Thursday, 25 May 2017

the sci-fi sound of Joy Division

Joy Division are a pretty sci-fi band. 

((...if you think that’s the most tenuous way I could introduce the fact I’m now brining in pop music to a hitherto sci-fi telly-based blog.... you’d be right))

It’s not that they sing about the sort of themes and subjects you could find in any contemporary literary sf... ALTHOUGH THEY DO THAT TOO... it’s that they SOUND futuristic. They apparently sounded futuristic at the time and they sound so even now. ‘Time travel’, the uncanny (dis)location effect of popular culture as written about in some detail by Jon Savage, centres largely in the Joy Division sound, with shifting, backward-masked and subliminal sounds and delay effects all there in the mix. (delay, as theorised by Pauline Oliveros, is literally time travel, the sound of the past coming forward into the future and both becoming the present) 

It’s music that exists in its own continuum.

This is due in no small measure to their producer, the esteemed Martin Hannett. 

Hannett was a legend in his own lifetime, and posthumously that legend, like that of JD itself, is growing. Whole books can and have been written about him, about his philosophy of sound and his approach to either acquiring new technology or, when this has proved slower than his imagination demanded, inventing his own. Drummer Steven Morris, in the JD documentary film, describes working in Hannett’s studio as being “like some sci-fi adventure”. And well he might. Quite apart from the then-novel profusion of synths, sequencers and drum machines (some of his own devising), there is the use to which all this equipment was put. Hooky may have wanted their records to sound like they did when the group played live; to Hannett’s credit he took the band and sent them travelling off into weird new dimensions. Compare their previous attempts at recording, as Warsaw. The same songs sound... different. More earthly. More normal. Hannett recorded each sound, instrument, vocal pattern and located them at certain points in relation to each other, not for a cheap “ooh, stereophonic sound!” effect but to put the listener of the records into a certain environment, an uncertain psychic/sci-fi space that was the perfect setting for Curtis’ estranged lyrics.

Curtis was certainly a reader with a toe or two in the sf world. Maybe not the pulp sci-fi fiction of previous generations but definitely the 60s ‘New SF’ domain of Moorcock et al. 

Ballard and Burroughs are the two most-cited JD literary antecedents (starman Bowie making up the ‘B’ triad of JD influences). When I first got to hear the first album I always mistook the track ‘Wilderness’ for ‘Interzone’ because the former actually suits the lyric to the latter one better. It is a Burroughsian tour-de-force in which the narrator literally travels through time, witnessing Christ’s death at one point, although that said the (post-apocalyptic?) wasteland of ‘Interzone’  could come straight out of passages in Burroughs’ ‘The Soft Machine’: 
“The town is built over a vast mud flat criss-crossed by stagnant canals, the buildings on stilts joined by a maze of bridges... the whole area presenting the sordid and dilapidated air of a declining frontier post or an abandoned carnival...  Various forms of ritual execution are practiced here.”

As the group metamorphosed, of necessity, into New Order they became much more interested in exploring developing music technology, but were the poorer (in my sci-fi geek estimation) for using it primarily for the purposes OF music, i.e as something to dance to. Without the literary-minded Curtis as quasi-navigator (and don’t forget, as a Kraftwerk fan electronic and dance music IS something JD would have explored more fully had Curtis lived, no doubt about it) there is none of the ‘transporting the listener to a weird new place’ as there was in JD. New Order transported the listener to a place alright but that place was the dance floor. 

No bad thing; just slightly less fun when you’re listening to it through headphones on the bus.

I often imagine what would have happened had New Order collaborated with, say, Afrika Bambata rather than Jellybean as they made their forays into American dance music, but to find that out one would need an actual time machine.

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