New Song

The story and specter of Joy Division’s last and greatest composition

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in Features • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach

To truly know the musical ethos of Joy Division you have to dig. That is to say, you must move beyond what they officially left behind with their “proper” discography, which compromises two studio albums in Unknown Pleasures and Closer. The discography has swelled a bit in the intervening decades, thanks to various compilations and the occasional live album, but the two studio albums drive the band’s legacy.  

The Mancunian post-punkers are not my favorite group — they might be my third or fourth — but I have never heard a musical unit come across as sufficiently emotionally intense that I thought I might hurt myself if I failed to listen to them.  

They were never to become global superstars — not as Joy Division, anyway — in large part, because singer Ian Curtis took his life, at aged 23, on what was to have been the eve of their first American tour, on May 18, 1980, leaving behind a wife, child, and three shocked ex-bandmates who hadn’t know the levels of pain with which their singer and lyricist had been dealing. The survivors, by 1981, had rallied, becoming the band New Order from out of the Joy Division ashes. Once they found their way, the link between the two bands was virtually invisible — New Order was a titillating fusion of dance and rock while Joy Division always struck me as a sound that was pulled from a black hole. Or, perhaps, a sound to pull you from a black hole.  

Their electro-rhythms reminded me of Otis Redding, strangely enough, but without the horns and Redding gone way, way wrong, as though the Stax sound had been filtered through a Stanley Clarke novel. And no one sang like Curtis. When I first discovered this music, I couldn’t stop listening to it. I was in college, and over a winter break, my roommate took me to his parents’ house in the near-off suburbs. I sat at a computer, playing the band’s second and final album, Closer, and as my friend’s dad passed through the room — he was a big fan of the Eagles, and would often cite how he could get to the school where he worked within the duration of “Hotel California” — he asked, “What the hell is that?” I wasn’t sure what to say. I understood that one wouldn’t think of Curtis’s voice as natural, how one “should” sing, but so it went with Son House, Elvis, Louis Armstrong, Dylan. I just replied that they were this post-punk band from England, though they were contemporaries of the Eagles, which seemed a strange note of conciliation, and I wondered if anyone had ever loved both bands or how possible it was to do.   

Hardcore Joy Division folk tend to regard their official records as a dilution of the true Joy Division sound, which you get with that aforementioned digging. Both of their LPs are masterpieces, but they’re also disavowed by the cognoscenti, because of 1) How they were produced and 2) The sonic contrast they provide with the rock and roll band that clustered together with a series of gigs that were as strong as any band, however legendary, ever performed. They were that good live. Mesmeric. Soul-stamping. But they were even better when they captured —“recorded” might not be the best word — their last song, which exists in this aptly liminal Joy Division state. Those who do know this piece of music tend to know the New Order variant, which is a very different affair and became that band’s first single in January 1981. The number was called “Ceremony,” the lyrics allegedly penned by Curtis while in the hospital recovering from one of his breakdowns, his bandmates attempting to pick up his spirits by setting music to his words.  

Depending upon how you would like to count, either three or four versions of the song exist by the band who first created it. In no one single version are the lyrics completely audible — they always have the off-mic quality of a living ghost — and they are certainly not hi-fi, though I would argue that they are more powerful for the battered acoustics. They were not meant to be heard by anyone save the members of the group in two instances — both quite different — and solely by people in the third who had ponied up some of their wages to see Joy Division on the last evening anyone ever would.  

Rock and roll is ruled by the riff. A song need not have a killer riff to be a killer song. But when an all-timer of a riff emerges, we instantly recognize it for what it is — a sonic foundation on which much can be built, that we have no problem encountering again and again.  

Bands will tell you that there is this moment of epiphany when they are rehearsing, and someone nails a given groove that can and must stick. I suspect this happened when George Harrison and John Lennon were tooling around on their guitars and the riff to “I Feel Fine” began to emerge, or Keith Richards first played the “Satisfaction” ostinato to Mick Jagger. A good melody is hard to find — a good riff can be harder. You don’t want to pass up a great riff. Riffs can be so great that you can surround them with nonsense words — think of the Kingman’s “Louie Louie” — and you are absolutely golden and good to go. The riff can be your entire career. A single, reoccurring musical pattern/line. If Grieg had been a hard rock guitarist, he could have played variations on the riff of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” until the electric guitar went the way of the Stegosaurus.  

Two (or three) of the Joy Division versions of “Ceremony” are from May 2, a little more than a fortnight before Curtis will be gone. They must have been eyeing the song as one they will feature on their upcoming North American tour, though I’ve always felt — and I certainly feel it more listening to this performance — that Curtis already knew he would not be headed Stateside.  

On this date of the English spring, Joy Division was at Birmingham University, where they would play their final concert. The audio from the mixing board ended up on the Still compilation album, released in October 1981. The tape featured on Still begins with a truncated version of “Ceremony,” as if the engineer was late to the gig and began recording in media res. (The band’s handwritten set list rendered the number as “New Song.”) A fan in the audience also captured the event for posterity on a cassette hidden inside of a jacket, which contains the full performance of “Ceremony,” hence our two-for-one version of a version. Different recordings of the same song on the same night. 

On Still, it’s clear that drummer Stephen Morris has been at it for a while. You can tell from the drive of his bass drum that he’s been lathered up for a spell. There is the strange sensation that though the song has been played for a while, Curtis has yet to sing, which we seem tacitly aware of. We are only seconds into the Still recording of “Ceremony” when the riff begins, but the riff does not hit as it does in the other airings of the song, because temporally there has not been the same kind of build-up. We have to wait for the riff, but only a little. Often riffs are the first notes you hear in the songs that feature them — consider “Satisfaction,” “Purple Haze,” “Day Tripper,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin,” “When I Come Around,” “My Generation.” 

It’s actually hard to think of songs built around a riff that don’t begin with it. On the audience tape, guitar and drums begin in tandem, with the former having a pianistic quality, as if keys have replaced fretboard. The song features only two chords, and we get them straight away. The cymbal rhythm does not relent, and it goes very fast, while the rest of the song does not.  

Other bands would turn to a loud-soft-loud-soft dynamic in future years for dramatic contrast, but Joy Division has more finesse; they can pull back while they surge forward. The bass drum serves as a summoning device, a unification force. Is this an intro? A spiritual call to arms? It goes on for a good stretch, harkening, building, getting our attention.  

It’s not a vamp — it has more creativity than a vamp, more urgency. Our feeling is that a band could only build up our expectations this way if they have something exceedingly special to present. You knew they had confidence in the song if they are opening a show with it, and if Curtis knew this was their last show, you can be sure that he had a major say — perhaps the final say — in how they’d start. These are high bloody stakes, we may conclude, for what seemed a sparsely attended university show, just another gig ridden to in a van.  

Around 20 seconds in, guitarist Bernard Sumner provides a mildly distorted chord, akin to a flash of light across the sound space. It passes from the background, to middle ground, to foreground, darts away. A more sophisticated filigree of notes from Sumner’s guitar follows the darting-chord. It seems to wish to say something, is trying to find its voice, not so much dancing around the issue — and you can dance to this — as limbering up. An Existential limbering up.  

The guitar seems to hold itself in abeyance, rocking in a two-step rhythm, then it ceases for the briefest of lacuna, a rest, in musical terms. We know, when it resumes, it will say what it has to say to us, in the form of the finest riff I have ever heard, because it needed to be set up, could only be set up, in this manner.  

Finally, nearly 80 seconds into the performance, Sumner sounds his riff, consisting of four notes. The riff is allowed to unfold and repeat a dozen times, and then Curtis begins, his voice barely audible, as though he has already left us and has returned to remind everyone why he was here in the first place, lest we did not know.  

“This is why events unnerve me,” he sings, “Different words, the same old story.” In this moment, Curtis becomes the riff, the life riff of which I have spoken. And now we understand why this song has gone as it has.   

Curtis didn’t normally write gnomic lyrics, “Ceremony” being somewhat of an exception, though here his words are elliptical, connecting ends with beginnings. “Notice for whom wheels are turning / Turn again and turn towards this time.” The immediate moment of now is what matters most, the song seems to say. The focus on the present. Or, the wheels of time, for a given person, coming to a full-stop in the present moment. When we turn towards someone — or, rather, when we note that we turn towards someone, or they to us — we do so for various reasons, but there is usually a larger point. We don’t turn towards someone, for instance, to say hello. We wouldn’t mention turning to them. We turn to someone to say words of greater gravity. “She turned to me and she said . . . ” — we know it is not going to be, “Would you like a pickle with your sandwich?” Consequence hangs in the balance. We turn to someone to give them a look when we don’t have the necessary words that would express what is in our hearts, our concerns, our friendship, our love. The effect in “Ceremony” is that we feel a song turning towards us.  

There is a Joy Division bootleg called Out of the Room, made up of taped performances gathered in a kind of desperate, at-all-costs need to document this band even from a distance. It’s not that Joy Division had an excellent security team — there was no security. Presumably, the doors to the hall or church or gymnasium were locked, and whoever was going to covertly tape the upcoming show didn’t want to let anything get away.  

One of the taped performances is the soundcheck of “Ceremony” prior to that night’s gig at Birmingham University. Maybe an English major made it. Who knows. The band soundchecked two songs, the other being “Decades,” which had concluded the yet-to-be-released Closer album.  

I’ve heard a lot of soundchecks, but never one this intense. As a rule a soundcheck is not intense — it’s about testing the levels. “Ceremony” is taken at a faster clip than in any other performance we will get to experience, like the band cannot wait to arrive at the point when Curtis will absolutely scream, “I’ll take them on / No mercy shown / Heaven knows its got to be this time.” Suffice it to say, you believe him.  

Curtis’s lyrics almost always have urban settings, and commonly post-war settings, an England of rubble and darkness, cities yet to be rebuilt; or else urban centers that might as well come from Blade Runner, only a black and white Blade Runner, with more rain. There is not a lot of vegetation. Except here, in “Ceremony.”  

“Avenues all lined with trees/Picture me, and then you start watching,” Curtis sings, and there is, within this emotional squall, a calm. The calm of one who commands their art at a level few get to experience. A form of peace 

Two days before he took his life, Ian Curtis rehearsed with Joy Division in their hometown of Manchester, his bandmates under the impression they were getting themselves locked in, tightened up, for their US tour. Again, a taper is on hand. A band wouldn’t normally tape a rehearsal, though you can find scattered rehearsal tapes from the likes of Dylan and the Stones over the years, but those were big, stadium-filling acts with huge amounts of songs trying to figure out what would work best on the road, making reference tapes of arrangements, that sort of thing. In other words, not Joy Division.  

By a wide margin, this is the Joy Division version of “Ceremony” in the best fidelity. The riff enters earlier than it had back in Birmingham, about three quarters of a minute into the song. The pace is beautiful — measured, controlled, but forsaking no insistence, conviction. Everything is clear, save one component — Curtis is singing slightly off-mic. He’s out of the room while in the room. Someone would normally sing in this manner for a guide vocal, which is not about the actual performance, but rather helping out the musicians to get down their parts for when the whole package comes together. But Curtis has made a guide vocal the main vocal, how he elects to sing, approach the microphone. He’s like a refraction of his own sound, in the world, and out of it, and I think that is what he wanted to leave on this tape. Not a mystery for someone to decode, because that would probably never happen, but for himself. And also for these people he was leaving with this song, in that he was also leaving them a kind of forever guide vocal. A guide vocal in perpetuity. And I believe, more than anything, that is what we ask art to be for us, what we want it to be.  

The sound is enveloping. It’s warm. I feel sunshine when I listen to it, though it was probably raining. I could check an old weather report, but I don’t really care. The avenues are lined with trees, as in a Maupassant Parisian novel, it is, indeed, this time, there is no mercy shown, because grace and truth take no prisoners, they leave the fields of weeds and bracken, the ugliness of life, of suffering, of the struggle to endure, strewn with blood, only this blood is the color, the comfort, of light, and I find this version immeasurably comforting.  

Sumner tries a connective passage on his guitar — not a solo, mind you, but a little something different — and hits a bum note. They carry on. The bass doubles its tempo after the bridge, rounding us up to make our way towards the song’s conclusion as if we are wayward school children on a field trip to the theatre and the curtain is about to rise. “Picture me and then you start watching,” Curtis sings, with the full range of his baritone voice. The moment is at hand. And how long will the moment last?  

This is how he leaves us, with a directive, a cited quantity (albeit a limitless one), a prediction: “Watching forever, forever / Watching love grow, forever.”  

He sings “watching love grow” several times, the words having the same number of notes and the same rhythmic shape as the riff of the song itself, and he’s almost completely off-mic by the last time he sings it. The band restates the song’s introduction for the final portion of the coda, then stop. There will be no more because there was no more. Each of our most special moments are that way. Here is one that ended that does not end. And we all wake. •

Colin Fleming’s fiction appears in Harper's, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salmagundi, and Boulevard, with other work running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes. He is a regular guest on many radio programs, podcasts, and television outlets. His most recent book was Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls, and four books are coming in the near future: an entry in Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963; a story collection, If You [ ]: Fantasy, Fabula, Fuckery, Hope; a unique manner of novel, Chads Say What: Being a Novel Novel in Laughter for People Tired of Crying But Relieved Not to Be a Bro (and the Unification of America); a volume examining the 1951 movie Scrooge as a horror film for the ages. He maintains the voluminous Many Moments More blog on his website colinfleminglit.com, which ranges in its explorations from ballet to film to sports to literature to music to art to nature to unique workout routines in historical structures while exposing the corruption and discrimination — and plain bad writing — rampant in publishing, and documenting what it truly means to endure and grow. Sometimes there are posts on Twitter @colinfleminglit.

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