A pleasure, a wayward distraction

As I continue in my slow but sure project to reduce down the amount of CDs I have around — to constantly and continually turn away, let go, to stop hoarding — I still allow for those occasional ones I will add to the collection or else trade up for. But some things I wasn’t going to replace even though I loved them dearly because I already had them in a way I could work with — thus Joy Division, whose box set Heart and Soul contained just about everything I could have wanted from them. So when the word of the reissues came out last year, I thought, “Eh, well…I don’t need to re-replace everything, and live sets aren’t necessarily enough.” I’d heard the live disc from the box, of course, as well as two further separately released live sets in later years, most sourced from any number of bootlegs long familiar to hyperfans (I could never count myself among them, much as I love them and New Order both — but a dedicated fan, yes).

Then Dr. C on ILM mentioned that the live discs for both Closer and Still were both fantastic, superb, ‘as good as it gets.’ Hmm, I thought, and made a mental note. Up in LA yesterday dumping off some stuff at Amoeba I ended up with more credit to spare than I had first guessed and decided to browse a bit — and found both of those reissues used, meaning I could get them for nothing and still have a lot left over. Hurrah for fortuitousness.

I’m not positive but I’m pretty sure I first heard of Joy Division in specific via an issue of Musician magazine from early 1988, which I picked up because of the Pink Floyd story on the cover (as I said a little while back, this was part and parcel of my high school classic rock phase in senior year, but at the same time I wasn’t limiting myself to just that, thankfully). The story was by Robert Palmer (not THAT one, the one who was the writer) and while bits of it seemed a bit forced then and still do now, overall it fulfilled its brief very well, namely talking about both Joy Division and New Order in a context that an older-than-me music-following audience unaware of either might get to grips with.

I’d already heard about New Order for a couple of years before then. That was the point, everyone had, or so it seemed. Four songs in particular — “Bizarre Love Triangle,” “Shell Shock,” “True Faith” and “Blue Monday” — had received enough airplay even on local San Diego Top 40 radio to get my attention, while doubtless my many classmates who openly worshipped at the altar of 91X knew them all a lot more than I did. I remember seeing people carrying around the cassettes of the then newly released Substance for their walkmen at school and then there was also the video for “True Faith,” all over MTV and which was so much odd nonsense (but in the context of the many videos done for the band over the years, surprisingly apt, another cryptic dodge that didn’t so much work with the band as around it). Soon after we got a CD player one of the first ones I picked up was Brotherhood, an album that I retain a particular affection for still, as partially detailed in this old ILM thread. So encountering this article, and learning, as mentioned pretty much for the first time, about this earlier band was instructive.

(Just typing all this makes me laugh a bit at how things have changed in terms of finding out about bands, or anything else you’re interested in. That iPhone story I linked the other day shows that much. But I’m not going to venerate some sort of golden age of spending a lot of time to find out about something — it’s not the means, it’s the person. There are, for instance, approximately eight million trillion bits of information I could find out about NASCAR right this second should I so choose, but I don’t care about NASCAR.)

Anyway, thanks in part to a couple of interestingly odd Anton Corbijn photos to go with it, the article stuck in the mind, as did mentions of the fact that Joy Division themselves were going to get a collection of their own coming out soon, also called Substance. Though I didn’t know it at all at the time, I was the unwittingly beneficiary of something that apparently had long been asked for by fans — a proper overview of the group’s many singles, including a nearly impossible to find release of “Atmosphere” and “Dead Souls.” The vinyl release had ten songs but the CD release had seventeen, so being able to hear all this stuff made me all the more interested, and so soon thereafter I had my copy of it. I remember being initially surprised and confused by the earliest songs like “Warsaw,” thrashy, strange, somewhat contextless beyond the vaguest of impressions. But as the disc progressed, things became…not more familiar, but more understandable, and further relistens of everything over and again helped bring it all more to life.

Turning this all into a full discussion of my sinking into Joy Division is actually not my goal here, though — better to briefly say that within a year or so I owned the initial Warners reissues of Unknown Pleasures and Closer, as well as the two Peel Session EPs, while sometime after that I first taped Still from a roommate at UCLA then found a CD copy on import. To say that I grew fascinated by and reasonably knowledgeable about the story of Joy Division — building up of course to Ian Curtis’s suicide and the aftermath — is true, yet both music and story were not, I think, as overwhelming presences to me and my way of thinking about things musically as many other things were. They were a strong part of it, as was New Order, but both their presences have felt, after that initial series of exposures, constant instead of overwhelming — and yet always somehow core, deeply felt and understood but not worn on my sleeve (or on a T-shirt, though I do have a knockoff of the Unknown Pleasures image that features on an old shirt for the now departed Costa Mesa record store Noise Noise Noise).

In ways, though, my acting diffident on this matter is a bit of a runaround — there’s a lot I could say about Bernard Sumner in particular, whose tragedy-driven forcing to the center stage after initial unsureness turned him into an anti-icon icon, somebody whose essential everydayness, but not without a quiet sense of style, makes him this compelling figure that has had more of an impact than I think a lot of people will fully allow for, including himself. But this is a long brewing piece for another day (seriously, I’ve been thinking about it on and off for about two, three years now!).

As with much I heard back then, the presence of Joy Division in my regular listening is low — it’s comfortable, familiar, brought out only every so often, and much new and old that’s unknown to me is what I hear most now. But the indulgences of a reissue that had been so praised had to be obeyed in this instance, and so I bought and listened and read.

Read, very importantly — there were liner notes for both of the ones I got (doubtless for Unknown Pleasures too) and perhaps unsurprisingly Paul Morley did the ones for Closer, along with all the bandmembers minus the obvious, while Jon Wozencroft did the honors for Still. Both live up to their reputations, providing information while simultaneously obscuring some details and demystifying others, such as how Wozencroft heard himself on a bootleg that ended up being the source for the bonus disc material, as well as being able to meet the original record of that tape and to get his words on the matter.

And the live bonus discs — as advertised, quite good. Audience recordings that aren’t muffled except by the inevitable limitations of the original recording equipment; I’m sure I’ve heard far worse ‘official’ live recordings from bands over time. The struggles between band and producer Martin Hannett to get their sound captured in a way they liked are part of the legend so at base hearing more of what the band sounded like to themselves, at least in some form, is of definite interest. There’s actually more going on in those live performances which paralleled the eventual releases than the band might have recognized at the time, or even now.

It’s also fascinating to see what the band brought to their setlists — on both these live discs, done a few weeks before Closer was even recorded in one intense two week session in London, the band sticks almost entirely to that new material as well as other new songs, notably “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “These Days.” On one disc the only Unknown Pleasures song that appears is “Insight,” on another “Disorder.” And the crowd, far from being restless, audibly loves all the new stuff, as it would have been then. Not a unique situation, but still something that happens less often than might be hoped, even now.

It’s getting late and I do need to wrap up — the work grind tomorrow calls — but hearing all these familiar-yet-different songs remind me how I can still be surprised, even from a supposedly well-known source. As I said the other day, I’m glad to be living in 2008 rather than 1988, but I’m more than happy with this particular flashback. Even down to that goofy cover of “Sister Ray” that surfaced on Still.