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Thursday, Jun 10, 2010
If the singer in your band suddenly died, would you call it quits? New Order did the opposite, proving in an endless stream of brilliant music that Joy Division was merely a warm-up on the path to pop greatness.

There’s one important fact that should not be neglected when commemorating the 30-year anniversary of Joy Division’s premature demise. Pretty much within a day of the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, his remaining bandmates decided to carry on under a new name. Thus was born New Order, an ensemble that gradually shed Joy Division’s rock essence to become one of the most influential groups in modern dance and electronic music. And, dare I say it, New Order was the better band.


While incorporating elements of electronic dance music wasn’t unusual amongst post-punk bands in the early 1980s (the synthesizer-based works of disco producers such as Giorgio Moroder were a strong influence for many of those groups), what set New Order apart from its rock contemporaries was how wholly the group embraced the music and its attending culture, to the point where a huge swath of listeners are unaware of the band’s rockier origins and inclination. In my own case, I was exposed to New Order’s music long before I had any inkling that there had been a predecessor group (much less one that played rock), due to R&B radio’s embrace of the band’s dancefloor-filling output during my 1980s childhood. In contrast to Joy Division’s grim Aryan-tinged image, New Order’s stellar run of singles during the 1980s acted as multicultural nexus points, linking white European post-disco, Latino electro from New York, and black house music from Detroit and Chicago, both drawing from and providing inspiration to these musical strains. The members of New Order would admit without hesitation that they were a bunch of white Britons who hated to dance, but their embrace and advancement of the technological innovations of electronic dance music—essentially forsaking agonized guitars and doomy basslines for drum programming and loads of synths—were never less than sincere. Witness the single “Confusion”, a kaleidoscopic blend of electro and early hip hop that remains a go-to cut for showing off one’s mad breakdancing skills:


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Friday, May 28, 2010
It’s not surprising that Joy Division’s cigarette-smoking crowd of followers in their dark, heavy overcoats would in a few short years become the first wave of gothic rock fans.

“Cult” is a very appropriate word to use when describing the level of popularity Joy Division has attained. The group has never sold gangbusters, but it has tended to attract a very devout sort of following. Whether the subject is the clutch of serious-faced young fans in the late ‘70s often referred to as the Cult with No Name, or Johnny-come-latelys entranced by the myth of singer Ian Curtis’ tortured life and death, there’s always been something faintly religious about Joy Division’s appeal. Surely if one were to pick up one of the group’s record sleeves, the immaculate Peter Saville design would have them thinking they were picking up a holy document.


Of course, the music is the main draw. Even before Curtis committed suicide in May 1980, Joy Division was earning a place amongst the post-punk movement’s top-tier with its work. Yet Curtis’ sudden death wasn’t the total career killer one would expect. Simon Reynolds, author of Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 tells me that circa the band’s 1979 full-length debut Unknown Pleasures “they were like contenders, ones to watch, and then with Closer (under a year later) they were the Band—or at least right up there with PiL. They were well on their way towards that status before Curtis’s death but that really pushed them over the edge into premier league.”  It’s fair to say this dramatic rise in stock was aided by Joy Division exploiting an opening left by then-leading post-punk innovators Public Image Ltd. As Reynolds notes, “In ‘79 PiL were definitely the leading post-punk band, and then threw it away by doing nothing in 1980.” Reynolds cites the airplay the 1979 single “Transmission” enjoyed on radio shows by John Peel and other like-minded British DJs, yet adds “but also Unknown Pleasures must have just sold steadily and gone through word of mouth. You started to get people talking about the Cult with No Name, their overcoat clad fans, as a type.”


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Monday, May 24, 2010
Trainwreck is a loving celebration of bros, leather pants, and machismo. PopMatters talks with Kyle Gass about the new album and metal parody.

Along with Spinal Tap, Tenacious D (Kyle Gass / Jack Black) pretty much closed the book on metal parody. For Kyle Gass, the next step in the skewering evolution was ‘70s era Southern rock, and the result is the mulleted, wigged, and moonshine-fueled Trainwreck. Formed in 2002 and fronted by Gass (aka Klip Calhoun) and frequent Tenacious D conspirator JR Reed (you might remember him as Lee from the Tenacious D HBO series, immortalized in the Tenacious D song “Lee”), Trainwreck is a loving celebration of bros, leather pants, and machismo. The key to the gimmick is that musically, it works. Loaded with heavy, catchy riffs and sing-a-long anthems, Trainwreck’s debut album The Wreckoning pairs perfectly with a 12 pack of Keystone Light, Kodiak dip, and maybe some bad speed. After a successful run through the Midwest in March, Trainwreck is currently on their second tour of the year, and I sat down for a chat with Kyle Gass before Trainwreck’s gig in Chicago.


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Tuesday, May 18, 2010
If any band is heir to the musical path Joy Division laid out, it would be the Cure, quite possibly the second-most influential band of the post-punk era.

Despite being a cult band with little commercial impact even to this day, Joy Division has turned out to be a seminal act that has influenced a huge swath of musicians. The perfect demonstration of this point: if you are unfamiliar with the sound of Joy Division, look no further than the hordes of brooding, baritone-voiced post-punk revivalists that have sprung up in the last decade to rectify that. The music press has had a field day plastering these groups with the dreaded “rip-off” tag, whether the accusations are merited or not. Given the negative tone these comparisons are often couched in, it’s unsurprising that the modern bands most often likened to the Joy Division, Interpol and Editors, often spend their interviews refuting assertions that they are heavily influenced by the British quartet. That’s certainly their prerogative, but it does result in odd comments like Editors bassist Russell Leetch saying he doesn’t understand the comparison because Joy Division didn’t sell a lot of records.


Even if one takes the neo-post-punkers at their word, there are still plenty of musicians to be found over the last three decades who will enthusiastically cite Joy Division as an inspiration and influence.  Among the most notable: Bloc Party, the Cure, Galaxie 500, Jane’s Addiction, John Frusciante, Moby, Pet Shop Boys, Radiohead, the Smashing Pumpkins, and U2. Few of these avowed disciples are outright stylistically comparable to Joy Division, but in varying quantities they have culled inspiration from Joy Division’s body of work, particularly its melodic basslines, its fractured guitar sounds, and late singer Ian Curtis’ world-weary existential lyrics.


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Tuesday, May 4, 2010
The first in a multi-part series commemorating 30 years since the demise of cult legends Joy Division.

It’s now been 30 years since the British post-punk quartet Joy Division released its final (and best-known) single on the Manchester, England-based indie label Factory Records. Hitting record store shelves as a 7” vinyl release not long before the band’s singer Ian Curtis took his own life on May 18, 1980, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” became a totemic record in the aftermath of that tragedy, widely taken as the last will and testament of a riveting yet tormented frontman. It’s without a doubt the short-lived group’s signature song, and even to this day when the band’s name is mentioned, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” has a 99.99% likelihood of being the first tune to come to mind.


Despite a legend the song cultivated almost immediately, (the original June 1980 Melody Maker review of the single described it as “Evocative, interesting… a powerfully original piece of music”), “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is not Joy Division’s best or most ambitious composition. Lacking the propulsive drive of “Transmission”, the dread anxiety of “She’s Lost Control”, and the sepulchral majesty of “Atmosphere”, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is thin and subdued, almost undeserving of its acclaim. Rendered coldly distant by Martin Hannett’s trademark production, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook restrict themselves to repeating their personalized variations of the main melody riff on keyboard and bass, respectively, while Ian Curtis delivers half-hearted stabs of guitar throughout. Aside from Stephen Morris’ ever-frenetic drum rhythms, the band sounds sapped of strength on the final recording, as if it has succumbed to solemnly accepting its fated demise.


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