“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.”
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 (with its leaders gone, the Cult needed another group to belong do that had the same weighty aura), just as it’s clear that the earliest goth bands worked off a musical template honed by the Manchester, England group. One of the main tenets of the post-punk movement was killing rock ‘n roll. While pretty rockist, the classic Joy Division sound would nonetheless be the perfect music to be played at rock’s funeral. Originally rooted in the attack that characterized the first wave of British punk rock, Joy Division was one of the pioneering groups that demonstrated courses that could be taken out of “loud fast rules”. Yes, Joy Division remained a visceral group in concert to its last days, but what it sounded like on record was a different story. Martin Hannett made Joy Division cold and distant on record, removing rock music from its rural roots and placing it firmly in the modern cityscape, alienating and isolating. Playing more like a guitarist, bassist Peter Hook carried the melody, always ensuring the songs had a pulsing low end. At the center of it all was Ian Curtis, who drew from his heroes David Bowie and Jim Morrison to craft a mournful low baritone that made everything he sang (common themes: illness, dying, and death) reverberate with weight and importance.
Humorless music meant to be taken seriously, Joy Division enhanced its mystique via the image it crafted. Part industrial (the group was based in a factory town, after all) and part totalitarian (the flirtation with Nazi imagery began with the band’s name, and didn’t stop there) Joy Division suggested authority and precision, even if the band’s performance style and Curtis’ tendency to experience epileptic seizures during shows proved otherwise. Aside from Peter Saville’s minimalist record sleeve designs, nothing enhanced Joy Division’s aura more than the moody black-and-white photography of Anton Corbijn, whose stark snapshots of the group swathed in shadows made the quartet look imposing and alluringly mysterious. It’s no wonder people wanted to become followers.
With the image Joy Division has crafted, it’s easy to overlook that the band members weren’t always drab gloom merchants. Rather, they were all rather blokey, getting into occasional fights and playing practical jokes on one another. But listening to a Joy Division song or looking at an Anton Corbijn photo of the group, happy fun times are not going to be what come to mind. Furthermore, Curtis’ early death reinforces the severity of his words, adding to the authority the music commands. Curtis meant it, and for seekers of authenticity in pop music, Joy Division offers a truth that cannot be denied. That’s one of the primary reasons why the band has become the figurehead post-punk group, an exemplar that can be pointed to represent the movement more perfect than any other. Joy Division, ultimately, lives up to its image, and that’s why it is able to continue garnering devoted fans long after its demise.