Publications > Scream City > Scream City Issue #5 > Closer, Karamazov and K550 by Ian McCartney

Closer, Karamazov and K550
by Ian McCartney
Factory's design style for Joy Division was transparently influenced by classical music.
The sleeves' images and texts, with their singular attention to typography, were classical, even to the extent that Tony Wilson once joked that the sleeves for releases on Factory's classical strand were (conversely and perversely) going to be packaged "like the Shangri-Las". This is significant. There is a theory that logos (for example: Coca-Cola, BMW, Starbucks) perform a magical function: that they are, in fact, sigils. Jamie Reid's artwork for Never Mind The Bollocks might be an ironic or deconstructivist take on the use of sigillary commercial branding, yet still there's the logo, always sending out its message, its magic. But Factory never did that with Joy Division. Closer's sleeve doesn't function as an encapsulation of a message. You just get a slightly disturbing monochrome photograph with the word 'Closer' above it.
The music has to speak for itself.
I suppose it's all about what you do with gravitas and equilibrium. Pop music or entertainment it may have been between those bits of cardboard, art it certainly was: inside and outside. The outside was classical. So: classical-style packaging for classic music. On Closer not just the visual context, but also the music, is classical - in feel if not style. Side 2 of Closer is one of very few rock LP sides that would conceivably suit a classical arrangement played by an orchestra and yet easily manage to avoid being bombastic or overblown. Although it may never happen – so we may never know.
On side 2 of Closer, the progression from one song to the next is symphonic. The theme (or, at least, the overriding theme) is about living and growing older and without having much to show for it – it's not unobvious that three of the four songs refer to time in the title: Decades; Twenty Four Hours; The Eternal (with Heart And Soul''s lyrics containing the existence / past / present / future lines). It is difficult to see this as simple coincidence. Closer appears slap bang in the middle of the beginning of the end of a millennium, and sounds it. I mean that in a good way – it captures a sense of modernity being ancient, of the future always being in motion, with the past a closed book.
Closer was released in 1980. A century before this LP, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's final novel, The Karamazov Brothers, is published. Very nearly two centuries before Closer, Mozart wrote his mysterious (and minor-key) 40th symphony also known as K550. All three of these works are known for, well... basically for being a bit heavy.
And also; the last major works before the passing of the artist. These three works also have in common the illuminating fact that while they are classics, they were all also part of the popular culture of their respective eras, albeit at the higher end of the market. What becomes classic? I'm not going to make a case that Mozart or Dostoevsky are any better or worse or more or less useful or relevant than Joy Division – just that they might be closer than you might think.
It's well-known that the peripatetic lifestyle of the music world took its toll on him, and it's often mentioned that he had been experiencing marital difficulties. Perhaps not so well-known or mentioned are the many letters he wrote, some of them telling as regards his state of mind: "Black thoughts often come to me" he wrote, "thoughts that I push away with tremendous effort". But this wasn't a letter scribbled in biro by Ian Curtis onto an A5 Basildon Bond tablet in the back of a van on the way to a gig in Eindhoven or Brussels. It was written by Mozart during the time he was composing that enigmatic Symphony no.40, the K550. It's enigmatic in terms of its being an informational black hole as to the why of Mozart's writing it.
Nobody knows.
More letters: "Our world has become an immense negative"; Humankind is an "unnatural product [of] the heavenly and the earthly"; "I don't know if my gloomy mood will ever leave me". And this cracker: "Everything noble, beautiful and divine has turned itself into a satire". A teenage Ian Curtis? No, a teenage Dostoevsky wrote these raw aperçus. And even they are fairly optimistic compared with what he wrote later.
1st Movement: A Struggle Between Right And Wrong
(Heart and Soul)
The opening part of a symphony is usually the bit that everybody knows. The allegro movement of symphony No.40 is one of the most famous pieces of music ever composed. It's also the only bit of the symphony that most people would recognise. Joy Division (perhaps typically) don't include their most widely-known song (Love Will Tear Us Apart) on Closer. The opener of side 2 is Heart And Soul: upbeat, but only upbeat as far as Joy Division goes, what with its monumentally bleak and morally incisive lyrics ('an abyss that laughs at creation') over an unlikely and inspired electronic/rock hybrid instrumentation.
Whilst Heart and Soul isn't well-known as a piece of music (at least, not in an FM radio way), the opening bars of Heart and Soul, with that strange and almost unmusical bassline, are surely unforgettable. Once heard, never forgotten. Maybe not strangely unmusical though, so much as just strange: I remember Tony Wilson interviewing conductor Georg Solti on 'The Other Side of Midnight' (the Granada arts show presented by Wilson around '89-'90).
The preceding article had been about the then newly released Anton Corbijn video for Atmosphere. Wilson asked Solti what he thought of the song and Solti's response was that the last note was "wrong". As a nonmusician I had no idea what he meant (and I still don't) but on Heart and Soul the bass line just sounds like it was written by someone who never formally learned music, and as such was set (very) free from hidebound conventions about 'right and wrong' A circus complete with all fools: In 1880, Dostoevsky places the struggle between right and wrong into microcosm, in The Karamazov Brothers. Now, I don't think this is the story of a family and its nuclear fall-out, or a collection of parables. I think Karamazov sets up layers and layers here that are endlessly and infinitely ponderable, making it more like the story of the human soul coming to terms with the indifference of the universe. Dostoevsky is like a scientist watching the behaviour of molecules bouncing around in a vat of disorder. Or insects in a glass biosphere: "Brother, I am an insect..." says Dmitry Karamazov (a bad man who has identified his badness and yet is largely powerless to deal with his actions and their effects). He says this to his brother, Alyosha, the quiet, spiritual, pious monk, "...all of us Karamazovs are." Dmitry believes that "God has set nothing but riddles". In this Dmitry is not unlike the kind of characters drawn by the existentialists. Existence is freedom, but freedom itself is a prison. No turning back, no last stand. The past, the future, containment and release are all here, along with the second law of thermodynamics: "heart and soul, one will burn" i.e. become subject to the force of entropy. Yet in the song they feel as if they are indivisible. Existence is a tearing apart, a cracking-up.
2nd Movement: "A Cloud Hangs Over Me"
(Twenty Four Hours)
Smerdyakov, the bastard Karamazov halfbrother, an epileptic, says of his illness: "It stops and goes away, and then it starts up again; I could not regain my reason for three whole days." Twenty Four Hours is quiet, loud, quiet, loud, slow, fast, slow, fast. Almost a proto mathrock song. My brother (who's a massive Joy Division fan like me, who suffers from epilepsy, unlike me) once said that this song possibly incorporates elements of epileptic seizure – the fast oblique loud bits being the fits. Could be. Could also be about blaming yourself when things go wrong, frustration and rage turning inwards, love lost, clinical depression – many things. Me, I think it's about (and I'm not kidding here) the eternal human need and inability to create a time machine, and the irony of that in a world that's pathologically obsessed with ordering itself around the numbers on the face of the clock. Intense gravitational forces preclude the making of a time machine, apparently.
The monochromatic vibe of Twenty Four Hours, and the lyrics and the playing, somehow, have an element of dark comedy.
There is no stop; rewind; fast-forward, it is saying, with the faintest smile and darkest laugh. It reminds me of Laurel and Hardy in The Music Box – Chaplin and The Marx Brothers may have been funny, may have been genius, but comedy-wise there isn't much that compares to Stan & Ollie trying to get a piano up a flight of stairs. It is art. It is also (of course) based on the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the kid who has to push a massive boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down and the task to start again. Twenty Four Hours suggests every day being like the job of Sisyphus, physically and mentally.
"If people could see into my heart, I would almost feel ashamed. To me, everything is cold – as cold as ice." Mozart again.
Indeed, the second movement of K.550 is – make no mistake – a sonic cathedral of ice.
Mozart's 40th Symphony is described in no weak terms by the German musicologist Alfred Einstein (no relation to the physicist) who saw its key-changes as "plunges into the abyss of the soul, symbolised in modulations so bold that to Mozart's contemporaries they must have seemed to lose their way entirely, and so distant that only Mozart himself could find the way back from time to time". Neal Zaslaw's definitive book on the context of Mozart's symphonies calls K550 "a mournful hint at what Mozart might have composed had he lived a normal lifespan" – essentially that Mozart was just hitting his stride, then the prize was taken away from him. I can't help wondering what Joy Division could have achieved had Ian Curtis also lived a normal lifespan.
3rd Movement: "The Wall"
(The Eternal)
In terms of the vocals alone, this is an extraordinary piece of music. It's as though the author/voice of the music has moved on to the next world but is somehow able to prise open the doorway between the next world and this world, and he can see and hear the mourners in the street, in slowmotion rain. The term "funereal pace" was never more apt in the critical vocabulary of popular music, and this song is a death march of sorts, but there's no release from death, whatever that is – only regret for time 'so wastefully spent', but the use of that adverb is telling: there is no wasted time here. It would be massive selfdeprecation to call that time wasteful, but it's surely unclear whether this song is autobiography and part self-prophecy or an entirely imagined scenario.
Check the ambient sounds at the beginning of The Eternal (and throughout it) – what are they? Echoes of the absolute worst? The third movement of a symphony in Mozart's time was in effect, the dance number. I can't see anyone dancing to either K.550's minuet or 'The Eternal' these days though – too slow. Thematically there is also a similarity in the feeling of loss in both the minuet and The Eternal. K.550 is described by Zaslaw (in the absence of any biographical evidence surrounding its composition) as the result of "inner artistic compulsion rather than external stimulus", that is to say essentially it was a modern piece – written for its own sake rather than as a commission.
"Cry like a child though these years make me older" – time reappears again, underlining the themes of loss and regret, and these being carried futureward: "a curse, an unlucky deal". Somehow 'The Eternal' feels more like the later stages of catharsis, that a cataclysmic event has passed, and that acceptance, or resignation is the only path left. Dmitri Karamazov's cataclysmic event is being subject to investigation for the murder of Fyodor Karamazov, a crime he did not commit. He says simply "The thunder has spoken", meaning that the cathartic event will make things better in the long run: "I understand now that what a man such as I requires, is a blow of fate". Unflinching, he defiantly accepts the unlucky deal: "I accept the torment of the charge...but listen, I am innocent". And only after this does Dmitri Karamazov's rehabilitation begin.
4th Movement: "The Limit"
The Karamazov Brothers ends at a funeral, on a note of hope. "Well, now let us finish our talk and go to the funeral meal. Don't let it trouble you that we'll eat pancakes.
After all, they are a thing that is ancient and eternal, and good, for all that, too".
K.550's final movement, the finale, is also hopeful: the pace returns, but without the foreboding of the first movement. It is the most accessible of the four parts of the symphony. There is a sense that the sky has cleared. The harpsichord-like keyboard of Decades sounds like chamber music. The slowed-down Metal-auf-Metal percussion may or may not be an homage to fellow neo-classicists Kraftwerk and Stockhausen. The vocals sound like they've been recorded in a subterranean location, a dungeon. The harpsichord-like keyboard plays a descending sequence of notes repeatedly. It's as if the scene is set, right, but wait: at 2'15", another keyboard kicks in: a series of ascending notes played repeatedly that sound like they've been recorded in the nave of a cathedral. The descending pattern suggests the physical, the ascending pattern, the eternal (or infinite) – an enactment of the "heart and soul, one will burn" lyric above.
The river has burst its banks. The train is late. The rain is falling. The cup is broken.
The apple is no longer on the tree. And the moon is new.
One more thing to say: Next to Ian Curtis, Martin Hannett is the genius of Closer. How the fuck on earth do you go about producing four songs of this majesty and grandeur without overproducing them? Somehow Hannett manages to. In bulk. The production is innovative but understated. Hannett is to Closer as Kubrick is to 2001 (and neither got anywhere close ever again). Had Martin not been around, perhaps only an orchestra could have done this music justice... The best four songs ever recorded by anyone are on side 2 of Closer.
Bibliography/ notes/ further quotes: This article is based on a subjective listening to side 2 of Closer by Joy Division. Wikipedia was consulted only as a guide to print materials, and is not quoted.
Reference audio/visual material
Joy Division Closer (Factory Records) 1980
Laurel & Hardy The Music Box (Universal Studios DVD)
Symphonies Nos. 25, 40 & 41, 'Jupiter', composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (Academy of St Martin in the Fields / Sir Neville Marriner. Decca, 2008)
Reference alphanumeric material
Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus, L'Etranger (Penguin Classics)
W. A. Mozart: A Life In Letters (Penguin Classics)
F Dostoevsky: The Karamazov Brothers (Penguin Classics, various editions)
F Dostoevsky: Letters of Fyodor Michalovitch Dostoevsky (Peter Owen Ltd 1962)
Paul Davies: How to Build a Time Machine (Penguin)
Henley & Lihoreau: Guide to Mozart (Hodder)
Matthew Robertson: Factory Records The Complete Graphic Album (Fac 461)" (Thames & Hudson 2006)
Tony Wilson: 24 Hour Party People (Channel 4)
Neal Zaslaw: Mozart's Symphonies: Context, Performance, Practice, Reception (Clarendon 1989)
Further Quotes
Always in motion is the future. Yoda

In the 1750s, Samuel Richardson was as big as The Beatles. Tony Wilson

Rock music was great, but then it did everything. Now it just repeats itself and repeats itself. Bernard Sumner

A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery. James Joyce

The Distractions by David Quantick

33°52'38.29"E / 151°13'05.79"S by Matthew Robertson