Joy Division’s ‘Passover’: A Victory of Collective Restraint

A professional musician finds mystical telepathy within one compellingly understated song

Gordon Moakes


If you ever want to hear evidence of the implicit power that exists unspoken between musicians, of the shared mastery over the art of rock & roll, it would be hard to find a more compellingly understated example than “Passover” by Joy Division.

Of course, the band has long been evoked as the living ghost of rock’s inscrutable spirit: a unique collaboration that seems some mystical proof of the existence of telepathy within the beat group format. Those looking to delve into this ineffable tightrope act — the trade-off between composition, personality, and ability — continue to ponder this band and its four protagonists. Why? Because their songs stand up to it. The music is a triumph, a victory of realization over intention, over humble beginnings, over individual ambition.

“Passover” offers as much insight into this power of collective restraint as any song I can think of.

On this, the third track of 1980’s Closer, it is drummer Stephen Morris who lurches first into the silence, holding the song’s backbone in place from the off with his right foot and left hand, albeit in a slightly less frantic spirit than on many of their songs.

Here he’s not swinging rapidly at sixteenth notes on the hi-hats, flapping wildly around his many tom-toms or cracking out synthetic stabs on Simmons triggers: Instead, he falls at once into an almost laid back, funereal beat, eighth-note hats gliding by against a sparse kick pattern. His only real nod to the more grueling limb-flail we expect of his playing are occasional rumbles across the lower toms — overdubbed, one must assume, knowing producer Martin Hannett’s techniques — which lend an air of the exotic, due to a dip in the middle of the note reminiscent of an Indian tabla. As was often the case, there is a sense he’s leaning into the beat slightly, as if the song is not straight up-and-down but at a slight diagonal, like Lartigue’s seminal photograph of the sports car distorted as it flashes past the shutter.

The first true melodic figure comes from the bass, after a short introduction. Even though Bernard Sumner’s guitar part begins after just two bars of drums, moving against a rigid bass note, it really only sets the scene with its four notes, not a tune so much as a mood.

And so it’s the first little clutch of bass notes after this guitar intro — sweeping up an octave and ending on a sliding note — that form an overture, a statement, a flag planted in the soil to prefigure what’s to come. This part is a great hook in itself — no pun intended — and could easily be the most powerful part of a lesser song, one written by a band less capable on all sides, but in “Passover” it is merely the curtain-raiser, a portent of the depths ahead.

The melodic centerpiece of the song comes along soon in an uncluttered, repeating vocal motif. Ian Curtis’s descending melody is simple, but all the more powerful for offering the first real sense of movement. “This is the crisis I knew had to come/Destroying the balance I’d kept” — a forceful enough lyric delivered in any kind of phrasing or tune, but stepping down as it does so soberly, a full tone at a time on the first beat of each bar, makes for a devastatingly stark statement.

The spirit of it is bare, honest, and fascinating, the voice inviting you down into the heart of the song. This melody only gains more power in its third repeat of four, a variation which opens up entirely with an upswinging note of hope — “Is this the role that you wanted to live?” — its surging lift creating a great juxtaposition of possibility against the implied desperation in the words and general atmosphere.

When Curtis first comes in, he is singing only against the drums and the muted, harmonic throttling of Peter Hook’s bass strings — a percussive device that will prove to be as important as the beat throughout. As ever, Sumner’s guitar parts are absent for long periods, waiting for the right moment of impact, but they go on to occupy most of the melodic space between Curtis’ verses, all the while sitting in the background, forming all the atmosphere of the midrange.

In the black and white graphic which is an easy substitute for the music of Joy Division, Sumner’s playing is the grey pixelation of the shading, the depth and the detail, yet somehow indistinct and abstract when viewed in isolation. It occasionally shifts for a moment into the foreground — which in Joy Division is usually the preserve of the bass — and by the time you hear the plunging scratch of his guitar line appear for the third time after the second verse, you realize that he’s been playing a version of Curtis’ downward melody all along, albeit in a slightly more oblique form. It’s possible this part is actually the imprint for everything we’ve heard, a pencil sketch of all that’s been drawn in thicker lines by the players to his left (onstage, Sumner was almost always to be found on the right). Meanwhile, Hook’s playing has become louder for a moment, but again only in percussive terms, the strings flattened to the neck of the guitar, the closest the song comes to a climax of volume and sonic pressure, all before the third verse.

Melodically, this penultimate verse continues in the same vein as the first two, although seems to end for the first time with a note of uncertainty — the last word of the line, “And watch as they drop by the… beach,” sounding fragile, faintly strained, like a question mark. It is here that Sumner finally comes into his own, perhaps in response to this posed question, with the most intriguing and almost uncharacteristic passage of fluid guitar playing, a sort of shifting triplet of notes cascading and tumbling against the already established elements. Here is the true climax of the song — not through force or volume, but in a kind of unfurling, suspended moment of beauty. It’s the most complicated and interesting part herein, its beauty written in chaos and uncertainty.

Out of this section, Sumner then breaks into the most forceful rendering of the main figure so far, which serves as a kind of resolution of all the tension that’s built up over the preceding four minutes. He plays it first over Hook’s more vigorous strumming on the higher notes of his bass guitar, continues as the bass drops back to intermittent lower notes, and carries on still as Curtis breaks into his final verse, the first time in fact that the guitar and vocal have intersected in any real way.

The same guitar part carries on still further for a couple of times more after the vocal is entirely done and dusted, the lyrical weight of the song fully brought to bear and then passed. Sumner’s playing, from its unassuming beginnings, seems to outstay every melodic element: It’s a dogged commitment to form and atmosphere, an echo of how his commitment would go on to outlast, reluctantly perhaps, the tragedies and tribulations of this band’s ongoing story. Of course, even he ultimately drops away to leave Morris back alone where he was all along — the rhythmic constant — gradually lifting his kick foot out of the beat to end on a solitary, echoing snare.

This is four and three-quarter minutes of controlled, restrained playing — of technique, melody, and skill. Every player brings the fullness of their own ability and mindset to the music, none of it meant to outshine or distract from the rest.

While Curtis’ words lead the ear along the most explicit trail of melody, the one that carries the weight of the song’s philosophical content — its conscience, if you will — he is at every point bolstered, guided, even tag-teamed by his fellow band members. They each take on the burden, but only as far as it is their responsibility to maintain momentum. In the three years of Joy Division’s existence, these four men became master-builders of that momentum through restraint, all the while flipping the preconceived notions of “rock” playing upside-down. After all, Hook could easily take on the melodic weight of the music almost by himself, something a bass-player rarely sets out to do, while Sumner sat back into percussive, rhythmic stoicism and Curtis fell to the silent physicality of his performance.

You can’t point to a single line, frill or melody in “Passover” and say, here is the most important ingredient, the coup de grâce. Its success flows completely from the shared task, the interplay, the baton that is passed, cradled, reimagined. “Which one of you is Joy Division?” one might ask, like Crassus demanding the slaves give up Spartacus. The legitimate answer from all four, not in egotism but in brotherhood, would be, “I am Joy Division.”

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Gordon Moakes is best known as the bassist in Bloc Party.
He currently plays bass in Young Legionnaire.
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