What’s the best version of “Ceremony”?

Ranking the top five covers of the Joy Division/New Order classic

In the spring of 1980, Joy Division were just putting the finishing touches on their second album, Closer, and getting ready for their first North American tour. They’d been playing around with a few new songs that their lead singer, Ian Curtis, had brought to rehearsals. One of them was “Ceremony,” probably Joy Division’s finest song — as euphoric, catchy, and forceful as anything they’d ever done.

Three versions made it onto tape before his suicide later that month — two live shows and one muffled demo. New Order, the new incarnation of the band, would go on to release “Ceremony” as their first single, and it remains the most well-known version today.

Maybe it’s that hazy legacy that makes this song so open to interpretation. It’s Ian Curtis at his peak, but he never got a chance to record a proper version. And while New Order’s is pristine, it’s not really their song either. There’s no definitive original.

But really, this song just sounds like an absolute joy to play. The music is easy enough to learn — the kind of thing that hip 12 year olds could fuck with and actually sound like a real band. (For me and my band, this was “Louie, Louie.” And our name was Organized Kaos, so that wasn’t even the least hip thing about us.) Yet in all its simplicity, even the shittiest cover never fails to radiate ecstasy.

Here are five of the best:

5. Stereoboy

Truthfully, I could only think of four versions of this song, but that’s such an unsatisfying number. I like Stereoboy’s approach, though. This would easily be the most fun version to dance to, and you know this guy would appreciate that.

4. Xiu Xiu

The most jagged, shrill take of the bunch. This song is aggressive towards the listener in the first ten seconds, but there is something kind of moving about the out-of-breath desperation he attacks the vocals with. Effective for sure, but also makes me feel like my skin is peeling off. Least fun version to dance to.

3. Chromatics

The Chromatics are a little like a dreamy Instagram filter for music; I could see how this nostalgic, synth-drenched thing might be grating to some people, but I am definitively not one of them. I wish they would cover every song I’ve ever loved. Plus, it’s the only version in which you can actually hear the lyrics! I’m still not sure what this song’s about, but listening to her sing, “watching forever, forever, watching love grow” is as close as I’ve gotten to understanding.

2. Galaxie 500

There are a lot of similarities between this and the Chromatics version. But what I admire most about Galaxie 500’s is that they actually had the nerve to play around with this perfect guitar line. Look at them jamming this baby out! It reaches a peak entirely of its own making. And isn’t that what covers are supposed to do?

1. Radiohead

If Galaxie 500 made “Ceremony” their own, Radiohead make it Joy Division’s. This is the perfect lost recording they never got to make, complete with Thom Yorke’s best Ian Curtis impression. They’re not even doing anything all that original. It’s just better — tighter, more propulsive, filled with the vocal emotion and energy that so many versions lack (including New Order’s). Hail to the thieves!