77 Barton Street
- Juvenes: The Joy Division Photographs of Kevin Cummins
To Hell with Publishing, 189 pp, £200.00, December 2007
- Joy Division: Piece by Piece by Paul Morley
Plexus, 384 pp, £14.99, December 2007, ISBN 978 0 85965 404 3
- Control directed by Anton Corbijn
In the 1970s and 1980s, journalists and TV producers looking to capture the full extent of Britain’s industrial and manufacturing decline would go to Manchester in search of empty warehouses, derelict workshops and canals clogged with debris. During the same period of post-industrial ruin, several influential bands formed in the city – The Fall and Joy Division in the late 1970s, The Smiths a few years later – and although they differed greatly in their sound and their ways of seeing the world, in each case it seemed as if the bleakness of the failed landscape around them was seeping into their music.
A local photographer, Kevin Cummins, was commissioned by the NME in January 1979 to take a series of portraits of Joy Division inside the grotty warehouse where the band rehearsed; most striking are those showing the band’s singer, Ian Curtis, pale and brooding, lit by dusty light. Cummins also photographed the band standing in the snow down by the cathedral, and on a bridge overlooking Hulme, a huge 1960s housing estate. The four band members looked like refugees.
Morrissey of The Smiths would later write songs about these places, about ‘Rusholme ruffians’ and a ‘rented room in Whalley Range’, about iron bridges and ‘a river the colour of lead’. In May 1983, Paul Slattery – who had photographed Joy Division in 1979, too, beside an industrial estate in Stockport – took some shots for Sounds of The Smiths standing in the ruins of Central Station, once the pride of the Midland Railway Company but by then a rackety and pockmarked car park.
These bands didn’t seem all that interested in commercial success, but they were innovative and intriguing, and attracted small, very devoted followings. I once met two students from Nijmegen who had come on a pilgrimage to Manchester because they loved The Fall. They flicked through my record collection and asked me about the band’s frontman, Mark E. Smith, and his lyrics. ‘What is “mithering”?’ they wanted to know. ‘And what is “cash and carry”?’
Smith, Curtis and Morrissey created a version of Manchester that journalists and photographers began to define and refine. ‘Joy Division’s themes are a perfect reflection of Manchester’s dark places,’ Jon Savage wrote in Melody Maker in July 1979, and in the NME Paul Morley championed the band’s ‘blurred depictions of desperation and desolation’. Cummins, who often worked alongside Morley, writes in his introduction to Juvenes, a collection of his Joy Division photographs, that ‘on the rare occasion that I captured the hint of a smile, I cursed my bad luck at wasting a frame.’
I assume that the Dutch boys, like many others, discovered The Fall by listening to John Peel. There was no MySpace or MTV then, and Peel was a key part of the network through which word spread about these bands. The mainstream media rarely acknowledged Joy Division or The Fall, and with the exception of Mark Radcliffe’s Piccadilly Radio show, this was true even, or especially, in Manchester. But other musicians were listening. Back in 1979 and 1980, these included the likes of The Cure and U2, but Joy Division’s sound echoes even more loudly in music today.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.