Retro review : Joy Division at Bowdon Vale Club 1979 written by Paul Hanley (The Fall etc). Paul Hanley is the former drummer with the Fall who is currently playing with Brix And The Extricated. He has just written a fantastic book on Manchester music history called Leave The Capitol which tells a slice of Manchester music history through two studios -Strawberry and Pluto – it really is a rivetting read and one of LTW’s favourite books about Manchester music (you can buy the book here). Here he recalls one of the first gigs he saw – the legendary Joy Division gig as Bowden Vale in 1979.
For the purposes of this review the stuff in normal type is the stuff I remember from at the time (with some online help regarding the set list etc.) while the copy in bold italic is pure, and no doubt biased, hindsight.
Wednesday March 14th 1979 was the date of one of my favourite gigs ever. The day hadn’t started too well – Bertie Noone (Art teacher from hell) had taken great pleasure in informing me that I would be the subject of this week’s ‘batting practice’, which was his code name for corporal punishment, always meted out on a Friday, and usually imposed for non-receipt of homework. In my case it was because the work I’d given him was of such a low standard (It was as well) that I would have been better off not handing it in.
He called it ‘batting practice’ because a cricket bat across the buttocks was his punishment of choice. He used to commentate a la Test Match Special while he did it too – ‘…And Basil D’Oliveira steps up to the crease and delivers a perfect six into the clear skies over Old Trafford…’ -Wack! Other teachers at St Bede’s favoured the strap, the slipper or, in Mr. Hockenhall’s case, a rubber Bunsen-burner hose with a knot in it. Different times.
But none of that mattered because the evening held the promise of a trip to the seeing a live band – my brother’s band, to boot – Staff 9, who I’d seen rehearsing and knew were really rather good. For some strange reason they were playing a youth club. What’s more it was a youth club in the middle of nowhere. I knew this because I’d seen The Fall play there the previous month.
Actual geography had little impact on my measure of remoteness in those days. Bowdon was less than 5 miles from my house, far nearer than Manchester City centre, but the decent public transport links meant Rafters was much more accessible than Bowdon Vale Youth club, which might as well have been in Birmingham.
According to Steve the gig had been secured after a brief chat with Rob Gretton in Cox’s bar. This was the bar where the grandly named ‘Manchester Musician’s Collective’ used to meet. The collective had high ideas of promoting alternative Mancunian culture but as far as I could make out it mainly consisted of gigs at the Band on The Wall featuring A Certain Ratio supported by a bloke blowing into a whistling kettle while banging a radiator. Rob had mentioned that his band needed a support for a forthcoming gig and Steve and Craig seized the opportunity to volunteer themselves.
Although the various members of Staff 9 took their membership of the MMC quite seriously and tried to ensure at least one of them went along to the meetings, Joy Division were far less conscientious (shock!), which is why Rob was always their designated representative.
Staff 9’s gear was transported to Bowdon by Bernie the drummer in his work’s van and by Graham the singer in his dad’s Austen Allegro. Steve and Craig got the bus to Altrincham and then walked the rest of the way. Tagging along to act as unpaid roadies were me and Marc Riley, who was returning the favour for Steve and Craig’s recent roadying for The Fall.
While discussing this gig in ‘Substance’ Pete Hook incorrectly identifies me as part of the band, something I was so proud of I was tempted not to address the error here. However such is my journalistic integrity I couldn’t keep up the pretense.
As soon as we walked in the bass player from the main band – who I discovered were called ‘Joy Division’ clocked Marc and began playing the opening bass-intro to ‘Last Orders’. Marc was unsure whether to take this as a dig or a compliment so decided to ignore it altogether. ‘Last Orders’ had featured on Short Circuit, a record commemorating the last nights of The Electric Circus. The album also contained ‘At a Later Date’ by Joy Division and ‘Time’s Up’ by Buzzcocks, who were my favourite band. The main thing I remembered about Joy Division’s song was someone shouting ‘Have Y’all forgotten Rudolph Hess?’ at the beginning. ‘I wonder who he is?’ I thought, which kind of proved the point.
It turns out Barney uttered the immortal line.
As Joy Division finished their soundcheck their guitarist started fiddling with a strange-looking keyboard that was at his feet. It looked like he’d made it himself and it only seemed capable of producing strange wooshes and clangs rather than actual musical notes. After what seemed like an eternity the bass player gestured over to Staff 9 and said – ‘Bernard – pack it in will yer, these lads are waiting to set up.’ The guitarist gracelessly complied and, unusually as it turned out, Joy Division shifted their gear out of the way so Staff 9 could set up.
When my post-Fall band ‘Shout Bamalam’ supported New Order at Newcastle Riverside they (or rather Oz Eddie and Di) refused to move anything larger than a screwdriver so much as an inch. They had so much kit onstage our whole band was forced to squeeze into a space no bigger than the average drum mat.
Staff 9’s soundcheck was dispatched in fairly short order. Graham gave the mic a rudimentary ‘one –two’ and they had a quick run through ‘Writing Desk’, one of their newer numbers. With that the audience started arriving so the band repaired into the other room to wait their turn.
In ‘The Big Midweek’ Steve recalls chatting with Ian Curtis at this point. Being a 15 year old little brother, I definitely did not speak to any of Joy Division, though I’d have loved to ask Steve Morris about his electronic drumpad, the like of which I had never seen and seemed so impossibly space age it stood out like a sore thumb in the flock-wallpapered celebration of all things seventies that was Bowdon vale Youth Club. Alas, I never did.
There wasn’t long between Staff 9’s sound check and them taking the stage. I was pretty familiar with Staff 9’s stuff – I’d seen them rehearse and on one occasion even played drums with Steve and Craig in our back bedroom. They were really good, though I don’t think Craig, who was the main songwriter, was ever really comfortable with Graham the singer’s interpretation of his songs. He should have sung them himself, but I think he was too shy. Highlight of the set was ‘Pop-stock’, which featured a ridiculously catchy bass/melody line and backing vocals from our kid.
I probably remember this song more than the others because ‘Pop –Stock’ (re-christened ‘Chock-Stock’ for some reason best known to MES) was part of the signing-on fee when Steve and Craig joined The Fall. Rather than use Craig’s original verses, Mark used the lyric from an earlier Fall song, ‘Lets’, which had departed with Martin Bramah. They dovetailed nicely with the ‘Pop-Stock’ chorus.
Staff 9’s set ended to politely enthusiastic applause and they immediately began shifting their gear. Steve Morris then reassembled his kit, which took a while, as he had the biggest drum kit I’d ever seen, (6 toms!!) and no-one to help him. The audience, which consisted mainly of mop headed teenagers like me, waited impatiently for him to finish. The DJ did his best to keep us entertained but everyone was a little antsy by the time the rest of the band joined Steve on Stage. A wail of feedback from Bernard followed by a wail of anguish from Ian Curtis and we were off. ‘Exercise One’, followed by a blistering run through Of ‘She’s Lost Control’. This was when I finally got to hear what Steve Morris’s syndrum actually sounded like. I was transfixed by Steve’s drumming. He’s great to watch, though he always looks a little uncomfortable, like he’s in a certain amount of pain. I continued to scrutinize Steve’s style until the moment Ian went into that dance. After that no-one in the room was looking anywhere else.
It’s worth noting that these were the days when it was almost a badge of honour to shuffle on in your day clothes and appear as ‘normal’ as possible, hence Mark E. Smith’s Working Men’s Club-spiel and Pete Shelley’s your-aunty-at-a-party persona. In this setting Curtis‘s otherworldliness was so unexpected as to be almost disturbing. Has dancing ever looked so far divorced from having a good time? Was he in a trance, off his head on drugs or having some kind of seizure? Who knew? Not that it mattered anyway, it was like watching a shaman perform a ritual.
The next song was enough to convince me that this band were really something rather special. ‘Shadowplay’ was the highlight of the set, just as it would go on to be the highlight of their first album. The way it rises and falls over a single bass line and manages to echo everything Ian has to say without so much as a chord change is genius.
It’s hard to fathom now but this gig took place was two weeks before the band started recording Unknown Pleasures. A youth club in Altrincham, witnessing Joy Division at their peak.
‘Here’s one you may know’ said Ian, and I did, as it happens. It was ’Leaders of Men’ from the ‘Ideal for Living’ EP that Steve had recently bought. It sounded a lot better live, obviously. If you’ve never heard the original 7 inch EP, you haven’t missed anything. It sounds like it’s being played in a sack in the next room.
The next song, ‘Insight’ featured Steve’s syndrum again, though this time it sounded like that slightly annoying ‘Bo!’ you hear on many seventies disco tracks, notably ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’ by Rose Royce. I still thought it was great.
‘Disorder’ was the point Bernard’ finally switched on his keyboard. It made a vaguely Doctor Who-ish whoop sound that played itself unchanged for the duration of the whole song. He was obviously determined to get some keyboards into their live set up somehow. Good luck with that. Never going to happen.
The whoop whoop is considerably more sophisticated on the album version, more like a harp than an ARP.
The next song I recognized was ‘Warsaw’, another track from the ‘Ideal for Living’ EP, though they’d dropped the ‘350125’ intro.
‘Warsaw’ is sung from the previously mentioned Rudolph Hess’s viewpoint, 350125 being his prison number. This and the Hitler-Youth inspired EP cover lead to some accusations that they were flirting with fascism. Flirting? They were practically holding hands.
And then there was the sublime ‘Transmission’, my main memory of which was wondering how the f*ck Steve Morris kept up those 16s on the high-hat all the way through. No wonder he looked knackered.
They finished with ‘I Remember Nothing’ which must rank amongst the bleakest, most down-beat gig endings of all time. Like The Fall (who still don’t) Joy Division made no concession to crowd-pleasing whatsoever. They did come back for ‘No Love Lost’ though that could hardly be described as jolly, unless you compared it to ‘I Remember Nothing’. I felt like I’d been battered, but what a gig. It has stuck in my memory even more vividly than that Friday afternoon’s appointment with Mr. Noone has. And I’ll never forget that.