Bernard Sumner artfully describes where the music of Joy Division came from; distilled to a single cold, bleak, industrial Manchester night.
Excerpted from Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me by Bernard Sumner. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, and imprint of St. Martin's Press LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
Los Angeles produced the Beach Boys. Dusseldorf produced Kraftwerk. New York produced Chic. Manchester produced Joy Division.
The Beach Boys’ harmonies were full of warmth and sunshine, Kraftwerk’s groundbreaking electronic pop was suffused with Germany’s post-war economic and technological resurgence while Chic’s music thrummed with the joyous hedonism of late seventies New York.
Joy Division sounded like Manchester: cold, sparse and, at times, bleak.
There’s a moment from my youth that I think illustrates perfectly where the music of Joy Division came from. It’s not even an incident as such, more a snapshot, a mental photograph that I’ve never forgotten.
I was about sixteen. It was a cold, depressing winter night and I was hanging around with some friends on a street in the Ordsall district of Salford doing nothing in particular, too old and restless to sit around at home, too young to go out drinking. I’m fairly sure Peter Hook was there, and so was another friend called Gresty, but the cold had killed the conversation. There was a thick fog draped over Salford that night, the kind of freezing, cloying fog whose chill penetrates right to the bone. Our breath came in clouds, our shoulders were hunched and our hands thrust deep in our pockets. But what I remember most is looking up the street and seeing how the orange sodium streetlights had all been given dirty halos by the fog. Making it feel like you had the flu. The lights would have been dingy enough at the best of times, but the fog, grimy with the dirt and grit of industry, had reduced them to a string of murky globules running the length of the street.
The silence was broken by the roar of an engine and a screech of tyres. A car came racing around the corner, the headlights dazzling us for a moment, and in it I could hear a girl screaming her head off. I couldn’t see her, I couldn’t see anyone in the car, there was just this raw, terrified screaming as it shot off up the road and disappeared into the fog. Silence descended again and I just thought to myself, There’s got to be more than this.
When there’s no stimulus to be found on the outside, you have no option but to look inside yourself for inspiration, and when I did it set off a creativity that had always been inside me. It mixed with my environment and life experiences to make something tangible, something that expressed me. For some people it’s channelled on to a canvas, for others it emerges on to the page, or maybe in sport. In my case, and those of the people with whom I created the sound of Joy Division, it emerged in music. The sound we made was the sound of that night – cold, bleak, industrial – and it came from within.
Manchester was cold and bleak on the day I was born, Wednesday 4 January 1956, in what is now the North Manchester General Hospital in Crumpsall. It was barely a decade after the end of the Second World War and the conflict still loomed large over the country, from the bomb sites that remained in every city and the legacy of post-war austerity – meat rationing had only ended eighteen months before I was born – to the all-too-vivid memories of the generations before mine. The spectre of war had not vanished entirely: the Suez Crisis was brewing and Cold War tensions were higher than ever following the formation of the Warsaw Pact the previous year.
It wasn’t all negative, though. There were signs that some things were changing. Even though I have to admit that I’m no big fan of the fifties, Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’, one of the most influential records of the century, was top of the charts on the day I was born, and six days later Elvis would go into the RCA studios in Nashville to record ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.
I may have arrived on the cusp of an enormous cultural shift, but mine wasn’t the usual kind of birth. My mother, Laura Sumner, had cerebral palsy. She was born absolutely fine but after about three days she started having convulsions that left her with a condition that would confine her to a wheelchair her entire life. She would never walk, would always have great difficulty controlling her movements, and the condition would also affect her speech.
I never knew my father. He’d disappeared from the scene before I was born and I still have no idea who he is. Perhaps strangely, it’s never bothered me; I certainly don’t believe it’s really affected me. I think he’s dead now; I’ve just got that feeling. But even if he was alive I wouldn’t have any interest in meeting him. I don’t think you miss what you’ve never had.
Alfred Street was a small cobbled street of Victorian terraced houses not far from Strangeways Prison and close to the River Irwell. Lower Broughton was a typical Salfordian working-class area (the street that inspired Tony Warren to create Coronation Street wasn’t far away), governed by the needs of industry: Alfred Street and its neighbours provided the labour force for a range of local factories and mills and, within a few minutes’ walk, there was a potted version of the entire industrialized north-west: an iron works, copper works, cloth-finishing works, paint factory, chemical works, cotton mill, saw mill and brass foundry. The song ‘Dirty Old Town’, with its powerful evocation of love in a northern industrial landscape, was written about Lower Broughton. Living close to Strangeways Prison offered additional sobering insight into the underbelly of life: I remember as a boy once asking my grandfather who the line of men in the weird uniforms digging the road were and he told me they were prisoners on a chain gang detail.
Number eleven was my grandparents’ house and, when I was born, my mother was still living with them because she needed so much care. Our house was typical of both the area and the time in most respects: downstairs there was a kitchen, main living room, a parlour that was used for special occasions (although in our house my mother slept there, because she wasn’t able to get up the stairs), and an outdoor toilet. We didn’t have a bathroom. Upstairs, my bedroom was above the living room, my grandparents’ above the parlour. Also upstairs was a small storage room that really gave me the spooks as a child: my granddad had been an air-raid warden during the war and it was packed with gas masks, sandbags, blackout curtains and all sorts of other wartime detritus. I don’t know if it was because I’d heard tales of the war and the terrible things that happened, but there was always something frightening about that room. I avoided it.
My grandfather John Sumner, a very knowledgeable and interesting man, was like a father to me. He was Salford born and raised and worked as an engineer at the Vickers factory in Trafford Park. He’d lost his own father when he was ten: my great-grandfather had gone off to the First World War with the Manchester Regiment and been killed at the second Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. My grandmother, Laura, was a very warm, very caring person who came from an old Salford family, the Platts. Her mother, like my mother, was also called Laura: it was a tradition in my family for girls to be named after their mothers, so my grandmother was ‘Little Laura’ and my great-grandmother was always known as ‘Big Laura’.
My granddad had a routine that he’d perform twice a day, once in the morning before leaving for work and once when he returned home in the evening. He’d come through the front door and walk straight through the house exclaiming, ‘Ah, fresh air! I need fresh air!’, go out into the backyard and take a succession of long, slow, deep breaths. The trouble was, at the end of our street, spewing out noxious fumes was the Wheathill Chemical Works. It was horrible; some days you’d even be told not to go out that day, as they were burning something there. I can almost conjure up the acrid smell today, yet my grandfather would happily breathe it in while extolling the health benefits of inhaling fresh air.
My great-grandmother, Big Laura, lived right opposite the chemical works. She’d had, I think, eight or nine daughters before having a son. Once he’d arrived, she felt she could call it a day. I remember going to visit her when I was very young and seeing my great-grandfather too, a lovely bloke who worked as a wheeltapper on the railways. I remember him being a very warm, kind person, but one day I was told he’d ‘gone on a long train journey’. I have very strong memories of him, so he clearly made a big impression on me, yet I recently discovered that I was only about two years old when he died.
Born in Salford in 1956, Bernard Sumner went on to be a founder member of Joy Division and the singer and lead guitarist of New Order.