Last night I saw the Ian Curtis biopic Control. I’d say it’s above average as far as those films go. But it did inspire me to revisit the music of the unique post-punk band Joy Division. This week’s song is No Love Lost, from their first album, 1978’s An Ideal for Living. In this period the band had an aggressive sound that could still be categorized as punk, though tracks such as this bear the seed of the more spacious and bleak style they would later adopt.
Joy Division took their name from the forced prostitution wing of Nazi concentration camps which were alleged to exist in the controversial 1955 book The House of Dolls. The book’s author, Yehiel Feiner, was a holocaust survivor who wrote under the pen name Ka-Tzetnik 135633 (meaning “Concentration-Camper”), and his writing is variously viewed as novelized history or pornographic exploitation. (Apparently pulp Nazi porn briefly flourished as a literary subgenre in Israel in the early 1960’s, called “Stalag fiction.”) At any rate, the novel must have had an impact on Ian Curtis, since he took the band’s name from the book and featured excerpts in the song “No Love Lost.” (The style of Curtis’ vocal delivery here recalls John Cale’s on The Velvet Underground’s similarly morbid “The Gift” and “Lady Godiva’s Operation”.) Curtis was fond of references to underground literature, and also took titles from William Burroughs (“Interzone”) and J.G. Ballard (“The Atrocity Exhibition”).
Between the band name and the Hitler Youth depicted on the album cover, Joy Division were early on suspected of Nazi sympathies, but that is quite unlikely. And yet there is an abiding fascination with Nazism apparent in their early work- the song “Warsaw” (which was the band’s original name as well), for instance, is about Rudolf Hess- not as a positive political doctrine but as an aesthetic, or even an atmosphere. (Of course, as Walter Benjamin has indicated, fascism is less a political doctrine than an aestheticization of politics.) It’s a fascination that was not only shared by other punk bands, but was also weird undercurrent of the 1970’s zeitgeist (expressed in films such as Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS and Lilian Cavani’s The Night Porter). At least in the case of Joy Division I doubt it expresses anything beyond adolescent morbidity, and Curtis would drop the Nazi imagery as he grew into his own as a songwriter and required less ready-made signifiers of his alienation. But if anyone is interested in making serious connections between fascism and punk rock (and not just the obvious skinhead groups but respected art-rock bands), I’d suggest reading Lester Bangs’ 1979 essay “The White Noise Supremacists.”