Steeped in European culture, Ian Curtis epitomised the 1970s young British working-class intellectualby Paul Lay / November 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
What became of the young working-class intellectual? It is a question prompted by Control, Anton Corbijn’s biopic of Ian Curtis, singer of Joy Division, the most celebrated product of a period of extraordinary cultural aspiration among British working-class males. The phenomenon seems all the more astonishing viewed from our age of Nuts and wall-to-wall sport. To get some flavour of the age, look at any copy of the New Musical Express between 1978 and 1982. The NME ran a weekly column, “Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer,” in which musicians would list their favourite books, films and thinkers. References to Bergman, Beckett, Nietzsche, Fellini and Dostoevsky abound. Tarkovsky is a favourite; the austerely Catholic films of Robert Bresson get a namecheck. The Fall, led by that other Mancunian working-class autodidact, Mark E Smith, took their name from Camus’s novel, while the Cure’s first single, “Killing an Arab,” was inspired by L’Etranger. Sheffield’s Cabaret Voltaire were self-proclaimed inheritors of the Dadaist tradition, and one NME journalist, Chris Bohn, even changed his name to Biba Kopf in homage to the anti-hero of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s epic film Berlin Alexanderplatz, shown nightly on the newly launched Channel 4. Curtis famously took his own life in 1980 after watching Werner Herzog’s bleak fable of alienation in a foreign land, Stroszek—broadcast on BBC2 as peak-time Saturday-night viewing.
Where did this fascination with high culture, especially the European avant garde, come from? Well, Europe, viewed from a northern council estate before mass travel, seemed impossibly exotic. As Joy Division’s guitarist Bernard Sumner put it, “You were brought up in such a brutal landscape, so when you did see or hear something that was beautiful, you really appreciated it.” But it was a bleak, Teutonic beauty this generation found. They followed a trail set by David Bowie and Brian Eno, who, having shown young men the delights of androgyny, led them to a cold, divided Berlin, where they recorded the groundbreaking records Low and Heroes, mixing Manhattan cool with the unbearable heaviness of European history. German groups like Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk, with their harsh textures and complex rhythms, drew up the blueprint for much that followed.
Control only alludes to this intellectual milieu—in one shot we see Curtis’s bedroom shelves stacked with the dystopian musings of William Burroughs and JG Ballard—but it is quite right about the silence. Britain in the late 1970s was a remarkably quiet place, nowhere more so than in the pub, usually music-free, where young bands gathered to discuss world domination over pints of mild before going home to listen to John Peel. There were few distractions: television closed down early, video was yet to arrive, computer games were crude, food was functional. LPs and singles were expensive and thus treasured, as were books. Britain had not yet made the shift from a largely literary culture to the overwhelmingly visual one of today. As Deborah Curtis writes in her biography of her late husband: “All Ian’s spare time was spent reading and thinking about human suffering.”
For all its intellectual pretensions, much of the pop music of this era has aged badly. But Joy Division’s music has not. That is partly down to their distinctive soundscapes, but also because of Curtis’s lyrics. He was obsessed by history and religion, choosing to opt for history and divinity in his A-levels (which, like so many bright working-class pupils, he abandoned). Indeed, it is remarkable how much religious imagery is invoked in Joy Division songs, even their very titles. “I travelled far and wide through prisons of the cross” (from “Wilderness”); “Praise to the glory of loved ones now gone” (“The Eternal”). Joy Division’s songs, especially on the final album Closer, are drenched in this religious language, which has now all but disappeared. For Curtis’s generation was among the last to be brought up in a Britain where religious language was ubiquitous, transmitted through school assemblies, religious studies classes and the shared landmarks of baptisms, weddings and funerals, all of which offered Curtis access to a vocabulary of transcendence.