There’s a haze surrounding Manchester. A sort of vapour that grows thicker and soupier as you roll on down the M62. It’s not the industrial fug of Victorian cliché, or the drizzle-clouds of the Southern imagination. It’s the atmospheric pressure of myth. In its own way, it’s just as irrepressible (irresistible?) as the mists swirling around Glastonbury Tor or the breakers lapping at the lip of Fingal’s Cave. Some of it is merely the hot air of dozens of talkers: the patter of Tony Wilson, Shaun Ryder’s halitosis. But there are other chemicals in the mix – the powdery ghosts of the Pankhursts, Marx and Engels, former Guardian editors and co-operative society pioneers. And there’s the dust that still refuses to settle – the dust of a thousand demolished backstreets, the terraces we know from Morrissey and Tony Warren and Shelagh Delaney. Manchester is all particulates; a fine mesh of reference, suspended cloud-like over the redbrick.
Well, maybe. Every time I’ve been to Manchester I’ve tried to feel it. It should be a spiritual home of sorts – Northern, a bit pinko (a bit pink in fact, if not rainbow), nodal point for some of the coolest music ever committed to vinyl – but it hasn’t been shrouded, and the wraiths have stayed well underneath the cobble-line. I’ve seen a lot of consumption, as much as anywhere – palaces to it, in fact. A city once world-renowned for production, now erecting glass edifices with nothing in them. Many would say that Manchester’s always been about ‘front’ (something that unites Elsie Tanner and the Gallaghers) but I don’t want veneer. I don’t wanna be adored. I want to be hemmed in like a boar between arches.
I want the vapour to bear down on me, to stop my breath, to dampen my pleural cavity. And that’s when I reach for Joy Division.
‘Transmission’ appropriately begins with the faintest hum of static. It’s the ambient hiss before the station settles, the echo of unintelligible voices in the hall before the conductor lifts his baton. We’re waiting for something to happen. It’s damp and drear; we need a match to catch, a gas-lamp to light. In the event of it, we get Peter Hook’s bass guitar cutting through the fog, and it briefly promises something menacing. The light isn’t glowing as much as glowering. It’s all front though. Stephen Morris’s drums stutter into life and then the tinny, skinny Sumner guitar, two notes played with pale fingers. ‘Radio, live transmission’, sings Ian Curtis, to himself and his bandmates. Live but barely living: if this is a broadcast, it’s the 4am shift, just as the quarter-light becomes the half-light, and the eyes open into gummy slits. Joy Division are practising in the basement of a disused textiles factory, watching malnourished hands strike strings in the dismal wattage of a dimmed bulb. The walls are thick with mould; spores bother the throat.
Are there any opening bars in popular music more pleuritic, more bronchitic, more burdened with the set-in weather of the industrial Pennines? It’s not such a jump to see chimneys and furnaces when listening to Joy Division (they were on Factory Records, of course), but Ian Curtis grew up in Macclesfield, within sight of the western fringe of the Peak District, and the frowsty atmospherics of peat moorland, the lurch from clam to chill, are there in the fug of synth and the spitting snare and cymbal. For those unfamiliar with these landscapes, or unsympathetic to Joy Division’s music, this might be a virtual no-brainer. The band is a byword for a type of Northern ‘miserabilism’ – cue the clichés about trenchcoats in Ancoats. But then, the sun does sometimes shine up there on the pocked hillsides; its fingers poke into the viscid canals, revealing spectrums in the foam of industrial waste and the rusting shopping trolleys. These moments can be epiphanic, and this is what makes Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’ so damned special.
Initially, Curtis’s eyes are ‘dark grey lenses frightened of the sun’. It’s a Vitamin D allergy, sure consequence of reading Camus by torchlight. But this song is about learning to let go of that; it’s about willing yourself free. And though the bloodless drums continue splishing mercilessly, and Barney’s guitar never finds itself moving in anything but one-tone steps, ‘Transmission’ begins to strain out of itself, wrenching up and away. Martin Hannett’s switches and sliders slowly build the track into something choral and big, hitting upon a new kind of musical paradox: the emaciated epic. Not epic in length (the song is only three and a half minutes long), but epic in implication. At just over the two-minute mark, something uncanny happens – Ian Curtis discovers he can dance, and the realisation is so forceful it threatens the song with disequilibrium. So far, the verse has been chanted tentatively, if portentously, on a monotone; the bridge (or chorus, if it can be called thus) takes Curtis up a fifth, as he decides to ‘dance to the radio’. The effect of these fifths is of open strings, which register in the subconscious as a kind of tuning up. We’re back to the hum of the rudderless orchestra and the static of audience sibilance before the first bar begins. It’s a powerful effect, notating what supposedly comes before the piece proper, voicing the flutter of anticipation; mull this over next time you listen to Beethoven’s 9th, whose opening movement mimics this tuning-up excitement before battering your eardrums with a ferocious D minor chord.
Funnily enough, we’re in D minor here too, and the open string leads to a thrilling octave. Two and a half minutes into the song, and Ian has vaulted into a higher register, his paranoid baritone morphing into a tenor which, while hardly gleeful, seems to voice a kind of desperate release. This is the territory surveyed by David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, a rise from croon to holler. It’s a fair comparison – we know that Joy Division lapped up Berlin-period weltschmerz, and though equating late 1970s Manchester with the darkness of divided Germany might seem a little invidious, there is scant difference between those two mental landscapes (let’s not forget that Marxism began in Cottonopolis). Just as Bowie’s lovers kiss by the Berlin Wall, ‘as though nothing could fall’, Curtis’s dancers have to believe in the possibility of unbridled physicality. His painfully inflected yell – ‘we can daaaaance’ – speaks to all those pimply, iron-deficient youths on rundown estates; all those disaffected by Labour and about to be dispossessed by Hayek-worshipping monetarists. It sounds like Curtis is rounding up the undead for a totentanz by the Ship Canal; but it’s a dance nevertheless. Dance as if your life depends on it, he’s saying. ‘No language, just sound, that’s all we need know’. Language is power. What better way to subvert the power structures of society than to call for a new kind of eloquence? Articulacy happens in the gut, in the legs, in the wobble of the arms.
This threshold is genuinely exciting. The track bubbles under Curtis’s screams, offering more and more glimpses of dappled light, octaved pianos glimmering like Saint-Saens’ ‘Aquarium’ through the post-punk noir. The dance could gain traction; the dance as social movement, as mobilisation, as exuberance unquashed by reactionary edict. Perhaps this transmission leads to transition, change, progress. But then in its last twenty seconds, the track winds itself down. Morris’s drums lose their footing, and the radio batteries flatten. All we are left with at the end is the synth hiss from whence the song was hatched. The possibility of progress is an illusion. The youth movement flares up in a momentary blaze of passion and heroism, but dies as quickly as it sparks. Life is mostly dull. Revolution is a dream. The monochrome grey settles in over Salford once more.
A certain romance now clings to Joy Division, surely one of the most mythologized of all British bands. Contrary to my expectations, I found Anton Corbijn’s Control a genuinely affecting film, though I do wonder how much of this had to do with the exquisite black-and-white palette (Macclesfield seemed utterly foreign, and this to me, a Northerner!), and the pitch-perfect recreation of the electrifying Granada TV performance of ‘Transmission’, which unleashed Ian Curtis’s own flailing dance on the world. Nevertheless, Joy Division’s reputation as doomsters is lazy thinking. Though their name was a horribly ironic reference to Nazi whorehouses, there is yet some ‘joy’ in the Division. ‘Transmission’ is realistic; it knows that as soon as the youths go to dance, the authorities will come and flick off the power switch. But it’s also idealistic; these men are far from conventionally gifted musicians, but with will and individuality, they produce an utterly singular piece of art that recognises the extraordinarily transformative power of good noise. ‘Transmission’, then, is not only a metonym for Manchester’s impressive pop music heritage, but for British indie music at large. Over and out.