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.