The legacy of Joy Division needs to be approached with a certain reverence. As pretentious and extreme as that sounds, there are enough precedents of musicians desecrating the grave of Ian Curtis – I give you Paul Young’s ‘interpretation’ of Love Will Tear Us Apart and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ taken on Transmission as prime offenders. Closer to home, and less disastrously, in 2013 Peter Hook is respectfully revisiting the band’s entire back catalogue, from unreleased demos to entire albums, whilst promoting JD books, memorabilia and such. Sumner and Morris meanwhile shoehorn the more obvious songs into New Order‘s set – slick, slightly soul-less re-workings that offer little new to the canon. The Killers continue to cover Shadowplay and invite ex-members on stage.
Everyone, everywhere doffs their collective caps to the ‘existential poetry’ of Ian Curtis, his presence seemingly growing year upon year. These four working class Salford lads who recorded a mere two albums over thirty years ago, just a couple of records, yet two of the most mythical, legendary, awe-inspiring collections of works in the entire history of popular music. Somehow Joy Division never date, never age. Even Disney appropriated the Unknown Pleasures cover for a Mickey Mouse t-shirt. Yes, Joy Division needs to be approached with care.
And so to The Heritage Orchestra and Robin ‘Scanner’ Rimbaud, who offer Live Transmission: Joy Division Re-Worked, previously seen briefly at the Brighton Festival last year. Presented as much as a gig as an orchestral event, the stage invites intrigue immediately as we are separated from the orchestra and band by a gauze upon which images and light are projected to often mesmerising effect. Some 20 musicians on stage, with ‘rock’ band stage left, all conducted by Jules Buckley – not your average Classic FM guy- it looks like it could be the recipe for disaster. Rock meets classical. Not a good look. But this is something that defies comparison, virtually unique in the history of JD reinventions.
The familiar, thundering bass line to Transmission starts things up – so far, so trad, then Sumner’s two-note guitar motif is repeated like a loop as the orchestra builds to a heady crescendo. The effect is like being smacked in the face in a wind tunnel. It sounds like Transmission, you know it’s the same song, but the whooshes and screams of Martin Hannett’s original production in 1977 are now twisted and contorted into other worldly chimes of electronic noise. It’s like they fed the mixes through a paper shredder, gave it some acid then invited Stockhausen to create a 25th boom from the debris. Astonishing.
Digital is almost unrecognisable aside from the bass-line re-imagined as a high pitched clavichord signature, but when Dead Souls kicks in, a palpable thrill is felt around the room as Curtis’ disembodied refrain ‘they keep calling me’ echoes like a voice from the underworld. Lyrics drop in and out, his own hand-written scrawl and crossings-out appear in real time with the music, and the eerie, chilling yet awe-inspiring vision of that dance as a jerky stop-motion animation defies description.
After a brutal, beautifully out-of-sync She’s Lost Control crushes the crowd into submission, Isolation is the one weak moment of the night, a re-working too far in some ways and also one of the more throw-away songs in the Joy Division catalogue, despite the bleakness of the lyrics. But then The Eternal (re-named ‘End Eternal’ tonight) screeches and floods through the speakers above and below as the pressure cooker hisses and squeals from the original groan, creak and merge dramatically into the orchestra’s majestical drive. It’s this fusion of man, machine and imagination that makes tonight more than just a gig, defying tribute and homage, but instead offering something radical, new and intrinsically original.
A sombre, almost dub-step Heart and Soul fades into Joy Division’s masterpiece Atmosphere as Steve Morris’ near tribal drums are flipped around and faded in and out amidst the frenzy of strings and horns, then…. silence….as a lone voice gently lulls us to the climax. Curtis, alone, crooning like a woozy Sinatra at his peak, Love Will Tear Us Apart laid bare, with hushed horns and whispering violins repeating the phrase again and again . It’s the one literal interpretation of the night, and the calm after the storm – by turns beautiful and beguiling. A fitting end.
It has been said that ‘if Ian Curtis was alive today, this is the kind of music he might be making.’ I’m not sure about that, although it’s true that he did lead the way in introducing electronica to the band and we cannot underestimate Hannett’s role in defining the iconic sound. But after tonight I believe, more importantly, finally, a group of musicians have understood and attempted to portray how original, unique and genre-defining this band were, and remain today, and have held up a mirror to Joy Division to show us what is possible with contemporary music in the 25th century boom. Put simply – it has the spirit and the feeling.