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Sounds 11/8/79

Sounds 11/8/79 Interview by Dave McCullough TRUTH, JUSTICE AND THE MANCUNIAN WAY PSEUD YOURSELF DAVE McCULLOUGH GETS NO JOY (INFORMATION-WISE) FROM JOY DIVISION PIX/TACTLESS REMARKS BY PAUL SLATTERY A blue, hired Cortina fires up the M1 on a straight, drab course through flat, drab countryside, pulling steadily past uniform acres of green anonymity. The dark head of our driver/lensman Paul Slattery shakes with wreckles glee as we sail merrily past one more non-plussed sportscar. He laughs lightly: "Yeah, I walked into Sounds office last week and they were playing Joy Division on the record player, and everyone was going, "aw, take this bloody shit off..." It was really boring, depressing stuff." I explain that 'Unknown Pleasures', Joy Division's debut album and the object of young Slat's derision, is a record that needs to be played at a volume that such timid persons couldn't stand for very long. Slattery, nonetheless, remains unconvinced and none the happier for the fact that we are on our way to spend some time with the creators of these controversial 'Unknown Pleasures'. Stockport is our destination. Joy Division are busy today. In the afternoon they are mixing their new single, then afterwards appearing at today's 'Stuff The Superstars' festival at Manchester's Mayflower Club. I'm looking forward to being present at both events, as we quite suddenly find ourselves cruising curiously through Stockport's backstreets, a cosy toytown of antique mills and light industrial warts. There is a carnival of sorts throughout the town, and the effect of seeing mums, dads, grandads and kids decked-out in flowers and straw-hats, beaming benignly at the silly pomp of marching brass bands and bouncing, scantily-clad Lancastrian lasses, is a surreal, living, Lorwey landscape. Via a chubby policeman's misdirections we reach Strawberry Studios, placed unevenly at the peak of a hill, dirty and ramshackle outside but inside furnitured with low-key sophistication. The carpets are thick, big gold 10cc albums paper the walls and the sound of Joy Division's new single rumbles in from afar. The band are downstairs playing pool. They are affable enough, but clearly uneasy. Their dress is somewhere between a factory-worker's eye for the practical and early and middle period Buzzcocks' eye for the proletarian chique, somewhere between the contrived and the uncontrived, perhaps, as we shall later see, a representation in clothes of the truth about Joy Division. And the day, henceforth, more or less did become a quest for some truths. It was lead singer Ian Curtis who brought the pool to a close, the band following us silently to the pub for, as they saw it, The Interview. Joy Division! The band: the people behind an album of startling power and ruthless energy, and I was now with them and wanting to discover who they were and what they were, wanting to settle in my own mind whether the album was the fruits of men inspired or the product of pseuds with schemes. Ah, the cynicism of these times. In 1979, contrary to the simple gloss of people like John Ingham who treat rock and roll with a simpleton's brilliance for putting round pegs in round holes and smaller boxes in bigger boxes, a critic must, as he has never done before, have his wits about him. He must be careful and sharper in perception than ever before. Rock and roll has moved away from primitive cries and sugary crooning: r'n'r has burgeoned into a vast, financially-based bureaucracy where the underlying reality, the truth (that word again!) flickers and flutters almost intangibly somewhere between, one the one hand, the effluence of Product, and, on the other, the natural, vulnerable birth of Art. In 1979, where musical technology has progressed to the extent that certain 'sounds' and r'n'r nuances can be easily copied and coldly palgiarised, interviewing Joy Division under the premise of their, so to speak, Image Genius (i.e. going into and coming out of the interview with the bland assurity that the band are genius, 'the new Doors', An Important Alternative Culture etc.) would be akin to a Blue Peter 'interview' where John Noakes chats to a fireman and comes away with the knowledge that a fireman has a difficult job. It would be an insult to your, mine and most likely Joy Division's intelligence. Perhaps members of Joy Division KNEW that I was trying to break through their superficial image, I'm not sure. Whatever, they had obviously agreed beforehand to put up a barrier in front of their true nature. Everything started off calmly enough. I spoke with singer Curtis and the guitarist (yes, 'the guitarist'! I didn't discover the names of the other three members of the band, such was the impersonality of their communication) who told me the band formed in May '77 some time after they'd seen the Pistols, the catalyst of their inception. Has the sound changed since then? Ian: "It's changed quite a lot, yeah... it's still changing now. We wrote those songs on the album a long time ago... the sound of the album isn't dated, but style-wise it has." How long did you spend on the album? Ian: "Four and a half days at Strawberry. We worked, say, from 2 o'clock in the afternoon to 4 in the morning getting it done." Were you surprised by the favourable reactions it received? Ian: "Yeah, I'm a total pessimist, I suppose. I mean our first single got bad... I mean UNFAVOURABLE, but, I thought, very well written, reviews. One compared it to John Lennon, another to Stockhausen... the comparison between the two was quite good!" (general guffaws) Guitarist: "Thing is, we don't go that much on reviews." If that latter remark is the case, I can only say each member spent an EXTRAORDINARY amount of time during the next three hours talking about the, ahem, Rock Press. Similarly I ask themn about the mechanics of their music and with formulated stiffness, like rehearsed dummies under the eye of manager/overseer Rob Gretton, clearly not at his brightest on the day, they trotted-out statements about democracy and miraculous spontaneity in songwriting. "We don't want to give people straight answers. We'd rather they question things for themselves." Ho hum. The irony was, of course, that even by, as they thought, remaining inscrutable and, ahem, Obscure, the band provided us with gargantuan evidence of their pseudness and, more to the point, their cerebral shortcomings. Ian remained contentedly silent as I became increasingly irritated by the absurd masquerade that was taking place. Manager Gretton (obviously assured of his own cleverness) and the berded bassist in particular, gave the impression that they suffered from serious mental deficiencies as they groped about in the dimness of their 'attitudes', smugly spouting non-sequiturs that wouldn't sound too polished on a very bad episode of Crossroads, and generally giving the impression that they'd spent much too long watching B.B.C.2. I suggest for instance that the nazi imagery of their first single confused a lot of people. No reaction. Much later I ask Ian how the band's name came about, knowing by chance that Joy Division was the term used by the S.S. to describe the Jewish women they saved from the gas-chambers for their own pleasure. Ian tells me that it's just a name. I become angry. Soon it is the bearded bassist who takes control of all the verbal rallies, with a bludgeoning, clumsy style, revealing raging neurotic symptoms as he tells me everything in inverse, ironic confessions. "So you're saying the lyrics are pessimistic, then, are you?" he bawls, as Slattery and self, knowing I hadn't so much as mentioned the word 'pessimistic' throughout the conversation, can't help but start laughing. "Aw, fuck off..." the bearded-one tells me. I switch the tape off and get up to leave. "Sorry, d'you want a drink?..." I thought afterwards how pathetic that sounded: when it came to the crunch what they wanted more than anytthing else, more even than presenting me with an honest account of themselves (even if the contrived anti-image is really them) was a couple of pages of publicity in Sounds. So much for the vague physchology, so much for the steaming hot guitars, the chaps wanted A MENTION! And later that evening I saw them live. The songs are even hotter and more vigorous than on the album, but on reflection suffer from a stunning lack of anything approaching contrasting humour. The black, overseriousness denies any real, life-like communication and you are left with what is by it's very nature a contrived, engineered set of songs. Later in the evening the guitarist was seen searching around the Mayflower for his 'woolie', which he'd lost. It was a funny, contrasting scene, but somehow I don't think it'll ever make it's way into a Joy Division song. It's maybe too close to reality for that. It was such thoughts that drifted through my head as we rattled back down the blank highway the following evening. Conclusions began to form. You can't equate Joy Division's earnest technique (grim dress, grim image) with the hard, real, financial, 'Factory' Records zeal in which they are plainly shackled. The ardour is always tempered by the money and no amount of undermilling obscurity will convince me that Joy Division's static, murky militancy is real. For, at the moment, the music is too supercilious (like the people) to ring true. It too often seems intended to make the listener to feel inadequate. On the other hand bands like the Gang Of Four have made good business out of the same mind-game. Maybe these days you like being made feel inadequate... Maybe Joy Division don't print their names on their records cos they're frightened of something. It could be themselves.

Last updated on 2005-03-07 10:18:00 PM - 10:18:00 PM
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