Jon Savage: This Searing Light, The Sun And Everything Else: Joy Division: The Oral History
Faber and Faber
Acclaimed author Jon Savage presents the latest book on the subject of celebrated post-punk pioneers Joy Division. Simon Tucker wonders if there is anything more to gain from the retelling of this now well known story.
Can one story be told too many times? From the one your Uncle says after a few at a party to the ones about how Paul met John, the same story repeated in various ways can sometimes feel frustrating (even the most committed Beatles fan must admit to getting Mojo cover feature fatigue). Yet there is also a valid counter opinion which tells us that the retelling of stories from different viewpoints helps paint a more complete picture of the subject. It can reveal hidden truths and also help dispel unhealthy myths. More often than not, the more enjoyable of storytellers are ones that are once removed from the subject matter. They were involved in some way but were not the main protagonists. This is certainly true of this books subject matter as the most definitive and essential book on Joy Division has been Deborah Curtis’ Touching From A Distance. Told from the perspective of a young married woman watching the fate of her husband, his life, their marriage and the unfolding myth being created, Touching From A Distance* was a book that did some essential dispelling of any unhealthy rock n roll attraction to the sad end to her husband Ian Curtis’ short life. She of course had help via interviews with Ian’s bandmates, manager, Mr Wilson etc but it is her side of the story that comes out the most heartfelt, raw and memorable.
The foreword for Touching From A Distance was written by acclaimed author Jon Savage (Savage would go on to work with Deborah again on the book of Ian’s published lyrics and notebooks ‘So This Is Permanence’**) and it is Savage’s book we now find ourselves discussing. ‘This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else’ is not a straight forward narrative driven tale where the author is inserting themselves into a famed story as a “see I was there” exercise. Instead, Savage has assembled and edited three decades worth of interviews from a lot of the main players in the story and presented in a no frills no agenda style and the result is a book that, in an ever expanding marketplace makes this the logical successor to Touching From A Distance. Due to the very nature in which the book is presented you as a reader are not looking at things in a way where you could be second guessing the authors intentions. There are no scores to be settled on Savage’s part so when you do get conflicting accounts of the same incident, which is perfectly normal human nature, you get a fuller idea of the story than if it was a one-sided affair.
Writing about Joy Division can be easy if you think about it and over the years journalists have constantly fallen into the trap of highlighting the side of the story that helps build icons. Young band, rush of success, tortured genius, tragic and violent end, file, print, done…This does a massive disservice to not only Ian but to his bandmates (Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris) and those around him (too many to list here) as the story of doom and gloom has often been constantly dispelled by them over the years yet it, inevitably, persists. The humour and the up times are drowned out by the low moments constantly and what Savage does here is help bring balance to that narrative. Great moments like Mark Reeder (The Frantic Elevators) saying how future Joy Division manager Rob Gretton came in to the shop he worked in proclaiming to have seen the “best band in the world last night” emphasizes the rush that a great new young band can give to people in the scene that they emerge in to. This is supported by the brief snippets of reviews that are included which show the development of the band and also how not everyone enjoyed them even when they became as fully formed as they ever would be. One of the best and most important people included here is Terry Mason who always comes across as the nearly-man of the story and whilst he was pushed slowly out of the band in a playing capacity remained loyal and true to his friends throughout.
Balance is the key to Jon’s book. The yin and the yang. Like the young man who would sadly remove himself from the picture far too soon putting an end to the future of Joy Division as they were, there was a dichotomy at play within the story of Joy Division and of Manchester itself which is why the inclusion of quotes from C.P. Lee and Tony Wilson talking about the city itself help to emphasize the importance of what Joy Division did not just as a band but as a reason for Factory Records to start up and..well you know the rest.
This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else is an essential retelling of a now familiar tale. It is a book wonderfully put together and one that not only walks the line between the afterlife of the Joy Division story and its focus on the dark and its more earthy and realistic kitchen sink drama humour and struggle side, it also really helps hit home the fact that this was such a brief moment in time. Joy Division did not have the longest of periods where they were the band many of us know and love yet their legacy remains and with this book Jon Savage does true justice to that legacy.
*Faber and Faber, 1995
** Faber and Faber, 2014
Jon Savage can be found via Twitter where he tweets as @JonSavage1966