Shakin’ All Over, number 3: ‘She’s lost control’, Joy Division (1979)

SAO cover lo resConfusion in her eyes that says it all. She’s lost control. / And she’s clinging to the nearest passer-by. She’s lost control…. / And she screamed out kicking on her side and said ‘I’ve lost control again’. / And seized up on the floor. I thought she’d die. She said ‘I’ve lost control’.

How might neurological and cognitive impairments be not only voiced but corporeally performed in music? According to Manderson and Peake, ‘[t]he injured or diseased body is a body out of control, often at both the cellular and the systemic level, in terms of stability, mobility, and bodily functions’.

I look at a specific pathology in the world of the neuro-diverse, the neurological disorder of epilepsy, which is the most common of the serious neurological conditions—around half a million people in Britain have it, for example. It is an umbrella term for a complex set of conditions—there are over 40 types of epilepsy—with the mutual feature being, according to he National Society of Epilepsy’s website, ‘the tendency to have repeated seizures that start in the brain’, caused by the interruption of electrical signals between nerve cells.

I show that epilepsy is of such interest to us due to its extreme potential within a popular music context as a physical performance of being out of control, what Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia calls the ‘kinetic stutter’ as a form of involuntary dance. For, when fitting, the body may indeed rock and roll.

The link of neurology and music is not a new one, of course: the pathological category of chorea, after all, has its etymology from ancient Greek—dance—and links also therefore with choreography, chorus, choir. Dance, song, disease. In Greek, Latin, and English, neurological disorder is inscribed in the activity of making music and the activity of moving to it alike.

Perhaps we should be considering Neil ‘Shakey’ Young and Ian Curtis, our epileptic stage singers, not as the exceptionals, the curiosities, displaying their control issues nightly before the crowd while they sang of them also, but as the very centre, the nerve centre, of popular music. After all, they are the ones who are shakin’ all over, who are all shook up, who show us that there’s a whole lotta shaking going on; they epitomise it and they embody it.

Although Mitzi Waltz and Martin James state in their recent article on Curtis and disability in Popular Music that ‘epilepsy was never mentioned in any of the band’s live reviews at the time’, a July 1979 gig was reviewed by Mick Middles, later co-author of a Curtis biography, in the weekly British music magazine Sounds thus:

During the set’s many ‘peaks’ Ian Curtis often loses control. He’ll suddenly jerk sideways and, head in hands, he’ll transform into a twitching, epileptic-type mass of flesh and bone. Suddenly he’ll recover. The guitars will fade away…. Then, with no introduction, the whole feeling will begin again. Another song, another climax.

While he would sing of losing control, the audience would watch him seemingly doing it, and the journalist would record it for those not there yet so they would know what to expect when they saw Joy Division. The music press reviews of live gigs were, in Deborah Curtis’s phrase from her powerful memoir about life with her husband Ian, Touching From a Distance, becoming like ‘psychiatric reports’. Curtis was by now sometimes experiencing successive grand mal seizures, without necessarily recovering consciousness between each one—the medical emergency situation termed status epilepticus. Suddenly he’ll recover…. Then, with no introduction, the whole feeling will begin again….

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