Nicholas Lezard's Choice
It is strange to contemplate it nowadays, but there was once a time—from the late 1970s until the early 1980s—when guitar music and intellectualism went hand in hand. Bands would openly talk of reading JG Ballard, or Kafka, or William Burroughs (these three authors tended to be the most heavily cited, although for me the high point will always be when a song by Echo and the Bunnymen referenced John Webster and The Duchess of Malfi).
However, the band that sounded the most literary, or rather, whose musical landscape most suggested a literary one, was Joy Division. Their first album, Unknown Pleasures, produced by Martin Hannett, evoked an urban wasteland, of echoing machinery, clanking lifts and chains. It was like an audio version of a Ballard novel; indeed, “Atrocity Exhibition”, a track on their second album, Closer, was named after one of his books. As a sixteen-year-old at the time Unknown Pleasures came out, I was reading an awful lot of Beckett; the two also went together very well, I found.
The horrible twist in the story came about with the lead singer Ian Curtis’s suicide in 1980, on the eve of their first tour in America. Curtis, a genuine poet, had been suffering from depression and epilepsy; he also had a fraught and complex love life. His stage presence was extraordinary, a whirling frenzy of manic possession, like the throes of an epileptic fit (as his illness progressed, the one would sometimes segue into the other). His lyrics spoke of an alienated, disturbed and haunted psyche. Anyone who had been paying attention to them was, in a way, horribly unsurprised by the news; there was, it seemed, a kind of inevitability to it. As a result, the band became in a way totemic; every anguished adolescent in town would worship at their shrine.
Forty years on, they haven’t been forgotten, and not just because the iconic (a horribly overused word but not in this instance) design of their first album sleeve adorns fashionable teenagers’ t-shirts to this day. Two feature films about Curtis; a memoir by his widow; selections of memoirs edited by the photographer, fellow Mancunian Kevin Cummins, who took some of the most memorable pictures of the band.
So it would seem that another book about them is otiose; and yet here this one is, a compilation of reminiscences by the remaining band members themselves, and those who were close to them, arranged chronologically; that is, from the band’s childhood days until Curtis’s death. It is a story about growing up in Manchester, and thereabouts (it is important not to confuse Salford and Manchester, we learn); of boys being told that their future career lies in trimming off the white borders around photographs (a suggestion made in all seriousness to Bernard Sumner, the group’s guitarist), of discovering music and, particularly in Curtis’s case, literature; then seeing the Sex Pistols play. It is said that everyone who saw them perform at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976 went on to form a band. “It wasn’t that the Sex Pistols were musically brilliant and I thought “Oooh, I really want to be like them,” recalls Sumner; “it was the fact that they were not musically brilliant and could just about play together and it was a right racket. I thought they destroyed the myth of being a pop star ... In fact, a friend who was with me said, “Jesus, you could play guitar as good as that.””
There are a couple of very interesting things about this book. One is that even though the band both sounded powerfully cerebral and was adored by people who considered themselves cerebral, there is little in the way of intimidating intellection here. (An exception might be made for Paul Morley, a rock journalist and long-term proselytizer of the band, who is incapable of saying a banal sentence.) We learn that Curtis and Sumner would talk about Kafka, or that Curtis would talk about Dostoevsky with his Belgian lover, Annik Honoré; but we don’t know what they said. The stories here are non-self-aggrandizing, and often very funny. The band might have sounded gloomy but as individuals, they were scamps, and who wouldn’t be, at their age, and coming from where they did. (It was this larkishness, combined with a gruff northern stoicism, that prevented the band members from contemplating Curtis’s problems, and spotting the danger signs.)
The other very interesting thing is the almost total absence of the author, who really should be called the book’s editor. Savage is one of the best, and most renowned music journalists this country has ever produced, and yet there is hardly a word by him in it; a few snippets from contemporary reviews by him in the rock weekly Sounds, and that’s it. Not even the introduction is by him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such self-effacement. He has selected, imposed order on the contents (and it is at times unsettling to come across the words of Tony Wilson, the TV personality and entrepreneur who started the record label that signed Joy Division, as if he were still alive; he died in 2007); otherwise he is invisible. Another absence is Curtis, apart from an extract or two from contemporary interviews, but the band didn’t like doing interviews, or not at the time.
I’m not sure whether anyone who didn’t know or love their music would be interested in this book. I think they could be. It’s not just about a band, but a portrait of a city, and of four young men discovering their own talent, and finding acclamation and success; and one of them unable to cope with it. It’s extraordinary.
Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He is a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice, ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.