This Searing Light, The Sun, and Everything Else – Joy Division, An Oral History by Jon Savage
(Faber & Faber, $28). All images courtesy of the publisher.
The story of Joy Division, the seminal English post-punk band, is the story of how light comes from darkness, how meaning gets created out of dreadful meaninglessness, out of the grime, dirt, and hopelessness of post-industrial city life. It’s the story of searching without help or guidance, of blundering into greatness, of succeeding against the odds the society has stacked against you. It underscores the fact that most great culture does not come from the place of privilege, but out of struggle from the dispiriting, suffocating periphery. Marginally, but importantly, especially for contemporary society dominated by cultural troglodytes, it’s a story of how great literature can be a respite, a refuge, and a catalyst for brilliant culture to come out of the unlikeliest of places.
At least this is the main theme I have gleaned from This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else, the new book by the esteemed English music writer, Jon Savage. The book is billed as the oral history of Joy Division, and it is exactly that, for better or worse. Its 272 pages are comprised of unaltered and unadulterated reminiscences by the people who were in or surrounded Joy Division – Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, Ian Curtis wife, Deborah, the prolific Factory Records and Hacienda co-founder Toni Wilson, the now-legendary art director Peter Saville, who designed that album cover that’s on that t-shirt you wear that you bought at Urban Outfitters even though maybe you haven’t listened to a single Joy Division song in your life, and many others. This is good because you do get a somewhat immersive experience. This is bad because some of these people are simply not good story-tellers. Jon Savage is a legendary music writer and taking himself completely out of this book is probably a disservice to the public.
In general, what you make of the book will depend on how big of a Joy Division fan you are. Joy Division is a strange band, because its mythology looms infinitely larger than its actual life. This book undoubtedly trades on that fact. What really happened in those couple of years of its existence? What happened before? You get an account so detailed that at times it borders on tedium, and I am not convinced that anyone but the band’s most obsessive fans would have the patience to sit through minute details of the band’s short life. We get a lot of background on what a shitty city Manchester was, of how its very boredom and nothingness birthed worthwhile culture. We get the nods to Ian Curtis’s talent – and it’s true that there would be no Joy Division without his poetry, which came from his love of great literature and philosophy, and which is really what made Joy Division what it was (love New Order all you want, but compared to Joy Division their lyrics are limp). We get a lot of detail about how crappy the recording equipment was back in the day and how that influenced the Joy Division sound. There is quite a bit on the all-important Sex Pistols Manchester show that inspired Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Ian Curtis in that “well, if they can do it, so can we.” Funny, how we now have Auto-Tune and Garage Band for that.
You do get good bits from people who are characters in themselves. Tony Wilson imparts great management advice, “My obsession is working with people who are cleverer than I am. If you are working with people who are cleverer than you, why tell them what to do?” That one was about Peter Saville, to whom Wilson entrusted all the graphic work for the legendary Factory club he started. But mostly, the book is filled with the stuff of who met whom when and what it was like and what it felt like. As I was reading through these witness accounts, I could not help being a bit frustrated, like I wanted to press a fast-forward button, or like I could be doing something else with my time, like listening to Joy Division.