Friday, July 16, 2010

Joy Division - "Atmosphere" (the song remains the same)

"Atmosphere" might be Joy Division's best song, arguably even better than the popular "Love Will Tear Us Apart". The latter still gets airplay, but I don't recall ever hearing the former on the radio. JD fans know, of course, but the casual listener has probably never heard "Atmosphere".

A non-LP single, it was first released in 1980 as the A-side on a very limited release 7" "Licht Und Blindheit" and then later the same year as a double A-side 12" single: with the UK version having "Atmosphere" as the A-side and the US version having "She's Lost Control" as the A-side. Of course, most of us have it on 1988's compilation LP "Substance".

In many ways, "Atmosphere" sounds unlike any of their other songs. While still sounding desolate, it does not have the typical menacing, frenetic JD sound. As the name suggests, it has a soundtrack quality to it: slow, majestic, sprawling. The video evokes the same feelings, but I have to admit the hooded figures running through desert remind me of Jawas. I don't think that was JD's intent, but they can't claim prior art since the song came out three years after Star Wars.

The slowcore band "Codeine" does an excellent cover of "Atmosphere" which can be found on the tribute LP "A Means To An End - The Music Of Joy Division". Although I'll eventually review the LP, here's a spoiler alert: there are only a few gems on it, but Codeine's version is amazing. First, the slowcore sound allows Codeine to out-desolate JD: true to their name "Codeine", they have the Black Sabbath, slow-doom sound but without the distortion pedals. Second, although "Atmosphere" is best recognized for Stephen Morris's innovative drumming, the percussion is almost entirely removed in the Codeine version. I can only imagine the conversation went like this:

Q: "How do we honor the trademark drum work on this track?"
A: "We don't even try."
Q: "What do we do instead?"
A: "Play it even slower."
Q: "Do you feel sleepy too?"
A: "Yes."

Third, as if the above weren't enough, they slightly changed the lyrics. According to Shadowplay, in JD's version the third verse is:
People like you find it easy
Naked to see - walking on air
Hunting by the rivers
Through the streets, every corner
Abandoned too soon
Set down with due care
Don't walk away - in silence
Don't walk away
Codeine's version is:
People like you have it easy
Face like the sun - walking on air
Haunted by your face, every street, every corner
Abandoned too soon
Don't walk away - in silence
Don't walk away - in silence
Although I hesitate to go against Ian Curtis, I really think the Codeine version is better. I suppose it could have been a lyrical variation from Curtis himself, but the Shadowplay site would presumably mention if that were true. Codeine's changes to the song both expand and honor the original.

Peter Murphy (formerly of Bauhaus) and Trent Reznor (of NiN) also did a cover of "Atmosphere" on the "2006 Radio Sessions". And while I love the idea of a Murhpy & Reznor cover version, it is a pretty straight forward interpretation. More JD covers is a good thing, but their version doesn't push like Codeine's.

Joy Division: "Atmosphere"
Codeine: "Atmosphere"
Peter Murphy & Trent Reznor: "Atmosphere"

Bonus links:
"Dead Souls" (B-side of "Licht Und Blindheit" 7") (live version)
"She's Lost Control" (Alternate A-side of 12")


  1. Have you seen the movie "Control"? ( It is a rather slow-paced and dark depiction of Joy Division's early days, but definitely worth checking out.

  2. A "dark" depiction of JD? Say it ain't so! ;-)

    Yeah, I saw "Control" and the documentary "Joy Division" within a week or so of each other last year or the year before. Enjoyed them both.

    I thought "Control" started slow, but I was invested it about 1/3 through. I thought it nicely captured IC as both tortured artist and selfish bastard.