This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #359: Atmosphere by Joy Division.
Celebrity deaths often act as cultural milestones. For people of my generation, most of us know exactly where we were and what we were doing when we found out that Elvis had died. The same is true of when John Lennon’s murder was announced during Monday Night Football by announcer, Howard Cosell. For younger folk, the same rule applies for when the death of Kurt Cobain was reported on MTV and MuchMusic. In all of these cases, the attachment we felt to artists was very real and the loss we all felt was deeply profound. In 1980, I was in Grade 10 at Morrison Glace Bay High School. My musical knowledge base consisted of bands such as “Boston”, “Trooper” and “April Wine”. Because there was no such thing as the Internet or YouTube or Satellite Radio, I had no idea that Punk Rock had happened nor that something called “New Wave” or “Alternative” music was becoming a thing. Nobody told me that places like, Manchester, England, were absolutely blowing up with great bands making great music or that bands like “Depeche Mode”, “The Cure”, “Echo and the Bunnymen” and “Joy Division” were all forming and releasing their debut albums and touring for the first time. So, when Ian Curtis, the lead singer of “Joy Division”, committed suicide on the eve of the band’s first North American tour, it was not a cultural milestone for me. I have no Elvis-like memories that tie his death to a personal moment. In my world, at the time, May 18, 1980, was just an ordinary day.
May 18, 1980 was the day that Ian Curtis’ body was discovered by his young wife. Curtis had become the lead singer for “Joy Division” on the basis of the deepness of his singing voice. But, while “Joy Division” was producing big hit songs such as “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, “Transmission” and “Atmosphere”, Curtis was struggling with a combination of Mental Illness (Anxiety and Depression), as well as, with Epilepsy, which made it difficult for him to perform on stage. Without going into all of the details of his life and death, it is suffice to say that Curtis found the weight of fame to be too much to bear so, he took his own life to ease his own pain. The remaining members of his band decided to carry on performing but, did so under a new name, “New Order”. “New Order” has enjoyed a long career of their own but are, forever linked to their former bandmate and friend, Ian Curtis.
The song “Atmosphere” was released just prior to Curtis’ death. In retrospect, many critics have dubbed “Atmosphere” as Curtis’ requiem march. The song laments the feeling of aloneness and apartness that Curtis was feeling, along with his inability to truly express the depths of his suffering and torment that was going on in his personal life. Mental illness was not something openly discussed in the late 1970s/early 80s. As a result, Ian Curtis laid his pain bare in song. Today, many people have “Atmosphere” played as a funeral song because of the universal nature of the feelings Curtis captured in this song. Normally, I encourage you to “enjoy” the video for the songs I post but, in this case, a better term would be to “reflect” upon the words Ian Curtis used to describe his state of mind. Perhaps, by creating a more inclusive and empathetic world, we can help to create a lasting legacy that befits an artist who was as important to so many in life, as he has become to me in death.
The link to the video for “Atmosphere” by Joy Division, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Joy Division, can be found here.
There is a film about Ian Curtis’ life called, “Control”. A link to the video trailer for this movie can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP for helping to inspire the writing of this post. A link to their official website can be found here.