Music News

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.

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.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton