Walked in Line: The Musical Disciples of Joy Division

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.

There is also a recurrent practice of bands dedicating songs in tribute to the memory of Ian Curtis, be they roughly contemporaneous (U2’s “A Day Without Me” and Josef K’s “It’s Kinda Funny”) or reflections that saw the light of day long after Curtis’ 1980 suicide (Thursday’s “Ian Curtis” and Psychic TV’s “IC Water”. The tendency of musicians to release songs ruminating about Curtis’ death by his own hand suggests a pervasive fascination with the mythic nature of his end. It’s tempting to chalk it all up to the hoary old “live fast, die young” cliché, but that isn’t quite right. No, instead of romanticizing Curtis’ suicide, these songs are predominantly more reflective, mourning the loss of a talented frontman just as his group’s career was picking up steam. Almost all of these groups have had a longer run than Joy Division, adding a point of comparison that results in a palpable regret in these songs over what glories Joy Division might have achieved has Curtis not committed suicide thirty years ago.

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. Initially straddling the thin line dividing New Wave and post-punk on its first releases, the Cure quickly soaked up Joy Division’s angst-wracked, monochrome influence, resulting in a progressively gloomier sound and image. In 1979, Robert Smith and his bandmates turned out the winsome pop of “Boys Don’t Cry” as its calling card, yet by 1981 they had embraced the dread visions fully, resulting in haunting dirges like “Charlotte Sometimes”. By the time of the group’s fourth album Pornography (1982), Smith’s self-destructive tendencies and his now oppressively depressing material seemed to indicate that he was not far from joining Ian Curtis in his fate. But Robert Smith has never been as nihilistic as Ian Curtis, and that—coupled with his sharp pop instincts—probably accounts for why the Cure, unlike Joy Division, was able to pull back from the abyss, and why subsequently its wider cultural legacy outstrips that of its inspiration. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is a cult totem, but Cure songs like “Just Like Heaven” and “Lovesong” are genuine pop hits that penetrated the mainstream consciousness in ways Joy Division has never managed.

However, no band has striven to actively carry on the spiritual legacy of Joy Division as much as U2. Funnily, the Irish quartet—having long been “The Biggest Band in the World”—is the band that least needs to trade on the group’s name. Knowing about U2’s appreciation of Joy Division is not essential to understanding or connecting with the band’s music, but does add some illuminating context, particularly in regards to where U2 drew inspiration for certain elements of its sound. U2’s fascination with Joy Division goes way back its early days, when it hooked up with Joy Division producer Martin Hannett. According to the band’s 2006 autobiography, U2 by U2, U2 was even present during the recording of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”! For a concise glimpse of just how enraptured U2 have been with Joy Division, check out the New Order documentary NewOrderStory, where U2 frontman Bono (in full Achtung Baby-era Fly mode) rattles on about how his group loved the Mancunian quartet into a camcorder.

Following Curtis’ death, U2 staked its claim in the post-Joy Division post-punk void, offering the same sort of intensity of vision, crucially stripped of the dark, self-destructive impulses. Unlike Bernard Summer’s raw, glass shard guitar playing, the Edge spun that crystalline sound into a glorious infinity via his delay pedals, while the rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen stood as stoic support, in contrast to the careening virtuosity of their Joy Division counterparts Peter Hook and Stephen Morris. And then there’s Bono. An oft-repeated anecdote by Tony Wilson (founder of Joy Division’s label, Factory Records) is that when U2 was being shown around his office shortly after Curtis’ death, Bono offered his condolences to him, claiming Curtis was the best singer of his generation—and that he could only ever be number two. Bono then vowed to Wilson that with the Joy Division frontman gone, he would fulfill Curtis’ destiny for him. Wilson was naturally skeptical, but admitted that when he saw U2’s acclaimed performance at Live Aid in 1985, he knew Bono had lived up to his boasting. Still, Wilson made sure to note in 1993: “But Ian would have been better!”

Arguably, U2 managed to invoke the spirit of Joy Division most effectively with its definitive hit “With or Without You”. The basic elements are there—the pulsating bass that carries the melody, the echo-laden spaciousness, Bono’s emphasis on his lower register—but are reconfigured so that ecstasy explodes out of torment. The similarities crop up if you squint, but they aren’t blatant, and that’s for the best. Crucially U2, as well as the other prime examples of Joy Division’s progeny, have used that influence as a muse for finding its own voice, rather than as a static template to recreate as faithfully as possible. And to paraphrase Tony Wilson, Joy Division would have been better at it anyways.