The Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else

Jon Savage, Faber, £20

WHEN it comes to music, there are some stories we keep telling time and again. Maybe it’s the same story. The story of a gang of young men (it’s always men), usually from the rough end of town, who meet up, decide to form a band, make some music, have some success and then a tragedy happens. The tragedy is key.

Most of the time, the young men are called the Beatles. Sometimes the Stones. Now and again – less so these days – they might be called The Sex Pistols. More often, they call themselves Joy Division.

Of all the retellings of this story, Joy Division’s is perhaps the most concise. It spans just a few years, two albums and it comes to a sudden, emphatic stop on the night of May 17, 1980 when Ian Curtis hangs himself at home on the eve of an American tour.

In Jon Savage’s new oral history of the band that conclusion has an inevitable weight to it, one that hits hard even now, despite the fact that we know it’s coming.

The band has been repeatedly memorialised down the years in articles, books and films, a process that began almost from the moment of Curtis’s death. The question, then, given that his fellow band members Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner have already published memoirs and drummer Stephen Morris publishes his next month, is do we need Savage’s book?

I think so, because Savage, who himself moved to Manchester in 1979 to work for the late Tony Wilson, Granada TV presenter and the supremo of Joy Division’s record label Factory, has spoken to nearly everyone who matters in the story and brings an urgency to the telling of it.

This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else (a partial quotation from Wilson describing the first time he saw Joy Division play) tells the band’s history through the voices of its members, those who worked with them, friends, partners and onlookers.

Inevitably, as an oral history, it sacrifices analysis for immediacy. But the immediacy is what makes it compelling. It also humanises the story, reminds us that what happened was more than just rock star mythology.

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That’s often down to the band’s dry northern humour. “We used to buy little scout shirts for 50p,” recalls Peter Hook at one point, talking about Joy Division’s utilitarian early look. “We just had no money, it was necessity really and we just got into it. Bernard latched onto the look. Ian had the look anyway really. Steve was always dressed by his mother, so he had a very individual style, which was like a geography teacher.”

Savage’s book does not give us a radically new vision of Curtis, Sumner, Hook and Morris, but, as well as sketching in the background of a crumbling, violent 1970s Manchester and Salford, he brings home to anyone reading it the brevity of the band’s story and the youthful naivety of those involved.

Curtis had actually tried to kill himself in April 1980. Two days later the band played a gig in Bury. It’s difficult to believe that Wilson, who himself died in 2007, could tell Savage that “we didn’t see it coming.” But that seems to have been the case for all of them.

And yet in 1980 so much for Curtis was falling apart. His marriage and his health most notably. He was taking epileptic fits on stage and they were becoming more regular and more violent. The drugs he was taking to deal with them brought their own problems. As a result, his future in the band was also in question, in his own mind at least.

Maybe he didn’t want that future anyway. Morris recalls him saying he wanted to go and live in Holland and open a bookshop. “If he’d stuck to what he wanted he’d probably still be alive today,” the Joy Division drummer suggests.

That might be wishful thinking. What Savage’s book emphasises is the weight bearing down on Curtis by 1980. The 23-year-old William Burroughs fan who also read Sven Hassel books, voted Tory and was seen as a fun guy by the rest of the band, had arrived in a very dark place. In the end he embraced that darkness in the most awful way.

Curtis’s death is a full stop and the pain of that sudden ending is what, inevitably, you take away from the book. That said, Curtis is a present absence throughout. The book is a reminder that, almost 40 years after his death, he once was here, a young man in all his flawed, contradictory, complexity.

All music stories are human stories in the end.