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She’s Lost Control: How Joy Division Let Loose Their Creative Genius
Kevin Cummins
In Depth

She’s Lost Control: How Joy Division Let Loose Their Creative Genius

So good they recorded it twice, Joy Division’s She’s Lost Control is a stark post-punk classic that still sounds like the future.

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It’s often said that life imitates art, and that theory certainly rings true where Joy Division’s She’s Lost Control is concerned. Though never released as a single A-side in its own right, this stark post-punk classic has long since taken its place among the best Joy Division songs, and it still has the power to startle: its metronomic backdrop immediately draws the listener in, providing the bedrock for Ian Curtis to lay his soul bare with lyrics which were all too personal.

Listen to the best of Joy Division here.

“That must have been terrifying for Ian to discover”

“Ian was apparently moved to write the lyric after an incident at his work [as a civil servant] with the Macclesfield employment exchange,” bassist Peter Hook wrote in his memoir Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division. “It’s about a young lady with epilepsy who was having problems finding and keeping a job who Ian had been helping. She eventually died after suffering a seizure. That must have been terrifying for Ian to discover.”

Curtis was, indeed, shaken by his client’s death – not least because the Joy Division vocalist had himself been diagnosed with epilepsy. For many sufferers, the condition can develop early in life, but for Curtis it didn’t afflict him until he was 22. As Anton Corbijn’s biopic Joy Division biopic, Control, all too realistically depicts, Curtis suffered a violent seizure when Joy Division were returning to Manchester from their first London gig, in December 1978 – and, from then on, epilepsy dogged him until his death in May 1980.

In the short term, however, these two painful events inspired something transcendent. The young woman’s unexpected passing, and Curtis’ subsequent awareness and experiences of the stigma endured by himself and other individuals suffering from similar neurological impairments, inspired his heartfelt lyrics for She’s Lost Control.

“He delivered his vocals with the perfect amount of passion and spirit”

Almost immediately, the song proved it had the ability to stop listeners in their tracks. Having established itself as a highlight of Joy Division’s live set early in 1979, She’s Lost Control was first officially taped for a BBC Radio 1 John Peel session on 31 January that year, and it became a highlight of the group’s seminal debut album, Unknown Pleasures: the first album to appear on Manchester’s Factory Records imprint, in June 1979.

Driven by one of Hook’s most distinctive high-end bass motifs and drummer Stephen Morris’ innovative timekeeping, She’s Lost Control sounded like nothing else around, and its creation is still recalled with fondness.

“That’s one of our most famous songs, really personal to Ian, and for him to base those lyrics around my riff was so fucking cool,” Hook enthused in his memoir.

“You also hear Steve’s Synare on the track – that was a drum synthesiser with a white noise generator, which he also used on Insight,” the bassist added. “He was one of the first drummers to use them. That was one of the great things about Steve – and Bernard [Sumner, guitarist] actually. They’re both very experimental in their approach, always wanting to try new things.”

Hook was also quick the praise Curtis’ visceral lyrics (“She screamed out kicking on her side and said, ‘I’ve lost control again’/And seized up on the floor, I thought she’d die”) and the way his urgent vocal performance perfectly mirrored the band’s harsh, metallic music.

“He delivered his vocals with the perfect amount of passion and spirit,” the bassist recalled. “Exactly what we wanted. Saying that, reading the lyrics now, his use of repetition and onomatopoeic delivery is startling.”

“People recognised that this was something unusual”

She’s Lost Control remained a staple of Joy Division’s live set following the release of Unknown Pleasures. Onstage, the band usually performed the song with a punishing intensity, particularly during an appearance for BBC Two’s Something Else in September 1979 – a ten-minute slot (the band also played the song Transmission) which is now widely recognised as one of rock’s most transcendent televised live performances.

“I’ve never seen a TV musical performance like it,” graphic designer, author and long-term Joy Division fan Jon Wozencroft recalled in Jon Savage’s The Searing Light, The Sun And Everything Else: Joy Division: The Oral History.

“I was in hospital recovering from an operation and they showed it in the TV room, Wozencroft continues. The extraordinary thing was it was prime-time Saturday afternoon viewing, around 5.30 or 5.45pm, so anybody could have been watching it and everyone did in the room I was in.

“All these old men who’d got cranky legs and hips were suddenly watching Joy Division instead of Dad’s Army. It was extraordinary, the effect it had. There was none of the usual ‘turn that rubbish over’ you’d usually get when bands are on TV. People could obviously recognise that this was something quite unusual.”

“We reworked it with the idea that it should be longer, louder and more percussive”

Indeed, Joy Division soon realised they had something special with She’s Lost Control. While they arguably captured the song’s definitive studio take for Unknown Pleasures, they later recorded a new version at Stockport’s Strawberry Studios during the March 1980 session that produced the Love Will Tear Us Apart single.

This reworking of She’s Lost Control later appeared on the flip of Factory’s 12” single edition of the song Atmosphere, first released on 2 September 1980. It was recorded from scratch, with the addition of a new keyboard line and an extra verse from Ian Curtis.

“I think it was the 12” of Blondie’s Heart Of Glass that was responsible for the idea of us trying to do an extended version of a track,” Stephen Morris wrote in his book Record Play Pause. “Or else it was something that Rob [Gretton, manager] liked the idea of. Either way, we ended up reworking She’s Lost Control with the idea being that it should be longer, louder and more percussive.”

Ultimately, Joy Division achieved that aim with the angular 12” cut of She’s Lost Control, though it wasn’t achieved without Morris suffering at the hands of producer Martin Hannett. Having decided on a whim that the sound of an aerosol can of tape-head cleaner would make the perfect audio component to complement the “chi-chi” sound of Morris’ Syndrum, Hannett rigged up a mic in Strawberry’s small glass vocal booth and sent the drummer in with the can.

“One spark and I’ve have been the exploding drummer out of ‘Spinal Tap’!”

Blithely ignoring the aerosol’s safety warning about usage in strictly well-ventilated areas, Morris enthusiastically squirted the can in time with She’s Lost Control’s rhythm track – while the booth slowly filled with toxic fumes.

“I put the ensuing buzzy headache and blurred vision down to some unforeseen side effects of my last joint, like you do,” Morris later reasoned. “Once I finally finished squirting, I took off my headphones and reached for a reinvigorating cigarette, only to discover Rob had pinched my lighter. He was too lazy to bring it back and thank fuck for that – as it was only after I stepped into the fresh blast of air-conditioned chill that I realised my tiny booth was now a highly explosive, haze-filled chamber. One spark and I’d have been the exploding drummer out of Spinal Tap!”

“The song was us doing something new and trying not to repeat others”

Thankfully, Morris survived to drum another day – and to experience She’s Lost Control’s rise to iconic status. Covers by artists as disparate as Girls Against Boys, Siobhan Fahey and Grace Jones have enhanced the song’s reputation along the way, but when it comes to stark, otherworldly brilliance, Joy Division’s original recordings are likely to remain unassailable – and both of them still sound like the future.

“She’s Lost Control features one of my favourite drum tracks of Steve’s, but the whole thing was groundbreaking,” Bernard Sumner said in an interview with Jon Savage. “Kraftwerk and Cabaret Voltaire were definitely influences on us, but while it was an extension of us getting us into electronic music and synthesisers, this song was definitely us doing something new and trying not to repeat what other people had already done.”

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