that are genuinely breathtaking, that make you stop, turn back a few pages and read again, so that the quote comes at you once more- one is from Tony Wilson, that gives the book its title (you should buy it, read it and enjoy that moment yourself). The other is from Annik Honore where she says ‘They made [the music] very naturally… and that’s why it was so good, because they were not self-conscious about it. I think it was coming from deep within them… it was spontaneous, it was not calculated, you know, not artificial; they had the light, the spirit.’ For a group that lasted only a couple of years and wrote and recorded no more than eighty songs, that had an enormous impact on those around them and in their audience at the time- Annik’s quote goes some way toward explaining their particular brilliance.

In 1978, before Factory existed, Joy Division got some studio time from RCA (who had an office in Manchester at the time). The session didn’t go very well and they almost walked out. It was suggested that they record a cover of version of N.F. Porter’s northern soul classic Keep On Keeping On. Hooky says they could never do covers, they never turned out well, they couldn’t work out the parts, but in this case they kept the guitar riff which became Interzone. It would be one of the ten songs that became Unknown Pleasures, recorded in Stockport’s Strawberry Studios with Martin Hannett in 1979. Hooky and Bernard hated Unknown Pleasures. Hannett took away their aggressive, punky live sound and made it something else, something with space and atmosphere and a doomy sense of things going wrong. Everyone else loved it. The rest, as they always say, is history.

Keep On Keeping On

Interzone

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