Having spent part of the weekend talking with a music and film book author – jealous, moi? – about The Smiths, Bowie, The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and above all Joy Division, I have been listening to “Closer” back to back in the car this week.
“Closer”, their second and last studio album, was the album that closed the “long 1970s” as dramatically and brilliantly as “Ziggy Stardust” had opened them. Creatively and artistically, this really is an astonishing album from a bunch of young Mancs who only a couple of years before were playing Gothic punk as Warsaw and fighting off neo-fascist skinheads at pub gigs. Along with the peerless, jagged production of mad but brilliant Martin Hannett – a sort of northern George Martin on drugs and donuts – “Closer” is a dark, despairing “Sgt Pepper” in terms of innovation and impact.
Like Bowie’s greatest work of the time – in fact, greatest work full stop – (Ziggy, Diamond Dogs, Station to Station, Low, Heroes) it defied genre, dominant counter-culture and expectation.
In his recent book on Bowie and the 1970s, “The man who sold the world”, cultural historian Peter Doggett recalled Tom Wolfe’s branding of the period as “The Me Decade”, when counter-culture moved from “collective energy” to individualism. The utopianism of the 60′s was realised to be too lofty an ideal to be realised, the dominant culture was seen as “too corrupt and diseased to survive”. Counter-culture moved from Utopia to apocalypse. “Diamond Dogs” portrayed this through Bowie showbiz, “Closer” through despair, melancholy, horror and high musical art.
From the portentous classical tomb cover, to Hannett’s production, from Curtis’ lyrics and vocals, to the astonishing mix of music and the mirror it held up to the face of the turbulent, fearful decade it ended, this is one of the most important and incredible albums ever.
I must have seen Joy Division about ten times across the last few years of the 70s, in London and Manchester. They attracted the most eclectic mix of fans and devotees, from boozed up right wing boot boys to sensitive lefty wannabee underground poets like, er, me.
At one of their gigs I walked straight into Ian Curtis, prowling around the fringes of the basement venue with frightened eyes. We looked at each other, nodded and moved on. Bit like me and the 1970s really.