When we take something apart, we understand it better but appreciate it less. Welcome to the world of books about the best post-punk band to come out of Manchester. Anyone who wants to keep their hero worship intact should look away.
Joy Division maintained their mystery for decades after the band imploded following the 1980 suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis. The band rarely gave interviews and let the music speak for itself, an approach that continued when the surviving members became New Order.
Anyone who wanted to find out more about the band had to forensically analyse music press reports or buy the few, thin cash-in biographies that appeared in the aftermath of Curtis’ death. That all changed in 1995 when the singer’s wife published her account of their marriage. Then the floodgates opened as band members and associates wrote their own books that spilled the inside story.
Here’s a look at the best of them.
I was a teenage Indie kid. Dark blond hair cropped short at the sides and a fringe over one eye. Black jeans. Shirts the closest thing to psychedelic you could find in Ilford’s charity shops. Some army-surplus hooded jacket. Sneakers. You get the idea.
This was all back in the late 1980s when Margaret Thatcher ruled the land and indie music worshipped at the altars of The Pastels, The Jesus & Mary Chain, and the American noise scene. I smoked Rothmans, bought a lot of records, and sneaked into pubs that didn’t ask for ID.
It was the days of cider and black; lumps of dope in matchboxes; flicking through the LPs in HMV and the Virgin Megastore, Oxford Street; watching gigs at The George Robey, the Astoria on Charing Cross Road, the Town and Country Club; sitting on the floor next to girls at parties; wandering round Camden Market and buying Velvet Underground posters and bootleg cassettes of indie gigs in photocopied covers on bright coloured paper. I had a metallic red guitar I couldn’t play very well.
My school friend Simon Ward taught me the chords to Revolution by Spacemen 3 and I daydreamed about being in a band.
You are shown into a large room. You’re nervous. Your heart races, your palms are sweating lightly. Your chair sits facing a long table. Behind the table a panel of faces look at you coldly. One gets up and stands next to you.
‘We are going to play Russian Roulette,’ he says.
Is he crazy? Do they expect you to risk your life for a job? You look at the panel. They are serious. You look at the speaker. He forms his fingers into the shape of a gun.
‘This,’ he says, ‘is a six chamber revolver.’
He puts his finger to your temple.
‘It has one bullet in it.’
He jerks his finger.
‘Click. No bullet in that chamber. I’m going to pull the trigger again. Before I do that, do you want me to spin the cylinder of the revolver? You have three seconds to answer.‘
The panel are looking at you intensely, analysing your reaction. Welcome to the favourite situation of high powered job interviewers. Answering complex questions under pressure. Can you give the right answer?
Johnny Thunders used to say everyone in New York City claimed they wrote Chinese Rocks at one time or another. Then he took credit for writing it.
Dee Dee Ramone said the punk ode to heroin was all his own work. Richard Hell told people he was responsible for half of it. At different times Jerry Nolan, Sid Vicious, and all four members of The Ramones appeared in the songwriting credits.
Chinese Rock was the street term for heroin out of Vietnam, strong stuff that saturated New York during the punk era. The song named after it captures the sordid reality of scoring dope in the late 70s: the trip to Alphabet City, the dark hallways, money in one hand and a 007 knife in the other, a paper packet of heroin, scrambling home to lock the door and get out the works.
They’re still arguing over who wrote it.
On 7 December 1980 Darby Crash, lead singer of Los Angeles punk band The Germs, pumped $400 worth of heroin into his arm. He nodded out in the arms of punk groupie Casey Cola, who thought she was part of a suicide pact.
Casey woke up the next morning in the embrace of a corpse. Darby had prepared both their hits and intended to go out alone. The singer wanted immortality. He wanted, he once said, fans to worship a statue of him after he died. Bad timing messed up that plan. A few hours after Darby was found by paramedics at Casey Cola’s mom’s house, ex-Beatle John Lennon was shot dead in New York City.
The movers and shakers of the LA punk scene paid tribute to the dead Germs vocalist; Rodney Bingenheimer’s Rodney On The Roq radio show alternated Beatles and Germs tracks all night long. Everyone else in America was mourning a much bigger star.
The last of Darby Crash’s plans to lead the people had failed.
In the autumn of 1967 Syd Barrett was falling apart. Too much LSD, a pre-existing mental illness, and the pressures of being in a chart-topping band had mashed up his psyche. He wrote unplayable songs, missed gigs, and stood there playing one chord all night when he did turn up. Even worse, from his band mates’ point of view, Syd didn’t seem to understand he was sick.
Pink Floyd were a big band. They had underground credibility from their druggy, voyaging live performances and mainstream popularity thanks to Barrett hit singles like Arnold Layne. Now all that was in danger of slipping away.
In December 1967 the band hired their guitarist friend Dave Gilmour for live performances. They had the idea that Barrett could stay home like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and compose.
Ok, Charles Manson wasn’t at Altamont. He was already in police custody after an October 1969 raid on the Spahn Ranch for car theft. They booked him under the name “Manson, Charles M., aka Jesus Christ, God”.
One of the gang talked and soon the press knew Manson had ordered the murders of Sharon Tate, Gary Hinman, and too many others. The hippy dream was souring fast. Then a 6 December free festival at the Altamont speedway track in California ended with Hells Angels stabbing a man to death. It was a custom-made metaphor for the end of the love-and-peace era.