I recently watched Joy Division (2007, dir. Grant Gee), an exciting documentary that carries more intellectual heft than maybe any other film about a rock group.  Great interviews not just with the surviving band members and others who knew them, but also early followers who were deeply affected by the band’s records and performance.  I’m struck, for instance by the insight (no pun intended) of graphic designer Jon Wozencraft into Joy Division’s sound: it was the original “iPodded” music, a soundtrack of interiority and alienation well suited for navigating the abandoned landscapes and industries of 1970s Manchester.

And then there’s the late Tony Wilson, whose charm, artistic principle, pretentiousness and frequent cluelessness are, as we had hoped, on full display. Wilson was famously eager to hang out with the young doers of Manchester, no matter how often or cruelly they expressed contempt for his class comfort, his fame as a TV personality, or his authority at Factory Records.  A 2002 BBC documentary coinciding with the release of 24 Hour Party People underscores how Wilson’s genius for being in the right place at the right time required some tone-deafness to the uncomfortable asymmetry of social situations.

I can’t write songs, I can’t sing, I can’t design, I can’t book nightclubs. I don’t do anything. I hang out with clever people for two reasons. One, I hang out with them because it excites me, and B, they can all blame me…

To be the guy who signed the cheque that paid for the labels on “Atmosphere” by Joy Division is actually such a privilege. And I kind of remain in awe of that sense of privilege. And I can be all flash and bullshitty and [makes scare quote gestures] the “twat” that is the popular image of whatever. But deep down inside, if that’s the price you pay for being connected to this wonderful stuff…

Included in the Joy Division DVD extras is this interview excerpt where Wilson offers this explanation for Manchester’s creative “regeneration.”

Your city cannot be a derelict shithole if the young people of your town believe themselves to be, not the equal of Cardiff or Birmingham, but believe themselves—in that which is most important in the world, the creation of popular culture—to be better than Paris, Tokyo and L.A.

Wilson takes the long view on the city’s endurance, perhaps understandably since he’s ridden out Manchester’s painful transformation from a declining industrial city to a post-industrial capital of pop music and football champions.  He’s not alone, of course. His celebration of creative regeneration is increasingly the common wisdom among gurus of place-branding and the local governments they excite.

But his ironic reference to “death” notwithstanding, Wilson’s upbeat assessment avoids an important truth about Manchester’s influence on Joy Division: the city was symbol and source of an alienation that fueled the creative expressions of the young group. As music journalist and Joy Division writer Jon Savage observes, “In one of the interviews for the film, Tony Wilson made an impassioned case for Manchester’s future as a gleaming new technopolis. But this is only part of the story. In January 2008, a report issued by the think tank Centre for Cities found that Manchester was ‘England’s most unequal city’: in the centre, the employment rate was well below the national average. The city’s old duality – futuropolis v. ‘cesspit of human misery’ – still holds.”
The tragedy of social, economic, and psychic alienation that lies at the genesis of so much musical creativity points to one reason why urban boosters’ attempts to brand cities by their music scenes are so absurd.  Joy Division didn’t form in order to raise Manchester’s flag in contests of cool against other cities. Its members came together in order to escape Manchester and its life-draining confinements, if only through the 60 minutes of volume and adrenaline.  Not that they didn’t romanticize Burroughs, Ballard, and other prophets of dystopia, nor that suicide isn’t ultimately a stupid, selfish act for a father of a one-year-old girl. But the allure of urban decline—”grit as glamour,” Richard Lloyd calls it in Neobohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City—is best enjoyed retrospectively by the fan, the music journalist, the artistic dilettante or the tourist.  For the local artists trapped in the city through no choice of their own, it’s a legacy viewed at best appreciated the measured ambivalence of a prosperous middle age.
Maybe that’s the point.  What rock group today moves to a city to have their souls crushed? Most likely one with geographic options. Efforts to brand so-called musical cities paint over the scars cities inflicted on too many artists. If urban alienation is a crucible for art, its contradictions can’t be resolved by a streetside plaque or walking tour.