Creating a ranking of New Order singles has proven to be a vexing challenge. First, its important to note that in both their incarnation as Joy Division and during their early days as New Order, the band released singles that weren’t on any albums and albums that didn’t have any singles. This means that a significant chunk of their work isn’t represented here at all. For example, only one of the Joy Division songs on this brief list was on an album and it wasn’t even an A-side of a single.
Next, there’s the whole “what makes a band a distinct entity” questions. New Order is the band that arose when Ian Curtis of Joy Division died. The other three members of the band added a new fourth member and carried on without him. Their first single was a Joy Division song with a new vocal and they sounded very similar to Joy Division for their first album or two. They considered themselves to be a new entity without Curtis.
When they recorded their 2004 album Waiting for the Siren’s Call, keyboardist Gillian Gilbert temporarily dropped out of the group. They did not change their name. When influential bassist Peter Hook left the band (and Gilbert returned) and they reformed for their 2015 album Music Complete without him, they didn’t change their name. To some extent, perhaps “New Order” is just a label for marketing purposes as opposed to a name that means a specific group of people.
Anyhow, I decided I would rank the Joy Division singles separately from the rest of the New Order canon. I’ve discussed my working method in other ranking entries, but in essence I don’t include remixes or live versions of previously released singles, cover songs, or some other oddities (New Order has neither cover songs nor oddities, but they have a ton of remixes).
Finally, working on this, I’ve realized that my initial attitude towards this task (“Hey, do New Order while you prepare to rank the 100+ songs of David Bowie – they’ll be easy”) was informed by my hubris. Turns out I don’t know New Order – particularly post-2003 New Order – nearly as well as I thought I did.
That said, let’s do this.
6. These Days
“These Days” is the original B-Side to “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” The story of Joy Division is inseparable from the story of Manchester’s Factory Records (which is related in the film 24 Hour Party People). They were one of Factory’s first and biggest successes. I’ve recently written about both U2 and The Cure and Joy Division is kind of a nexus between the two. All three started out as post-punk bands in British Isles. Joy Division opened for (and influenced) The Cure. U2 was present when they were recording “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Bono sings snippets of it sometimes in concert during “With or Without You”). Producer Martin Hannett is particularly important in the development of the band and their sound even though the band reportedly loathed what he did with their songs. Can’t argue with success, I guess, but if Joy Division had had their druthers, they wouldn’t have sounded like Joy Division. This track is a great showcase of the band as a fantastic unit. Peter Hook’s bass serves here (as it often does) as the primary melody instrument while Bernard Sumner’s guitar and Stephen Morris’ drums keep a tight rhythm – Sumner occasionally taking over the lead to play solo. Also please note that this song – like all of the songs written by Ian Curtis – has some very good lyrics. This will serve as a useful point of contrast with New Order.
That steady drum beat at the start of this track is a little bit of a hint of the “Blue Mondays” in the band’s future. Then, of course, Bernard Sumner’s angular post-punk guitar kicks in and, yes, its Joy Division and not yet New Order. “Komakino” was an outtake from 1980’s Closer album – which should make one ponder “If this great song was an outtake, how great was the album?” (Spoiler: Pretty Darn Great) Ian Curtis wrestled with his depression (and other woes) in his lyrics. In this one, he personifies his depression. When one listens to Curtis’ lyrics in retrospect, its easy to see that he was extremely depressed. But, see, you listen to Cure albums from the same period and Robert Smith was pretty depressed, too. Its challenging to tell when somebody is just a little sad, genuinely depressed or having suicidal ideation. Heck, sometimes people who seem perfectly happy are sad, depressed or suicidal. We don’t know! But, yeah, in light of his suicide, its hard to ignore the more painful parts of his lyrics.
4. She’s Lost Control
Ian Curtis also had epilepsy and he it led to crippling stage fright. As you can see in the biographical film Control, this led to the occasional Joy Division performance where Curtis wouldn’t take the stage and other band members (or other musicians) present would end up taking the microphone. “She’s Lost Control” (which, here, is a B-Side to “Atmosphere” but also appears on 1979’s Unknown Pleasures, making it the only single on this list to also appear on an album) is about a woman with epilepsy. It explores the horror of have a seizure in public. The ironic thing about the phrase “lost control” is that it implies some sort of failure on the part of the person having the seizure when, in truth, they are almost never a deliberate choice on the part of the effected person. Its easy to assume there’s a moral component to illness, but its just illness.
“Atmosphere” was released in 1980 in France only with the German title “Licht und Blindheit.” It was re-released with ‘“She’s Lost Control” after Ian Curtis’ death. Peter Hook thinks this is Joy Division’s greatest song, and its certainly a gorgeous one. Bernard Sumner – who would focus on vocals and guitars in New Order – started playing keyboards and guitar on most Joy Division songs. His dirge-like long notes on this piece must have sounded like a funeral organ when this song was re-released. Just a quick reminder here that Martin Hannett’s production was absolutely essential to the Joy Division sound.
“Transmission” is perhaps a song about how listening to the radio is a suicidal gesture , so I suppose you achieved some sort of meta-awareness if you actually heard it on the radio when it was released in 1979. Let’s talk about this for a moment. “Transmission” was Joy Division’s first single, released on October 7, 1979. Their first album, Unknown Pleasures, was released in April 1979. Curtis hung himself in May of 1980 on the eve of a planned tour to the United States. Joy Division – as recording artists – had only been in the public eye for about a year and they were on their way to great popularity (their next single – also the next song on this list – ended up being a bonafide big hit). The pressure of fame and success are not for everybody. Curtis was a rare talent as a lyricist and singer – both qualities that would be sorely missed in New Order, but we’ll get to that soon. “Transmission” is brilliant in that it never sounds upbeat but does feel like a dance song (in part because Curtis intones “dance dance dance,” but it sounds more like an unavoidable curse than a call to boogie). By the way, this is the first video that shows you what the band looks like, so if you’ve watched it I can now use my standard description of Joy Division as “a band that looks like what would happen if your dungeons and dragons group started playing rock with the bassist from Huey Lewis and the News”
1. Love Will Tear Us Apart
I feel like ranking Joy Division songs is kind of silly. They released zero bad songs. Their two albums hold together extremely well track to track and their singles are all outstanding. There’s a minor hierarchy here among the singles. There’s 4-6 which are merely excellent, 3-2 which are outstanding, and 1 which is in an entirely different league than everything else they released under either the name Joy Division or New Order. According to legend, this song is Curtis’ response to “Love Will Keep Us Together” by The Captain and Tennille. Dwell on this for a while – without The Captain and Tennille, this remarkable song would not exist. Wheeee! The Swinging Erudites would eventually mash the two songs together to sort of horrific results. Anyhow, describing this song’s brilliance is challenging. Let me try to break down parts of it. First, Curtis’ vocal delivery is completely honest. He sings like he’s revealing something he’d rather keep hidden, but he has to speak. Indeed, he sings this like he’d rather be doing anything else than sing it – you can see this on his face in the video – and not because he doesn’t think its a good song but because it pains him to sing it. Next, that acoustic guitar fake-out at the beginning that resolves into the melodic keyboard line is fantastic. Its like the band is telling you how to listen to this song – there’s a sense of building excitement that makes the tempo seem a little faster than it actually is. I don’t know if it does that to your ear too. Third, the lyrics really get to the heart of how painful and awful love can be when its falling apart (and Curtis’ marriage was on the rocks when he wrote and recorded this). Finally, the band it tight as hell – Hook’s bass playing in particular is fantastic, but Sumner’s keyboard and Morris’ precise, relentless drumming are also beyond reproach. The band’s strength as a unit is what allowed them to continue to be successful (albeit under a different name) after Curtis.
Coming Next: New Order and lots of teeth gnashing and wailing. Fetch me my fainting couch.