Joy to the World
Inside a utilitarian Knights of Columbus hall on a lonely street in Coral Gables November 25, an assortment of young musicians congregated, anxious for an opportunity to set up equipment and bash out two songs apiece. Bassists, guitarists, singers, drummers, and various synth-tweakers stacked up like jetliners waiting for clearance to land. The conditions were nothing if not bare-bones: On the main stage at the end of the room, groups played under bare white or red lights. They fared better than those acts consigned to a smaller setup on the fringe of the floor, which had no lighting at all.
The plain lighting was more authentic than any of these bands realized as they strained to resurrect the music of New Order and its predecessor, Joy Division. The latter always played under steady, never-changing beams, because singer Ian Curtis' epilepsy was easily triggered by flashing lights. From dark and grimy Manchester, England, the band formed in 1977, released two albums and a handful of singles, and dissolved May 18, 1980, with Curtis' suicide. His isolationist, existential lyrics cemented the group's reputation in England; in the U.S. Joy Division was barely recognized, and Curtis' death went unreported in the stateside music press.
The remaining members -- guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris -- added keyboardist-guitarist Gillian Gilbert and forged on as New Order, eventually scaling commercial heights Joy Division never glimpsed. The success of the dance-oriented unit eventually spurred interest in the band's gloomy roots; today Joy Division is cited as among the most original and influential groups to emerge from Britain's punk era. That these local groups -- fans about 20 to 40 years old -- are lining up to perform songs by a group that was intentionally difficult and obscure proves the depth of Joy Division's cultural resonance.
Many miles and years separate Manchester's musical lodestone from South Florida, but these South Florida groups gather to pay homage to both Joy Division and New Order. The first show, on November 25, operated under the banner No Love Lost; a second installment, the Atrocity Exhibition, will take place December 22 in West Palm Beach. Both appellations are Joy Division song titles. Interestingly no one involved with either tribute concert has opted to play the two groups' signature songs, both of which relate to Curtis' suicide.
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Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," the sweeping composition that issued a hallway pass to the "new romantic" sect of new-wave music, seemed to sum up Curtis' last few months -- and is actually his tombstone epitaph. New Order's "Blue Monday" redefined the drum machine's role in both rock and dance music and should be recognized as being one of the first dance-floor electro songs, but weighted with guitar and bass and Barney's downtrodden vocal, which could be directed at Curtis: "I thought I told you to meet me/ When we walked down to the beach." The title, too, refers to Curtis' body being discovered on a Sunday, the day before the band was scheduled to depart for its first American tour. "On Sunday, I was rolling my trousers up," drummer Stephen Morris said at the time. "On Monday, I was screaming."
Significantly both Joy Division and New Order offer possibly the most convincing evidence that talent and musical divinity often occupy opposite poles. Only drummer Stephen Morris had any vestige of formal training. At the band's inception, the others could barely play; little wonder that they cite the Sex Pistols as a prime influence. Yet Hook's contribution to the music of the '80s and '90s is immeasurable. Reinventing the rumbling rhythm instrument to adopt a high, lyrical voice, Hook's bass lines carried the melody of most of the band's songs.
"To this day Peter Hook couldn't tell you where a G was on his fret board," claims No Love Lost's organizer, Ed Artigas. "He influenced every indie band out there, whether they know it or not. If it wasn't for Joy Division, there'd probably be no Fugazi."
Artigas is becoming an old hand at the local indie-rock tribute concert, South Florida regional division. In 1996 he started the trend with a celebration of all things Pixies; last year he assembled the usual suspects to pay respects to Morrissey and the Smiths. "You learn what works and what doesn't work. The third time I knew, strategically, what to do." For someone as plugged-in to the scene as Artigas, assembling the show involved little more than calling friends and associates. One such old pal is Bill Mentzer, guitarist for the now-defunct Shuttle Cock. He appeared -- Casio karaokestyle -- as Shuttle Lounge, performing Joy Division classics "Shadowplay" and "Interzone."
As he crooned the line, "To the center of the city in the night, waiting for you," he seemed to stumble upon a heretofore concealed Doors connection by working in a snippet of "L.A. Woman": "To the center of the city in the night...City of night! City of night! Whoa! Come on!" At one point, eyes rolling back, he exclaimed, "I'm drunk! Don't tell my wife!" Despite the fact that Joy Division is generally met with reverence and isn't often a target of Bill Murraystyle satire, Mentzer was surprised that the crowd responded favorably.
"I'm glad it went over well," he says. "I was worried about getting tarred and feathered and sent on my way." Having grown up in Washington, D.C., Mentzer says that Joy Division was an enormous influence on that city's revered punk label, Dischord. As big a fan as the other participants, Mentzer wanted to show a less serious side in his tribute. "It's just a band, man," he says with a chuckle. "And what I was trying to say was they have their influences too. Elvis and Jim Morrison certainly had an influence on Ian Curtis."
Mentzer is just one of the performers who is more enamored of Joy Division's purism than New Order's populism. "[New Order] did the pop thing," theorizes Artigas. "But at the same time, they were taking gear to a new level. Ask any electronica guy, and he'll tell you, "If it wasn't for New Order....' And they weren't pretentious. New Order wore jeans and T-shirts, whereas you had Depeche Mode wearing makeup and big poofy hairdos. These guys were doing something real, emotional, and not as hit-driven as everything else was at that time."
In seeking that authentic spirit in both bands' material, the assembled South Florida acts met with mixed success at No Love Lost. Dorian Grey was shaky, jerky, and spasmodic as it slammed through a raw version of "She's Lost Control" and then an ill-chosen New Order tune, "State of the Nation." The group captured all that was amateurish and unprofessional about JD's beginnings, without any of the primitive brilliance.
Some bands altered the compositions slightly to give them a new edge, like the Unseelie Court, which added a skiffle beat to "Dead Souls." Over on the electric/ acoustic stage, Artigas (appearing as Pentium 5) turned in snappy takes on "586" and "Atmosphere." He showed up again with his band Planelifter; its take on JD's "These Days" finally managed to ignite some of the metal menace and danger that surfaced in Joy Division performances. Game 4 played it safe with straightforward attempts of primitive tunes "Leaders of Men" and "Warsaw."
Away from the main stage, the electronica renditions veered uncomfortably close to cheesy, Holiday Innready versions, such as Chroma's computerized takes on "Every Little Counts" and "Age of Consent." Both tunes lost something in the translation, especially by being reduced to instrumentals.
At least one act used the original songs as a springboard into a totally new realm: Swivel Stick went straight to the skronky heart of avant-jazz. With a bass/drums/guitar lineup using Marcus Ware's squealing saxophone to replace Curtis' somnolent voice, the band's versions of "The Eternal" and "Decades" were completely unrecognizable.
"We wanted to do our own tribute to them rather than try to re-create what they were doing," says guitarist Carl Ferrari. He acknowledges that Swivel Stick's instrumental augmentations lose the lyrical impact. "They mean a lot to the person who's writing them," he states, "but to other people they're just part of the whole soundscape."
Whirlaway capably mimicked the crushing malevolence of Joy Division's "24 Hours," then wowed the crowd with the colorful, chiming chords of "Leave Me Alone." One of the show's high points came courtesy Ed Matus and his erstwhile project Waterford Landing, which lost points with a tedious instrumental take of "Isolation," then more than compensated with a fascinating update of New Order's early gem "Procession," marked by Matus' slashing guitar.
The show's closing act, Disconnect, adapted the chattering sequencer stutter of New Order's powerful "Temptation" to allow Juan Montoya's furious guitar riffs to fill in the blanks. Bassist Scott Nixon sang, "Oh, you've got green eyes,/Oh, you've got gray eyes,/Oh, you've got blue eyes," with his own peepers squeezed tightly shut. Gathering tight against the front of the stage, the crowd finally got the fix it was looking for: its own humble surrogate for the power and the majesty of its hesitant heroes.
Those heroes may yet make a triumphant return. Though another Broward County weekly declared otherwise last month, New Order didn't break up in 1994. The band has been on extended hiatus, and all three factions (Sumner's Electronic, Hook's Monaco, and Morris and Gilbert's the Other Two) recently released albums of their own, but New Order resurfaced on The Beach soundtrack last year with a new track, "Brutal." Word from the band's camp is there will be a new New Order album this summer with a tour to follow.
Like the Sex Pistols, who inadvertently gave Joy Division its start, the latter band is an inspiration to anyone with limited musical ability, proving that those constraints may actually be harnessed into great power. "The ability to tune in to what is valid and fresh in rock music is a talent that more technically applied musicians will never learn," Mentzer says. "You can listen to Joy Division or New Order material and just listen to how they just feel what a song should do."
Artigas is simply happy the shows are happening and hopes they provide an education along with entertainment value.
"[Joy Division/New Order] had a huge cult following, but most people still don't know who they are," he says. "Both bands don't have the credit they deserve. People into all this "alternative music' should take a look at where it came from."
Joy & Order
This week's Joy Division/New Order tribute show is hardly unprecedented. Scads of national and international artists have rehashed bits of both groups' bodies of work over the years -- with varying degrees of success.
Something About Joy Division (1990)
An odd assortment of unknown Italian outfits did it first, and possibly best, with a nice assortment of somber ballads and energetic guitar outbursts. Hard to find but worth the effort.
A Means to an End (1995)
A modern, major-label, Americanized version of the above, with names like Girls Against Boys, GodheadSilo, and Face to Face. Highlights include Kendra Smith's harrowing "Heart and Soul," Billy Corgan's electronic update of "Isolation," and Stanton-Miranda's cheery "Love Will Tear Us Apart," starring Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo on guitar.
Nine Inch Nails
"Dead Souls," The Crow Soundtrack (1995)
Remember when Nine Inch Nails could do no wrong? This version was often mistaken for a Trent Reznor original by young-'n'-dumb industrial-rock fans.
"Love Will Tear Us Apart," No Parlez (1983)
It's well known to Joy Division fans that producer Martin Hannett and Factory Records boss Tony Wilson primed Curtis' performance on his best-known work by making the singer listen to Ol' Blue Eyes' 40 Great Songs. But in trying too hard to twist "Love Will Tear Us Apart" into a refined, romantic, slow-paced torch song, Young spoils it.
"Love Will Tear Us Apart" 12-inch single (1988); later reissued on Various Failures 1988-1992
Two versions of this cover exist, and if you can locate the original red-vinyl release, you have a true collector's item. Jarboe's soft, delicate version is available on a recent Swans compilation. Michael Gira's self-described "regrettable" version, however, is very difficult to locate -- on purpose. "It's a great song," he told me a few years ago. "I just don't think I did a good job singing it."
"Love Will Tear Us Apart" (2000); available as an MP3 on thecure.com
Cure singer Robert Smith said he was scared he wouldn't be able to do it justice. His fears were warranted. To rinse the taste of "Love" out of your ears, try the band's two blatant New Order rip-offs: "The Walk," which stole brazenly from "Blue Monday," and later "In Between Days," which borrowed extensively from any number of nimble Hook bass lines.
"She's Lost Control" (1981)
With Sly and Robbie's robotic reggae riddims reducing the song to its skeletal frame, Jones' bored, almost catatonic spoken-word rendition seems to unveil a tale of drug addiction as well as psychic unraveling: "And she screamed out kicking on her side and said, "I've lost control again....'"
"Blue Monday" (1998)
Maybe the most well-known cover song here. Orgy identifies the song's mean streak, adding a vicious, electronic edge that toughens up the tune considerably.
Oyster Band/Poi Dog Pondering
"Love Vigilantes" (1989-1990)
Both versions hone in on the folksiness and lyrical directness of the tune, one of New Order's most atypical, yet now defining, songs.
"Bizarre Love Triangle" (1993)
A testament to the Australian group's formidable arrangement skills, Frente!'s "Bizarre Love Triangle" takes the strobe-lit, dance-floor workout and adapts it to gentle acoustic guitar and soft female voice.
Pastoral and gray at the same time, Galaxie 500 softens and elongates the original, creating a very moving and soothing homage.
John Denver sued New Order over this song, claiming its chord sequence was ripped off from his "Leaving on a Jet Plane" -- and won. Austin's Silver Scooter turns in an energetic, picture-perfect indie version.
Fans of Joy Division and New Order would do well to investigate a few of the other groups coming up in Manchester at the same time, primarily the Fall and the Buzzcocks. A handful of bands on Factory Records' roster circa 1980 to 1985 operated in JD/NO's shadow, sharing several sonic similarities. Of these the Durutti Column bends the punk aesthetic with a prodigious classical streak; A Certain Ratio adds a dose of horn-y, white-boy funk; Crispy Ambulance was so similar to Joy Division that singer Ian Hempsall often filled in when Curtis fell ill; and Section 25, a Blackpool group, basically limped along next to Joy Division and then New Order like a club-footed stepbrother. After the dark, PIL-like Always Now and the more psychedelic The Key of Dreams, Section 25 hit its stride with the Bernard Sumnerproduced From the Hip in 1983. Full of the wonder of the new electronic gadgetry of the day, songs like "Looking From a Hilltop" and "Inspiration" throb and shimmer, certain to please followers of New Order's very similar Power, Corruption & Lies album.
The Durutti Column
The Return of the Durutti Column (1979)
Domo Arigato (1985)
The Guitar and Other Machines (1988)
A Certain Ratio
The Graveyard and the Ballroom (1979)
The Old & The New (1985)
The Plateau Phase (1982)
Always Now (1981)
From the Hip (1984)
Love & Hate (In the English Countryside) (1988)
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