Rating 5 stars
This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else is a history of the Manchester band Joy Division, drawn from oral history interviews compiled by Jon Savage and from music press reviews and interviews, and fanzines. It made me nostalgic for a moment in my childhood where I could only ever have been an observer. I was 11 years too young to experience it directly, but my sister wasn’t. The book begins by describing an architecturally and industrially desolate Manchester, still bombed out after the Second World War and suffering from the continued decline of its heavy industries. I recognise the Manchester streets and the areas north of Oldham Street described by the players in this story because I used to pass along them and through them on family trips to the city centre. Manchester today is unrecognisable from the city I grew up knowing and loving.
My sister, born in 1959, used to frequent one of the music venues that features in the early existence of Joy Division. I knew the name Pips as a child because my impossibly glamorous older sister would talk about going there and I’d see her dolled up in her jumpsuits with their spaghetti straps and their tapered legs, heading out to listen to her beloved Roxy Music, Bowie and Magazine.
Reading the reminiscences of Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris and the other people who were involved in Manchester’s late 70s music scene gave me an inkling of what the experience my sister had must have been like. It was wonderful.
Personal redolence aside, there is a lot in this book. It’s part urban history, part cultural history, part personal history. The band’s early influences are explored alongside the boredom of growing up in the residential towns that surrounded the city centre that fuelled their passion for making music. I was interested in a quote from Paul Morley about the prescience of Science Fiction, particularly writers like J G Ballard, Philip K Dick and William Burroughs.
… what was interesting were the creatures that would come in [to the Stockport bookshop where Morley worked] to check out the weird combination of books, which sounds fairly standard now but at the time was unformed and raw: Ballard and Philip K Dick and Burroughs. William Burroughs was definitely part of it. They were prophets of something that we were about to enter, this commercial entertainment landscape that would become where we are now sat, but at the time it was very odd, and it was a beautiful attachment to your love for weird music.
I found that really interesting, because of the futurism that exists in Joy Division’s music and approach, consolidated in New Order, and because the same shared interest in writers like Ballard and the music made by Joy Division/New Order exists within my husband and other people I know.
Another thing that interested me were the numerous references to shyness. The fact that these young men who didn’t know how to converse with other people outside of their immediate friendship circles got up on stage and performed, in Curtis’s case, with a raw frenzy and provocative abandon fascinates me. It’s a contradiction that Joe Moran explores in his excellent book Shrinking Violets.
Most of all, though, it felt like a privilege to read the words of this small group of people who did something significant, that influenced Manchester’s future direction in unimaginable ways, that impacted on my generation who benefited from the reimagining of the city that they wrought, and that still influences people to come to the city to study, live and work, and to create.
As with anything related to Factory Records, it has a feel of mythology about it, but it’s also myth busting because the matter-of-fact way in which the band members describe their formation and evolution removes the dreamlike from the narrative.
The book’s title comes from a quote from Tony Wilson, describing how he felt when he first saw the band perform as Joy Division. He’d seen them play live as Warsaw and hadn’t been greatly impressed. The performance that changed his opinion, he describes like this:
There was this searing light, the sun, and everything else was just dimness throughout the entire evening.
Surely that’s epiphany. We’ve all had it. We’ve all been to a gig, not expecting much, and then some alchemy has happened that means the blinkers come off and you see the world differently. This book goes some way towards describing how Joy Division did that not just for a group of music lovers but for an entire city. There’s life before, then the searing light, and life after will never be the same again.
Epiphany is expressed by other witnesses. Film maker Malcolm Whitehead first saw Joy Division at the Russell Club.
So I went into the Russell, and Joy Division were playing. They came on – there was nobody there because they were on very early – and they were absolutely stunning. I can remember it, but not in my head, in my stomach, and it was that power, it was like, ‘This is what I’ve always wanted from a band.’ I was drained after seeing them.
Graphic designer Peter Saville came up with the artwork for the band’s first album, Unknown Pleasures. He designed it without having heard it. When he delivered the artwork to manager Rob Gretton, Gretton offered to play the test pressing of the album.
So I sat down on Rob’s sofa, and he put the test pressing on. And within moments I knew that I had a part in a life-changing experience. Minute after minute was beyond anything I could have expected, I think beyond anything that most people expected … It was astonishing.
The book is a good reminder, too, of how funny the members of Joy Division and New Order were. Over the past decade there has been an increase in animosity between former band mates and a bitterness has crept into the legend. New Order more than Joy Division were my band. I remember buying Smash Hits every week, hoping for an interview with New Order because I knew that I would be entertained by their surreal view of the world. How smart they were, how tuned in to the world and the creativity in it, how curious about everything.
This Searing Light is a story about stars aligning, of people losing jobs and deciding to take a punt on music, of Tony Wilson and Rob Gretton being in the same place at just the right time in Joy Division’s evolution, of Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus seizing an opportunity to make things happen on their own terms in starting the Factory Night at the Russell Club in Hulme. If a single card had fallen differently, none of this might have happened.
Of course, there’s tragedy in the story, and Curtis’s suicide isn’t shyed away from. It’s another reminder of how young they were, how unprepared for the things that happened to them so quickly. I found the final chapter interesting in the way Curtis’s band mates, wife and friends dealt with his death. I was struck by his wife’s lack of understanding of mental illness, of depression. She expresses the common misconception that people who are depressed enjoy it, they enjoy wallowing, otherwise they’d grow out of it. Bernard Sumner’s honesty about how Curtis’s death has affected him long term reminds me of my brother, who had a close friend take their own life. Sometimes the loss of someone in such a way, and Sumner describes it as a violent loss for those left behind, changes your outlook on life. Sumner believes that Curtis’s death has left him more emotionally detached. It was how he dealt with it. In contrast, Peter Hook’s reaction at the time and in the years following was more emotionally expressive. He says that he has never got over it, and you can see today that he still carries the grief as part of his personal mythology. And Curtis’s girlfriend at the time of his death of course believes that she could somehow have prevented it, because love is stronger than depression. It isn’t. They are two different and separate things that can exist side by side but never touch each other.
The book’s genius lies in Savage’s refusal to insert himself into the narrative. He offers no voiceover, no context. He simply structures the phases of the band’s existence into chronological chapters and lets the protagonists and witnesses tell the story, punctuated by reviews, punctuated by live performance and recorded release dates. Consequently, it’s immersive and intimate. It’s also refreshing because Curtis and his suicide isn’t the focal point. It’s just one part of a wider story, and Savage’s editing together of the reminiscences of the key players doesn’t let the reader forget that.
2019-20 is set to be the year of Joy Division, starting with this book, followed by an exhibition later in the autumn, followed, I hear, by box editions of the first two albums. Keep your eyes peeled and your ears open.
I received a copy of the book from the publishers because of where I work, but I’ll be buying my own copy as well. This Searing Light is too good to only read once.