Saturday, January 15, 2011

January 15: Joy Division, "Disorder"

Artist: Joy Division
Song: "Disorder"
Album: Unknown Pleasures
Year: 1979

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While many people use the term "post punk," the truth of the matter is, most do not fully understand exactly how the term came to be, as well as exactly what defines that sound.  This has led to a number of bands sharing this title, many of whom do not exactly represent the original meaning of the term.  Only a few short months after the period in 1977 that most cite as the "punk explosion," a number of bands began to emerge that seemed to share the minimalist ethos, yet distanced themselves by emphasizing mood and feeling over the speed and aggression that was the basis of punk.  This combination of sounds is where the "true" meaning of "post punk" can be found, and few bands better define this style than one finds in the music of Joy Division.  With their deep, often haunting melodies combined with an undeniably catchy overall sound, it was this music that opened the door for countless other bands and genres, and one simply cannot say enough about the lasting impact of their magnificent 1979 debut record, Unknown Pleasures.  The way in which the songs on the album work together to create a single piece is nothing short of stunning, and there are few other records that can be seen as revolutionary as one finds here.  Filled with some of the darkest, yet most sonically beautiful songs ever recorded, there are few tracks that better define Joy Division than 1979's "Disorder."

As both an introduction to the album, and for most people, to the band itself, "Disorder" is one of the most instantly catchy and definitive songs in history.  Kicking off with the oddly echoing, distinctive drumming of Stephen Morris, the song almost immediately gains its entire identity.  When it is joined by the fast-paced bass of Peter Hook, it is clear that there is something different about the bands' sound, and this almost undefinable element is what makes the music of Joy Division so fantastic.  It is the way in which both the music and lyrics seem completely detached, yet powerfully emotive that stands out, and there are very few other bands that have been able to achieve this sound to the same level that one can experience on "Disorder."  When Bernard Summer drops into the song with his guitar, it is almost breathtaking, as the tone he brings is absolutely amazing, as his playing seems to almost sweep across the song, taking the listener along for the ride.  All three musicians here clearly have their own space on "Disorder," and the fact that there is such a separation, yet they somehow meld together is the key to making the song so unique.  This was largely due to the work of legendary producer Martin Hannett, and the almost random sound effects that he deploys throughout the track provide the ideal finishing touch to make "Disorder" nothing short of legendary.

Though there have been many great examples of the idea throughout the history of recorded music, there are few instances that surpass "Disorder" when it comes to a vocalist perfectly matching the mood of the music over which he sings.  Ian Curtis brings a detached, almost disinterested tone to his lyrics, and yet there is a sense of frustration and despair in his words that one cannot deny.  Though for nearly the entire song Curtis offers the lyrics in little more than his speaking voice, there is still a great deal of emotion behind the words, and it is this contrast of ideas that in many ways defines both his style as well as the overall approach of the band.  As "Disorder" opens, Curtis delivers what has become one of the most iconic lines in music history, as when he sings, "...I've been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand...," one can interpret this line on a number of levels.  One can see this phrase as an almost warning of the musical change that the listener is about to experience, and yet one can also see this as the defining moment that explains much of the lyrical content as well.  Regardless of the way in which one reads this line, the remainder of the lyrics of the song echo the ideals of the punk rock sound, and yet the heavy level of emotion that one can feel within them is perhaps the clearest definition of the idea of "post punk."  The way in which Ian Curtis performs here also stands as one of the most unforgettable moments in music history, and it is truly the type of song that once it is heard for the first time, it sticks with the listener forever.

Though it is difficult to separate "Disorder" from the entire work of Unknown Pleasures, the song itself helps to highlight the amazing work that is found throughout the album.  Whether it is the sparse arrangement of the music or the heavy mood that persists throughout, there was simply nothing on par with this record that can be found previously.  Each musician is in top form and then some, and the fact that there is so much space between them on the song helps to highlight each of their fantastic performances.  This formula would become the blueprint for countless bands that followed, and one can still hear echoes of this sound within the modern music scene.  Though the overall feeling of space between the band members and the almost overbearing sense of sorrow never relents, there is also a feeling of warmth and closeness in the music that cannot be denied.  The fact that these opposites are able to co-exist throughout all of "Disorder" is a testament to the band and Hannett, and it is this fact alone that demands the song be experienced firsthand.  Furthermore, the tension that can be felt on the song is second to none, and it almost feels as if the song might fall apart at any moment.  In reality, there are simply not enough words that can describe the extraordinary musical achievements found throughout the song, and it is perhaps this fact alone that makes Joy Division's 1979 song, "Disorder," such an incredible and massively influential moment in music history.

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