When “less” really means “more”: Bernard Sumner’s guitar in Joy Division on #neuguitars #blog

Dear guitar lovers and fetishists, I think you have not missed the recent news (September 28, 2020) of how the guitar used by Ian Curtis, the late Joy Division leader who committed suicide on May 18, 1980, in the video of “Love Will Tear Us Apart ”, was put up for auction. The news was reported on the Uncut website, which also reported the expected figure at which the instrument could be sold: between 60 thousand and 80 thousand pounds. Curtis used his Vox Phantom VI Special also on other occasions, for example the European tour held by the band in 1980. After the death of the singer – explains the British magazine – it was used by Bernard Sumner for the single of New Order (the formation born from the ashes of JD) “Everything’s Gone Green” and Johnny Marr in Electronic, the group formed in 1988 by the former Smiths guitarist together with Sumner himself. In 2002 the six-string returned to the possession of Ian Curtis’ daughter, Natalie.
In an interview with Pat Graham’s book ‘Instrument’, Sumner said: “Ian really liked this guitar. The Phantom had tons of effects built into it, as an added bonus… The guitar has a battery in it, and if you press the buttons in the wrong combination it will go into self-oscillate mode and start to make this strange twittering sound that Ian liked very much. It is a pretty wacky guitar. It sounded like some of the thinner guitars on Velvet Underground tracks, clean and jangly.”

https://www.uncut.co.uk/news/ian-curtiss-love-will-tear-us-apart-guitar-up-for-auction-128070/

However, this news is not the subject of this post. The news in question served me as a starting point for reflection on Sumner’s use of the guitar within the aesthetic context created by the Joy Division and how it helped to forge an extremely characteristic and distinctive sound. I believe that the success and, above all, the great aura that surrounds the figure of Joy Division like a diffused halo is due not so much to a lucky combination of encounters as to precise, and courageous, innovative aesthetic choices developed by the members of the band and by their producer, Martin Hannett.

From this point of view, Sumner’s guitar has never been much emphasized, often making the figure of a Cinderella within the musical economy of the band. The reasons are many and all valid: the incredible stage presence and the dark charisma of Ian Curtis, to whom a purely visual revision of the band has been called; Peter Hook’s bass, whose style would become one of the most recognizable in pop history; the aggressive but glacial and surgical precision sound of Stephen Morris’ drums, whose technique and versatility made the band acquire propulsion and dynamism; the aseptic perfection of Martin Hannett’s production, able to endow the band’s sound with a spatial vertigo impossible to produce live, for example in Transmission, where the bass was elaborated by layering more tracks, while the guitar, on the contrary, was relegated to the one-dimensional background.

However, this news is not the subject of this post. The news in question served me as a starting point for reflection on Sumner’s use of the guitar within the aesthetic context created by the Joy Division and how it helped to forge an extremely characteristic and distinctive sound. I believe that the success and, above all, the great aura that surrounds the figure of Joy Division like a diffused halo is due not so much to a lucky combination of encounters as to precise, and courageous, innovative aesthetic choices developed by the members of the band and by their producer, Martin Hannett.

From this point of view, Sumner’s guitar has always been seen in the background, forgotten within the stylistic economy of the band. This does not mean that his role was less important and that he did not significantly contribute to that sound, which has now become so iconic. Sumner showed rhythmic patterns endowed with that artificial hardness typical of industrial music, endowing the band with nervous and minimal guitar spasms, which integrated and innervated the spatial textures of their music. He did it with icy confidence and with the punk boldness of those who had decided to completely renounce the stylistic model of the rock guitarist, renouncing the role of front man, renouncing the solos that would have highlighted him under the white lights of the projectors, defining a new aesthetic criterion far from rock, far from blues and from the virtuosity typical of the progressive genre. If Joy Division’s sound owes its fame largely to the reasons I talked about before, let’s not forget that, without Bernard Sumner’s simple guitar riffs (see for example songs like “Shadowplay”), Joy Division would not be been the same. Sure Sumner was not a virtuoso and he still is not, but in his minimalist simplicity he created a distinctive sound that is often still imitated and which is taken as a point of reference by many guitarists.

In this regard, I found on https://www.ordo.it/article/viewPub/69738 an excellent article that illustrates in detail how Sumner had come to elaborate his so particular sound. The author of the post (username oneshot83) details Sumner’s typical setup during the Joy Division period:

– Shergold Masquerader Custom withn pickup Di Marzio Super Distorsion at the bridge and a PAF on neck (not used)
– Melos Echo/Delay Unit
– Chorus/Flanger (the model name is unknown)
– MXR 10 band equalizer
– Altair PW-5 Power Attenuator
– VOX UL730 HEAD with 2X12 Cabinet.

This article slso gives useful advice on how, today, to replicate that sound using an instrumentation that is now easily accessible. Shergold guitars (https://www.shergoldguitars.com/) have been out of the market for a long time, becoming iconic precisely as they are representative of that post punk moment and only in recent years, with a new management, have they resumed a good production quality. A very essential instrumentation, far from the torrents of effects and pedalboards we are used to today. Earlier I said an inaccuracy. I wrote about how Sumner wanted to move away from a blues style: this is not entirely accurate. Sumner is stylistically distant from the blues, particularly how the Brits had reinterpreted the blues before, but his guitar expresses a bluesy sentiment that is part of the social and urban desolation that surrounded the band at the time. Unemployment, the liberal economic choices of Margaret Thatcher’s governments, the post-industrial era had left Manchester in a state of profound economic, political and social depression. Perfect breeding broth for a desolation where to take root under cultures based on the abuse of drugs, psychotropic drugs and a creeping social nihilism. What better than a razor-sharp electric guitar to accompany and complement such a bare, raw and chilling impressionist lament? A guitar that finds its space live, far from Martin Hannett’s studio, far from that technology impossible to replicate live, Sumner’s guitar returns to take its place live, always with that essential and minimal sound. This chasm, this gap, covered by an incredible stage power is particularly evident in the live cd at the University of London Union (8 February 1980), which accompanies the 2007 reissue of “Closer”.

The difference between the live sound and the studio records is huge. Perhaps due to the poor recording quality, Sumner’s guitar is in the foreground, alongside Curtis’ vocals. He helps him, supports him, holds him up. It turn the band into a whirlwind, into a sonic assault, taking back the very spaces that were denied to her in the studio. In this sense Sumner was truly an innovator. An experimenter far from the figure of the guitar hero, but at the service of a band, who had the intuition for a new sound that over time has become a new icon. An icon that has been able to find its place in that history of popular music, of which it seemed not to want to be part of it.

By the way, Jan Curtis’ guitar later sold for £ 162,562 (€ 179,043) including auction premium.

https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/25996/lot/138/#/!