I’m the proud owner of a substantial number of books which, as a result of my sad inability to throw anything away, are taking up an increasing amount of space in Villain Towers to the disgust of Rachel whose efforts to modernise and improve its interiors are constantly thwarted by my storage requirements.
The vast majority of the books are music and sports related, consisting in the main of biographies in some shape or form. Among these are something in the region of 20 books related to Factory Records/Joy Division/New Order/The Hacienda, with the latest two additions coming via Christmas presents, one of which was the wonderfully entertaining first volume of autobiography by Stephen Morris, whose often self-deprecating effort far surpasses those of his bandmates Hooky and Barney, as much for the fact that he doesn’t use the book to rant about old grievances – but given that Record Play Pause only goes up to the formation of New Order, it may well be that a further and much anticipated volume will go down that path.
The other new book was This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else: Joy Division – The Oral History , whose author is Jon Savage.
The book was published in April 2019 and received great reviews, but I refrained from buying it at the time as I thought it would be more or less a cut’n’paste effort consisting of a re-hash of the tales told elsewhere in books by so other authors over the years. It was only when I pulled out the author’s Unknown Pleasures review from 1979 as part of the Festive Period series (click here) did I realise that here was someone who really did get to the heart and soul of the band and was probably the most qualified to do justice to the task, and so it was put on Santa’s list.
The book duly arrived on 25 December and I began to read it that evening, on the basis that it would be an easy enough book to dip in and out of while also turning my attention to some of the other books that had ended up under the tree. I spent hours engrossed in its contents and ended up not going to bed until some ungodly hour which set the tone for a stupid sleep pattern right through until my return to work on 6 January. As soon as I woke up, my nose was back in between its wonderful looking hardback cover and plans to watch or do other things were put on hold as what I was devouring and enjoying immensely was the definitive story of Joy Division that hasn’t been bettered.
For the most part, there was very little I didn’t already know – but the new snippets of information were invaluable and, in one particular case, a real game-changer in terms of how I’ve always thought about things over the past almost 40 years since Ian Curtis took his life. The author lets others do the talking, and offers a mixture of new interviews with those still living as well as dipping into archives to enable the voices of people such as Tony Wilson, Martin Hannett and Rob Gretton to be heard. It’s very clear that the questions Jon Savage has posed to everyone while carrying out the work involved to piece the book together were far from run-of-the-mill, and there’s a sense that everyone responding has been able to be wholly open and transparent about things, secure that what they say will be written down and then put in print, even if it those words are at odds with one of the other contributors or indeed are different from what has been said by them before.
One of the most fascinating things about this book is that it gives much more space to Peter Saville and Annik Honore than any previous publications, enabling them to fill in some gaps and to also offer up a sense of what really went on when so many others, over the years, have mythologised many of the events and happenings.
There’s also some incredibly reflective words throughout from the late Tony Wilson, many of which feel as if they were provided in what must have been one of the last of the detailed interviews he gave before his death. It is entirely fitting that the book is dedicated to Wilson, a lifelong hero of mine and my memory of the one time we met and spoke briefly for all of 45 seconds will never leave me; worth mentioning also that the book’s semingly strange title is taken directly from one of the quotes he provided to the author.
This Searing Light also benefits from being exactly what it says on the cover. There’s just a few reflections into the early lives and upbringings of everyone in the band and it comes to a halt just after Ian Curtis’s funeral, with no mention of what was still to come for Factory or the emergence of New Order. It is the story of a band whose fans at the time could never ever have imagined the impact they would make or the legacy they would provide, so much so that more than 40 years on, there is still much to be fascinated by.
One thing it did remind me of was just how young and largely inexperienced the other band members were at the time. The infamous Stiff/Chiswick challenge took place on 14 April 1978….all four members were 20-22 years old. They had yet to have Gretton, Wilson or Hannett come into their lives to help shape things. Just two years and one month later, it was all over.
So much transpired between April 78 and May 80 that even now it feels overwhelming, so it must have been nigh on impossible to deal with first-hand.
The book also provides a stark reminder that Joy Division, being on a largely unheralded and small label in Manchester, didn’t ever really find too much fame, until they were no more, beyond the pages of the music papers. The biggest shows they ever played was as the support act on a UK tour by Buzzcocks and nobody was getting rich from any of it, with life seeming to be not far off a hand-to-mouth existence for the most part. There was little glamour and a lot of hard slogging.
The onset of the singer’s epilepsy does seem to have been beyond the belief and understanding of all concerned – including the university-educated Wilson – and it wasn’t helped by the fact that the treatment on offer from the medical professions seems to have been haphazard and involved a lot of guesswork – it certainly got me re-assessing my own long-held views that if the others around him had been more understanding or proactive back in the day, then the suicide could have been prevented.
18 May 2020 will mark the 40th anniversary of the suicide, and will be a time when you’ll be sure to read many tributes, words and reflections across all forms of media. I’m willing to bet that none of them will better what Jon Savage has delivered across these 326 pages.