College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 20

20. Joy Division, Substance

In the fall of 1987, New Order released a compilation entitled Substance. Designed as a collection of all of the band’s singles up to that point, including the B-sides, the album served as a means for the band to provide greater distribution for some tracks that were fairly hard to get, especially on this side of the Atlantic. It also provided an opportunity for some light revisionism, with the band remixing or even full-on rerecording several of the songs, making the album a different sort of “greatest hits” release. It wasn’t merely an appraisal of who the band had once been, but a consideration of who they’d become, the distance they’d journeyed from, say, the original version of “Temptation,” released in 1982 (a little tinny and combative), to the freshly recorded take from 1987 (more lush, warmer, clearly built for the dance floor). At least in the U.S., Substance represented by far the greatest success the band had enjoyed, charting in the Top 40 of the Billboard album charts (around sixty places higher than their previous peak) and yielding their first Top 40 single with “True Faith,” one of the tracks recorded specifically for the compilation. Clearly there was value in mining their own past, and they had a pretty artistically spectacular past to mine.

Before there was New Order, of course, there was Joy Division. New Order members Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and Bernard Sumner were all in Joy Division with the brilliant, doomed Ian Curtis. Well, they were initially in the band Warsaw together (up until almost the moment the band first took the stage, they were actually known as the Stiff Kittens, but Morris wasn’t yet a member at that time), but that name was jettisoned because they were continually getting confused with fellow U.K. punkers Warsaw Pakt. They took the name Joy Division from the 1955 novel House of Dolls. The Joy Division was the name German soldiers gave to the portion of the concentration camp that they set up as a brothel, forcing captive Jewish women into sexual slavery. Paired with the beautifully grim music the quartet created, it was a name with more brutal irony than just about any band could bear. But Joy Division wasn’t just any band.

Almost one full year after New Order released Substance, a compilation with the same title but devoted to the music of Joy Division arrived. Compiled with roughly the same conceit of roping singles and their B-sides onto one disc, this Substance was an even more vital document than its predecessor. During Joy Division’s existence, they released only two full-length albums, both vital, and there had been just one previous collection since the devastating 1980 suicide of Curtis hastened the end of the band. That album, 1981’s Still, is comprised on leftover studio material and live recordings (including the entirety of their last concert, just over two weeks before Curtis took his own life), making it more of a clearing of the Factory Records vaults than an encapsulation of the band. Though Substance makes no real claims of being complete, it does manage the worthwhile trick of being defining in a useful way. In touching on every bit of Joy Division’s brief existence — from the first track on their first EP to the morose single released mere weeks after Curtis’s death, almost inevitably becoming the band’s signature song — it captures in an ideal hit-and-run fashion why the band was so thrilling and important. The necessary incompleteness is part of the charm.

On opener “Warsaw,” Joy Division sound like any number of their contemporaries in the punk scene (including Warsaw Pakt). The continuing Holocaust fascination is fairly unique (the song is about Nazi Rudolf Hess, including a reference to his eventual prisoner of war number in the cried intro “3 5 0 1 2 5 Go!”), but otherwise songs that sounds like this were found on any number of vinyl offerings from angry young British lads. A major part of the appeal, then, is listening to the more familiar and celebrated version of Joy Division congeal. It doesn’t take long. By the collection’s third track, “Digital,” (originally found on the December 1978 EP A Factory Sample, along with songs by the Durutti Column, John Dowie, and Cabaret Voltaire) the richer tones and offbeat rhythms are beginning to appear. “Autosuggestion,” recorded in the spring of 1979 and released in the fall of that year, expands the sonic palette further with a spooky airiness, forlorn vocals, and guitar parts that sound like tactical attacks being developed through trial and error. “Transmission” closes the first side, and the sound is fully there. First released as a single in October 1979, the song is menacing, soaring, stirring, and propelled by a rhythm that recalls a racing pulse. Maybe it’s not the invention of post-punk, but it’s the sudden, thrilling perfection of it.

The flip side is escalating genius rattled by existential agony. “She’s Lost Control” is goth laced with with the residue of an industrial stew, the instrumental “Incubation” would make a great soundtrack to a dream state chase through a pace-deadening morass, and “Dead Souls” is a roundhouse punch in the darkness with lyrics florid enough to make Jim Morrison blush (“Where figures from the past stand tall/ And mocking voices ring the halls/ Imperialistic house of prayer/ Conquistadors who took their share”). Curtis seems to earn the drama, though. It’s not just knowledge of his ending that makes it clear he was genuinely grappling with a wounded soul. Substance ends with the majestic, gloomy romanticism of “Atmosphere” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the latter song surely the one that defines the band for the majority of people. Their evolution was impressive, and, as it turns out, complete.

It’s no wonder that college radio embraced this record when it came across their messy desks. While I maintain that student programmers are likely to champion the new music at hand when they started serving their time on the left end of the dial, there’s also a instinct to indulge in nostalgia for the era that was just missed, certain of how splendiferous it would have been to be in the studio when that one bygone classic album first arrived. As New Order was straying further from those Joy Division roots (the first couple of New Order albums really do sound like extensions of the Joy Division sound, but “True Faith” is a distant cousin, at best), it had to be especially pleasing to drop the needle on music that had no hint of sell out. (1988 was the year of Neil Young’s “This Note’s For You.” Crying “Sell out!” was always a favorite pastime of college radio kids, but the metaphorical pump was especially well-primed.) Substance was a distant promise, not quite kept. It was oddly reassuring to have it whispered — or, rather, roared — into ears anew. Maybe the blistering future of music was yet achievable after all.

Previously…
An Introduction