You see it almost everywhere you go, the undulating monochrome of the Unknown Pleasures cover art. It’s on t-shirts in high street chain stores, merchandise official and not, it’s parodied in a million ways. Many of us will see it and immediately think of Joy Division, of the spacious, brutalist atmosphere of their music, the everyday sadness in their story elevated over time to legend. Others will recognise the form but know or care little for its origin as they appropriate it into their version of cool.
Either way, it has become a part of the cultural fabric of our time, transcending the life and the meaning of the band, a passive background image to many who look upon it. For others, for fans of Joy Division, it is a symbol not just of a band but a reminder of how through a connection to music we can become more connected to ourselves and find a community where we feel we belong. It’s this importance, these connections and communities, that rock n roll cultural historian and fandom expert Dr Jennifer Otter Bickerdike explores in her latest book ‘Joy Devotion: The Importance of Ian Curtis and Fan Culture’.
“There is something magical about Manchester. Either in my mind or embedded in the fabric of the place, there is something magical about it.”
The study collects together personal recollections and reflections from fans, as well as critique from scholars and those around the band in the industry. For a band whose legacy has stretched way beyond their output, whose legend has only grown in the thirty years since Curtis’ suicide brought it all to an end, looking at the relationship between fan and music sheds a new light on a story well told.
It begins with her own connection to the band – discovering New Order as a Californian teenager, which led to discovering Joy Division through a homemade tape someone left at her place of work. They are, she says, a band whose music has resonated with her in the hardest moments of her life and have carried her through loneliness, grief and fear, offering her solace in sound. Even while carving a life in the music industry, working with bands including Nirvana, she was an ardent Anglophile, obsessed with British music and particularly the Manchester scene of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Visiting England for the first time it was to the North she headed, seeking out the places she’d experienced through countless songs, band images, artwork and interviews. She said, “There is something magical about Manchester. Either in my mind or embedded in the fabric of the place, there is something magical about it. The first time I came to England I was so excited the night before I went to Manchester. I didn’t go to Buckingham Palace or any of those normal tourist places, I wanted to go to Macclesfield and Manchester; Manchester was my Mecca.”
It could have been the story of any fan, seeking out the physical locations of the culture they claim as their own. But life, and a friend’s sudden death, brought Otter Bickerdike back to England more permanently and saw her quit her exchange her music career for cultural academia. “Before I came to England, before I did my PhD, when I was still in California I went to see a Joy Division tribute band with my friend. I’d never seen a tribute band before but there were maybe 400 people there. I was shocked. A band with original music you’re lucky to get 100 people if you’re starting out and here are 400 people for a tribute band. I ended up dating the lead singer and it introduced me to the whole tribute band thing. I started researching and found there were 45 Joy Division tribute bands all around the world. I got really into the idea of Englishness and Joy Division and how it was represented all over the world.
“So I’d already been working on this as a fun project when I came to do the PhD, and we’re sat there on the first day at Goldsmiths going round and everyone is saying what they are going to do. I had no idea what I was going to do and then out of nowhere, like divine intervention, I said ‘I’m going to do Joy Division, the importance of Joy Division’. I was the laughing stock. Everyone thought I was doing something stupid, something that wasn’t important. But I knew, I knew from my own experience and from the tribute bands, that this was important. Joy Division, music is important to people.
“I think if I’d been talking about anything before Elvis, whether it was visual art or music, I would have had a very different reaction to it in terms of it being considered more serious. Even jazz, if I’d written about jazz I would have had a different reaction. There is a perception of lecturing on popular music of this punk rock professor, and people are starting to see the importance of artists like Joy Division, The Smiths, Prince, Bowie – that scholarship is as important as things that are traditionally considered to be high art.”
Her PhD study was based around visiting Ian Curtis’ grave once a month for a year, documenting the artefacts left there, talking to other’s there. “When I first started the PhD and said I was going to write about Joy Division my initial idea was to keep looking at the tribute bands. But then I went to Pere Lachaise in Paris and I saw the way people interacted at Jim Morrison’s grave. There’s a metal gate all the way around the grave site, security guards and CCTV. Any interaction is limited with the bodily resting place of Jim Morrison, you can’t touch or feel it. I found that fascinating.
“Even if you don’t like the music how can you not feel that, not be moved by it? In retrospect it is beautiful.”
“But I was also fascinated by the people, how it had almost become a tourist thing to tick off. There were probably seventy people there but a lot of people didn’t seem to know who Morrison was, or his importance. He’s a tourist attraction, he’s a destination, but who he was and what he stood for has almost been forgotten. I thought Ian Curtis’ grave would be a microcosm of what I saw in Paris and I became really interested in that.
“I found all kinds of things left there, the usual suspects of pictures and flowers all the way to vibrators and sex toys. One day I went and it looked like cat litter was on the grave, but when I asked someone working at the ceremony about it they told me it was human remains. Someone’s last wishes were to be cremated and scattered on Ian’s grave. The things I found and saw, visiting each month for a year, were absolutely wild.”
There is an underlying but implicit exploration in the book of where being a fan of someone, of something, crosses that line into being a fanatic. Where a healthy connection to culture which resonates can cross over into a less healthy consuming obsession. Otter Bickerdike draws parallels between the explosion in celebrity culture, in this deifying of musicians and actors, to growth in access to technology alongside the downturn in traditional Western religion. “People absolutely see Ian Curtis as a Jesus figure. There is a lot of fan art which depicts him this way. There is one of him in a crown of thorns, saying Ian Curtis died for your sins. Kurt Cobain, is viewed in a similar way; this idea that this world is too much for someone who really meant what they were singing about, really felt it.
“You have people becoming more invested in celebrities than ever before but they’re not going to the traditional places of worship but there is still the humanistic need to have someone, to quote Joy Division ‘take me by the hand’, have someone to look up to, and figures like Ian Curtis and Jim Morrison are filling that space that Jesus and Mary and your Western religious icons have filled before.
“The whole way that Joy Division has been committed to history, the story we have been told of them, is so tragic and romantic. Even if you don’t like the music how can you not feel that, not be moved by it? In retrospect it is beautiful.”
There is a recognition that the truth that fans become so invested in may not be truth at all. Mr Manchester, Tony Wilson, was a master at crafting myth as much as he was a journalist objectively amplifying the music scene around him. “Who knows if all the things happened. Tony Wilson was my one hero that I never got to meet but he was Mr Fiction Better Than Fact, so who knows if Ian Curtis called him a twat for not putting them on TV, who knows if Tony Wilson signed the contract in blood. But these things have been immortalised as truisms and I just love it. I think it’s one of the reasons this band endures; they were transformed into something bigger than the music they were playing.
“I wouldn’t be in this country if it wasn’t for the stories, particularly of Manchester. I am the biggest wannabe Mancunian. When I was there I couldn’t believe it, I was walking where Johnny Marr had walked, I was on the iron bridge, I was outside what was the Hacienda. These weren’t real places to me, they were places from stories. They had formed who I was. It’s about how you use the stories you hear to form your own identity, which may be completely separate from the music, completely different from the truth.”
And Otter Bickerdike found that Joy Division were a band where fans were at one end of the spectrum or the other, those who had completely brought into and connected to the music and the stories and those who may be aware an appreciate the songs but felt little more. “With Joy Division, there’s no middle ground. There are the casual fans who like the music but won’t do anything more than wear a t shirt and then there are the obsessive fans who know everything, know way more than I do.
“When I first met photographer Kevin Cummins he said ‘people are going to challenge you’. It’s not even about the band, it’s about what they mean to people and their identity; their identity is being a really big Joy Division fan. I’m not in a competition. My whole reason for being a scholar of Joy Division, of writing about Joy Division, is because they have been important to me and if I can introduce other people to it then that’s important to me. If I can help Joy Division have a place in the pantheon of important music then that makes it worth it for me.”
There is something particularly intriguing about an academic work which is touched, but not influenced, by the warmth of a personal connection to the subject. It makes this a highly readable collection of essays, the usual dryness of scholarly research replaced by the human connections shared in people’s own voices. While the format and the reason to be at Curtis’ grave may have been for observational study Otter Bickerdike was fulfilling a personal need as a fan of Joy Division too. “People I met at the grave have said to me that they want to pay respect to Ian and to everything that Joy Division has meant to them. For me, yes, that was part of it but it goes back to this fiction is stranger than fact thing; I still couldn’t really believe these events had actually happened. I had to go and feel the earth under my feet and see these things with my own eyes.
“All the times I’ve seen pictures of Ian’s grave, or of people outside Salford Lads Club, I had been to these places hundreds and hundreds of times before I actually physically went. I’d had that experience but I wanted to go there for myself. I wanted that pilgrimage. Music has been my religion and I wanted that pilgrimage to be to people and places that have been important to me.”
The writing of the thesis and the subsequent book demystified the band for Otter Bickerdike, changed her connection to them while retaining the resonance of their music with her personally. As a ‘punk rock professor’, a rock n roll cultural historian and fandom expert will they continue to be central to her studies as well as her music tastes. “I’ve never regretted my decision to talk about Joy Division and I always want to bring them into the conversation as they’re such a great example of a story that has transcended the band, the music, the time. That Unknown Pleasures logo for example – and to a lesser extent with The Ramones and Nirvana. I worked with Nirvana and it’s weird to see their art, their music, taken completely out of context.
“I was talking to Danny Fields, The Ramones manager, and saying it pisses me off when I see people wearing Ramones t-shirts and they have no fucking idea about the band. He said ‘Why? It’s a beautiful thing. People recognise it and it’s striking them as being cool; it’s intrinsically cool’.
“I want to keep preaching how Joy Division are intrinsically cool. How four working class men from the North of England could make it into not just to be internationally recognised figures but who made music which has influenced and continues to influence thousands of people’s lives in such a good way.”
‘Joy Devotion: The Importance of Ian Curtis and Fan Culture’ is out now via Headpress. Her new book ‘Why Vinyl Matters’ is due in 2017.
Follow Dr Jennifer Otter Bickerdike on twitter (http://twitter.com/JenOtterBickerd) and find out more about Joy Devotion and her other books on her website (http://www.jenniferotterbickerdike.com).