Pitchblack Playback – Joy Division’s Still
Mini Cini Ducie Street, Manchester
10th February 2022
Pitchblack Playback make their sensory-event debut. What better way to experience it than Ryan Walker being blindfolded in a cinema to take part? What better way than the 40-year-old Joy Division compilation Still, released in October 1981, played in full, start to finish, to soundtrack this fantastic kind of closeness, this imaginary staging, this proximate model of sublimation for all to enjoy?
”The event on stage is more than a spectacle. The intense spotlight beams isolates of silhouette, fixes it in space and annuls time” – Jean-Pierre-Turmel.
I attended a ‘gig’ recently.
The inverted commas are key here to comprehend what was experienced hearing Joy Division’s Still, itself undergoing a celebratory 40th reissue, marked by a clear-vinyl, ruby-red-sleeved reissue of the assortment of various bits and pieces left over from the JD cannon that Factory thought best to see some of the light of day (their cover of Sister Ray, the first, rough version of Ceremony at their last gig in Birmingham University as pushed into glowing zones of pop opulence when perfected by a soon-to-be New Order in ’81).
And the inverted commas are key because it wasn’t a gig. It was the opposite of a gig, the antithesis of what we have accustomed ourselves to believe as acceptable at or in spaces of entertainment: an opportunity to appreciate all aspects of the sound. As loud as it could possibly be set. Away from the technological intrusions and visual interruptions that have successfully embedded themselves into what ought to be, a moment to reach the innermost in the presence of art.
Pitchback Playback are currently carrying this idea into the hearts of cities far and wide. Their first Manchester event commemorated Still, a compilation album loaded with turbulent treats for the ears. And, thanks to what’s offered by the team at Pitchblack, it enables the invitation to unlock what the senses are often concealed by in circumstances that are prone to distraction. To stamp out the infernal impact and idiotic invasions of the external world that often come with attending an event that requires a modicum of attention away from a mobile phone. Ironic more so that, even in spaces that encourage us to touch base with what makes us human, with what makes us whole, there is a relentless reliability, an incessant requisite, to communicate through distraction.
In order to assure this, this intimacy, in order ‘to ensure that there are no distractions and that you’re totally immersed in the music’, the events created by Pitchblack Playback are staged in the dark.
“It’s just you and the music. Your sense of hearing is heightened when your vision is cut off and it only serves to make the music feel more intense”.
However, it’s important to recognise here that these events, these happenings, one sensory detail distinguished from another rather than mud and guts, lazy, commonplace-playlist everyday activities, are here turned into acts of listening, of feeling, and intently so. They are events inclusive for those who ”still value the album as an art form and who want to hear their favourite records and exclusive first plays on a big system with no distractions”.
It’s not solely for audiophiles, or for musos, for people who were there when it all kicked off, for people of a certain age with a certain set of experiences under their belt to use as conversational gilds of award-winning proportions. (I overhear one bloke tell one of his blokey mates about being there when Still was actually released in 1981… his act of putting his prescription glasses over his blindfold and turning towards the audience, desires the comedic effect like a patient awaiting an operation to remove a rotten tooth from a gum without anaesthetic assistance). In order words, they want it to succeed as a special ‘experience for everyone, of all ages and tastes’.
The team also aims to create ”a series of listening sessions inviting the music-loving public to hear upcoming album releases and classic LPs like never before in cinemas and other intimate spaces”.
What I experienced at the Mini Cini Ducie Street in Manchester last week didn’t disappoint in delivering this notion of ‘intimacy’.
Intimacy and Joy Division are elements permanently segued together like knitting needles and balls of wool. A band of extremes. And, despite the fact Still is no Unknown Pleasures, no Closer, it still survives as a cool compilation, a demonstration of how ever-capable the group of lads were in stripping the skin down to the bone, shaken in their seat whilst doing so. It reinforces how intimate, how brutal, how brilliant that band could be. How EXTREME.
And they could be so because on stage it was very much the four. It was very much a group of lads. One with epilepsy. One with a wife in one ear and a mistress in the other. One with his future in front and something else behind him. Convolutions always afoot in any given, dreaded direction.
It was how Joy Division saw Joy Division, as nothing but a ferocious demonstration of young, northern lads at the peak of their live-playing powers. But a band also on the brink of collapse, of combusting when caught up in the heat, the heavy intensity of the naked moment, at any given time. Because, although each instrument stands on its own two feet, each instrument, each vital voice, pumping blood and forces of life throughout each essential vein, depends on the survival of the feral other to work, to function to flow.
It’s how the band heard themselves. Songs in this setting as conjured up from the stomach by sulfuric acid under stark, sodium lights. Not how Martin Hannett heard them. Not how his decorative mixes turn out magic from machines. Not how he possessed a multidimensional ability to situate a band in a cosmic context, a band experimenting in a studio on TrEs-2b.
It remains my favourite Joy Division album (other than Substance, the other comp released later, for sentimental reasons really) for this reason: it’s a band performing on a stage (at the live show that is), not experimenting in a studio. The compilation is a natural companion to all that other stuff. It’s warts and all, odds and ends, bits and pieces, on the peculiar brink, the fervent edge of something else, scratches and scars from here and there, audience cheers and applause, hisses and fizzles, drones, drops in speed and the following recovery into seizure-inducing degrees Celsius and flips them back to the planes of celestial bodies and solar systems. All a trip, all a triumph. Atmospheric to the max but in a way that sees the band racing along tracks to wherever the instant moment, captained by Ian Curtis, the storm before the, as we know now, inescapable calm, wishes to take them to.
Running through fields, through bloodbaths and heartbreak, escaping the wars with their instruments still strapped to their backs because there was nothing else to hang onto. Exercise One, recorded at Strawberry Studios at the same time as their seminal debut, is a stupefied, militant groove of wild spirits haunting English streets with a definitely cold, dystopian sci-fi mise-en-scené. Its robust, distorted counterpart in The Sound Of Music manages to mangle disorienting voices from one room and another, one life and the next, worlds at the start and worlds at the end sutured together with the same, strangulated, hypnotic ambience. It was recorded at Pennine Sound Studios in Oldham alongside Love Will Tear Us Apart. The bass in both mixes, when emitting from the surround sound in this oh so smart and tidy room, is easily a contender for the first time the bass guitar has been the backing vocal. Ice Age melts glaciers. Glass smashes into everything in its path. Both erupt as punchy spits of feedback through the broadcast.
In addition to, and in spite of, the transcendent, tranquil mysticisms and thudding, thumping grooves roaming throughout the dark like a lonesome fox rummaging through the icy night under street lamps (the ominous oddity of The Only Mistake, the breakneck seizure-speeds of Something Must Break from their Licht und Blindheit single on Sordid-Sentimentale), Joy Division didn’t just emerge fully-formed with She’s Lost Control in one hand and Shadowplay in the other.
Here, their origins as an easy, northern punk group, with clever, catchy, highfalutin, existential lyricism, selected as if from a top hat, fronting the fist-into-the-face-attitude with crude, futurist ideals, post-No Future Pistols pillaging the country, are exposed. Exposed in all their glory when They Walked In Line, or The Kill electrify the room in all their savage blasts of undiluted, bludgeoning noise. Quick. Neat. Light. Blindness.
Because at the time, that’s all they could make sense of, that’s all they could muster. These two tunes were taken from their 1978 album when they were still called Warsaw, when they were still…a punk group. And here, transposed from RCA to Factory, from an awful image of a baby to the recorded successive pulses of a CP-1919 pulsar, they lunge forth like their life depends on what happens when the curtains drop, when the vocal line stomps into action during the enrapturing, dance-jam of Dead Souls. Or what occurs in their room, very much like it does in ours, when Transmission’s palpitating rampages through and tramples over the room as though neutron bombs have been built like guitar-bass-drum-vox drop on cottages below. Like the live exorcism-as-performance of New Dawn Fades rips one limb from its rightful socket. When the merciless, monochrome waterfall of Passover and the giddy, brittle keyboards of Isolation and the slow-moving, shadow-filled Decades as part of the most syntactically perfect tracklisting imaginable lifts the anticipating audience to new heights of liveness, nuance, noir and enlightenment.
With the blindfold on, the lights low, you are injected with this sense of intensity. A weightlessness without light (except the fire escape light, hence the blindfold to eliminate sources of distraction), without the bad haircuts of people before you, nor the heightened physical rustling of people climbing over other people behind you, giggling and spitting. Without the grabbing hands getting lost in bottomless pots of popcorn or slurping sticky drinks through silly straws. No phones. No nothing. Except the sonic wonderments of a wild voice fed into the wide void and focusing it, through music, to the finger’s fine tip, the knife’s sharp edge.
When something is heightened to such a degree, it transports you elsewhere when it folds back, a sensational tidal wave sedating, sucking you into new, spatial zones, over time, gradually corroded and supplanted by daft apps to advance mankind forward, but somehow we’ve forgotten how to tie our own fucking shoelaces…or in this case, through this ingenious reminder, how to appreciate the entirety of an idea, to live the whole.
Spirit and feeling. Heart and soul wrapped around each other like rubber coating thin fingers of conductive, copper wire. Joy Division in these moments, under these conditions, are, as they always were, A Stooges. A Sabbath. A Sex Pistols. A Who. A Throbbing Gristle. A Velvets. A Coltrane. A Can and A Kraftwerk. And the voltage, rough, raw, ready to slay, to retaliate and react against whatever great beast gets in the way, works in ways augmented more so because of what Pitchblack Playback have made available here. Enabling the compilation to be venerated along the same lines as those bands, an immovable, irreplaceable impression upon all those who like, and who don’t so much like, Joy Division.
Perhaps there is, because this is so fucking good, hope for the medium to return to the message and exist in a state of equilibrium as they always do. Even though the medium is often leaps ahead, the message is somewhere behind (or vice versa). And to recount Pitchblack’s message: ”We’re told the album as an art form is dying. But not all of us agree with the status quo”.
As I experience the very thing that began this mad-ramble, this humble, gaunt nobody, a spectacle in my own head, a silhouette on a stage only I can see but everyone in the room can surely feel, the silence just after the lights are flicked back on…
Nor do I.
Buy Still here
Ryan Walker is a writer from Bolton. His archive can be found online here.