Our second Book of the Month for April is Jon Savage’s This Searing Light, The Sun And Everything Else – Joy Division: The Oral History, out now, published by Faber. Roy Wilkinson reviews:
One of the many bewildering things in this compelling narrative arrives when Stephen Morris talks about becoming Joy Division’s drummer. The Macclesfield teen sees a musician-wanted advert. The ad is sat alongside a second drummer-vacancy plea – from another new band, this one called The Fall.
Keen gig-goer Morris comes across these adverts in a magazine he’s reading before a show at Manchester Apollo. A quick vox pop with a fellow audience member tells him that the proto-Joy Division are “not much cop”. But there is even starker deterrence to answering the other ad. “No, no, no, not The Fall…” advises this person in the crowd. Yet, the remarkable aspect is not that Morris once stood at a fork in the road between Joy Division and The Fall. The amazing thing is that, in this same period, Morris was working as a journalist for the now-defunct UK music mag Record Mirror – reviewing live shows and writing the occasional interview feature.
Joy Division’s relationship with the UK music press was distinctive. The band’s bassist Peter Hook seemed to see pop-mag interviews as an extension of Joy Division’s thematic links to the Second World War. Journalists were emissaries of an enemy army. Any information imparted was to be done so reluctantly, defiantly, in the spirit of “name, rank and serial number”. All the while, however, Joy Division secretly contained a music journalist.
This Searing Light… is constructed from the recollections of 36 interviewees. It’s a fascinating read. However often this group’s history is unwound the surviving members of Joy Division seem able to summon transfixing new incident and peculiarity. Here, the band’s guitarist Bernard Sumner talks about how, on the day Ian Curtis was found dead, the two of them had been due to go water-skiing near Blackpool. Bernard was uncontactable. He carried on with his water sport.
The Joy Division story is full of extraordinary serendipity. Without producer Martin Hannett, the band’s recordings would have sounded unrecognisably different. Manager Rob Gretton was spectacularly unconventional. Without sleeve-designer Peter Saville, Joy Division’s celebrated visual aesthetics would never have existed. As Saville points out here, central to this Joy Division extra-band cosmology was Tony Wilson – founding the record label that had such a symbiotic relationship with this group. Now, from beyond the grave, Tony provides the title for this book. He recalls seeing an early show, when Joy Division were still called Warsaw: “There was this searing light, the sun, and everything else was just dimness throughout the entire evening.”
With all the surrounding buffoonery and bathos touched on in this book, it seems almost unbelievable that Joy Division were able to maintain their aura of austerity and otherness. Before signing to Factory Records – amid a band biography rich in porn films and paying roadies to drink pints of piss – Joy Division made an unreleased album for RCA. It didn’t go well. At the studio they found themselves double-booked with a man recording an ad jingle for Littlewoods football pools. Ian Curtis’s vocals were deemed so unsuccessful by RCA that they wondered about shipping in a secret session singer – Paul Young from bubble-permed Manchester soft-rockers Sad Café. Further, at this point, Tony Wilson was maybe best known for the regular Granada TV slot Kamikaze Corner, a slapstick interlude where the future art-rock grand vizier would be sent to fly a hang-glider or ride a donkey across Manchester Ship Canal.
That Joy Division and Factory could emerge so mightily from their various pre-histories is quite something – and that’s before we get to Joy Division’s historical references. They were, after all, a band named after sex slaves in Nazi concentration camps. With an image of a Hitler Youth drummer on their first single. And, at an early show, between-song invocation of Rudolf Hess…. In today’s world of social-media hyper-dissection what chance would this band have of getting to their first album before being written off as neo-Nazi pariahs? But, at the dawn of the 1980s, Joy Division weren’t alone in their allusions to the bleak actions of the Third Reich. As documented here, when Joy Division headlined the University Of London Union in 1980, the concert’s promoter was called Final Solution. A few months earlier Joy Division had encountered another Final Solution – this time a band, on a bill that also featured a group called Zyklon B. The latter were named after the chemical preparation used in Nazis gas chambers.
Jon Savage says he was drawn to producing a Joy Division oral history at this point as it would allow the protagonists to speak for themselves. This book does that, including the telling rumination on the break-up of Ian Curtis’s marriage to his wife Deborah, his affair with Annik Honoré and his suicide. Along with Curtis, Honoré is no longer with us — the Belgian civil servant and co-founder of the Les Disque du Crépuscule label having been killed by cancer in 2014. The book shines light on the nature of the relationship between Curtis and Honoré. After Curtis’s death, Mark Reeder, who worked for Factory Records, began a relationship with Honoré. As Reeder says, “I realised what kind of relationship she’d had with Ian. Because she was a virgin at 24. I thought they’d been having this sexual relationship, and they hadn’t.”
This Searing Light, The Sun And Everything Else is out now and available here, priced £20.00.
Jon Savage will be appearing on our stages at both this year’s Port Eliot and Good Life Experience festivals to discuss the book.