Book Review: This Searing Light, the Sun, and Everything Else. Joy Division: The Oral History
This Searing Light, the Sun, and Everything Else. Joy Division: The Oral History
Written by Jon Savage
Review by Roy Peak
Joy Division was an English rock band from the late seventies who made dark soundscapes of electric poetry, intense punk rock, and gothic slabs of noise pop. They formed after the individual members were witness to an early show by the Sex Pistols and, despite not knowing how to play any instruments, were inspired enough to start their own band. They came up with their own unique sound, unmatched since, and quickly became one of the bands to see in Manchester as well as the north of England. On the eve of their first tour of America and right before the release of their second album, Ian Curtis, the band's charismatic and mysterious lead singer and lyricist, killed himself. The band soldiered on later with a new name, New Order, but were never able to find lightning in a bottle like they had the first time.
Writer Jon Savage has done an exemplary job of putting together this oral history of the band and the tumultuous times they sprung from. Numerous interviews with the band as well as nearly everyone associated with them have been edited into a chronological history, not just of Joy Division, but Factory Records, the music scene in north England at the time, and of the city of Manchester itself.
For me, as someone who's been in countless bands, the best parts about this book are the stories from the band members themselves detailing their start. None of them were seasoned musicians when the band got together, they could barely play their instruments, they had no experience getting gigs, no knowledge of how to make it all work, yet they continued to work hard until they became a viable piece of the music scene in Manchester, creating a singular monument of original creativity unmatched to this day. Joy Division sounds like no other band before of after them. The true mark of originality. Their songs are difficult to successfully cover, as Joy Division's personal stamp is all over the material. Yes, these songs are simple, this does not mean they are easy to pull off.
I appreciate that Savage didn't regulate his interviews to merely the band members. We also get insight and memories from several photographers who took the iconic photos which were several peoples first introduction to the band in magazines the world over. The wives and girlfriends of the band, the roadies, manager, record company personnel, and the sound engineer who guided them in the studio all get their say in this book, as well as other journalists who wrote about the band back in their day. The collective memories and various viewpoints in this history are essential to the story.
What's obviously missing in this book is the voice of Ian Curtis, the doomed singer and front-person to this iconic, revolutionary band. His suicide put the brakes on the band and devastated its fans. He does get his say in snippets from older interviews, but it's the other band members who get to reflect on their legacy, while Curtis's are more forward looking and hopeful. Savage does his best to represent Curtis's viewpoint but it's exactly that lack which has haunted the Joy Division story for decades and this book is no exception. Don't get me wrong, as this is a fantastic book, very insightful, and even necessary. If you're a Joy Division fan, this book is a must-read, if not, then reading this excellent tome just might make you one.
Roy Peak has played electric bass in more bands than he cares to remember for more years than he can remember. He wrote the theme song for the Utica, New York radio show "Hey You Kids, Get Off My Lawn" on WPNR-FM. His solo debut album, All Is Well, has been called "Loud, cacophonous, and beautiful by a truly unique artist." His short fiction has been published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and he writes music reviews for the King Tut Vintage Album Museum of Jacksonville.
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