There are a few schools of thought regarding the surge of interest in Joy Division over the last decade. Many fans were disappointed when Peter Hook and his new band toured the Unknown Pleasures album, seeing it as nothing more than a money making scheme. Certain sections have shown equal disdain towards other recent releases regarding the band. From the 1995 biography Touching From a Distance, to the film biopic Control and the documentary Joy Division, both in 2008, people have questioned whether this kind of scrutiny is really what the reclusive and media shy Ian Curtis would’ve wanted. As a long term fan, I fall in a different camp. Curtis was one of the best songwriters this country has produced, and if fantastic films like Control can bring his music to a wider audience, I’m all for it. Although it is a shame that idiots like The Wombats got on board.
There’s a new addition to the Joy Division archives this month, with the release of So This is Permanence. The book collects together Ian’s handwritten lyrics, lost songs, and original ideas, with photos of his book collection, artwork from gigs, albums, and singles, and some fascinating fan mail that he kept alongside his notebooks. But the book is more than the sum of its parts. As well as an interesting collection, it is an insight into the mind and the working methods of one of the most fascinating and mysterious musicians in music history.
While the artwork and photos are merely a passing interest, the fan letters offer something more. Not only do they show the dedication of fans while the band were still touring, but they also show a side of Curtis that is often hidden by his sombre lyrics and mesmerising stage persona. Because many of these letters are replies to Curtis, thanking him for taking time to speak to them at a gig, or send them some badges in the post, or even write out his lyrics for one eager follower. Another more sinister letter shows the other side of Joy Division’s fanbase, those people who mistook their name and dress sense for a direct involvement with Nazism. In a few pages, those of us who couldn’t be around to see the band’s short career, get a hint of what a furore they really caused.
It is, though, the lyrics that shine most brightly. Joy Division songs are often fraught and raucous, and even those of us who have listened to them for years will learn something from seeing the words written down. Curtis liked to leave his songs open for interpretation, so the words never accompanied the album sleeve. This will be a first for many fans. There has never been any doubting his lyrical mastery, but seeing the songs in his own handwriting shows just how bleak, despairing, and utterly beautiful they are. Manic Street Preachers’ bassist Nicky Wire has a quote on the back of the book which says everything:
“The words are untouchable, unreachable, perfect, unsettling, unique, beautiful. They are poetry but I want to claim them for rock.”
Seeing the lyrics in this manner also does something else. It makes you wonder how people didn’t see the struggles that Curtis was facing in the last months of his life. As he redrafts lines of Love Will Tear us Apart, you can see how he fought to demonstrate exactly what he was feeling. One of the most prevalent sections we find him rewriting in these notes is the opening to Passover:
“This is a crisis I knew had to come / Destroying the balance I’d kept / Doubting, unsettling and turning around / Wondering what will come next”
It’s actually a difficult experience to see how he worked so hard to get these lyrics just right. But for anyone who is really interested in the history of this band, you’ll never find a way to get so close to them.
Any Cop?: Obviously, I think so. But I suppose there’s a pretty easy way of finding out if you’d think so too. Are you a Joy Division fan? If so, So This is Permanence needs a space on your bookshelf. If not – well, there’s probably a One Direction annual out soon, anyway.