In January of 1978 the band Warsaw, whose name was inspired by the gloomy and bleak song “Warszawa” by David Bowie, renamed themselves to Joy Division, a slang used in the novel The House of Dolls to describe women inmates in concentration camps who were forced to be prostitutes for Nazi soldiers. Joy Division would only record two albums—Unknown Pleasures, released in 1979, and Closer, released in 1980. In between the two album releases was the single “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” On May 18, 1980 lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide in his kitchen. Exactly two months later Closer was released, an album which has as its cover a picture of a tomb.
Joy Division is the Dostoyevsky of modern music. Dostoyevsky didn’t invent the dark novel but he certainly took it to a different level by adding the existential and psychological touches that he did to his stories, which in turn laid the groundwork for countless other writers after him. While other writers were toying around with existentialism in small and new ways, Dostoyevsky was putting it front and center—culminating with his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, a story that explores the depths of religion and evil and humanity against a backdrop of a patricide. What makes The Brothers Karamazov an amazing piece of literature was that within four months of its publication Dostoyevsky was dead; the novel is a work by a dying man who wanted to confront everything he was afraid of and, somehow, the end result was a perfectly written book and not a jumbled and disorienting collection of thoughts and fears thrown into scenes and character’s thoughts. Likewise, Joy Division didn’t invent the depressive album—or depressive music—but they took things to another level by incorporating keyboards (something that was still kind of taboo at the time) and playing music that was more concerned with atmosphere than with traditional pop, rock, or punk structure. The end result was music that provided the groundwork for much of the synth- and keyboard-driven pop music of the ’80s. (After Curtis died the remaining members of Joy Division formed New Order, a band that further influenced countless bands in the ’80s.)
All of this leads me to “Atrocity Exhibition,” the opening track on Closer and a title which sounds like a term used in a Dostoyevsky novel. To be sure, there are many other songs that are darker than “Atrocity Exhibition” (much of the catalog within the death metal genre alone probably ranks higher on the darkness scale) but what makes this so bleak, creepy, and haunting is the combination of Curtis’s vocals—he sang with a kind of white man baritone that almost requires you to sing with your lower jaw pulling back to your throat in order to imitate it—and the lush dankness of the music. Stephen Morris’s pop-tribal drum beats, Peter Hook’s slinking and polished bass lines, Bernard Sumner’s assaulting guitar that ranges from sounding like a saw to a maniacal drill: all of these things combine to give life—albeit it creepy life—to lyrics such as “Asylums with doors open wide/Where people had paid to see inside/For entertainment they watch his body twist/Behind his eyes he says, ‘I still exist.’”
If you reading this and have never heard “Atrocity Exhibition” before—or any of Joy Division’s music—it is easy to jump to a conclusion based on the words in the previous paragraph (asylums, assaulting, maniacal drill) that this might very well be a track of the damned. But this is why I think the Dostoyevsky analogy is so crucial in explaining Joy Division’s music. You could read a summary to The Idiot and come away from it thinking, “Jesus Christ, how fucking bleak.” And it is bleak but the writing, the story structure, and the existentialism make it all a little bit more readable and not as daunting as one would expect. The same thing can be applied to “Atrocity Exhibition”: the title alone can make some people not want to listen to it but then when you read lyrics like “You’ll see the horrors of a faraway place/Meet the architects of law face to face/See mass murder on a scale you’ve never seen/And all the ones who try hard to succeed” and it can all be too much, but the music and the atmosphere of the song are first-rate; there is nothing amateurish or unpolished about this song at all.
I fully realize that there will always be people who want nothing to do with depressive music on this scale (or with the writings of Dostoyevsky for that matter). Stuff like this is an acquired taste and typically the acquisition arrives at low or frustrating points in one’s life and by default even if Ian Curtis hadn’t killed himself the music of Joy Division would have most certainly not caught on in any meaningful mainstream sense. The easy opinion to arrive at is that it is a shame that Joy Division is not a well-known band, that the fans of the band have a Caulfield-esque right to call the rest of us phonies for not appreciating the darker elements of the world. I can’t ever slight people for not wanting to embrace uncomfortable things—if it’s not your cup of tea, it’s not your cup of tea. I have no interest in ever reading American Psycho. We all have our things that makes us make a face and say “no thanks” whether it be broccoli or a novel about a serial killer that uses oh dear god I can’t even type it here.
Joy Division made dark music. They represented another marker on the road of modern music in which artists tried to explore bleakness and darkness in new and different ways. If their music speaks to you, you will become hooked and you will buy their albums and you will retroactively lament Curtis’s suicide if only for the selfish reason that there was so much music that never had the chance of being made after he hung himself in his kitchen. If their music doesn’t speak to you, well, that’s fine too and at least you tried and isn’t listening to a couple songs a better proposition than reading an entire novel that you feel you won’t like going into it?
“Atrocity Exhibition” is the first song on an album associated with death. Its music teeters on being demented, like the auditory equivalent of a nightmare involving fun house mirrors. Its lyrics are uncomfortable and taunting (“This is the way, come inside”). It’s not for everyone, but it’s the best song by an influential band and its spot in the pantheon is a given—a spot on a dark floor where the bats occasionally live, next to a kiosk with supplementary information on dead Russian novelists.