Friday, October 05, 2007


Today sees the UK premiere of Control, the film about Ian Curtis and his band Joy Division.

Loosely based on the book Touching from a Distance, written by the troubled lead singer’s widow Deborah Curtis, it won Best European Film at the Cannes Film Festival this year

The cult surrounding post punks Joy Division has developed thanks to the contribution of many people. In a decade when glam and disco ruled dance and shop floors, maintaining the band’s black and white image was not easy or common, especially when you came from a gloomy Manchester suburb.

Many benefactors helped them out along the way. Undoubtedly, the most influential person when it came to recording their stripped down sound was super producer Martin Hannett.

It was that music that set the tone and what gained Joy Division the notoriety that today have made them, and especially Ian Curtis, stars of bio flick Control.

But what can not be overlooked and, in symbiosis with the music, created the legend, is the visual aesthetics surrounding the band.

The short, but sweet, lifespan of Joy Division (1978-1980) was probably over before they invented stylists. Curtis and his gang wore what they had and liked; Ian was often in military shirts, high-waisted trousers and a trench coat. I can’t imagine their chain-smoking manager Rob Gretton picking out Bernard Sumner’s scene costume or telling Hooky how to hold his base guitar.

What we see is the honest, real and genuine look of four rock stars in the making. But to truly become iconic, bands need to have an image that goes beyond drum beats and flat front slacks. That’s where graphic designer Peter Saville, photographers Kevin Cummins and Anton Corbijn come into the picture. Corbjin in more than one way, since he directed Control.

Prior to the film - almost 20 years – he who took many of the iconic images of the band, thus helping to create the myth surrounding the band. Corbijn always shot them in black and white, adding to the sinister image already built up. He portrayed the group in several London and Manchester locations.

As an NME photographer he took the famous shot of the band going down a tunnel, heading for the light with Ian Curtis turning around, returning to the darkness. Maybe just another good picture at the time, but now a chilling illustration of what might have been going through Curtis’ head the night before the planned US tour.

Corbijn also did a fine job with U2, who he shot extensively in the 1980’s (see an earlier text on this blog). He managed catch the Irish band in some iconic outfits and at crucial times in their career.

Expect for motion pictures, Corbijn is an experienced music promo director, working with, among others, Depeche Mode and Echo & The Bunnymen. In 1988 he also directed a beautiful video for Joy Division’s Atmosphere.

Cummins, also a snapper for New Musical Express, contributed with the famous picture of the band crossing a bridge in Macclesfield and the headshot of a smoking Ian Curtis, wearing a trench with a red communist star attached to it. It helped establish the singer’s personal stardom.

These pictures are how we visually remember the band. We associate Joy Division with darkness and minimalist rock, not only for the music, but because it was reflected in the imagery.

Peter Saville is another person responsible for the public image of Joy Division. Allegedly, Saville was given free hands when it came to creating the record sleeves for all Factory releases. In the more famous cases, like New Order’s too expensive Blue Monday jacket, this led to as many problems as it did iconic designs.

For the two JD albums, Saville wisely worked after the motto “less is more”. To illustrate the harsh and square sound he used monotone colour scales and simply decorated the covers with a small image in the middle.

For Unknown Pleasures, the first album released in 1979, Saville put an image of the first pulsar discovered, PSR 1919+21, on a black background. In its simplicity, and without most people knowing what it was, it is one of the most well recognised and critically acclaimed album covers.

Of course, it's the music that makes the album what it is but it's the merge between audio and visual design that enables Unknown Pleasures to reach the absolute top.

The second and final studio alum, Closer, featured a photo of the Appiani family tomb in the Cimitero Monumentale di Staglieno in Genoa, Italy. It was shot by Bernard Pierre Wolff, who also worked on other JD releases, including Love Will Tear Us Apart.

Go see the film, listen to the music but remember all the other details around the band that makes Joy Division one of the all time greatest bands. Ever.

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