December 23, 2008

In the grip of decay: Jon Savage and Joy Division

“I never ceased to be amazed by the completeness with which anthracite-coloured Manchester, the city from which industrialisation had spread across the entire world, displayed the clearly chronic process of its impoverishment and degradation to anyone who cared to see.” -- WG Sebald, "Max Ferber", from The Emigrants.

“'To talk of life today is like talking of rope in the house of a hanged man.' Where will it end?”
-- Jon Savage reviews Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, Melody Maker, July 1979.

Yes, Jon Savage really did open his 1979 review of Unknown Pleasures with those words, a full 10 months before the suicide of Ian Curtis. You find that review in his book Time Travel, which collects 20 years of music writing, and you find it glanced at as an archived clipping, consulted on microfiche, in Grant Gee's documentary Joy Division, to which Savage contributes as a writer. No comment is made about the strange prescience of those words but in the extras on the DVD, Jon Wozencroft says that of all the arts, music has the greatest claim to also acting as prophecy. Music of the seers, maybe -- this is the kind of thing more commonly said about Curtis's Mancunian contemporary, The Fall's resident psychic Mark E Smith.

In the unofficial trilogy of Joy Division films, you find Joy Division sitting closer to Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People than Anton Corbijn's Control. It's about Joy Division's role in the understanding, interpretation and ultimate revival of Manchester, the world's first modern city, the first industrial city, that had fallen on hard times and apparently stood, by the late 1970s, as a glaring symbol of the unravelling of the post-war liberal consensus, rather than the more old-fashioned romanticism of Control, which largely concerned Joy Division as a vehicle for Curtis's personal expression -- his turbulent life became their harrowing lyrics. In Joy Division, we're reminded of the fact that the band existed before Curtis -- again on the extras, there is a hilarious account of a pre-Curtis audition, in which a hippie squatted on cushions and sang his poetry accompanied by balalaika -- and went on after, which is not to diminish Curtis's role but to suggest a complementary view. In the Guardian, Savage said, "rather than reduplicate Anton Corbijn's focus on Ian Curtis, we decided to root Joy Division in their time and place”.

What we're talking about is a particular attention to the emotional qualities of a place, the ghostly traces of history in a city. Gee photographs the old clubs, old houses, old bridges. "All cities are geological. You can’t take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends." This Situationist International quote appears in a paper by Liz Naylor that you can find
here, and besides the surviving Joy Division members Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris, Savage and Gee load their film with intellectuals who can apply those psychogeographic ideas to the sound and legacy of Joy Division. Savage, who doesn't appear on camera but certainly shaped the film's worldview, moved to Manchester in 1979 and the city was interpreted for him by the first Joy Division album -- its sense of hollow and deep space, its dark and dangerous nights, its sense of something new and shiny breaking through the sooty surface of the city. Someone else calls it a science-fiction interpretation of Manchester. And there are so many people to take credit for that beside the band -- producer Martin Hannett especially, plus writer Paul Morley, manager Tony Wilson, sleeve designer Peter Saville. Naylor is an early interpreter too -- she made a short film called No City Fun in 1979, designed to be screened with side one of Unknown Pleasures as a soundtrack. Gee gives us a rare glimpse of Naylor's text: "The city is terrifying." So perhaps the best anecdote to catch the flavour of the times -- Britain in the late '70s as a crisis point -- is the one in the extras about the band being hauled in as Yorkshire Ripper suspects.

Manchester in the '60s was the playground of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Manchester in the '60s and '70s was about the destruction of the old working-class communities -- which continue to have an afterlife in such fictional versions as Coronation Street (those back-to-back terrace houses don't exist anymore) -- and their replacement by vast, brutalist apartment buildings and planned new towns. There were still WWII bombsites, old industrial canals; it was a city of damp, empty spaces (Manchester historian CP Lee, who appears only in the documentary's extras, called his book Shake, Rattle and Rain), “a soot-blackened city that was drifting steadily towards ruin” as Sebald saw it in the '60s. Two months before Unknown Pleasures was released, Thatcher's Conservatives came to power and that slightly terrifying and shiny modern future breaking through the ruins in Unknown Pleasures is probably an anticipation of what Naylor calls "the regional devastation wrought by Thatcherism". And in a peculiar way, the post-modern entrepreneuralism of Tony Wilson, so celebrated in 24 Hour Party People, is a corollary of that. We had the same thing in New Zealand -- the new age of economic liberalism brought new kinds of escapist entertainment and new, individualist successes.

It's became a well-worn line about Joy Division that there seem to be so many dead people involved: Curtis, Hannett, manager Rob Gretton, and Wilson since filming the documentary. Thanks to Control, we now have accurate doppelgangers to fill in the gaps. We hear Curtis speaking just twice in this film, once in an interview and once under hypnosis, within past-life regression -- a dead person speaking through a dead person. Ghosts of places and ghosts of people: taken like this, Joy Division feels like it's come together as a collision of Naylor's paper and the long Joy Division feature that Jon Savage wrote for Mojo in 1994 and published in Time Travel. This feature was Savage's reassessment of the band as well as the city that he had long since left and the suicide he still hadn't come to terms with; it included some reminiscences from the band that hadn't appeared before and appear almost verbatim in the documentary.

So, that was then? Manchester is now, thanks to Wilson and apparently thanks to Joy Division and New Order, a creative capital. But psychogeography should also tell you that such ideas are cosmetic. On the DVD, Naylor suggests that you only have to go a kilometre or so from the city centre, even today, to find unbelievable poverty -- the kind of poverty that shocked Europeans such as Sebald and, in 1979, Anton Corbijn (everything looked black and white, he has said; no one ate enough or dressed warmly enough; no one had a phone or a car). And this is Sebald in The Emigrants, going back there in 1989 or 1990:

“I had no difficulty in finding my way as everything in Manchester had essentially remained the same as it had been almost a quarter of a century before. The buildings that had been put up to stave off the general decline were now themselves in the grip of decay, and even the so-called development zones, created in recent years on the fringes of the city centre and along the Ship Canal, to revive the entrepreneurial spirit that so much was being made of, already looked semi-abandoned."