24 hours – the greatest rock lyric so far?

Permanent (Joy Division album)

I saw Joy Division once, supporting the Buzzcocks at the Village Bowl in Bournemouth .

They played “24 hours”, the first time I’d heard it – I think the gig pre-dated the release of Closer.

I still speak about the band as if everyone knows everything about them. As a 17 year old it seemed impossible that anyone could feel any other way than blown away by this song, At 50 I feel I am 17 when I listen to it.

Before we go any further – listen to this amazing clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOEM9SuDFZc

This is a recording made for John Peel’s show and while it may not have the production values of Closer, it has a live feel that still gives me a proxy for that sweaty night in Bournemouth and a moment when love death and the most intense experience of life were soldered together.

Looking back, I see just how powerful these lyrics are, not so much for  sense- which while suggested is latent rather than obvious, but for the form of each quatrain (four line verse).

- the curfew tolls the knell of parting day

These are the opening words of Grey’s Elegy written in a country churchyard, one of the most profound formal works in the English language, its profundity is latent – in it’s restraint.

Ian Curtis , who wrote the words to this song, is also writing an elegy, it is not  not an elegy to a mute inglorious Milton, it is an elegy to himself, to the what might have been to him and his relationship with his wife and daughter.

It shares with Grey’s elegy a tautness of language and of rhythm that accurately engenders the precise mood of the moment. Grey’s elegy is a meditation  over  a moment in time, Curtis’ is a savage scream for help, but both are powered by the structure of the lines and the verses.

One of the problems of writing in English is the tendency to get overwhelmed by iambs- the iambic pentameter goes de der de der de der de der de der

The curfew tolls the knell of passing day

Here’s Curtis’ opening line

So this is permanent , love’s shattered pride

Curtis  splits his line but it is basically an iambic pentameter, its meter is the meter of Grey’s elegy but here Curtis’s singing voice takes over. Curtis sings  a dactyl in the opening half of the line and returns the line to the iambic in the second half.  I doubt he thought of it in those terms but once listened to, it’s impossible to be mesmerised by the pattern of the cadences which exactly fit the mood and sense of the line. The bitter irony of its opening half gives way to a baleful resignation of the second. Anger and resignation caught in two brilliantly suggestive half-lines.

This intuitive technique does not spring from a textbook, it seems to come from a depth of feeling within Curtis. Watching Lucien Freud painting on the TV on Saturday night I sensed that the realism that springs from the fleshtones of his nudes is not learned but arrived at from a deep examination of all possibilities and the arrival at the inevitable expression , the expression that absolutely conveys the truth of the moment.

The artistry of 24 hours rests in the constant modulation within the half lines of cadences, half rhymes and full rhymes but at no time does Curtis let go of the formal structure of the iambic pentameter.

Even though we can hear his heart breaking in lines as deep as this

Deep in the heart of where sympathy held sway,

The line breaks after the “of”, an unatural break that unsettles the sense of the line. There are resonances here but the line, as I mentioned before is suggestive, latent, pregnant – it does not display its meaning. I’ve been trying to make sense of that “of” – “of what”? “of darkness, “of the heart?”, it’s none of these- there is nothing there- that’s what is so scary (and brilliant) in this line and why (for me) it’s the standout line of the song.

I think 24 hours is one of the best things produced in Britain since the war. Here are the words as I hear them- I don’t know if they are definitively put down and whether there are mistakes in my hearing. The man who wrote them died soon after. He is known for his epitaph “love will tear us apart” but this elegy is his true tombstone. Whether there was therapy we or he will never know, for those of us lucky enough go to his dark place, the horror is only imagined.

So this is permanent,love’s shattered pride

What once was innocence, turned on its side.
Grey cloud hangs over me, mark every move,
Deep in the memory, of what once was love.

Oh how I realised how I wanted time,
Put into perspective, tried so hard to find,
Just for one moment, thought I’d found my way.
Destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away.

Excessive flashpoints, beyond all reach,
Solitary demands for all I’d like to keep.
Let’s take a ride out, see what we can find,
A valueless collection of hopes and past desires.

I never realised the lengths I’d have to go,
All the darkest corners of a sense I didn’t know.
Just for one moment, I heard somebody call,
Looked beyond the day in hand, there’s nothing there at all.

Now that I’ve realised how it’s all gone wrong,
Gotta find some therapy, this treatment takes too long.
Deep in the heart of where sympathy held sway,
Gotta find my destiny, before it gets too late.

About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen, Director of First Actuarial, partner of Stella, father of Olly and the Pension Plowman
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