We choose Joy Division’s 10 best songs.
This summer, Rhino Records celebrated the 35th anniversary of “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” arguably Joy Division’s best known single, by reissuing the band’s two albums (Unknown Pleasures and Closer) on vinyl, along with the collections Still and Substance. We here at Spectrum Culture decided to look at the band’s small, yet impressive catalog in the hope of choosing Joy Divison’s best songs.
Choosing just 10 Joy Division songs is no small task. Favorites such as “Digital,” “Heart & Soul” and “Atrocity Exhibit” didn’t make the cut, for example. But we feel the songs that did end up on the list represent the best of Ian Curtis and the men who would go on to form New Order after his suicide. Please feel free to comment, even create your own lists below. Here is ours.
10. “Dead Souls”
How many brooding teenagers around the world were introduced to Russian literature by a group of brooding teenagers from Manchester? Taking its title from the novel by Nikolai Gogol, this was one of the previously unreleased studio tracks assembled on Still, and there’s a reason the album places it immediately before a live cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray.” “Dead Souls” owes its pulsing rhythm guitar line to Lou Reed, and Stephen Morris’ monotonous drumming sounds a lot like somebody just added a ton of reverb to Moe Tucker’s kit. But their original spin is much better than their cover version, the band taking an influential rock template and injecting it with their own brooding voice. Given its long-form lineage, “Dead Souls” is almost a post-punk “Freebird” that you can imagine sensitive black-clad youths swaying to in dark unison, holding up lit matches and watching them burn down to their fingers. Curtis shouts, “They keep calling me” as his nightmares come alive, and dead souls hunger for breathing humans whose musical chops may have been limited, but who were driven to forge a distinct and influential voice of their own.
9. “Twenty Four Hours”
From the opening, chord-laden bassline and atmospheric guitar chatter, “Twenty Four Hours” plays out like a dark tribute to everything Joy Division. The drumming is ecstatic, yet jerky. The song is structured almost as oddly as Ian Curtis’s vocals. Curtis half-croons about some harsh self-reflection; this is par for the course for the album—and band. The lyrics of the song unfold over music that alternates between atmosphere and a driving, 4/4 time signature reminiscent of a slowed-down punk cover.
Joy Division’s brilliance lies in how everything is turned on its head, yet still has enough familiarity to not be totally off-putting. The music is both moving and pretty, with parts that intermingle with dissonance, whether it be in guitarist Bernard Sumner’s chord choice, or Peter Hook’s high-register bass chords. Curtis’s lyrics skirt everything normal by rhyming sometimes, but not always. Stephen Morris’s rhythmic contribution is rarely straightforward for long—it is creative, awkward and skilled. This song is cold and dark—a trip to the bottom of an emotional ocean.
8. “New Dawn Fades”
Recorded exactly a year after another Manchester band’s dramatic post-punk debut, “Shot By Both Sides” by Magazine, “New Dawn Fades” closes side one of 1979’s Unknown Pleasures. Like John McGeoch and Barry Adamson in Magazine, the guitar-bass pairing of Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook combines into a disorienting tune that marries anthem with dirge. Ian Curtis’ lyrics reflect the disillusion following punk’s initial burst and fade with an image of a weapon and a victim. Curtis intones at the end of verse one: I took the blame/ Directionless so plain to see/ A loaded gun won’t set you free/ So you say.”
Stephen Morris’ drums clang away in Krautrock mechanical style. Hook’s bass keeps descending as Sumner’s guitar ascends. Martin Hannett’s icy production layers this in backward tapes from the band’s “Insight” to open “New Dawn Fades” with a disembodied whir. Over and over, the guitars sound like dim chimes. At nearly five minutes, this feels epic. The band locks into its groove, as Curtis shifts in verse two to another perspective. An angry voice and one who cried/ ‘We’ll give you everything and more/ The strain’s too much, can’t take much more’/ Oh, I’ve walked on water, run through fire, Can’t seem to feel it anymore.” However, much as listeners may hear this as a harbinger of his suicide the next year, there is a respite. For Sumner stops the ascent, and ends with a brief guitar snippet holding a hint of hope.
Before there was Joy Division there was Warsaw. Maybe a little more aggressive and more audibly influenced by punk, Warsaw recorded an eleven song album that was ultimately scrapped after the band was unhappy with the post-production work. The self-titled EP has lived somewhat in infamy since.
“Shadowplay” is a song that lives between both bands; one foot in the raw drive of Warsaw and the other in the emotive lyrics and dark musicality of Joy Division. It begins as an ominous warning of what’s to come, with a sturdy bass over the cymbals that then explodes with a slash of the metallic guitar. It’s both quiet meditation on isolation and desire and a raw, energetic tribute to the shifting post-punk sound coming out of England.
What really makes most Joy Division songs are the lyrics. Ian Curtis was a poet and his song lyrics transform the feeling of tracks and give context to the often dour music. “Shadowplay” has an almost post-apocalyptic feel; a figure walking an abandoned city alone without hope or truth. Curtis is screaming out to a deserted world that feels as if it has left him behind.
But as always, the genius in Joy Division is found in the collaboration between words and music (necessary shout out to genius producer Martin Hannett). When the guitar comes into solo and we hear the crash of thunder, we experience the feeling Curtis is singing. The song ultimately ruptures as the guitar is loses control and the lyrics repeat the lonely line: “To the center of the city in the night, waiting for you.”
Ian Curtis famously loved David Bowie as a teenager even if, as Tony Wilson alleged, he harbored a sore spot towards the Thin White Duke for not keeping his word and dying at 25. “Isolation” bears Bowie’s fingerprints, but not the Bowie of Ian Curtis’ teenage years. This is the synth symphony of Low, sped up and filled with unimaginable darkness. Its insistent rhythm, carried by a simple-yet-effective Peter Hook bass line, turns it into something almost danceable, predicting the evolution that would come soon in New Order.
Of course, the music is almost secondary on “Isolation,” as the tortured poetry of Ian Curtis draws listeners in. There are many moments on Closer that read as something of a suicide note from the frontman, but “Isolation” finds him expressing how painful everyday existence came for him, how a life of secrets and affairs was eating away at him, and how he longed to be anyone other than himself. In the end, all he can do is close himself off from the world, but even that provides little comfort as he wails the song’s title over and over on the chorus. There are depressing songs in the Joy Division oeuvre, but “Isolation” provides a surprisingly stark peak into Ian Curtis’ inner turmoil.
Pairing the words of a confessional poet with the strains of a weeping synth, Ian Curtis achieved something great in “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Not only is it one of Joy Division’s signature songs, covered by everyone from Nouvelle Vague to Fall Out Boy, it’s also one their most personal. Written by Curtis as a mocking response to 1975’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” the song exposes his barest feelings about the breakup of his marriage and perhaps, the inevitable tearing that love will always inflict. Combing a danceable, bass rhythm with gloomy lyrics, Curtis sings in his characteristic baritone: “You cry out in your sleep/ All My failings exposed/ And there’s a taste in my mouth/ As desperation takes hold.” Curtis committed suicide in 1980 at the age of 23. He didn’t live to see the success of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” but its lyrics live on; repeating in film and television and more reverently on Ian Curtis’ tombstone, where the words are forever inscribed.
On Unknown Pleasures Joy Division make their punk influences hard to detect. Songs like “The Only Mistake,” “The Kill,” and “Walked in Line,” recorded during the Unknown Pleasures sessions, never seeing release during the band’s lifetime. Guitars were becoming more dissonant and the bass began to sound more like a lead instrument, while songs became darker, slower and longer. One could argue that “Interzone” is the only real “punk” song on the album, but certainly “Disorder” comes close in some regards, and so choosing it to open their debut is appropriate, a mark of transition that nonetheless contains—in the propulsive bassline and the upbeat tempo—indicators of where the band came from. It also contains one of the most memorable guitar hooks in the band’s discography, perhaps because it marks that moment where the band’s songwriting was undergoing radical evolution but before bursts of dissonance became commonplace—Ian Curtis actually sings, rather than snarling or mumbling.
Whatever the case may be, the result is one of the band’s most instantly accessible and also one of their strangest. The guitar hooks, octave-hopping bass and slightly-swung drum beat combine into something of a dance track, while the lyrics are from the point of view of a man who spends two lines wanting to be normal, decides against it in the third and then looks a bit more closely at the world and himself to come to less certain conclusions. It’s not the only gloomy dance track to make its way onto a Joy Division album—hello, “Isolation”—but what’s remarkable about “Disorder” is the way the music transform’s pained lyrics into something that does not seem so bad. Rather than being merely a gloomy dance track, “Disorder” is something of a celebration, and for this band, that’s one of a kind.
A five note bassline, a teased drum roll, a burst of synth, then Ian Curtis emoting perhaps more than he ever has on record. Joy Division is a post-punk band; their early works show the punk side, but by Closer Curtis’ distinct baritone, noisy bursts of guitar and prominent bassline their music had become downright frightening. “Atmosphere” is unique in that it is Joy Division’s most beautiful song—and probably one of the most beautiful songs, period. On the verses the bassline alters a little, shifting to eighth and quarter notes to become steady and calming, a complement to the heart-beat drumming and far cry from the anxious sound more typical of the band’s 1980 work. It’s when the verse ends and Martin Hennett’s production makes itself known, that the song sounds otherworldly. Percussion and glistening synths form a wordless chorus—a fitting element of a song that is, at least in part, about the inability to fully express oneself.
Ian Curtis’ suicide has led many to interpret almost all of his songs in light of his death. His depression and epilepsy certainly appear in some of his lyrics, but this overly biographical interpretation has also led to closing off the possibility of some brilliant songs having the interpretive openness they deserve. Curtis’ lyrics are filled with seeming contradictions and antitheses, shifting points of view and only brief images or impressions, all but divorced from context. No listener should be deprived of those lyrics set to this music because of appeals to biography—or more accurately, hagiography. Joy Division never made anything quite like it, but that’s okay, because neither did anybody else.
2. “She’s Lost Control”
Musically, thematically and historically, “She’s Lost Control” is essential, quintessential Joy Division, albeit forever distorted by the Legend of Ian Curtis. Curtis wrote “She’s Lost Control” after an encounter with a young epileptic woman who eventually died of a seizure. Coupled with Curtis’s own well-documented struggle with epilepsy in the year leading up to his suicide, the song possesses a tragic fatalism, further enhanced by macabre rigidity of Peter Hook’s high-necked, descending baseline. Solely at the song’s conclusion does Curtis allow the music to bend, the final riff underscored by an ascending twist, like the loosening of a screw, the hint of a mind unraveling. The reverb on Ian Curtis’s voice—not only delayed, but pitch-altered—furthers the effect, filling the song with an eerie, crowd-like murmur. Overwhelmed by the intricately layered echoes, it’s difficult not to imagine Curtis’s numerous on-stage seizures—the unparalleled, public loss of control that proves “She’s Lost Control” to be the defining manifestation of many of Joy Division’s most well-tread motifs—inefficacy, insufficiency and inevitability.
Throughout their brief career, the artwork for Joy Division’s albums and singles was known for spare, elegant design and sometimes abstract imagery. But the visual message of this debut single could not have been clearer: on the front cover, the universe; on the reverse, the universe electrified. It’s a summation of their career in two images. That they started with their best song may prove that their doomed leader was ultimately right: it was all downhill from here. But “Transmission” passes for optimistic in their bleak discography, a moment when Curtis aspired to and maybe even believed he’d hear his own music on the radio. The song’s bass line and lead guitar consist of little more than a series of two-note figures and its drum rhythm is stiff and repetitive, but this trancelike, driving dirge was the band’s signature genius, all encapsulated and foretold on their very first record. Over 30 years later, Curtis’ limited voice can still send a chill down your spine when he lets out that bloodcurdling, defiant “And we could dance!”