Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Beautiful songs: Ceremony

Thanks to my big sister, Jane, I grew up listening to New Order and other great bands in the eighties. My early memories of NO come from the Substance singles compilation LP, in particular the songs "Bizarre Love Triangle" (of course), "True Faith", "Perfect Kiss", and "Blue Monday". But the very first song on this album is the one that today gives me chills from just thinking about it. One might find "Ceremony" unassuming at first. When it comes to NO singles, many will inevitably skip it in favour of the pure electro-pop joy of their other songs. New Order songs are (for the most part) danceable, uplifting, and upbeat, despite their often obscure and occasionally melancholy lyrics. But not this one.

The type of pop music that New Order creates is nostalgic. This is a pretty common trend since the seventies, when bands began to long for the blissful pop songs of the sixties. But that is not NO's nostalgia. Theirs is more the uncanny sort that makes you feel instantly comfortable (or uncomfortable), like you recognize the music, though you may not connect it with anything you've heard before. (Clearly I'm biased on this point, since, as I mentioned, I grew up listening to this music; but bear with me. I have felt this type of instant nostalgia with several bands since, both new and old, and I am certain that it points to a real phenomenon.) I think New Order reached the peak of this form with the song "Regret" from their 1993 album, Republic. In my opinion, that is one of the greatest pop songs of all time. But I digress.

"Ceremony" feels nostalgic, but it is hardly a pop song. It was written by Joy Division—meaning the members of New Order plus Ian Curtis, but minus Gillian Gilbert—but never properly recorded in studio by them. The only existing recordings of "Ceremony" by Joy Division are a demo and a live version from a show just two weeks before singer Ian Curtis's suicide. I was ecstatic when I discovered a couple of years ago that these recordings existed, and more so that I actually possessed one of them—the demo—on the Joy Division box set, Heart and Soul. It is beautiful and haunting, and it leaves me wanting a proper JD recording, not just the New Order version. Still, NO were faithful to Curtis's memory and voice, and I can't imagine that Joy Division would have created anything more beautiful than their successors did. As on their tribute to Curtis, "Blue Monday", New Order singer Bernard Sumner channels his predecessor and sings with his stirring monotone voice. That spirit would follow the latter band throughout their career. And today I discovered that there exist two versions of "Ceremony" by New Order also! It's like a strike to the heart. How could I not have known! How soon can I find and hear the other! Not soon enough.

Occasionally, this song makes me tear up, but they are not tears of sadness that "Ceremony" causes me, and the song does not make me feel nostalgic for any particular time or thing in my life. The shivers and tears are for the beauty of the object: the divine nature of music and the reality it exposes. Good, honest music bares the soul; and if we listen to it honestly, it frees us from our bodies and minds to connect with the soul of the creator—with life. And the nostalgia is the soul yearning for that connection: remembering a time when it knew no walls, when it was restricted by no mind or matter.

"Ceremony" flew low on my radar for most of my life. I was generally aware of it, but I hadn't connected with it the way I do now. I was one to skip past it to the "good stuff" on Substance, meaning the dancey party songs. I felt a more artificial nostalgia for the songs "Bizarre Love Triangle" (my childhood), "Temptation" (my mid-adolescence, caused by the film, Trainspotting), and "Regret" (adolescence generally); not that I don't think those are great songs. I'm just aware that my feelings towards those songs are very closely tied to times and events in my life. I was more connected to "1963", a rather odd and melancholy dance song about a man, Johnny, who only seems to be able to leave romantic relationships by killing his partner. Thinking about it now, it is a common theme among people who are unable to express themselves in relationships: one feels it is impossible for him to tell his partner that he wants to leave, so the only way out is murder. This is all over film, literature, and theatre. My point is that maybe the affinity I felt with this song was due to difficulties I have had communicating with people. Regardless, I now feel towards no New Order song like I do towards "Ceremony".

Now, perhaps I will contradict myself. I couldn't say precisely why I came to connect with "Ceremony". But it "started" like this: Several years ago, when I was still spinning records at Blow Up, the local indie-mod party, DJ Davy Love would occasionally play "Ceremony" later on in the night, often well after last call (2:00 in Toronto, for those who want to know). Unfortunately, my memory of this period is not entirely clear. I can't remember at which club this happened, though I'm fairly certain it was the El Mocambo, which places this event at least seven years ago. And I can't recall my relationship to the song at the time. I knew it and liked it very much, certainly, but let me go on. One night in particular, I remember catching the last bridge of the song, a rising three-note guitar riff repeating quickly over a beat driven by the hi-hat cymbal. I remember thinking, "I know this. What is it?"

Blow Up was the centre of the mod-britpop-indie universe in Toronto for several years around the turn of the millennium. It wasn't part of a scene; it was the scene, every Saturday for people from as far away as Hamilton, Buffalo, New York, and Detroit (not to speak of the boundless Toronto suburbs). In 2002, I went to our namesake mod party in London, England, and that was nowhere near as popular as our Blow Up in Toronto. Anyway, I attended as a partier, a fan, a young mod, nearly every week from the time I was 18 and a half (that's below legal age in Ontario, for the curious), and eventually I began DJing there, too, crystallizing my taste and feel for the unique and particular music that constitutes a scene like that. There is still an awful lot of music from that period that gives me strong feelings when I hear it, and if I were to compile a list of favourite albums, probably at least half of it would comprise things I fell in love with then. So clearly, I have a nostalgic interest here, and, if I examined more closely, I could probably find that "Ceremony" speaks to my state of mind and my feelings about the mod scene at the time the song struck me. Like, maybe the song is somehow the story of my life then.

It's sad to say that even at that point, in the middle of its tenure, the Blow Up/mod scene was dying in Toronto. (At least the scene as I had known it.) Or rather, it was having an identity crisis. This certainly mirrors my own experience at the time. If I remember correctly, this was soon before the El Mo closed (a sure and sad sign of trouble, though it has reopened since), and Blow Up moved to other, less felicitous venues. After it moved, my heart was no longer in it, and now I don't miss those times. I enjoyed myself, I made good friends, I honed my skill behind the 'tables; I dressed well, I danced hard, and I fell in love. But it's over now, and while very influential, I have no desire to return to that time or to relive it now. In other words, I'm not sad that that part of my life is over, and while "Ceremony" may be connected to an important time of my life, I don't believe that connection is nostalgic. In that "What is this?" moment, I heard the song afresh; it was new to me and out of place and time; it was a sign of things to come. I think that's what it was in the beginning and is still.

The ceremony is the act of recognition, acknowledgment, preparation, and, consequently, transformation. In the ceremony, we prepare to transform, to become new. Is that what this song is about? I don't know. Bernard Sumner himself had to put the early Joy Division recordings of "Ceremony" through graphic equalization to make out the lyrics. But a great song is more than the sum of its individual parts. This is a song written by a troubled man and a band in troubled times. It is a product of a certain time and space, though it persists across those dimensions. It is a credit to the remaining members of Joy Division that they moved on to form New Order and that they paid tribute to Ian Curtis with "Ceremony" (and its b-side "A Lonely Place", also written by JD). It seems to me that they understood the beauty of the song, and would not let death prevent them from giving it to the world. I am very glad that they did.

This is why events unnerve me,
They find it all, a different story,
Notice whom for wheels are turning,
Turn again and turn towards this time,
All she asks the strength to hold me,
Then again the same old story,
World will travel, oh so quickly,
Travel first and lean towards this time.

Oh, I'll break them down, no mercy shown,
Heaven knows, its got to be this time,
Watching her, these things she said,
The times she cried,
Too frail to wake this time.

Oh I'll break them down, no mercy shown
Heaven knows, its got to be this time,
Avenues all lined with trees,
Picture me and then you start watching,
Watching forever, forever,
Watching love grow, forever,
Letting me know, forever.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this, and I too seem to have a very deep connection with this song. Thanks for writing this.

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