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Joy Division’s resurgence is multiplying

Times Staff Writer

More than three decades have passed since Joy Division emerged from the cultural rubble of post-industrial Manchester, England to rechannel punk rock’s sound and fury into something more sublime.

Over the group’s fleeting, three-year existence, its lyrics connected with fans by conveying emotional isolation and existential despair while the music arrived with the visceral impact of shattering glass. Just 50 Joy Division songs were recorded in all: darkly propulsive rock anthems and atmospheric soundscapes that demonstrate a kind of glacial grandeur, both serene and severe.

Now, 27 years after the group’s charismatic lead singer and songwriter, Ian Curtis, hanged himself at age 23, the band is having a “moment.” Which is to say, after years as a cult phenomenon, Joy Division’s influence is suddenly turning up all over pop culture.

But why Joy Division? Why now?

In an era that has post-punk cultural touchstones such as skinny ties, danceable rock and distrust of the government making a comeback, many of those participating in the band’s revival seem more apt to frame debate around what Joy Division isn’t than to provide a new raison d'être for its current resurgence.

“When people revisit it, there’s no cultural kitsch. It’s so pared down, it’s not retro,” said Grant Gee, director of the new documentary “Joy Division.” “Everything about the band has a minimalism that doesn’t age.”

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Added Anton Corbijn, director of the elegantly shot Curtis biopic “Control”: “Joy Division doesn’t feel fashionable in any way. It defined an era but it doesn’t really come from that era.”

On Oct. 19, “Control” will begin its Los Angeles theatrical run. Co-produced and directed by the music-video ace and art photographer, it traces Curtis’ internal conflicts as a married family man who struggled to reconcile his fragmented existence as a rock star and closet intellectual prone to devastating epileptic seizures.

“Control” cleaned up at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, winning the Regards Jeunes prize for best first or second directed feature and the Europa Cinema award for best European film being shown out of competition for the Palme d’Or.

Last month, music-video helmer Gee’s rockumentary -- which details the group’s fast rise and sudden end from the perspective of band members and those close to them -- was acquired by the Weinstein Co. at the Toronto Film Festival. Although a release date hasn’t been set, “Joy Division” has caused a stir among band faithful for including a first-ever interview with Annik Honoré, Curtis’ mistress during his final days.

Moreover, it’s become almost impossible to turn on modern-rock radio without registering the sonic debt owed Joy Division by a who’s who of buzz bands -- most notably, the Killers, She Wants Revenge, Interpol, Bloc Party, the National and Moving Units.

“It’s not like the hipsters have united and decided, ‘This is the best band,’ ” said Brian Aubert, singer-guitarist of Silver Lake indie-rock group the Silversun Pickups, which covered Joy Division’s “Shadowplay” on an early demo tape. “It’s always been the best band. A band you found out about through other people. It was never pushed on you.”

Until now, that is. Cashing in on the interest, Rhino Records is releasing deluxe editions of Joy Division’s studio albums, “Unknown Pleasures” and “Closer,” and “Still,” a compilation of rare recordings; Joy Division ringtones, a special vinyl box set and the soundtrack to “Control,” which contains unreleased music by the Killers and New Order, the band composed of Joy Division’s three remaining members.

Tom Atencio has managed New Order in North America for more than 20 years in addition to administering Joy Division’s catalog on this continent and executive producing “Joy Division.” He places the band’s purity of purpose against the disposable nature of most pop music today.

“We live in a time of ‘American Idol’ where, if you’re a kid, you are being force fed pop music that is a direct descendant of a hit from six months ago,” Atencio said. “Yet here’s a band you could trust. They weren’t seeking the idolatry of a rock stage. This music was something they needed to express.

“Then there’s something so moving in the sound of the music that people just want to identify with. Something in Ian’s deeply felt lyrics and delivery that’s unbelievably honest. It’s that dog whistle of instant recognition -- in an era of branding, here’s a brand you can trust.”

A pop-music cipher

Chris Ott, who wrote the book “Unknown Pleasures” about the making of Joy Division’s epochal 1979 debut album, places Curtis’ reclaimed relevance in a different context: alongside fellow rock casualties Jim Morrison and Sid Vicious. “Because Ian Curtis killed himself, people can project whatever they want onto his life and music,” Ott said. “He’s not around to tell them otherwise.”

To wit, “Control” arrives on the heels of an earlier Joy Division movie: director Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People” in 2002. Depicting Manchester’s “Madchester” alternative music scene as it revolved around mogul Tony Wilson’s Factory Records, Curtis is portrayed as a brooding, erratic control freak. But the film angered some Joy Division purists by providing scant motive for the singer’s decision to commit suicide.

Blame the dearth of archival Joy Division information -- largely because of the notoriously press-averse, socially circumspect Curtis’ habit of singing his mind rather than speaking it -- for its continuing mystique. “Bands now, you know every biographical detail,” said Gee. “With Joy Division, there was one audio tape and one major print interview -- there are gaps around everything they did. If you’re discovering [the group] now, you have to work to fill in the gaps with your imagination. The image draws you in.”

Toward that end, look no further than the fashion runway for evidence that Joy Division’s military-inspired, minimalist “look” -- buttoned-up shirts, trench coats, suit trousers and apparent contempt for anything casual or synthetic -- is indisputably now.

But while rock, film and fashion have been in lock step for decades, the band’s influence has been popping up even further afield. This year, the U.K. Japanese restaurant chain Yo! Sushi began offering a boxed meal named in honor of Joy Division’s most famous song. The Love Will Tear Us Apart salmon and tuna box set includes a selection of nigiri, maki and sashimi as well as a salad topped with a piquant sunomono dressing. And even more incongruously, in April, the sportswear company New Balance commissioned artist Dylan Adair to design two pairs of limited edition Joy Division running shoes, one featuring the iconic pulsar wavelength artwork from the “Unknown Pleasures’ ” album cover. Not necessarily the roll-out you’d expect for a band that takes its name from concentration camp brothels for Nazi soldiers.

She Wants Revenge frontman Justin Warfield isn’t convinced, however, that Joy Division’s resurgence is as sudden as it might appear. He ticks off other similar comebacks in recent years for influential underground bands including the Velvet Underground, the Ramones and Gang of Four. Still, Warfield allows that it’s not a coincidence that popular music -- and especially indie rock -- should take a turn away from frivolousness during wartime.

“To me, this is a dire and ominous time, and if Joy Division influences music in no other way than to add a touch of darkness, that’s a great thing,” Warfield said. “There’s so much bright and shiny escapist music right now, we need music to reflect and inspire other emotions.”

“I love dark music. But why is Joy Division popular? Because they’re a great band that’s been overlooked for a long time. And great music stands the test of time.”

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chris.lee@latimes.com


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