Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Mark Johnson - An Ideal for Living (1984)

Title: An Ideal for Living: An History of Joy Division
Author: Mark Johnson
Publisher: Proteus Books (original), Bobcat Books (reprinting)
Year: 1984

I stumbled onto this book at a local bookstore and quickly realized I'd found something special. An Ideal for Living is an obsessively detailed book about Joy Division and early New Order. It's been long out of print and copies on eBay go for dozens of euros. The book chronologically documents the bands from their earliest beginnings in 1976 until the end of 1983. While we may have the internet today to compulsively research and document every studio session and live performance of a beloved band, in the post-punk heyday this task was left up to the most hardcore of fans. This is a testament to that sort of dedication. Apparently, Mark Johnson was both loved and hated for his work: the band members were annoyed with his persistence and plentiful errors, but fans can only marvel at the amount of information in the book.

Most of the content of An Ideal for Living takes the form of a combined gigography, sessionography, and discography. Although the bands and some related parties were interviewed, the text primarily describes notable aspects of the live performances and recording details. Very few concerts are left without some sort of note, and every show for which a bootleg was available at the time is marked with an asterisk. (The introduction humorously states that to obtain these bootlegs, just ask around at the next New Order concert. Times have changed!) Accompanying these notes, there are also over a hundred reproduced photographs, most of which I'd never seen before.

There is one confusing aspect to this: it is unclear where the most of the information actually comes from. Sources are scarcely listed for anything except the direct quotes from the band members, their associates, and the local press. It would appear that the author attended many of the gigs in question, and has heard bootlegs where available, but one can only assume the rest of his information simply came from the fan community.

In addition to the comprehensive primary text, the other source of content is a series of pseudo-philosophical essays that also go largely uncredited. With only a few exceptions, they are only vaguely related to the bands in question. Most of these essays are nonsensical and an utter waste of space. They don't even do a good job of constructing mystique around the music, which might have been welcome considering how deconstructive the rest of the material is. Paul Morley is listed as contributing "Faces and Masks", and he is likely the author of some of these essays, especially considering his penchant for abstract, irrelevant prose. I generally like Morley, and he seems to like the same bands as me, but his writing often wanders too far off course. At any rate, the authorship is never fully clarified.

While the book is fun to peruse just to ponder the history, the author made no attempt to maintain a consistent narrative. Information is simply presented chronologically as it is available, and the book sort of awkwardly trails off at the end as the material had to be wrapped up for publication. There is also no attempt whatsoever to describe the musicians' personal lives; unlike Deborah Curtis' Touching from a Distance, family members and mental health are largely ignored. In the few words that are used to describe Ian Curtis, his suicide is considered a complete surprise, his depression is left unmentioned, and his epilepsy is downplayed. This may have been the general trend of the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, it's hard not to feel like warning signs were certainly present.

While reading the book, I tried to consider if this book is still relevant. It's a great resource, but apart from being out of date (new audience recordings have appeared since publication, and of course New Order is still active today!), most of this information is now well-documented online, on multiple websites, with additional details. The sessionography and discography are also available in the booklet accompanying the Heart and Soul box set. However, hardcore fans may still appreciate having all of the material in print, especially considering the photographs and the unique nature of many of the incidental details of the various concerts. Considering the limitations of the work and the difficulty in procuring a copy, I can only recommend it to the hardcore, which is presumably for whom the book was written anyway. It's a cool collection of information, but not essential.

Score: B

References and Further Reading:

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