Want to see the best music writing you will ever see? After completing the 7700 word personal essay on moving/relocating today, as well as the 2200 word Aaron Hernandez piece, I put some more words to the piece on the music made by Joy Division during the band's final months. I will finish it in the AM. Same guy who published on Hank Mobley yesterday, same guy who wrote the 3000 word short story yesterday about the man dragged by the internet mob who gets texts, phone calls, and voicemails from himself, same guy who will write more completely different peerless works tomorrow, same guy banned and blackballed. They don't want you to see this either. I could send this to Briana Younger at The New Yorker where she is the music editor, but David Haglund, whom I wrote for at Slate and with whom I also did a short story at PEN America, has told everyone on their digital staff to ban me, and it's not like these people to be their own person. Again, that's what we're dealing with. Look at what these people insist upon depriving the world of. Work after work after work after work, of all kinds of work, that goes beyond anything else anyone can do. Why can I say that? Again, because all of this is true, and I can do this. I'll do it five more times tomorrow morning with other works.
Rock and roll is ruled by the riff. A song need not have a killer riff to be a killer song—most of the best songs, percentage-wise, do not. But when an all-timer of a riff emerges, we instantly recognize it for what it is, which can be both holy and human. I think this results because riffs feel like life; they are comprised of repeating parts that we experience differently, when the riff is sounded in an intro, as backing to the words of a verse, when it re-emerges after a chorus, just as similar experiences have different measures of resonance for us at different times in our lives; they come around and around and around, and sometimes we learn from them.
Bands will tell you that there is this moment of epiphany when they are rehearsing, and someone nails a given groove that can and must stick. I suspect this happened when George Harrison and John Lennon were tooling around on their guitars and the riff to “I Feel Fine” began to emerge, or Keith Richards first played the “Satisfaction” ostinato to Mick Jagger. A good melody is hard to find—a good riff can be harder. You don’t want to pass up a great riff. Riffs can be so great that you can surround them with nonsense words—think of the Kingman’s “Louie Louie”—and you are absolutely golden and good to go. The riff can be your entire career. A single, reoccurring musical pattern/line. If Grieg had been a hard rock guitarist, he could have played variations on the riff of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” until the electric guitar went the way of the Stegosaurus.
Two (or three) of the Joy Division versions of “Ceremony” are from May 2, a little more than a fortnight before Curtis will be gone. They must have been eyeing the song as one they will feature on their upcoming North American tour, though I’ve always felt—and I certainly feel it more listening to this performance—that Curtis knew he would not be headed Stateside.
On this date of the English spring, Joy Division was at Birmingham University, where they would play their final concert. The audio from the mixing board ended up on the Still compilation album, released in October 1981. The tape featured on Still begins with a truncated version of “Ceremony,” as if the engineer was late to the gig and began recording in media res. (The band’s handwritten setlist rendered the number as “New Song.") A fan in the audience also captured the event for posterity, or maybe just a souvenir, on a cassette hidden inside of a jacket, which contains the full performance of “Ceremony,” hence our two-for-one version of a version. Different recordings of the same song on the same night.
On Still, we can tell from Stephen Morris’s drums—for it sounds like he has been working his bass drum over in earnest and at length—that the song has been surging for a decent period of time. Percussively it is massive, a wall of moving rock, but also fluvial, a current of sound. There is the strange sensation that though the song has been played for a while, Curtis has yet to sing, which we seem tacitly aware of. We are only seconds into the Still recording of “Ceremony” when the riff begins, but the riff does not hit as it does in the other airings of the song, because its advent has been compromised without the section proceeding it. Normally a group will start a riff get-go in a composition. You have a riff, you want to use it early and often. “Satisfaction,” “Purple Haze,” “Day Tripper,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin,” “When I Come Around,” “My Generation,” all begin with their respective riff as the first note of the song.
That’s not what Joy Division did on “Ceremony,” which is one reason I think it’s the best riff—or the best handled riff, I should say—in the modern history of riffing. On the audience tape, guitar and drums begin in tandem, with the former having a pianistic quality, as if keys have replaced fretboard. The song features only two chords, and we get them straight away. The bass enters, and it drives, but let’s think of it as a chauffeur who will leave the discourse to these two other passengers—guitar and drums—and, when we get to him, Ian Curtis.
Despite the relative brevity of the song—this version will run to four and a half minutes—it’s a draining feat for the drummer. The cymbal rhythm does not relent, and it goes very fast, while the rest of the song does not. Other bands would turn to a loud-soft-loud-soft dynamic in future years for dramatic contrast, but Joy Division has more finesse; they can pull back while they surge forward. The bass drum serves as a summoning device, a unification force. Is this an intro? A spiritual call to arms? It goes on for quite a spell, harkening, building, getting our attention. It’s not a vamp—it has more creativity than a vamp, more urgency. Our feeling is that a band could only build up our expectations this way if they have something exceedingly special to present. You knew they had confidence in the song, if they are opening a show with it, and if Curtis knew this was their last show, you can be sure that he had a major say—perhaps the final say—in how they’d start. These are high bloody stakes, we may conclude, for what seemed a sparsely attended university show, just another gig ridden to in a van.
Around twenty seconds in there is a mildly distorted guitar chord, akin to a flash of light across the soundspace. It passes from background, to middle ground, to foreground, darts away. A more sophisticated filigree of notes from Sumner’s guitar follows the darted-chord. It seems to wish to say something, is trying to find its voice, not so much a dancing around the issue—and you can dance to this—as limbering up. An Existential limbering up. Soul squats. The patterns coalesce into a texture, a kind of communicative tessellation. Then, strafing attack. What we have here could be a lick that will run throughout the song, but we are still setting up grandeur. You know this is big-level self-belief. The guitar seems to hold itself in abeyance, rocking in a two-step rhythm, then it ceases for the briefest of lacuna, a rest, in musical terms. We anticipate, when it resumes, it will say what it has to say to us, in the form of the finest riff I have ever heard, because it needed to be set up, could only be set up, in this manner.
Finally, nearly eighty seconds into the performance, Sumner sounds his riff, consisting of four notes. The riff is allowed to unfold and repeat a dozen times, and then Curtis begins, his voice barely audible, as though he has already left us and has returned to remind everyone why he was here in the first place, lest we did not know.
“This is why events unnerve me,” he sings, “Different words, the same old story.” In this moment, Curtis becomes the riff, the life riff of which I have spoken. And now we understand why this song has gone as it has.