Joy Devotion: Jennifer Otter Bickerdike – book review

Joy Devotion book cover

Joy Devotion: The Importance of Ian Curtis and Fan Culture – Jennifer Otter Bickerdike (Editor) with preface by Stephen Morris and foreword by Kevin Cummins (Headpress)

Available now

More than 35 years after Ian Curtis’ death fans of Joy Division still make a pilgrimage to his grave, still feel connected to the music. In Jennifer Otter Bickerdike’s latest book she brings together a collection of essays from fans and those in and around the band to investigate the importance and meaning of being a fan.

Louder Than War editor Sarah Lay reviews.  

Music journalism is, quite obviously, centred on the artist and their work. Most often these days this is a basic analysis of what the music sounds like, what influences are resonating through the new notes but occasionally is something more,  a critique of where this music fits culturally, socially or politically; not just what is this music, who is this artist but what does this music and artist mean within a wider context. At either end of the spectrum you find that the music is quite often divorced from those who are listening to it, who are connected to it: the fans. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike’s work turns this around and looks at the fan first, and what music is bringing to them as an individual or a collective, the different ways music affects and connects to the individual.

In Joy Devotion she has curated a collection of essays that look at the importance of Ian Curtis and the music of Joy Division, as well as the enduring fan culture nearly forty years after they existed as a band. It springs from her personal journey as a fan of the band – in it she writes of how their music carried her through her darkest times – but also from Joy Division forming the basis of her PhD study, where she photographed and documented the trinkets left on Curtis’ grave over the course of a year.

The book as a whole includes essays which are deeply personal connections from fan to band as well as objective commentary on the importance of place to fans, on the secular religion which fandom can become, and the reality of musical output compared to the image and myth of those producing it. As Stephen Morris describes it in his preface: “[a] well written study on the curious interaction that takes place between the music and the fan. An interaction that can give meaning, security and identity in a world where these things are in increasingly short supply. “

There is a fascinating array of connections to the music and Ian Curtis expressed in these essays, showing how individual the reasons for being a fan are even as they draw together a community. There are discussions on psychogeography of Manchester (broadly the effect of environment on emotion and behaviour), the paradoxical nature of the graves of famous figures (the unquiet of a resting place constantly decorated with trinkets and visited by fans), and implicit commentary on masculinity, authenticity, mortality, and disability. While these topics may sound cold and academic the book is a warm read, non-judgemental and open-ended. This is a snapshot of individual stories rather than a conclusion on what the continued fascination with the band, and with Ian Curtis, say about the fan community or more widely on the human experience; and for readability it benefits from being so.

What makes this collection of essays stand-out is there is something of interest even for those who would not consider themselves Joy Division fans, or are only passingly familiar with the music or vaguely aware of the context of the band in Manchester and wider music history as well as those who are strongly connected to the music and band.

This book gives greater insight on a specific level to the band, particularly through the interviews with Kevin Cummins, and contributions from others on the scene including Hacienda DJ Dave Booth, through consideration of Factory Records, and oral history of some of the band’s more infamous gigs. They also give insight on an individual level of being a fan of this band through the shared experience of collecting records, finding meaning in lyrics and forming tribute bands.

But these essays cover something often missing from writing about music, they speak deeper, more strongly and more generally of what it means to be a fan; reflecting the myriad ways in which through connecting to music we can become more connected to our selves and the world around us.

~

Joy Devotion is out now via Headpress and you can find out more on Jennifer Otter Bickerdike’s website. The author will do an in conversation with Kevin Cummins, and book signing, at Piccadilly Records, Manchester on 4 November at 5.30pm.

All words by Sarah Lay. Sarah is editor of Louder Than War and you can find her on Twitter and more from her in her author archive here. She is executive producer of The Rumble on Radio Andra and provides Louder Than War’s recommended track of the week on the show. Tune in Tuesdays from 8pm or listen again here

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4 comments on “Joy Devotion: Jennifer Otter Bickerdike – book review”

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  1. Great review Sarah. I did my dissertation on “Suicide and Stardom” and focused mostly on Ian. This was not just down to the sad way his life ended but the fact I am huge fan of the band. I did the pilgrimage and also interviewed Deborah Curtis for the dissertation. Deborah was a wonderful interviewee, very warm and honest. Can’t wait to read this book

    • I really liked the different voices that came through in the book, showing that being a fan is an individual matter, even when it is a collective experience. Let me know what you think of the book when you’ve had a read.

  2. Interesting review. I guess anyone into popular music experiences it’s existential appeal in one form or another. And it may impact at a range of different echelons according to each individual. Cultural figures, sometimes even at a subconscious level, can shape our understanding, perceptions and even our physical actions. We might even believe we know better than everyone else as we sometimes drift into our personal worlds. A constant fight for supremacy where it might never be empirically verified. Logic and reason might be the tools and basis of our persuasions but most will ultimately be reduced to opinions. And I am clearly opinionated. And nothing wrong in that.
    Joy Division, despite their short existence are arguably the greatest band I was fortunate to encounter. A band that rocked the boat, a band of truths and offered a catalytic wake up call. Music and lyrics that defined and redefined my secret relationship to the outside world. An existence that might not be able to be articulated by words alone. Synaptic activity triggered inside oneself and likely to be expressed internally. Maybe even a once in a lifetime experience. Exploration into the dark side is not necessary a journey into oblivion but rather a realisation that it coexists. We can benefit from such a realisation. Alter our states of being and mind, enhance our welling and that of ours. There might be elements of Hobbesian and Kafkaesque reductionism to our make up. But this can be overcome by it’s magnification and presence in the world.
    Thus the legacy demonstrated here is not alien to me. It is a manifestation that other people saw the same light as me. Joy Division’s music and lyrics changed my life. My musical life that is. That eureka moment, where things would never be the same again. It would trigger my momentum into philosophy, literature and even song writing. I can think of no other music artist or band that has such an impact on my own personal demographic. Yes I might be indulging in hyperbole but it all still retains an authenticity, even after all these years.
    I think it was Dave McCullough from Sounds in an obituary piece that once said “He (Ian Curtis) died for you”. He didn’t but what he did leave behind was some of the greatest lyrics in popular music. Highly influential to future generations, Nevermind may have never taken the shape it did without such influence.
    GJH.

  3. joydivisionoverglovesforsale

    Interesting to write about Joy Division – its really never been done before. Some questions… Did he commit suicide or was he murdered? If the latter, why was he murdered? Was it because he was trying to get away from his handler, (who may have been from Belgium), or was it because it would be good publicity? Was the subsequent nostalgia soaked future, planned by those who were likely to get rich on it… and if so, the fact that he in effect STOPPED at 23…. was “good for business”. Next time a Joy Division book comes out, it would be interesting to investigate these things.. Interesting, but a little bit dangerous.

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