Post-punk pioneers

It’ll be at least a few weeks before local audiences get to see Control, the Joy Division biopic that, for a welcome change in movies like this, was
actually made by a person who knew the subject first-hand: Photographer and
music-vid king Anton Corbijn (whose gritty, high-contrast style you know from U2’s Joshua Tree, countless Depeche Mode shots, et cetera) jump-started his career shooting the group’s portrait, and says they “instigated” his move from Holland to England in 1979.

It’ll surely be even longer before SA audiences get to see Joy Division, the satisfying doc I caught at the Toronto Film Fest, which seems unlikely to get a theatrical release here but would make a great double-disc package when Control hits DVD.

But it’s not too early to get in the mood for the feature film with Rhino’s comprehensive reissues, which in three double-CD packages document the career of a band with a tragically short lifespan but a gigantic legacy.

One interviewee in the doc asserts that the only real JD document is Unknown Pleasures, the sole LP released before singer Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980. For others, Closer counts just as much; it was recorded and close to release before Curtis’s death, which happened the night before the band left to tour the U.S. as The Buzzcocks’ opening act.

But everone agrees that what’s on these two albums is unlike anything heard before then. Martin Hannett (depicted as a mad scientist in 24 Hour Party People) ran microphones through filters like nobody had used before - filters that extracted not only aural richness but human warmth. The match was perfect for a band whose sole hit was a heart-warming ditty called “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

In the doc, JD member and future New Order singer Bernard Sumner makes an observation that sums up what these two records did and how they marked the shift from in-your-face Sex Pistols punk to what, long after Joy Division created it, would be defined as post-punk: “Sooner or later somebody was going to want to say more than ‘fuck you’ ... to say ‘I’m fucked.’”

Twenty-odd years down the road, the Control soundtrack has beaten the movie into the marketplace. A nice comp that, with audio clips of dialogue and a couple of oddball song inclusions, functions as an effective curiosity-generating machine. It reminds us who came before the band (the VU doing “What Goes On”) and who still listens to them today (The Killers, whose “Shadowplay” clearly borrows from JD).

(Briefly, while we’re talking soundtracks: The one for Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited is a must, pairing fast-paced sitar tracks from Satyajit Ray films — written by Ray himself — with Fritz Reiner’s orchestra, Clair de Lune, and, of course, The Kinks.)

From post-punk roots to a little-known branch of the tree: The Welsh band Young Marble Giants derive from the same era as Joy Division and had about as brief a lifespan (though they managed to disband without bloodshed), leaving behind a sole album, Colossal Youth. After a couple of reissue versions, Domino has bundled CY, some singles, EPs, outtakes, and a Peel Session in a three-disc set that to my ears is about as lonely sounding, but a whole lot less grim, than Joy Division.

Fronted by the unassuming speak-singing of Alison Statton, the group foreshadows some of the shy-sounding female-led indie groups of the ’90s, but there’s a difference: The perky organ and burping drum machine behind Statton never make her sound cute, and if there’s vulnerability in the severe sparseness of the arrangements, the emotional distance feels deliberate rather than teasing. Critic Simon Reynolds’s notes correctly point out that, in spite of certain songs’ virtues, the album “really takes effect as a whole;” it’s a bit hard for me to imagine any of the tracks on the LP being removed from context — certainly not to become a single like “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

On the other hand, you can listen to Colossal Youth, in its entirety, five times in a row without feeling the world is out to get you. That’s a boast Ian Curtis couldn’t make, not that he would have wanted to.

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