Forty years ago on May 18, 1980, the world said goodbye to Ian Curtis, the talented yet conflicted lead singer and principal songwriter for Joy Division. In the second edition of ‘The Artists Speak’, ten artists and bands share their favorite songs from the legendary post-punk band.
Although the Manchester quartet’s discography is limited to two LPs and three EPs over a four-year period, they are arguably the most influential English band since The Beatles (all due respect to Radiohead). Their impact extends from the work of legendary artists to today’s emerging stars. Michael Stipe’s introverted songwriting on R.E.M.’s ‘Murmur’ mirrored Curtis’ revelatory lyrics. The Cure’s classic albums, ‘Pornography’ and ‘Disintegration’, possessed the bleak yet rapturous dissonance of Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’. Joy Division’s influence also extends to Radiohead. Listen to Colin Greenwood’s bass on tracks like “National Anthem” and “When I End and You Begin” and echoes of Peter Hook can be heard. Then there is, of course, New Order, which Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris, and Hook founded shortly after Curtis’ passing.
In the 21st Century, many bands are building on the foundations that Joy Division established nearly 45 years ago. From the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and “newer” bands like Preoccupations and Shame, they are not only reviving the legends’ heavy, brooding approaches. They are also revitalizing the band’s challenging themes. Joy Division’s impact on music will be everlasting, and the songs selected by our participants evidence this.
Below are the top-20 Joy Division songs. One track clearly outdistanced the pack, being named on every single ballot. It isn’t, however, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”.
Top-20 Joy Division Songs as Chosen by the Artists
Christian Perry of Provoker: “I like how this song plays with melody. The lyrics to me describe an inability to be present and enjoy the banal. It feels like a beautiful cry for help cloaked in a dance-able 3 minutes.”
Josh Newton of Shiner: “A lot of folks think of Joy Division as a doom-and-gloom goth band, but this song is pretty ‘up’ to me. It makes me want to drive fast AND it has those interesting note choices on the bass at the end.”
Secret Shame: “I love how you can tell they’re still trying to figure out how to play music. It changes from verse to chorus in the middle of the part. For some reason, we expect songs to flow in a prescribed fashion, but Joy Division shrugs off such notions and it works.”
Ultra Q: “Outside of the fact that ‘Disorder’ is master class in ‘weird and accessible’ for both song writing and production, it is just one of our all-time favorite songs and is a super influential track for us. It dishes out numerous iconic bass lines, lead riffs and melodies, and it will stick to your brain for days.”
Jenny Logan of Deathlist: “Not on any official album, okay and more commonly known as a New Order song, but Joy Division performed “Ceremony” enough times for the song to make it onto a live bootleg I picked up in Manchester when I was 20. Ian Curtis’s mic seems to be out for the entire first half of the song, which makes it all the more stunning when he clicks back on just in time to wrench out the chorus – ‘I’ll break them down, no mercy shown’ – gives you an existential shiver.”
Zack Bamber of New Luna: “This song is the perfect example of ironic uptempo melancholy, perfectly communicating the sense of being ‘unnerved’ in a supposedly happy situation that Ian Curtis is singing about. It’s inspiring just how devastatingly sad but jubilant it is. Radiohead’s cover is definitely worth checking out.”
Oliver Winn of A Festival, A Parade: “The connective tissue that binds New Order and Joy Division, early versions can be found in rough live recordings all around, but even as New Order’s first single it’s unmistakably Ian Curtis’ final ode to the darkness.”
Ultra Q: Ceremony definitely has my personal favorite drum beat from Joy Division. Morris’ quick hi-hats really drive the song, making you feel it in your gut. It works quite well in contrast to the really beautiful guitar parts. As always Ian Curtis haunts the track with his voice. A simple, and brilliant song.”
3. “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
Blandlord: “Love songs are a dime a dozen, written from every perspective imaginable, so this one seems to get lost in that pile. But to me, what makes this song one of the greatest of all-time is it’s narrative. It’s not about him expressing his love or how he’s crying that he lost it per say, it’s about how sometimes love is not enough to keep together what was built from it. It’s tragic and beautiful and written as if a departing love letter from a man who knew his time was up.”
Secret Shame: “As a bassist, one thing that drew me to Joy Division was Peter Hook’s style. This one is weird, like a hiccup. The timing doesn’t fall where I expect it to, which is what I like.”
Picture One: “This is such a great song. It’s such a simple lyrical sentiment that becomes huge when placed behind the lush backdrop of the instrumentation. There is something just so intentional about every note and lyric of this song. Nothing in the song is overly complicated, but it all comes together into something really evocative.”
Secret Shame: “They fed lazers to a windchime. It’s dreary and sparse.”
Jonathon Lopez of Provoker: “When I was really young, maybe 14, I remember hearing this song in a Tony Hawk video game and went off to the mall looking for the album with this specific track. I read through the track list of every Joy Division CD they had, and, of course, none of them had ‘Warsaw’. What I did find, however, was their Closer album, which has no tracklist at all, so I said why not maybe it’s on this one. I brought the CD to the register and this older guy who looked like Billy Idol was just hanging out talking to the clerk. He looked at the CD in my hand and with a British accent said, “Great album”. I thought damn, that’s definitely Billy Idol. Anyways when I got home I listened to the whole CD and figured out that “‘Warsaw’ is not on that album.”
Blandlord: “If a group of androids from Bladerunner went to a Buzzcocks show, this sounds like the result. The guitar is poised to explode into two-chord guitar-rock, but it is nailed in place by the almost mechanical rhythm section, keeping a nervous tension. Curtis’ vocals and lyrics are lamented and dead sounding, concerning the pressure/inevitability of each day starting and ending and the impossibility of escape, much like an AI becoming self aware.”
Logan: “There’s just something about a song that can feel your pain.”
Ultra Q: “This song immediately takes me to that sample-driven atmospheres and unique spaces of acts like Radiohead with by far the most unique vocals on the album.”
Logan: “The source of that iconic phrase I used to see emblazoned on moldy Joy Division posters around town in the ’90s – “Here are the young men.” A masterpiece of mood that manages to convey the resignation, beauty, and sadness of both life and death all at the same time. Clocking in at over 6 minutes without a single superfluous note, every pulse draws you to its necessary conclusion. More than any other Joy Division song, “Decades’ makes me think about Ian Curtis’s suicide.”
Picture One: “This is just such an interesting closer to the final full length by the band. It’s so different with the use of heavy keyboards and partial use of a drum machine. The chorus/end with its strings and building tension is amazingly cinematic.”
Newton: “Another hit. This and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” might be their best written songs. It needs to be very loud.”
12. “She’s Lost Control”
Newton: “Is the best possible outcome of what kind of sounds like three people playing three different songs at the same time? I don’t dance, but if I did it’d be to this. Perfect!”
13. “Heart and Soul”
14. “Ice Age”
16. “New Dawn Fades”
Bamber: “My dad used to play this guitar riff over and over and hearing this song instantly reminds me of being a kid listening from the other room. There are so many hooks all over this song while the beat is steadily epic in the way it pulls backward all the way through. It proves that an ear for a good riff beats technical mastery any day.”
Winn: “A song that soundtracks the greatest scene in cinema history via a Moby remix; Al Pacino and Robert De Niro facing off in Heat. The lead up and eventual showdown at the diner is made all the more incredible via its soundtrack.”
17. “Something Must Break”
18. “Day of the Lords”
19. “No Love Lost”
20. “Twenty Four Hours”
Picture One: “I love this song for its almost proto-coldwave intro and chorus. The melodic chorus bass is beautifully sad, and then the driving verses are a great contrast to the chorus, between which the song seems to seamlessly switch. You can hear the sounds defined in this song in so many other bands to come throughout the 1980s.”
Participating Artists and Bands:
Blandlord (Canadian band who put the reverb into stoner rock. Latest single, “Hyperdrunk”, was released in April)
“Joy Division occupies a peculiar place in my idea of rock and roll history. A nano second in time thrown together out of one burgeoning scene, only to draw the blueprint for countless subsections of music that would follow them. Perhaps it’s the tragedy, aggression or even the oddity of the band and Ian Curtis’ story that makes them so compelling. To me, it’s always been the depth and scope of the music they made. The concepts, lyrics, and sounds draw the curious mind to an abyss that is easily slipped into. This is a band to obsess over, and you will.”
“Joy Division is that band I wish I didn’t love; it would mean my life looked a lot different than it really does. It’s 3:30 a.m. music, music that looks into the void with you, then looks back at you and dares you to jump in. And you can (sorta) dance to it.”
“As the low-end inhabitant of A Festival, A Parade, the influence of Hooky and the boys is a cultural cornerstone for myself and the band, alongside many other alternative and mainstream artists. From Vince Staples to Interpol, Danny Brown to The Cure, among many others, their legacy is unmatched in modern music.”
Secret Shame (post-punk band who catapulted onto the US national indie radar with their excellent album, Dark Synthetics. Double-A side single coming June 5th, and it’s available for pre-order on Bandcamp.)
“I guess we wouldn’t be here without them? Honestly, I don’t know if Joy Division would make it into any of our top 10, but bands they influenced would. It’s like they shouted on a glacier because it made a cool echo and accidentally started an avalanche. We’re riding that avalanche, caught up in the momentum of displacement from some previous displacement, etc., and it feels pretty cool.
“I’d be curious to know what other musicians were feeling at the time. Did The Cure or Siouxsie and the Banshees hear ‘Unknown Pleasures’ and try to emulate that sound or was Joy Division expressing a common feeling?
“Especially in post-punk, one has to pay a certain homage to Joy Division. The reification of the pulsar makes this especially interesting. Fanboys have strong feelings about who has the right to sport the merchandise. One time someone told me, ‘I’m familiar with their art’, which I found fascinating. For a simple punk band that didn’t record too many albums, they’ve attained a disproportionate cultural significance. I guess that’s the most one can hope for: to have that sort of lasting impact.”
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