A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Track #42 on
Thommy Ford’s Playlist
One of the highlights of Joy Division bassist Peter Hook’s recent book Unknown Pleasures is a track by track discussion of the band’s two full length albums. It’s interesting to get a band member’s perspective on music you thought you knew well. He writes about the songs a little as if they were still works in progress—detailing the choice of instruments and effects, the mixing and production decisions too, with as much an interest in what might have been as what ended up on record. What’s really revealing is that the parts of the book about the albums don’t focus on the darkness of the songs or lyrics. Even singer Ian Curtis’ suicide, the event which seems to loom over Joy Division at times, is mostly left out of the discussion of the music. It only peeks in once when discussing “Twenty Four Hours.”
People turn around to you and say, “God, you’d been hearing these lyrics for weeks—why didn’t you realize he was so bad?” You hadn’t. He wasn’t slumped in the corner with a lone fiddle in the background; he was… going for it… on the one hand, he was ill and vulnerable; on the other he was a screaming rock god.
I like the characterization of Ian Curtis as more than a gothy depressive. It’s easy to forget that there was an element of confidant frontman bravado in his stage performances and his blunt, direct vocal style. In “Twenty Four Hours” Curtis balances all of that vulnerability and bravery nicely, even as he strains to hit the notes:
Ian had difficulty singing some of the songs he wrote because he didn’t have the range in his key… The emotion comes from the heart, the soul, the passion, which together make a perfect delivery… What you want in life is strength and belief, and if someone has that, it doesn’t have to be technically perfect.
It sounds a little bit like Hook is making excuses for Curtis’ vocals. But go through the mental exercise of imagining these lyrics sung pretty and you’ll immediately get it. A straight pop vocal would mar this song, maybe even render it ridiculous. I mean, what is the right way to sing lines like “Looked beyond the day in hand/There’s nothing there at all”? Exactly the way Ian Curtis sings them: flat, straining, but like he means it.
If you don’t already know the songs, then come in and check out our Joy Division compilation here at the library. If you’re already a fan come in and check out Peter Hook’s memoir and get to know them all over again.
Review by Matthew