Matthew d'Ancona on Paul Morley's latest book
In 1980, the Manchester pop impresario, Tony Wilson, showed Paul Morley the dead body of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, who had hanged himself. Wilson hoped that Morley would one day write the definitive account of the band and Curtis’s martyrdom. He also knew that Morley’s father had committed suicide, and that, alone with the body in a room in Macclesfield, the young journalist would be confronting much more than the earthly remains of his favourite singer.
Another book about Joy Division? No, the book. Although Morley has not obliged the devious, brilliant Wilson — who himself died last year — with a conventional history of the group, he has done something much more intriguing and innovative, which is to collect his writings about the band over the last three decades, and to explore afresh the evolution of his critical response over the years and of the band’s role in contemporary culture.
Two films — 24 Hour Party People and last year’s Control — have ensured that Joy Division are now better known than ever. They were among the 40 or so awestruck Mancunians who watched the Sex Pistols play the Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976: a single gig whose consequences for the city and its culture were tectonic. Suddenly, and for more than a decade, Manchester was the centre of the pop culture universe: Buzzcocks, Magazine, the Fall, the Smiths, the Happy Mondays, Oasis. And — the alpha and omega — Joy Division.
Part of this book’s appeal is that it is essentially a work of intellectual autobiography, chasing the fugitive ways in which an individual’s life can be explained through the prism of an artistic force: in this case, a band whom Morley knew personally but whose work has meant many different things to him over the past 30 years.
Morley first crossed my generation’s radar as a pop Svengali rather than as a writer, the intellectual behind the mid-Eighties label, ZTT, that spawned the Art of Noise, the majestic Propaganda and (above all) the chart-topping Frankie Goes to Hollywood. But it was as a chronicler that he first made his name: a protagonist in a Northern cultural drama in which he was less than Hamlet but more than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
As a young writer for the NME in the late Seventies, Morley watched four young Mancunians get off to a faltering start as Warsaw and then, through a combination of sweat and spirit, flourish into the prodigiously fine rock group that was Joy Division. Part of the magic was Martin Hannett’s production on the band’s only two albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, which somehow added space and fragility to the band’s aggressive sound.
But the group was no less astonishing live. Curtis’s inimitable dancing suggested a soul trying desperately to escape its physical prison: an epilepsy of the spirit to match the epilepsy of the body that caused the singer so much misery. But Joy Division were more than just Curtis’s backing group. As Morley notes, they were like four soloists, all vying to be the lead voice: on one of the band’s classic singles, She’s Lost Control, it is Peter Hook’s opening bass riff that takes command, competing with mesmeric drums by Stephen Morris. Only after their opening duel do Curtis and the band’s guitarist, Bernard Sumner, get in on the act.
As Morley writes, ‘Joy Division was privacy times four’. They survived without Curtis. Indeed, to be frank, they prospered as they might not have done, mutating from Joy Division into New Order and plotting a path through the Eighties and beyond, from punk to rave, ‘cunningly introducing northern dark to northern lights’.
One of the strange things about pop music has been the longevity of the really good stuff. A genre designed specifically to be ephemeral by its original commercial benefactors has ended up, quite against expectation, producing work that will last forever: what Yeats called ‘monuments of unageing intellect’.
In the case of Joy Division, the music has become both more disturbing and more consoling with the passing of time. It is, somehow, both lovely and dissonant. Morley says, rightly, that Curtis, in the lyrics to Closer, had produced ‘a map of despair at the end of a life’. His tragedy was that he then chose to follow his own map.
Some of the writing collected in this magnificent book is opaquely experimental. No matter: this is all part of the exercise, the argument that, by definition, Morley’s take on Joy Division will always be work in progress. One engages here with a master of his craft, unafraid to surrender control to the reader, wise enough to know that all writing, however lapidary it may seem, is provisional.