Sunday, July 21, 2013

Music Criticism - Joy Division - Transmission

The music of Joy Division, like the vast majority of their post-punk peers, weaves the disparate and seemingly irreconcilable threads of punk rock and Krautrock into a single sonic tapestry. If you examine the ancestry of influences in nearly any post-punk group, you will find the DNA of the German experiamental pioneers somewhere in their sound. The auditory chaos of Faust was enthusiastically studied and replicated by The Pop Group, This Heat, and all of the early industrial pioneers. Can took the controlled madness of The Velvet Underground's Sister Ray, an improvisation from hell that fused the rhythmic engine powering Rock'n'Roll with the untameable inventiveness of free jazz, and then extended The Velvet's explorations in a number of new directions. These innovations were in turn picked up by Public Image Ltd, The Fall, and many others. The machine worship of Kraftwerk, when fused with punk rock, spawned the proto-New Wave music of groups like The Talking Heads, and Killing Joke. Each of these groups, and many others, incorporated musical ideas created or refined by the Germans into the punk template. For the most part, however, they remained loyal to the intensity that characterized punk rock, using the abrasive Krautrock experiments as a compliment to the aggressive nature of their punk rock foundation.



Joy Division alone sought to push the primal energy of punk into new emotional territory. While they steered away from the avant-garde experiments that many post-punk groups found alluring, they instead found an entirely different way of incorporating Krautrock ideas into punk music; an approach that was the opposite of what their fellow post-punkers were doing. Instead of taking musical ideas from the Germans and applying them to the angry catharsis of punk, they infused the icy detachment that characterized many Krautrock groups with punk's emphasis on simplicity and emotional discharge.

At first glance, this seems like an oxymoron. How can groups that took great pains in being devoid of emotion be reconciled with a genre that put emotion at the forefront? While groups like Kraftwerk tried to strip the emotion out of rock music, they inadvertently created music that resonated with one particular state of mind: depression. Contrary to traditional wisdom, suffering from depression is not like living in a constant state of sadness or melancholy. People who suffer from depression live lives characterized more by vacancy than by sadness. It is a muted gray blanket that wraps itself around their lives and smothers the vitality most people take for granted, until existence becomes a dull blur of apathy. Thus, the icy calmness that can be heard in many Krautrock groups ironically ended up being more relatable to people like Ian Curtis then the youthful rage that oozed from every pore of The Sex Pistols.new emotional territory. While they steered away from the avant-garde experiments that many post-punk groups found alluring, they instead found an entirely different way of incorporating Krautrock ideas into punk music; an approach that was the opposite of what their fellow post-punkers were doing. Instead of taking musical ideas from the Germans and applying them to the angry catharsis of punk, they infused the icy detachment that characterized many Krautrock groups with punk's emphasis on simplicity and emotional discharge.






At first glance, this seems like an oxymoron. How can groups that took great pains in being devoid of emotion be reconciled with a genre that put emotion at the forefront? While groups like Kraftwerk tried to strip the emotion out of rock music, they inadvertently created music that resonated with one particular state of mind: depression. Contrary to traditional wisdom, suffering from depression is not like living in a constant state of sadness or melancholy. People who suffer from depression live lives characterized more by vacancy than by sadness. It is a muted gray blanket that wraps itself around their lives and smothers the vitality most people take for granted, until existence becomes a dull blur of apathy. Thus, the icy calmness that can be heard in many Krautrock groups ironically ended up being more relatable to people like Ian Curtis then the youthful rage that oozed from every pore of The Sex Pistols.new emotional territory. While they steered away from the avant-garde experiments that many post-punk groups found alluring, they instead found an entirely different way of incorporating Krautrock ideas into punk music; an approach that was the opposite of what their fellow post-punkers were doing. Instead of taking musical ideas from the Germans and applying them to the angry catharsis of punk, they infused the icy detachment that characterized many Krautrock groups with punk's emphasis on simplicity and emotional discharge.

This is not to say that the members of Joy Division found punk rock's off the chart levels of rage, angst, and bitterness to be disagreeable. I have a limited amount of knowledge about the personal lives of the band, but I think that they found a great deal of solace in punk's fiery discharge. This freedom and energy was a respite, however brief, from the maddening emptiness that robbed the world of Ian Curtis. If there wasn't a strong love for their influences guiding the band, then they would have had no trouble applying their somber, poetic, and utterly dark feelings to a James Tayler-esque pastiche of acoustic guitars and radio friendly melodies; following the path of countless other groups more interested in fast money and easy woman than in using music to express something deep within them that would have otherwise had no outlet. They would almost certainly have had more commercial success during their lifetime with such an approach. Instead, they embarked on a journey into unexplored territory. Guided by only their hearts, each other, and a love for the music that influenced them, they charted a course into the unknown. A journey that led them to some of the most powerful rock music ever created. Among their legendary catalog, one track stands out as an embodiment of the forces that drove them along their brief but extraordinary odyssey: "Transmission".

Starting from the beginning, the song opens with a very brief modulating synthesizer chord. The synth they use has a very dark quality to it, which sets the tone for the rest of the song. The slight modulations in pitch produce a sense of unease that would take a few moments to adjust to. However, before the listener can settle in, the bass guitar blasts them with the main riff while the volume of the synth quickly plummets. This gives the song a doubly jarring start. First the synthesizer's rapid microtonal1 modulation sets the listener in a state of unease. Then, after just two seconds, the bass riff thrusts in at full volume and the synth fades away. The combination of the bass entering and the synth leaving makes the bass seem like it is overpowering the synth and taking control of the track. This impression is no accident. As with the majority of Joy Division's music, and unlike just about any other rock band, Peter Hook's bass playing takes a dominant melodic role within the song, while the guitar functions as either a secondary melody that is picked up and dropped at crucial places or as a rhythmic aid closer to how a bass typically functions than the bass guitar itself.

The bass riff embodies the dichotomy between punk rock and Krautrock that I discussed earlier. On one hand, it is utterly simplistic. It is made up of only three notes: two long stretches of D and C notes respectively, each one punctuated by a single A note. While the riff undoubtedly possesses punk's trademark simplicity, it also calls bands like Kraftwerk to mind due to its steady, machine-like nature. The first D is a quarter note, and it is followed by thirteen more D's and an A in eighth notes. The pattern is then repeated with C's replacing the D's. The quarter note and fourteen eighth notes pattern gives the riff a super rhythmic quality. Since their are no notes that deviate from the rigidity of the beat, the riff comes off as almost inhuman, summoning images of the desolate factories and layers of smog that enshrouded Joy Division's native city of Manchester, rather than the hormonal energy that a typical punk riff evokes.

While the song is structured around a verse chorus progression, unlike most songs written in this form, Peter doesn't change the riff when the song progresses from verse to chorus or vice versa. This was done for a number of reasons. First, having the same riff for both the verse and chorus increases the bleak, oppressive feeling the band were trying to induce. Not altering the riff creates claustrophobic effect; a sensation of being trapped that mirrors the song's lyrical themes. Secondly, the members of Joy Division were one of the first groups to realize that having a steady, continuous, rhythmic melody gives the music a strong sense of propulsion. This technique would be wholeheartedly embraced by electronic musicians in the coming decades, but the members of the band, during their time in both Joy Division and New Order, were among the first to realize the potential of such an approach. This is not to say that there aren't problems writing songs in this manner. Without a clear transition from verse to chorus, you run the risk of having the entire song seem like a unchanging blur. To solve this, the band introduced a slight change in the riff that only occurs during key moments, such as the transition from verse to chorus. This change happens on the fourth and final bar of the riff. During the rest of the song, this bar contains the second half of the C repetitions as well as the closing A note. Instead, Peter plays an E - F - E - F - G - G pattern. While this is not a tremendous difference, it is just enough variety to let the listener know that the song has progressed to it's next stage, while retaining enough monotony to maintain the sense of claustrophobia and propulsion I mentioned above.

As the bass finishes the second repetition of the riff, the drums are introduced. The drumming, like the bass guitar, is steady and machine-like. There is a reason Stephen Morris is called “The Human Drum Machine”. The hyper-steady rhythms he produced add to the icy solitude of the song. The pattern Stephen plays is two bars long. The first bar follows a "One - Two - Three - and - Four" pattern while the second bar goes "One - Two - Three - and - Four - and". Like the bass guitar, the drum pattern remains the same throughout the song, with two exceptions. First, there is a one off pattern he plays as he enters the track. Second, Stephen occasionaly adds an extra beat between the fourth beat of the first bar and the first beat of the second bar, creating a "One - Two - Three - and - Four - and" pattern, though using different drums than the "One - Two - Three - and - Four - and" pattern of the second bar. As with the bass riff, Morris' rhythmic rigidity connects the band to the robotic sound of Kraftwerk. However, instead of inhuman sterility, the drumming calls to mind abandonment and isolation. The world of Transmission has an Absurd quality to it. It calls up images of a world that was never meant to be occupied by humans, but is occupied all the same. Their world is a stark, barren place where life is fraught with desolation and despair. This contrasts the sound of Kraftwerk, who seek to strip the humanity entirely from their music.

One of the most interesting elements of Joy Division's sound is their use of guitars. As I said earlier, the bass guitar often functions as the primary melodic instrument. This means that guitarist Bernard Sumner does not have a rigidly defined role within the groups overall sound. He therefore has quite a bit of room to experiment and perform a wide variety of different functions. For example, sometimes he will play a second melodic line that will intertwine with the bass riff a la Television. Sometimes he will play a long stretch of power chords in a steady rhythmic pattern to put even more emphasis on the desolation and propulsion. Sometimes he will simply play nothing at all for long stretches. The variety of roles Bernard fills with his guitar, combined with the unconventional approaches taken by Peter and Stephen, results in one of the most structurally innovative bands in rock music. Rather than every instrument changing what they are play as the song changes from one section to another, Transmission is built around a stacking effect. The bass and drums follow the same pattern except for during a few key points, and the guitar comes in and out, performing different roles over-top of the steady drum and bass and providing most of the song's variety.

The guitar is first introduced a few bars into the song. Initially Bernard plays an oscillating pattern that meshes very well with the bass. The simple back and forth also evokes factories, machinery, and all the other sterile instruments of the modern world. After Bernard plays this pattern a few times, it begins a more complex one. This increases the tension within the song. Then he simply stops. For the verses, in between Ian's singing Bernard will occasionally come back in with either the original oscillating riff or a second riff that has a similar back and forth design. When the chorus kicks in, he switches to rhythmic power chords that he plays at the top of every other bar, giving the song a bit of oomph to go along with Ian's call to the dance floor. This power chord accompaniment continues into the final verse, mirroring it's increase in intensity.

Next up comes the lyrics. A good place to begin is with the song's title. Transmission is defined as " The sending of a signal, picture, or other information2". While the word is traditionally used for technology, you can see from the above definition that the it can also be used to describe sensory information, such as sights or sounds. Both of these contexts are important to the song as a whole. The central theme of the song relates to the sensory component of the definition, but as I have said earlier, the industrial decay of Manchester was one of Joy Division's muses, so choosing a word that is traditionally used to describe technology was no accident.

Structurally, the lyrics follow a sonnet-like pattern, with the first two verses elaborating a concept and the third verse functioning as a turn, where the concept is then taken in a different direction. The placement of the choruses enhances the distinction between the first two verses from the third, since the first chorus happens after verse two, and the second after verse three.

The song begins with the line "Listen to the silence, let it ring on", and right away you can see the emphasis on the transmission of sensory information that gives the piece its title. Besides that, this line introduces the idea of sensory opposition, another major recurring theme. You cannot, by definition, listen to silence. Silence is the opposite of sound, so it is both unlistenable and incapable of ringing. Sensory deprivation, and the use of sense based language to oxymoronicly describe it is essential to the lyrics, and throughout the song there will be numerous references to it.

The first of these references occurs in the next line: "Eyes, dark grey lenses frightened of the sun." Once again, the listener is presented with an oxymoronic reference to the senses. Eyes exist to absorb and take in light, so for them to be frightened of the sun is directly opposed to their function. Furthermore, this line introduces a more human element to the song. Eyes cannot be afraid on their own accord, so by personifying them as averse to their natural function Ian is making a statement about the human that the eyes belong to.

The next line, "We would have a fine time living in the night," touches on the oppositional sensory opposites and the humanization of said opposites. The biggest changes between this line and the previous two are that living at night is not a strict oxymoron like listening to silence, and that there are many people who actually do live at night. Thus the statement is rooted in reality rather than poetic hyperbole, functioning as a concrete realization of the abstract opposites presented in the previous lines. Despite the fact that many people choose to be active at night, we are evolutionarily programmed to be awake during the day. When a person is nocturnal they are functioning in a manner that is opposed to their basic nature, a lifestyle that is relevant to the themes of the song. The night is a symbolic representation of the sensory deprivation described in lines one and two. A place where darkness and silence trump light and noise.

The fourth and fifth lines, "Left to blind destruction" and "Waiting for our sight" are a continuation of third. They provide details about what "living in the night" would entail. Since the night he is referring to is symbolic, it does not necessarily have the same properties as nighttime in the real world. Instead it is a manifestation of the sensory deprivation described in the first two lines. Despite the fact that the singer claims to find this manifestation preferable to his current existence, lines four and five describe how unpleasant the night is. It is a world of "blind destruction", where people spend their days yearning for vision. Not exactly paradise. The implication is that a world of utter chaos is preferable to the singers current existence, and that naive yearning trumps jaded attainment. The first verse establishes that the singer feels that he would be better off in a world devoid of the senses. Since this world is a place of ruination and hopeless longing, the question is what makes his current life so bad that he would to live there? The answer lies within the second verse.

The second verse begins with the line "And we would go on as though nothing was wrong.", a hypothetical describing life in a land devoid of the senses. This line reveals quite a bit about the singer's motivations and desires. When he uses the word "we" in the third line of the first verse, it is not immediately clear whether he is referring to a specific person or if he is using we in the general sense. With this line it is now clear that the "we" refers to the singer and his partner, and that things are not exactly going great with them. If they were living in a land without sight or sound, the singer would not have to see all of the problems of his relationship. It would allow him to pretend that everything is OK. Having sight has become a burden, since he is surrounded by visions of a decayed relationship. This idea is expanded in the second line, which discusses how not having sight would allow them to hide from all of the problems of their relationship.

Line three, "Staying in the same place, just staying out the time", is said as an example of what the non-sensory world would allow them to hide from. The word stay is crucial. While there is really only one literal meaning to the word, there are a number of connotations, depending on how it is employed. On a broad level, he is talking about staying together with his partner, which seems positive. However the way he uses the word shines light into the true nature of the relationship. "Staying in the same place", while neutral if taken literally, can also imply stagnation, or being in a rut.3 "Staying out the time" has even darker connotations. When used in its typical context: sports, it refers to not doing anything during the final moments of a game so as to maintain an advantage. However, Ian is not using the word to describe a game of touch football, but to describe his life. He is implying that to remain with this person is to in effect let the rest of his life slip away.

The fourth line, “Touching from a distance”, brings back the sensory opposition. Like listening to silence, it is impossible to touch from a distance. The biggest difference between the earlier sensory opposites and this one is that we now have more context regarding their meaning. Since the singer is still talking about the things that he would be able to hide from in the world of sensory deprivation, we can see that he is using the oxymoron to describe the how conflicted his relationship is. Even when caressing (or possibly penetrating) each other, actions that are traditionally associated with romance, they are miles apart emotionally.

Next comes the chorus, which consists entirely of the repeated line "Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio". As I said earlier, as dark as Ian Curtis' world was, the fact that he chose to create the challenging, erudite music that he did means that on some level, rock music meant quite a bit to him. This is relevant to the chorus, and even more relevant to when it comes around the second time. The rest of the song discussed sensory deprivation, living in silence, without vision, in isolation and without contact. What is the opposite of all that? Dancing to music. Dancing is also a romantic activity. On one hand this chorus expresses a desire to break free and dance to music. To once again find romance with his partner. On the other hand, the flat, apathetic delivery suggests that this isn’t going to happen. There is irony in how he presents this call to the dance floor. He is parodying the excitability of other such calls by being deliberately bland and detached in his delivery. It also suggests that he has lost the will to do just what he is suggesting. That his relationship has long passed the point where they can joyously move about to catchy rhythms or do any other similar romantic activity.

As I said earlier, the lyrics form a sonnet-esque pattern where the third verse employs a turn. The first noticeable difference is in the Ian's tone. Previously he sang in a bland, detached sort of way. As if he had given up his will. Now, however, there is anger in his voice. He is venting all of his built up hostility. He doesn't live in a world of sensory deprivation, and he is stuck in a miserable relationship. The oppositional sensory language is brought back again with the line "No language, just sound, that's all we need know", but this time things are different. He is in essence saying that he would have to have no knowledge, no sight, no sound, in order to maintain this relationship. That things have fallen apart beyond his ability to repair.

Then the final chorus kicks in. It is the same four words as before, but everything has changed. The flat, bland delivery is gone. Now he is screaming. Pleading. Howling into the abyss for the one thing in his life that gave him an ounce of happiness. Desperately screaming for everything to be okay. For things to go back to the way they were before. To just be able to dance like they used to. Reaching out with one final burst of strength. Grasping at a solution. An answer. Something. And seeing only his dry and empty hands trembling futilely in the void.



1) I think that the opening synth's modulations are microtonal, feel free to correct me if I am wrong.

2) http://www.thefreedictionary.com/transmission

3) Imagine if you met up with a friend you hadn't seen in a while and you asked him where he was living. The responses "I'm still living on main street" and "I'm staying in the same place" are identical in the information they are providing, but the former has a positive connotation while the latter gives the impression that the person is in a rut, or unsatisfied.

1 comment:

  1. Really great post. Joy Division sounds cold, detached, and even mechanistic especially through their repetitive rhythms. I oftentimes imagine their sound like of a funeral, a really regal funeral. The song Decades, for example, is a funeral procession -- it is the end of the album (and of Ian Curtis ultimately). It is a gothic song about suffering. And Decades will be the soundtrack as we march onwards into nowhere.

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