If you've ever contemplated the absurdity of trying to narrow down something as ridiculous as the greatest song of all time, you'll know that there is a certain amount of comfort one can take in always arriving at the same answer whenever you ask your self the question. That is, if everyday I consider a vast landscape of music and consistently land on Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart", then there must be something to it all, right?
When I ask myself that very question of what is the greatest song of all time to me, the short list is probably no less than ten songs, and no more than twenty at my most critical swipe. Probably 90% of the candidates would be British and from the 1980's, but that is perhaps another post waiting to happen, as to why that particular era is so compelling as holds up so well over time unlike other so called classic rock.
"Love Will Tear Us Apart" is classic I suppose, but not in the Steve Miller or Eddie Money recycled FM radio staple sense, but more with the consideration that when the boys wrote it in August/September of 1979, something changed in music, and that pinpoint on a musical history timeline is very much a "classic" event. The song has been covered much too often, whether by worthy interpretors or otherwise. It has also landed at or near the top of compiled lists over the years, often with a rejuvenating effect, acting as an introduction to a new gaggle of fans with an ear for interesting music.
Part of the reason this song still remains largely unknown in mainstream music circles, is the very esthetic that Joy Division was part of creating, and is so prominent now in alternative type music. It doesn't sound like something that should work. Of course, this would be largely due to Ian's vocals. If someone was already a JD fan, or had managed to descensitize themselves to vocals far less polished than Steve Perry and Dennis DeYoung (of Journey and Styx respectively - the box office draw at the time), then perhaps this song wasn't a stretch to get your head around. Consider timing context however (my favourite measure for great music), things were really just starting to get strange around 1980, with artists like Talking Heads, XTC, Gary Numan, Echo & The Bunnymen, and Psychedelic Furs to name a few. Punk had laid the groundwork for music that didn't sound perfect in the traditional sense, and the raw energy of punk was still there with "Love Will Tear Us Apart", but with just enough new polish and redefined angst to make a person take a closer look.
The band was so young and really just hitting stride, that one could almost suggest without the benefit of hindsight that they got lucky. All cylinders fire perfectly on this track. Ian's vocals sound wounded and weary, the weight of his health and the topic of his conflicting love interests playing out in every breath. Hook's bass line mostly mimics the synth and really sets the melancholy tone that anchors the whole song. Sumner's guitar is placed more obviously at crescendo parts of the song, much like the Morris drum builds at the start and end of the song. Martin Hannett's production is perfect to capture the natural effortlessness with which the track flows, and not allowing for any unnecessary spikes when the song gets occasionally frantic. This is the balance of warm production with stripped down values that the best indie type bands strive for even today. This song showed you could strip it all away like punk, but build enough melody, vibe, cohesion and art back in without losing any of the urgency or sadness in this case.
I was eight years old when "Love Will Tear Us Apart" was released, so even if I were to offer my best old school hipster swagger and suggest I bought either the 7 or 12 inch releases in 1980 when they were released, it would be full on fibbing. I'll even go so far as to confide that I may have heard the song in the mid 80's, but my true reckoning would come years later with the benefit of my own musical maturity and descentization for awkward baritone vocals and sad bastard singers. Better late than never as they say. I've now propped the song on top of a fairly hefty heap of great songs, and can categorize it along with only a few others that I can safely say I could listen to at least once a day for the rest of my years and never get tired of hearing it. Perfectly constructed, emoted and executed at every turn and every note. No wonder the kids are finally ripping it off so much. A far more validating tribute than an overblown blog post from a moustachioed avatar buried away in the internet.