It might sound like the Baywatch music, but...
On The B-Side: Jonathan Barnes on Music
“HO ho, doesn’t the beginning of it sound just like the start of the Baywatch theme?”
Yep, I was pretty pleased with myself when I first listened to Joy Division’s Atmosphere; I fastened on my spotter’s badge, sent a Tweet out into cyberspace and patted myself firmly on the back.
It’s true though, listen for yourself. First the synths; then that drum spasm at the start: dum-der-der-der. I can’t believe I’m the only one who imagined that sun-kissed piano riff was about to start dancing on the back-beat, building up to some soft-metal Adonis wailing about always being there (although it still sounds like “I’LL BE RARE” to these ears).
(You may well have been staring at Pamela Anderson and co. in little red swimsuits while this was playing, so I’ll forgive you if you didn’t pay quite as much attention to the music as I obviously did)
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So, aren’t I wholly amusing and clever, eh? The darkest, doomiest band ever - and one of their songs sounds like the theme to Baywatch, the ultimate in 36-degree-light-and-no-shade. How ironic. Ho ho ho.
But I soon had that sinking sensation of stupidity. In fact, until a couple of months ago, the only song called Atmosphere that I was really aware of was the one by Russ Abbott. You’ll know that, for sure, if you’re over 30: “Oh what an atmosphere! I love a party with a happy atmosphere!”
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The more I discovered Atmosphere (the Joy Division version) the less I chortled about beaches and bronzed lifeguards and the more I realised it was a work of genius: a slow-burning, dark piece of mood music that somehow glistens and soars. It’s perfectly titled; it seems to have an atmosphere all of its own. You might recognise it simply from Stephen Morris’s signature beat or Peter Hook’s restless bassline; let alone tragic singer Ian Curtis’s less-is-more, heartbreaking, yet oddly uplifting lyric and haunted vocal. I don’t know whether it offers hope or desperation, although the lines “Your confusion/My illusion/Worn like a mask of self-hate” make me fear the latter.
The song has been used to soundtrack documentaries, dramas and England being knocked out of the World Cup. It was dear old John Peel’s top song of the last millennium (“The Peelenium”) and there hasn’t been much in the first 10 years of this one to top it, I don’t think.
When it comes in at the end of the film biopic Control, just after a desperate Curtis commits suicide, it’s like a punch in the stomach. Hook himself said he felt like he was going to throw up when the song’s glorious gloom wafted into the scene. It’s one of the most powerful movie moments I can recall.
Watching Control, in fact, was a key point in my journey into Joy Division. From that starting point, I’ve bought both their albums, checked out singles, B-sides (of which Atmosphere, incredibly, was one); taken in the film-length documentary about the band; read everything I can find.
And so to the conumdrum I face every week writing this column: who exactly am I writing to? If I’m talking Joy Division, should I presume you know the backstory: the music, the tragedy, the legacy? Or have you even heard of them at all? My wife hadn’t. Should I start right from the “beat-combo” beginning? To be honest, I don’t know. The answer must differ from reader to reader, particularly in a newspaper like the EADT. I’m guessing that if you’ve got this far already, you have a reasonable interest in Joy Division, so I’ll take the cop-out middle ground.
In fact, I’ll imagine you’re like me. You’d heard of the band, you’re aware of their influence and Curtis’s suicide, but your knowledge of their music tended to begin and end one song, the epic, anthemic Love Will Tear Us Apart, which is the closest they even came to having a hit.
Taking a further interest in Joy Division might be the sort of thing that might cause loved ones to keep a concerned eye on you, and doesn’t exactly mark you out as the life and soul of party (particularly not one hosted by Russ Abbott), but I’ve found there is so much more to discover; some dazzling, innovative, intense, moving music that I never dreamed would be waiting for me. All, incredibly, by men who were only in their early 20s at the time.
I’m not suggesting you go and lose yourself in Joy Division’s back catalogue - it’s not a pretty place, however great it is - and I’d also never be so arrogant to think you’d start discovering a band or even check out an album on my recommendation. We’re all busy people.
But if it has passed you by over the last 30 years or you’ve never heard it before, why not give Atmosphere a try? Just that one song. It’ll only take three minutes or so.
And once you’ve got Pamela Anderson or even David Hasselhoff out of your head, let me know whether you’ve ever heard anything more magnificent.