Tuesday, December 13, 2005

JOY DIVISION "UNKNOWN PLEASURES" - an appreciation

If you could see through our eyes....the brickwork illuminated by 1,000 watt tungsten, the crowbar scuff marks across the doors of the ground and first floor flats, the intersections where the concrete turned to pungent yellow grass and the signs pointed ; Slumbering Village 8, Ghost Town 15, Crematorium, dead ahead....

If you could've seen Luton at 4.30am back then....there wasn't much to physically do, apart from look. Clubs where you'd pay 10 quid to enter (5 if you were a girl) with the promise of a free bar all night. Pints of watered down Kilkenny Ajax, or single vodkas with a squirt of orange. Bobby Brown skipping on the club's CD-player. Bare knuckle boxing tournaments outside kebab shops. You know you're in a fucked area when the KFC imitators loom large - Dallas Fried Chicken, where you can't differentiate between backside and beak, never mind between Halal, Kosher or Carcinogenic. So, we used to drive around all night. Hockwell Ring, Marsh Farm, Bury Park, Lewsey Farm, Wardown Park, Stopsley. And then sometimes out into the backwater villages, looking for signs of life. It could have almost been a Specials video, but there was only one album that ever really mattered during these nocturnal inspections, and 13 years on from then, it still makes me want to stay up all night and into the next day and then into night again, and dance til the speakers fall apart.

If you could have seen the 6am sun dapple the piece of lined A4, crudely attached to a boarded up house near the town centre : "THANKS TO SOUTH BEDS COUNCIL THIS ILL WOMAN HAS BEEN HOUNDED TO DEATH COUNCIL TAX IS A FUCKING CON". My friend would turn around in the car and say how Luton Bus Station, fogged up with a haze of swirling August rain, turning the lights into globs of burning sodium , reminded him of wartime Berlin, just before the Russians rolled in. Of course, how would he have fucking known, but maybe he was right. I didn't see the point of questioning him, because surrounded by the gloom, what wasn't there to fantasise about?

Ian Curtis once spent a night in Luton and Dunstable Hospital after an epileptic seizure ; this fact was relayed to me, in great detail, by my chauffeur, more than several times. The L&D had a more sinister reputation ; you went in with a minor complaint and they'd chop your leg off. Babies were wrongly tagged and swapped in their incubators by bungling nurses. People actually bled to death in the queues for A&E, after motionless hours of waiting to be treated for freshly inflicted head wounds.

How's this for horror - the story I'll never forget, a small item in the local rag, the Bengali factory worker who was deaf and mute. He accidentally got both his hands caught in some heavy duty machinery, which, over the course of five minutes, slowly crushed every bone in his hands, ripped his fingers to ribbons and only finished its feeding frenzy after it had completely severed his mits to about an inch above each wrist. Of course he'd screamed out in agony, but hadn't made a sound, and his co-worker had been too busy to notice his plight until he'd collapsed under a dark red fountain.

The picture on the front cover of "Unknown Pleasures", my chauffeur assured me, was directly transcribed from some sort of electronic medical chart, taken during one of Ian Curtis' s seizures. I later found out that this was a shameful lie : apparently it's an exploding star. Between the grooves, you can hear the cold metal reverberations of 5am-start shifts, the otherworld where the rattling lift opens up to a dark corridor full of nothingness, memos pinned to staff notice boards, advertising workshops and events that couldn't possibly exist in the same dimension you're currently prowling. BIOHAZARD, KEEP OUT, flammable bottles, pickled abortions, laminated signs wilting on grubby doors. Toilets where the cubicle walls crawl with depictions of woman as the ever-submissive, big titted Lorraine Chase, legs spread to reveal a bushy-cunted bullseye, and where the violence in the frenzied scrawls promises a terror campaign whereby every homosexual detected within this crumbling dump will be punitively ruptured by strictly hetero cock - biro rage, hacked in permanently with the edge of a key, for posterity's sake - scratch-wipe your shitty arses and dwell on white power –

They might as well have been dead, these pictures of children, spouses, propped up smiling on empty desks. Nobody was here, it was a twilight zone, nowhere was more lonely.

3.40am - the drug dealers, fuckers, queers, rapists, all playing the headlight flash game. A game of codes at the apex of Dunstable Downs and down around Wardown Park. If you had an ounce of sense, you wouldn't leave the car. Being trailed by two fellow night tourists, here come the flashes. "She's Lost Control", a jerky clanging disco track to accompany the slow death race. I never figured out these codes, but we'd play 'dare'. "Go on, flash them twice," I goaded the chauffeur. "What if they're tooled up?" he replied, sensibly. You could lose out big time if you flashed the wrong people in the wrong car ; a cellophaned rock or a slash in the face, an invitation to public toilet sex mistakenly read as a "COME ON THEN CUNTS, CALL THAT A CAR, TAKE YOU ALL ON!" The confusion in their eyes said it all.

And the chases, when they did kick off ; three of them in a car behind us, driving up close, arse to bumper. The threat of danger, but the adrenalin-spurting realisation, something's actually happening!! I'm not sure what our offence was, perhaps overtaking them. It was about 4am. We had enough petrol, we could have even shot down to Kilburn if we'd wanted to seriously shake them, it wasn't really a big deal, my chauffeur said. But like me, he was intrigued. The cracked plastic grill below the dashboard moaned, "Sons of chance take good care / From all the people out there / I'm not afraid any more..." Up obscure backstreets, the car kept chasing us. Winding down the window, would it be worth letting them get alongside, and then belt their windscreen in with the CrookLock? "No!" the chauffeur cried. They gave up in the end. Not much staying power. Not like "Bullitt", just an ugly, violent, temporary infatuation. And then –

If words didn't disobey me, and I could adequately describe the sensation of the sonic vapour that opens "New Dawn Fades", and the streaks of pink that clawed at the horizon above Sundon Park. Motorway turn-offs ignored, sudden attacks of memory shutdown. Why did we come out tonight anyway? Weren't we meant to have fun and end up going to a stranger's house or something....

Directionless, so plain to see....noises we'd never hear on a record again, sights we'd never return to ogle. Beyond the brick and metal and black and litter and the last few drunks, staggering aimlessly, limbs flaying, into the road, pissing against newsagent shutters, was something darker than anything me or the chauffeur had envisaged. "I keep thinking about what it'll be like if I'm sitting on a bus going through Marsh Farm in 2003, and the sun's setting. It's freaking me out", the chauffeur had once told me, as we parked up by Luton Airport one 2.30am, admiring the Wickerman of an air control tower (which, allegedly, can be seen from the top of Canary Wharf). By 2003, he wasn't in contact anymore, and I had no intention of going back to Luton to find out what he might have meant. We did have a war on, though. We couldn't have imagined 2003 would really come, it seemed too alien, not just in terms of years and the inevitable AGEING PROCESS, but as a concept that only belonged in sloppy sci-fi comics and hangovers from space race speedfreak pulp fiction.

You could feel something lurking in Luton, in the concrete, the brickwork, under the bridges, in the parks. It wasn't supernatural, it wasn't anything that would jump out of the dark pockets and grab you. It was more subtle, like the gradual onset of Alzheimer's. The muggings, race hatred, beatings, car crashes, suicides were just symptoms. Nobody wanted to be around when the disease suddenly accelerated and marched right over our heads–

Luton Town Football Club, desolate in the small hours, once given a DIY demolition job by Millwall's travelling support. When the ball was kicked towards the Bury Park Road end of the ground, the home fans used to chant, "IN, IN, IN THE CURRY!" Asian shopkeepers who defended their assets and homes with samurai swords when the bedroom windows began to explode inwards and the parked cars were punched, battered, rocked. I had a piss next to the ground, once - not out of any particular dislike for the club - and the chauffeur thought it would be a wheeze to drive off and leave me. He came back, as I suspected he would. He was an ex-Catholic, but hadn't shaken off the guilt and, for all his faults, he didn't want my corpse on his conscience.

Bus services that would cut off between 7pm and 6am. And here, 6.30am, we ended our trawl. Exhausted, beaten, the sun now fully in its slot. Milkfloats sighted! Cornershops opening up! Soon, Hockwell Ring would stir from its pit. The three menacing towerblocks of Marsh Farm, a police no-go zone, where the residents used to ring up the cops with false burglary reports, and then drop breeze blocks from the balconies onto whichever hapless patrol cars arrived, would just look sad and isolated. Cheeks beginning to crackle with the heat of a headswim brought on by lack of sleep. My chauffeur drove in silence, dropping me off back home. And "I Remember Nothing" filled the car, not so much a song but a gaping hole where memories twist and melt like polaroids tossed onto a bonfire. The last clacks and scrapes of something on another floor, another silo swinging into action, made dots swarm across my field of vision, another subcutaneous layer added to the temporary dark rings around the eyes.

Then the album flatlined, my chauffeur bade me farewell, til next weekend at least, and I'd stumble into bed, trying to block out the oppressive sounds of outdoor birdsong.

I've never listened to "Unknown Pleasures" during daylight ever since. It's quite simply one of the best Northern Soul records ever conceived.
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