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Q&A: Jon Savage on So This Is Permanence

By | Published on Monday 1 September 2014


Nearly 35 years since the death of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in 1980, the band and their music continue to interest and influence music fans across generations. On 2 Oct, Faber & Faber will publish ‘So This Is Permanence’, a collection of Curtis’s lyrics and previously unpublished notebooks.

Edited by writer Jon Savage and Curtis’s wife Deborah, the book shows the development of the vocalist’s lyrics from initial ideas to their final recorded versions.

Ahead of the book’s publication, CMU’s Andy Malt caught up with Savage to discuss the project, his history with Joy Division and why there continues to be so much interest in this band.

AM: How did you become involved in this project?
JS: I was asked to get involved by Lee Braxton at Fabers because I saw Joy Division a lot back in the day and knew the Factory people, and have done a lot of projects with Joy Division over the last fifteen years. I was involved in the ‘Heart & Soul’ boxset, and in the singles boxset, and also in the [2007] Joy Division [documentary]. And I was also involved with Deborah [Curtis] on her book, ‘Touching From A Distance’.

AM: How much material were you working with, and how much is included in the book?
JS: Joy Division only recorded about 45 songs, and the song lyrics have been printed elsewhere. But this book came about, really, because Deborah has manuscripts of about 36 or 37 songs and Ian’s notebooks and writings – there there are about three notebooks of lyrics and also about another 120 or 130 loose pages, as I remember. So there’s quite a lot of handwritten material.

Ian used to write a lot and used to write down lyric ideas and he’d work on them. So there were quite a lot of notebook pages and loose pages of songs that were never recorded, or basic lyric ideas which changed and then became different songs. So that was the basis – that we would print the lyrics and then on the opposite page print the manuscript. Ian wrote everything in longhand, he didn’t type anything, so it’s all in his handwriting.

AM: And what was the process in putting it all together?
JS: Deborah and I edited it together, and that involved going round to where Deborah has the materials, having a look through everything, getting it in order, matching the songs to the actual pieces of paper, and then including 90% of what was there. Maybe even more. It took a couple of months to do.

AM: What sort of insight into Ian Curtis do you think it gives?
JS: Well, number one that he wrote compulsively. He wrote a lot. And it also shows the development of his writing from the early Warsaw days through to Joy Division. And also how he worked and reworked ideas. I think there’s several songs – I can remember ‘Passover’ is one – which were worked and reworked several times. So, he was a writer, you know, he really worked hard on his lyrics, and also he had a lot of lyric ideas. There are a few prose pieces too, which are very much in a science fiction vein, so you get an idea of what his influences were, which is dystopian fiction and science fiction.

There’s not really any great revelation in this book really, and I think that’s another side to it. You’re not going to get any huge revelations about Ian because he was a very private person and it’s already been said in Deborah’s book. So that’s not really what this book’s about. Anyone expecting a revelation will not get one. On the other hand, you will get some insight into how he wrote and what he wrote.

AM: You said earlier you saw them a lot while they were still together. How did you first discover Joy Division?
JS: I was a writer for Sounds, which was one of the four big major music weeklies, and I went to cover the last night of the Electric Circus [venue in Manchester], which was in October 1977, and Warsaw were on the bill – that’s Joy Division – and I really liked them. They weren’t very good – it was probably only about their fourth or fifth gig, or something. They were still a very young group, but there was something in them that I liked and I wrote something favourable about them in the review.

A few months later I got a tape in the post from their manager, Rob Gretton, and he said, “I’m sending you this tape. We think it’s lousy, but we’d like you to hear it. Also, here’s a copy of their first EP, we think that’s lousy as well”. And I liked the humour of it, so I started to get interested in them – that was in 1978. After that I reviewed the ‘Factory Sample’ – which was their first release on Factory – for Melody Maker. And then I moved to Manchester in the spring of 1979, and they were a local group, so I saw them probably ten or a dozen times during the next year.

AM: Why do you think there remains such an interest in Ian Curtis and Joy Division now?
JS: Well, because they were great, for starters. That’s a good start. The records are really great. If the records weren’t great then nobody would be interested, obviously. You know, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ has become a classic – and is actually a very, very good lyric – but they had a lot really good songs, it isn’t just that one song.

Obviously they went on to become New Order, so they have this very interesting history, and they’re interesting characters. And obviously you have Ian’s death – whether anybody likes it or not, really.

And also you have the fact that they were sort of an underground cult group at the time – they were sort of a late 70s British Velvet Underground. You know, they were a cult group, they weren’t a heat group, until Ian died and they had the hit with ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, but while he was alive they weren’t a massively successful group. So, you know, they have this aura about them.

I did an event recently about films and representations of youth. It was in front of a whole lot of lecturers and one of them said they’d shown the Joy Division film to a bunch of sixteen and seventeen year olds of all sorts of different ethnicities, and they’d really tuned into Ian, even though it’s another time and another experience. I think that’s because in the end Ian was that much trumpeted thing: he was for real. And I think that teenagers respond to that, because they want stuff that they think is real, they don’t want stuff that’s talking down to them, and they want something to be intense. I think that’s another reason for the continued interest.

‘So This Is Permanence’ is published on 2 Oct