Bathed in such muddy waters, Joy Division remains a band in need of serious re-evaluation 40 years after the release of their debut LP, Unknown Pleasures. And Jon Savage seems the perfect choice to do posterity such a service, being one of three national music journalists who lived in Manchester in its post-punk heyday... It is rare for a writer this good to stoop to co-opting such a slipshod sub-genre. Generally, oral histories — certainly in the punk domain — prove the truth of the maxim that those who can, write and those who can’t, compile others’ words and call it a history. In reality, it’s merely the raw data for history... Savage — a writer I greatly admire — has preferred to turn the tape-recorder and/or camera on a small cabal of the usual suspects (most of the interviews being for a recently broadcast documentary). It means the same old, same old: mythology reinforced by men — and a couple of token women — who still can’t explain who shot this post-modern Liberty Valance.
Whether or not the material is familiar, Savage’s thoughtful orchestration of the band’s oral history is illuminating. It muddies the clean lines of their now mythical narrative, chronicling the false starts, the ejected founder members, the different looks and names. They were “a bit of a joke” until suddenly they weren’t. There is no particular moment or song to pin this on, just that, at a certain point, they stopped trying to sound like anyone else... These interviews are a precious archive. Several of the key figures here are now gone. Manchester has been transformed and Factory is now a heritage industry. “Yes, it’s a fabulous story,” said Wilson, “the story of the rebuilding of a city that begins with them, the story of a tragic suicide, a moral story and a cultural, academic, intellectual, aesthetic story, but at the heart of it, it’s only here because they wrote great songs, and great songs never die.”
In this high-definition oral history, the journalist Paul Morley recalls how he was taken to see Curtis in the chapel of rest by Tony Wilson, the sharp-elbowed boss of Joy Division’s label Factory Records, because “When you write the book, you’ve got to have seen the body.” ... [T]he oral-history format lends a warmth and flexibility that prevents it becoming just another grim rattle of the ossuary... One of the last big Joy Division books was So This Is Permanence (2014), a great grey mausoleum of a book (introduced by Savage) that reproduced Curtis’s lyrics and notebooks. It was a perfect object for the Factory Records fetishist, a monument to the myth. This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else, though, once again lets the life back into the story. It’s all the more devastating for that.