The 11 best Joy Division songs as chosen by Therapy?'s Andy Cairns
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The first time I heard Joy Division was on Downtown Radio in Northern Ireland.
I listened to the indie rock charts once a week on a Monday night. I’d heard of the band, but I was buying records by punk bands at the time. The most post-punk I’d got was Siouxsie And The Banshees.
And then I heard their single Transmission. It was 1979 and I was 14.
At the time, I was playing bass. This song opened with a synth-y drone and then an incredible bass line came in – it was really compelling. So the next week, I went to Good Vibrations in Great Victoria Street in Belfast and bought the record. Shortly after that, I got their Unknown Pleasures album. A friend – who also played bass – and I spent the whole summer listening to nothing but Joy Division. We’d sit there and work out the bass lines to the records. My heroes were Jean-Jacques Burnel of The Stranglers and then Peter Hook from Joy Division.
I’ve never actually met any of the band. We’d done a cover version of Isolation on Troublegum in 1994, and we’d played Manchester around that time. John Robb said he’d seen Peter Hook and I’d just missed him.
Then my wife and I went on our honeymoon to St. Lucia in 1997 and Bernard Sumner [Joy Division guitarist] and his wife came into the same outdoor restaurant. I had to go through the existential decision of going up to him and saying, ‘I’m Andy Cairns and you may remember be from such hit singles as…’ or just to leave it. My wife said, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ and being the Eeyore that I am, I played out the worst thing that could happen in my head. I ate my full meal – starter, main course and dessert – looking at him but I didn’t catch his eye. That was the only time I could have met someone from Joy Division, but I shat my pants and bottled it.
To this day, I listen to Joy Division regularly – and like Captain Beefheart, Iggy and the Manics – I still hear something new every time. Here are their best 11 songs, ranked in order...
11. FROM SAFETY TO WHERE (Substance, 1988)
This song opens with something like a Joe Lally dub reggae bassline – but this was way before Fugazi. I know there was an awful lot of dub reggae doing the rounds in 1979, and a lot of punks would listen to it to chill out from their speed-fuelled mayhem. It settles into a hypnotic dub groove and Ian Curtis at this point hadn’t quite found his feet, so there isn’t that introspective pondering he did later on. There’s this line: ‘Just passing through, 'til we reach the next stage, but just to where, well it's all been arranged’. That reminded me of the enigmatic authority of someone like Harold Pinter or Jean-Paul Sartre. It’s got that sense of something around the corner that could be unmanageable. It has this lilting feel to it and very little guitar, which is brave. People were used to hearing the Pistols and the Damned, then here’s this band from Manchester with this sparse-sounding song. From Safety To Where has been under-looked but there's a great deal of worth in peripheral tracks like this.
10. DAY OF THE LORDS (Unknown Pleasures, 1979)
Where I grew up, it was very tribal. You were either a punk, a rocker, a mod, into ska or a skinhead. There wasn’t this great genre mash-up you have today. Growing up in Northern Ireland, and just loving music, segregation was all around. We were sick of it. At the school I went to, it was very uncool to buy the NME and Sounds. I bought both and used to get into arguments about how I thought there was common ground between Black Sabbath and Joy Division. There was something very funereal about them both and they had a great sense of doom. You’ve got the grey and rubble of post-war Manchester and the black furnace fog of the Black Country, where Sabbath are from. Then play a song like Day Of The Lords and then something of Black Sabbath’s first album – the guitars are huge. There’s this monolithic sprawl of epic guitars and a refrain of ‘Where will it end?’ which, to a 15-year-old, is like catnip. Fantastic!
9. DIGITAL (A Factory Sample, 1978)
I never paid much attention to this song at the time, it was only when I saw the Anton Corbijn film Control  that I went back and listened to it. It has such an odd bass line. If you listen to it in separation, it sounds like a kid’s TV theme, a sports ident and a snippet from a dance craze from the 1950s. But the insistence of it is its charm, but it seems incongruous with the whole Joy Division mystique. It’s tempting to use the word jaunty if it wasn’t tempered by Ian Curtis’ stentorian hectoring which comes in later on.
8. TWENTY FOUR HOURS (Closer, 1980)
It was hard to pick a track off Closer. It was either this or Decades. Closer is one record I really don’t listen to much. Not anywhere near as much as Unknown Pleasures, because some of the post-Curtis elegiac outpouring didn’t seem to relate to the same music I was listening to previously. It was viewed through this post-suicide lens and almost felt like I was being bullied into reading someone’s private suicide note. But it’s a fantastic sounding record. There’s moments of needlepoint melancholy and it’s got these urgent, glistening sections – it’s like someone’s life is rushing by outside of a train window.
7. DEAD SOULS (Still, 1981)
This has one of the greatest intros to a rock track of all time. I was never able to see them live. I was too young and they never crossed the water. There’s this clarion guitar over pre-industrial drums and there’s this major chord barrage, then settles into a guitar groove. It’s like something the Velvet Underground would’ve done. Curtis’ line ‘they keep calling me’ is almost supernatural in its intent and I think if you saw this live, you’d be hypnotised. The track itself is effortless and enchanted – it’s quite a rocky track from Joy Division and doesn’t have that same sonic detachment. It’s a brilliant song to listen to on headphones in the dark.
6. DISORDER (Unknown Pleasures, 1979)
I’d never heard a bass line like that in my life. It seemed to jump from one end of the fretboard to the other and would change tone within the same bar. There’s a chiming, two-note hypnotic guitar line too and it’s a really weird effect; you can hear each instrument in isolation. If you listen to the song with headphones and close your eyes, there’s so much space in the track – it sounds like it’s floating. There’s also these swooshes and rushes. It could be suggestive of a walking psyche, awe-inspiring tides of black waves or passing bats or a tar-black night on a road in the north west. I’d gone from listening to the Damned, the Pistols and the UK Subs – all very sweat-drenched, angry songs – to listening to music I’d never heard in my life. It was completely visceral and amazing.
5. SHADOWPLAY (Unknown Pleasures, 1979)
That was one of my favourites from very early on. It almost didn't made the list because I know it inside out. Therapy? have seguewayed into it for years, so it had to make it in because it’s been such an influence on me. It fades in, which is always a big faux pas, I think. But it works. There’s this pile-up of screeching guitars, with droning, high-pitched chords which just build. It’s almost like a post-punk version of The Chain by Fleetwood Mac.
4. SHE’S LOST CONTROL (Unknown Pleasures, 1979)
It’s got an amazing bass line. It got me into a lot of trouble because it was one of the first ones I’d ever learned. I started to play with local bands and remember jamming with a rock band who did covers. They were jamming their own stuff and I was told to leave my attentions above the fifth fret at home. My forays up to and past the 12th fret were not appreciated. I was told to pedal on A. That’s one of the things I loved about Peter Hook’s playing is that it was quite fearless. It’s also got a Can-like trance-like guitar riff. What’s lovely about the original version, there’s a echo on at the end of Curtis’ lines, which warps the vocal and gives a complete sense of dislocation. It’s about Ian Curtis witnessing a girl have an epileptic fit. There’s a disembodiment in the sound and the instruments are all pulling at different places and it gives the sense of someone on the floor having a fit. It messes around with convention, too. Some bands at the time would use a cowbell, but they’d use a synth drum. It gave it an otherworldly feel.
3. ATMOSPHERE (Substance, 1988)
This was released posthumously. It was one of those records where I didn’t buy into the whole post-death thing, but the very first time I heard this was in the living room at my mum and dad’s house. It was one of those few moments in music where I thought I was going to have a panic attack. It’s just two chords over and over again, very minor, very solemn. There’s these little shimmers in it. I felt like I couldn’t breathe because I was overcome with the whole track. I was going through a few personal things; I didn’t know what was going on in my life, where it was going, not sure who my friends were… and here’s a posthumous release by my favourite band in the whole world that I wasn’t expecting. It was so cinematic and devastatingly beautiful. Before I did this list, I listened to it again and it gave me goosebumps in the first bar. It had to go in. It’s unlike many other Joy Division tracks. Peter Hook has called this his favourite track and I can see why, but it surprisingly hasn’t got much Hooky-style bass playing in it.
2. NEW DAWN FADES (Unknown Pleasures, 1979)
It opens with this really weird, alien-sounding backward synth. The bass line sounds like it’s dazed, staggering down a street. There’s this really famous painting by Edvard Munch called Evening On Karl Johan . In it, everyone is out enjoying themselves. On the side, there’s a solitary figure in black. That’s what this song reminds me of – this staggering figure alone on the other side of the road. I know this record inside out and I still can’t figure out what Bernard Sumner plays. It also reminds me of a poem by Phillip Larkin called Aubade. The first few lines are ‘I work all day, and get half-drunk at night. Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare’. I was reading Larkin around the same time I was listening to Joy Division and it made a grey sense to me at that point in time.
1. TRANSMISSION (single, 1979)
“It’s not Isolation! The Isolation cover happened during the writing of Troublegum . We had eight tracks and Chris Sheldon came to the studio and we were just jamming. I was playing the riff from Isolation. Michael [McKeegan, bassist] and Fyfe [Ewing, former drummer] said it was a brilliant riff but I said I wasn’t sure where it was from. I went back and realised it was the bass line that I’d learned when I was younger. Ironically, it’s not one of my favourite Joy Division tracks. It was just muscle memory from playing it a lot.
“I think their best song is Transmission. Absolutely. It’s frenzied. It’s taut. Even the bass line is really staccato, but the first note is held, which is crucial. It’s amazing and has everything in it. There’s a great deal of tension and release, and I think the guitar playing is some of Bernard Sumner’s finest work. It starts like an alien transmission then this iconic bass line comes in, then the drums and it’s like disco and you’re beginning to move. Then Curtis comes in; he’s so authoritative on this track. It almost sounds like you’re being talked like someone from George Orwell’s 1984. It’s quite oppressive, but then it winds down again. Towards the end of the track, it gets quite frantic. The track stops, you’re left desperately wanting to fill the silence. You’re like, 'How do I get that station again?', because it’s gone. I’m always surprised that people don’t pick the energetic, live affirming Joy Division as their inspiration. They take the maudlin, gothic version. This song has got everything I like about Joy Division.”
Therapy?'s latest album Disquiet is out now. The band are touring Europe throughout the year. For more information, click here.