“Praise to the glory of loved ones now gone.”
Last Friday, on the 17thJuly, Joy Division’s magnum opus, Closer, somehow celebrated its fortieth birthday. Can it really be forty years ago that I invested a week’s wages (paper round, not working for Boohoo) on a slice of vinyl that was to claim a place in my heart forever?
I must confess that I wasn’t a massive Joy Division fan pre-Closer. Remember kids, this was pre-Spotify. Decades before You Tube had even been imagined. We couldn’t access a free library of millions of tunes. Of course, I had heard stuff from Unknown Pleasures on John Peel and thought it was pretty decent. But, in those days, pretty decent didn’t merit your three-quid paper money. For that, you had to be The Clash or The Banshees.
Upon initial reflection, I’m not quite sure why I was compelled to buy Closer upon its release. Maybe it got a great review in the NME (always a strong barometer in those days). Maybe I wanted to impress someone. I suspect it was probably the cover. My God, that cover. No other album art has ever come close(r). More than anything, the drama of that cover, allied with the tragedy of Curtis, probably led me to part with my cash.
I recall listening to the album in my bedroom and marvelling at Bernard-Pierre Wolff’s photograph, taken at the Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa, which shows a crypt filled with figures in mourning. I admit to being a bit of a font geek, and here, above the neo-classicist imagery, is the most perfect typography that is based upon second century Roman alphabet. The image and the words combine perfectly to create a visual experience that mirrors the music precisely. It is a stunningly beautiful work of art, out of which sadness seeps endlessly.
That image of wretchedness and sorrow was to have unfortunate consequences for the band. As is well documented, the band’s lead singer, Ian Curtis, tragically cut short his own life whilst the album was in the final throes of the manufacturing process. The sleeve art had been already designed and approved. Of course, it could have been pulled and replaced with another image that was less melancholic. But what else could have complemented the music so perfectly? The band, the label (Factory) and designers Martyn Atkins and Peter Saville took a lot of stick for their decision to go with the original cover, with many critics accusing them of exploiting Curtis’s death. But it was the right decision. It was correct in 1980 and their courage in delivering one of the most iconic covers ever should be lauded today
I will never forget the first time I dropped the needle on to that piece of vinyl and the military beat of Atrocity Exhibition kicked in. That was swiftly followed by an industrial, harsh soundscape of noise. And those lyrics. I mean, “asylums with doors open wide/where people had paid to see inside/for entertainment they watch his body twist/behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist’”. It was all so discordant and uncomfortable, yet, the same time, utterly compelling.
By the end of the album, I was stunned. This was miles away from anything else that was around at the time. Everything else immediately seemed an overly simplistic and straightforward listen. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way (how could one be derogatory towards The Clash), but, at that moment, everything else sounded like music by numbers and, from that first listen, Joy Division became my favourite band and Closer the soundtrack to much of my life.
You don’t need a track-by-track synopsis here. If you’re reading this I guess you are familiar with the content. But I cannot leave this piece without specifically calling out the last three tracks on the album. They begin with the cri di coeur of Twenty Four Hours. You can feel Curtis’s wretched desperation as he pleads “now that I’ve realised how it’s all gone wrong/gotta find some therapy, this treatment takes too long”. The accompanying music deviates between skittish urgency and ascetic restraint.
Throughout Curtis’s lyrics are like no other. They are disturbing and conjure up disconcerting images in your mind. They are poetry. They are, it’s obvious now, a cry for help.
The album closes with Decades. Six minutes and eleven seconds of wonder, driven by Bernard Sumner’s piercing and melodic synths. In between those two wonderful pieces of music we have the magnificence of The Eternal, with that sorrowful bass riff and elegiac piano coda. After all these years, it is still the stand out track and nothing since, from any band, has evoked such feelings of utter dejection. Are songs meant to do that?
There’s something else I love about The Eternal. At the very end of the track, producer Martin Hannett lets the tape run on and it captures a hiss and Sumner’s keyboard stumbling awkwardly over the line again. It’s a blemish that sits amidst the most impeccable beauty, like a flaw in the Koh-i-Noor. It shouldn’t be there, but it’s existence actually augments the whole.
Speaking of Hannett, Closer has to be one of the most masterful examples of record production ever. Hannett was notoriously eccentric, as well as a copious consumer of substances, but there’s no doubt that he was a bona-fide genius. His ideas to bring this collection of songs to life were revolutionary. Unlike Unknown Pleasures, which was recorded in a very conventional way, there was a degree of experimentation with Closer. It helped that the songs hadn’t formed part of the band’s live set for the previous couple of years. They had the space to develop in the studio.
Hannett took Stephen Morris’s beats and rhythms and made them sound nothing like drums. They are stripped bare, with little resonance. They underpin the overall feel of Closer. It’s a glacial, stark whiteness. It feels icy cold. Sumner’s synths feel homespun and minimalistic. Because of the keyboards, Curtis complained that Closer sounded like Genesis when compared to the rawness of Unknown Pleasures. But, in truth, whilst Closer may have had three songs that exceeded six minutes in length, this was as far from prog as one could imagine.
For me though, the most influential aspect of the musicianship was Peter Hook’s bass work. A couple of years earlier, I had acquired my first bass and was on the cusp of giving it up. I had no desire to sound like Chris Squire or Jaco Pastorius. Equally, I felt I could contribute more to a band than Sid Vicious. Then I heard Peter Hook. Here was a guy who played lead lines on his bass. The instrument was high in the mix and led the tracks. That was what I wanted to do and Hook made it okay to play the bass that way. Not long after buying Closer, I obtained a Hondo Rickenbacker-copy bass, in that bright reddish/sunburst colour. Just like Hooky.
Today, I still listen to Closer. In forty years, I’ve never really stopped listening to it and every time I am still struck by its sheer majesty. It’s an investment I have never regretted and whilst I have lost many albums over the years, I still have my original copy of Closer. It’s a special thing that has a very special place in my heart.