Many people will be familiar with Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures on some level. Not only is it the debut album of a band that sonically redefined the musical landscape in the late ’70s, but its visual representation also set an unparalleled precedent.
As part of Manchester International Festival, this is precisely what Manchester Art Gallery’s new exhibition, True Faith, illustrates. Curated by Matthew Higgs, Jon Savage (both in conversation below) and Johan Kugelberg, the show celebrates and explores the legacy of Joy Division and New Order through four decades of contemporary works. To coincide with the exhibition, New Order collaborated with artist Liam Gillick on an elaborate light design for a series of live shows at Old Granada Studios, where they first performed in 1978 as Joy Division on Tony Wilson’s So It Goes programme.
From archival tour posters, to a rare glimpse of a never fully realised Joy Division gig caught on tape, to New Order’s extensive bright, eclectic vision, True Faith highlights that the modern world these bands built is still a source of comfort, intrigue and stimulus to the talent of today.
As Higgs and Savage explain, a band is so much more than just a band, and to keep revitalising a concept and moving forward is the impetus of a team – or as they lovingly word it – a ‘family’. The melancholy of Peter Saville’s early art direction for Joy Division is poignant, iconic, and instantly recognisable. After the untimely death of lead singer Ian Curtis in 1980 – on the eve of the band’s first American tour and release of their second record Closer – Bernard Summer, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris recruited Gillian Gilbert and regrouped as New Order, taking their post-punk sound into electronic and dance territory.
Their journey from Manchester to the States was pivotal in their own careers and in defining the look of a genre, working with the likes of Barbara Kruger, Lawrence Weiner, and Jonathan Denme. Although the first gallery in True Faith displays the bands own cover art, performance footage and music videos, it moves on to reveal its sentiment; the work of artists such as Mark Leckey, Jeremy Deller, Raf Simons and Slater Bradley, who use these bands as a departure point in creating their own films, designs and paintings.
Clementine Zawadzki: What was the starting point for this exhibition?
Matthew Higgs: We didn’t want to make an exhibition that was a biography of the band or memorabilia. It’s about how the ideas that were formed in Manchester in the late 70s and the early 80s became international. The exhibition begins with the work of Peter Saville – the designs he did for the bands – but then it goes off on tangents. I think it’s especially interesting when New Order went to America for the first time in 1981, and through a man called Michael Shamberg they meet a lot of interesting artists and filmmakers in New York. There were just so many extraordinary, idiosyncratic people connected to the band – Rob Gretton, Tony Wilson, and Martin Hannett – who all somehow found a role in creating the story.
Jon Savage: It’s about the original spirit of the music, which I think is very important. The driving force behind the band wasn’t just the music, but a way of seeing the world. In Joy Division’s case, the art was very important because the group didn’t do very many interviews. Peter Saville was an integral part of the visual representation of the group from a very early stage, and so oversaw it brilliantly with a series of designs that have become iconic. You’d now call it a very sophisticated exercise in branding, but at the time it was an expression of freedom. To me, the cumulative impact of the show is that New Order and Joy Division really are an idea as much as being a musical group.
“The driving force behind the band wasn’t just the music, but a way of seeing the world.”
Clementine: Was the process an emotional one?
Matthew: I think because we have our different histories with the band and some of the material, there are aspects of it that feel quite personal, which isn’t always the case when you’re organising an exhibition. We felt it was really important that Peter Saville was involved, that Jon [Savage] was involved… people who were really central to this conversation. I think that the presence at the end of the exhibition of Ian Curtis’ handwritten lyrics further amplifies this idea that everybody who was involved in the story of Joy Division and New Order, their voices and contributions were all equally relevant. It’s really a conversation across mediums and disciplines; so filmmakers like Kathryn Bigelow and Jonathan Demme ended up working in cinema, a designer like Raf Simons has always made allusions to youth culture, adolescent culture and pop culture.
Clementine: Why do you think these groups in particular spark that visceral response from artists and audiences?
Matthew: I understand why Joy Division, New Order, Factory Records and Peter Saville appeal to artists, because all of them in quite different ways sort of had a very self-defiant sense of independence, of autonomy. They wanted to retain control of the work they did and how the work was produced and distributed, and it always felt like money wasn’t really a priority, it was about creating a context or the circumstances to allow them all to do the work they needed. I think that really resonates with artists, because artists somehow feel that’s the ideal circumstances for them to make their work. During that time in the music industry, there was a lot of DIY culture and independent record labels, but I think in Manchester, Factory Records and these two groups really created a working model of how to behave differently. You then see that in 1982 when they opened The Hacienda nightclub and there was an idea of philanthropy in what they did. They felt like they could reinvest back into the city they’d come from by creating a place where other people could perform and where they could support the ideas of other people.
Jon: Well it’s very interesting. I made a documentary feature about Joy Division with Grant Gee in 2007. I did an event fairly recently and somebody said he’d shown these three films (with Control and 24 Hour Party People) to his students who are teenage and they kind of ho-hummed throughout, but when they showed footage of Ian on the television, they just said, “He’s really hardcore,” and he was hardcore. I was just thinking this morning that, with Ian, there is absolutely no self-consciousness. When you see him on stage he is just totally concentrating on what he has to do. Of course this is pre-MTV, pre-branding, pre-all that image making, and pre-people doing interviews, in Manchester and with no resources on an independent label. I think one of the things that makes Joy Division so memorable to people who saw them is that normally performers have stage crafts, so they know what to withhold, they know what to project, and Ian came out and just gave everything all the time. That made them one of the best live groups I’ve ever seen because it was so intense. You can see it in live footage from October 1979, which is between the galleries, and it’s just incredible.
Clementine: Talking about DIY culture and then looking at how this extends and works on a global scale, that concept of community is something that strongly resounds throughout this exhibition…
Jon: I think focusing on rock groups as people do ignores the fact that there’s always a group of people around them; people who design their posters or just the people who are close friends, or even fans who contributed ideas. This does, and it contains a lot of very interesting artists, some I knew and some I didn’t at all. It’s a bit like an extended family. I think Joy Division and New Order have always been like that. It’s quite a Mancunian thing really, to have a family and to stick with it. It’s a bit like Coronation Street. I’m very fond of Manchester and it played a very important part of my life.
“Ian came out and just gave everything all the time. That made them one of the best live groups I’ve ever seen because it was so intense.”
Clementine: It’s been said that Joy Division and New Order reimagined what a modern city is time and time again, so it’s fitting that these artists are coming up with what that means to them too…
Matthew: Yeah, and I think Peter Saville’s idea of Manchester being the original modern city is essentially true, if we accept the Industrial Revolution as we understand, it partly started here, then modernity begins here too. I think they were keenly aware of that in their music. If you look at who they were listening to; David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and then those influences merged with their surroundings, and if you look at Peter Saville – who was only 23 or 24 years old when he designed their first record sleeves – it’s the same thing. They were working in a city that was struggling with the past, and they found a way out of that. I think people were trying to pull themselves out of the 1970s… and it was pretty grim in Manchester in the 1970s. I think there was still a hangover almost from the Victorian era. I think you see that distinction between the melancholy of Joy Division and the bright futuristic aspect of New Order, and by the 80s of course acid house arrived and Ibiza, it all changed. But that didn’t happen by accident; they were instrumental in the change and I think they fundamentally changed pop culture, music and impacted on the social lives of people too. There’s the Sex Pistols in 1976 and there’s Joy Division and New Order between 1979 and the 80s. These are all quite grand claims to make, but I think it’s true.
Jon: The image people have of Manchester now is very different from how it was when I was living here in the late 70s. I lived here between 1979 and the end of 82, and Manchester was very grim, there was nothing here. What I admire about the whole thing, and being witness to it, was that all of the people concerned created a culture from almost nothing. I think there’s something quite romantic about that… not in a financial sense, because you’re quite disenfranchised in an economic sense, but certainly as far as information and input you’re almost over-saturated, so the idea that people were doing stuff… making building blocks out of scraps, is something quite alien to this generation.
True Faith runs from Friday 30th June – Sunday 3rd September at Manchester Art Gallery.