Walked down the road last night to the Phoenix Cinema to a preview screening of Anton Corbijn’s new film Control about Ian Curtis and Joy Division. Corbijn came to England from the backwaters of the Netherlands in the late 70s as a photographer and spent his first 14 days here tracking down the band Joy Division to take their picture. He went on to direct videos for them and others of that generation like U2. He re-mortgaged his house to finance this film so it’s a real labour of love from a person with a first-hand perspective of the characters and events.
One of the characters showed up after the screening for a Q&A chaired by journalist and producer Paul Morley (who also has a first-hand perspective of the post-punk scene in Manchester – including having stood Joy Division up for an early recording session) – the character in question was the bassist Pete Hook.
Unlike today, as Hooky explained, not much of that classic era was recorded for posterity. People didn’t have the cash to film stuff so there’s hardly any footage from the early years after Warsaw evolved into Joy Division or when Joy Division disappeared off the scene for a while for a Robert Johnson-like moment and reappeared transformed with magical qualities.
The band didn’t even have the facilities to record the songs they composed in a matter of hours at Wednesday (2 hours) and Sunday (3 hours) rehearsals. Those great songs only existed in the heads of those four individuals until they got into the studio together, where laying them down was to a large degree an act of memory.
Morley pointed out the key role played by legendary producer Martin Hannett – not just in adding depth to the music but recording it in a timeless way so that Unknown Pleasures shows none of the aging signs of many other records of that era.
The scene that best captured the brilliance of Joy Division for me was the recording of Isolation with Hannett sitting at the mixing desk, fag in mouth and mad hair a go go, with Curtis behind him, alone in the glass booth, singing with sweet intensity.
I also liked the sequence where Curtis crosses the line from his epileptic dancing – which I saw for myself at the Lyceum in London when Joy Division supported fellow Mancs the Buzzcocks in around 1978/9, frankly an embarrassing spectacle at the time – from his epileptic dancing into an on-stage seizure as if brought on by his own intensity.
I know to use the word ‘seizure’ not ‘fit’ because I made a film for the British Epilepsy Association at a location in the very same high street as the Phoenix – entitled The Right Stuff. It was a drama and I had to accurately recreate a seizure with an actress from Byker Grove (who strangely enough I later came across working at the ticket office of the Phoenix when her thesp work was thin on the ground). My title graphics – like Corbijn’s – took their cue from the idea of electrical disruption.
In the same high street I bought, only last year, the copy of Atmosphere whose Pete Saville designed cover Hooky signed for me last night.
When asked which scene was most poignant for him Pete Hook said it was the one in the pub after Ian’s wake – he said it was the most true-to-life scene in the film. All the friends sitting around the table in shock, sorrow, anger and a discordant medley of emotions was very resonant for me too as it had strong echoes of the pub me, Stuart, Carol and co. visited in Southgate after the funeral of our friend Steve. Should we have spotted something? How come he was so up on the phone just hours before, making plans for the not too distant future? Hooky said: We should have known, just looking at the lyrics alone – but you choose not to, don’t you?
Now I’m a huge fan of Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People and, for all the love that’s gone into this and the very impressive performances (the cast play many of the tracks), it’s not in the same class. This is mainly down to the script which hardly has a scene longer than a half-dozen lines of dialogue, which precludes it having much depth. The romance between Ian and Annik, for example, hasn’t much fire – although I liked the detail that when Debbie Curtis finds her rival’s phone number it’s scribbled on the gatefold sleeve of Siouxsie and the Banshee’s Join Hands. Icon is the great track on that top record and the Icon award is what Pete had just picked up at the Diesel music or some such awards before this cinema session. In the audience had been Debbie Curtis, Paddy Considine (24 Hour Party People), Sam Riley (Control) and various other real and fictitious characters from the Joy Division story. According to Hooky, something of a headfuck (he’s a Shameless curser). But a reflection of the dynamic where a largely unrecorded-at-the-time story is gradually pieced together as people work out what went down, an amalgamation of individual perspectives. Pete mentioned how interesting he’d found it watching the recent Joy Division documentary as he heard Bernard and Steve’s interviews – they’d never spoken toegther in that way. It was clear from the emotion in the auditorium last night that Ian’s suicide cast a long shadow.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Steve Simmons, with whom I shared some great adventures