Ian Curtis of Joy Division performing live onstage
Ian Curtis of Joy Division performing live onstage

In 1978, for those who cared to listen, a chilly, stripped-down sound could be heard in the north of England, signalling a new direction.

Manchester's Joy Division performed "She's Lost Control" for the first time in June that year, playing to audiences of a few hundred people. The song appeared on their 1979 debut album, Unknown Pleasures, and was re-recorded for the b-side of their 1980 single 'Atmosphere'.

This strange, dark song has intrigued artists and producers worldwide. It provided the title for Anton Corbijn's 2007 Joy Division biopic Control. Many have covered it and repurposed its lyrics.

Vocalist Ian Curtis sounded like the oldest soul. That such cold, forbidding vocals could come from a young man with lowered eyes, plain clothes and an odd, angular dance made them even eerier. According to Peter Hook, the band's bassist, Joy Division's aim was to emulate the Sex Pistols, but they ended up sounding like nothing else; Hook credits producer Martin Hannett with conjuring their arid, industrial sonics.

The lyrics, with their unsettling narrative about a woman's physical — or mental — collapse, were written by Curtis. They would prove horribly portentous.

Curtis held down a day job in a Manchester employment exchange, where he found work for people with disabilities. One young woman was desperate to work, but suffered from epileptic seizures: every time she visited the exchange she would suffer a fit, which disturbed Curtis greatly. He wrote the song in response to her sudden death.

Peter Hook performs with his band Peter Hook & the Light
Peter Hook performs with his band Peter Hook & the Light
Image: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Soon afterwards, the 21-year-old Curtis was diagnosed with epilepsy. Hook conjectures that Curtis suspected his condition when he wrote the lyrics, which may explain his empathy for the girl — though he kept it hidden from his bandmates. Curtis killed himself in 1980, an event that Hook blames in part on the stress of living with seizures. Weeks later 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' was a posthumous breakthrough hit.

Joy Division were broke. The band only afford to practise for a few hours a week, and songs, including 'She's Lost Control', were necessarily written in haste and existed only when all four members came together. Even a tape recorder was beyond their means. When Grace Jones covered the song in 1980, the bewildered band received £5000, which seemed to them a fortune.

Jones's version, with lyrics adjusted to a female perspective, was released in 1980 as a B-side to another cover, the Pretenders' 'Private Life'. She recorded her version in the Bahamas at Compass Point Studios, backed by the house band, which included production duo Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Hook's desolate bassline remains, but is repurposed into a squelchy reggae riff. Jones remembers in her autobiography that the song was among several chosen by Chris Blackwell, owner of Island records, and his team; the covers were designed to redirect her career from New York disco to an international audience.

Jones recalls that she interpreted the song literally. "I lost control to such an extent that I scared myself.... As far as I was concerned it was a self-portrait." In contrast to Curtis's third-person narrative, Jones's version is about herself. While his performance is restrained, her vocals are deranged. The song was an ingenious choice for an artist whose persona is defined by control.

Since then there have been some less celebrated covers, including Greek new wave band Alive She Died, whose mid-1980s recording was used by Gucci in a recent advertising campaign, and by the group Shakespeare's Sister in 2004.

Spoek Mathambo is a Joy Division fan drawn to the "dark and uplifting" quality of UK late-1970s punk and new wave
Spoek Mathambo is a Joy Division fan drawn to the "dark and uplifting" quality of UK late-1970s punk and new wave
Image: Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Perhaps the most innovative interpretation came from Soweto in 2010. South African artist and producer, Spoek Mathambo is a Joy Division fan drawn to the "dark and uplifting" quality of UK late-1970s punk and new wave. He draws parallels with South African electronic music — both, he says, express a dark time while offering transcendent relief. He wrote a half-cover and renamed it 'Control': the lyrics hint at the original but, he says, were intended to convey the collapse of a relationship.

Hook now performs 'She's Lost Control' with his band, Peter Hook & the Light. Recently, he played the song in Buenos Aires: "Watching thousands singing along is so strange . . . it's dark, people adore that."

This article was originally published by the Financial Times.Copyright the Financial Times Limited 2017

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