The power of punk

According to director Grant Gee, Joy Division was more than just a great '70s band... it was also responsible for Manchester's cultural revival.

Joy Division 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Joy Division 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With an increasing number of crossover endeavors in the music industry, the idea that music has the power to bridge gaps - at least cultural ones - is gradually gaining credence. But, according to Grant Gee, music is capable of generating change on a far grander scale. And Gee should know. The British director's masterly documentary Joy Division will be screened on April 4 as part of this year's Docaviv documentary film festival. Joy Division was at the cutting edge of the punk rock wave that swept the western - and parts of the eastern - world in the second half of the 1970s. The band emerged from the shabby dilapidated and definitively socioeconomically disadvantaged areas of Manchester, in northwest England, and eventually took the rock world by storm. Today, Manchester is a very different place to the depressed and decaying former industrial giant that spawned Joy Division and an impressive roster of sibling groups that released LPs on the now legendary Factory Records label. The city center is a bustling hub of commercial and cultural activity and, just a few years ago, Manchester hosted the Commonwealth Games sporting mega-event with great success - something that could not have been imagined back in the 1970s. Gee has no doubt that Manchester's revival is all due to Joy Division and its ilk from the punk and post-punk era. "It was the music that brought Manchester out of the bad times," Gee tells The Jerusalem Post. "There was nothing cultural going on there at the time. There were almost no clubs there. I know it may sound like a preposterous idea, for a punk band to revive a city, but it did!" Truth be told, Manchester had a fine theater at the time, a renowned ballet school and a feted orchestra, but presumably, Gee was referring to "the younger scene." "I think the only cultural thing of note there back then was [long-running Mancunian working class soap opera] Coronation Street," he says. In fact, it wasn't just Joy Division that dragged Manchester out of the doldrums and gave young Mancunians hope of a better future. The emergence of the band led to the creation of Factory Records and soon a music scene exploded with ferocious energy. As Gee, and some of the band members explain, the time was ripe for a musical, cultural and social revolution. The so-called Mancunian cultural wasteland, coupled with an entire generation left kicking its heels by rampant unemployment and a music industry that had reached an impasse, laid the groundwork for the next evolutionary step - the in-your-face energies of punk rock. While punk may have appealed to the younger generation, in terms of its rawness and sheer anti-establishmentarism, not many bands were very musically gifted. The members of leading punk outfit the Sex Pistols, for example, were certainly not graduates of the Royal School of Music, and initially at least, Joy Division did not offer much in the way of artistic endeavor. In the film, we are told that punk was basically a one-word or, at best, two-word expression of anger. At some stage, someone was going to expect punk to say more. Joy Division was the first band to take punk to another level of expression. "One thing that punk did was clear the ground," Gee explains, "and, after 1976 there was a whole bunch of different strands. Straight-ahead punk became fascistic punk, the left wing, like [top punk band] The Clash, mixed in slightly arty socialism, and there were things like rock against racism, and anti-Thatcherism." Paradoxically, Gee says that punk rock also hailed a return to psychedelia, one of the rock genres that punk eschewed with a vengeance. "It became cardinal to listen to Pink Floyd, and suddenly there was all this space in the music that hadn't been there before. It became okay to use headphones again. There was music that could take you somewhere. Joy Division evolved from a group who couldn't play their instruments to a super group. It was an incredible transformation." NOW IN their early fifties, the surviving members of the band - vocalist Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980 - tell the story of Joy Division in measured terms and with clarity borne of rich hindsight. They all speak frankly, and sadly, about Curtis' tragic demise and how they simply didn't take his bouts of depression and anarchic behavior - partly sparked by epilepsy - seriously enough. They also look back on their artistic efforts, and the scene that grew up around them, with learned sobriety. They recount how being in the band was, for them, "a life changing experience" and how Joy Division "made Manchester cosmopolitan." "Joy Division was the first popular band to come out of Manchester at that time," says Gee. "It later evolved into New Order, sold 20 million records, and that whole scene - with the band in the middle - became the epicenter of youth culture in Britain. In the 1990s there were even people coming from the US to see our youth culture." Unlike a lot of music documentaries, Joy Division is as interesting as it is aesthetically pleasing. It is not just a bunch of excerpts of interviews, archival photographs and clips from concerts strung together. "To begin with I thought the film would be more whizzy," Gee notes. "But its real strength came from the access we had to the surviving band members. It became an intimate and personal story." The film is visually intriguing and is well paced. It also touches on many areas of life in Britain, and not just the music business and its immediate cultural hinterland. There is, for example, the matter of the north-south divide in Britain whereby southeast England, with London at its center, is almost considered a different country in socioeconomic terms. Gee maintains the surge of cultural life in Manchester in the late '70s and '80s, fueled by Joy Division and its Factory Records stable mates, uniquely redressed that imbalance to a great degree. "Yes, they had the Merseybeat thing in Liverpool, with the Beatles and all those groups in the '60s, but they left for London. [Joy Division manager] Roy Gretton decided he didn't want Joy Division to end up signing to a London record label. He wanted to do it all in Manchester. And so Factory Records was born. It was an historic move."