Jon Savage: ‘Something about Joy Division transcends their time and place’

The music writer explains the roots of his new oral history of ‘the most powerful live group I’ve ever seen’

• Read an extract from This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else: Joy Division – the Oral History

Music journalist Jon Savage, 65, has wanted to write a book about Joy Division for as long as he can remember. But the spark for his new oral history of the band, This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else, is easier to pinpoint. He assisted on Grant Gee’s 2007 documentary film Joy Division and knew how much material had been left on the cutting-room floor. Lead singer Ian Curtis was long dead of course (he killed himself in 1980), but there were in-depth interviews with the remaining members of the group – Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris – as well as material that Savage had compiled over four decades following, thinking and writing about Joy Division. The result feels like a definitive account of one of the most exciting and enduring bands of the post-punk era.

Why did you want to do an oral history? In some ways, it’s a more ego-less approach for a writer.
That was an attraction for me because I’ve written a lot about Joy Division. And people tend to get superheated about the band, so I thought: “Oh God, let them speak!” Besides, I like the cadences of the way that they speak, there’s a kind of poetry. And it’s very immediate.

Jon Savage in 1978.
Jon Savage in 1978. Photograph: Courtesy Jon Savage

Did compiling the book change how you feel about the band or the personalities?
Well, yes. There is disguised autobiography in the book: it’s about me moving to Manchester from London in 1979 and working with [Factory co-founder] Tony Wilson and becoming friendly with Rob Gretton [Joy Division’s manager] and Martin Hannett [the band’s producer] and seeing Joy Division a lot. And me trying to make sense of how powerful Joy Division were: they are probably the most powerful live group I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen hundreds.

And I really got a sense finally – which I haven’t before – of why what happened with Ian happened. It’s a combination of pressures. Also the severe nature of his illness, and the poor treatment he was getting for his illness, and it all just suddenly really made sense to me. He was actually having fits on stage, and that’s not sustainable. So in a way it was the laying of a ghost.

What do you remember about when Ian Curtis died in May 1980?
I have no memory. It’s a blank. In a way, keeping on at this subject is a way of filling in the blanks. And I think that was just being young. I was 25 and I hadn’t really encountered death before, and so I just didn’t know what to do. Also back in the day there was not really the language to talk about it, and people say that in the book. And I was only on the periphery, so I think it was a completely shattering event.

How would describe your relationship with the band during the time you were writing about them?
I was quite rigorous about not becoming that friendly with groups, because it could be a bit embarrassing; you don’t know whether they’d turn round and make a crap album and you’d have to say so and there would be trouble. That happened to me with Siouxsie and the Banshees and a couple of other people and I just got fed up with people coming up to me and calling me a cunt because I’d actually told the truth about their lousy art in that particular case. So I’d say I was an acquaintance.

Ian Curtis on stage in Rotterdam, January 1980
Ian Curtis on stage in Rotterdam, January 1980. Photograph: Rob Verhorst/Redferns

It’s been 40 years since the band released their debut studio album, Unknown Pleasures. What’s the enduring appeal of Joy Division?
The main thing about Joy Division is that they were great. The music really stands up; I still listen to Joy Division with great pleasure and it’s not just nostalgic. Also I had a very interesting experience: I did an event at the BFI and they showed [Anton Corbijn’s film] Control and the Joy Division documentary to a bunch of inner-city kids, 16, 17. They were slightly bored, polite but restless – as you’d expect. Then Ian came on in one of the bits of live footage and oh, they tuned right in. They immediately snapped to attention, because of his total intensity, total commitment. He was, in that degraded phrase, “for real”. So there is something about Joy Division that transcends their time and place.

Is this the end of your journey with them?
I certainly won’t do another book about them, but I do feel that I’ve got a greater understanding of what happened then and why it’s continued to nag away at me until now. A very good friend of mine said to me once: “Jon, sometimes in life, you have to do the obvious.” Actually that’s very good advice and this book is an example of that, I think.


Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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