“Ceremony” was one of the last Joy Division songs to be composed, with lyrics written by Ian Curtis. There are three recorded versions by Joy Division in existence. The first is a live version, available on the Still album, from their final concert at High Hall, Birmingham University on 2 May 1980. The second, available on the Heart and Soul four-disc box set, is from a studio session on 14 May 1980, four days before Curtis’ suicide. It was the band’s last recording. The third is a version recorded at the soundcheck on the afternoon of 2 May 1980 (along with “Decades”) and is only available on bootleg. In all recordings, the vocals are only partially audible.
After the death of Ian Curtis, the remaining members of Joy Division regrouped as New Order. Their first release was a re-recording of “Ceremony” as a stand-alone single backed with “In a Lonely Place”, with guitarist Bernard Sumner taking over lead vocals. Sumner said that he had to put the “Ceremony” rehearsal tape as sung by Curtis through a graphic equalizer to transcribe the lyrics.
In March 1981, the first version of “Ceremony” was released on Factory Records (FAC 33). Martin Hannett (Joy Division’s producer) produced the record and Peter Saville designed the sleeve graphics.
The 7″ record was issued in a stamped gold-bronze sleeve. The 12″ sleeve was a completely separate design: gold typography on a green background.
In September 1981, “Ceremony” was re-released. Gillian Gilbert played guitar on this new recording just after she joined the band. Martin Hannett again produced the record. The single was re-issued as a 12″ only, with the same catalogue number (FAC 33). The original is approximately 4:34 minutes in length while the re-recording is 4:23. The re-recorded version was used on all subsequent compilations until Singles in 2005, when the original March ’81 recording was released on CD for the first time.
There are differences in the recordings. The original has a more “Joy Division sound”, with throbbing bass, distorted guitar, spacey vocals, and solid drums also contributing a wash of cymbals. In the re-recording the bass is diminished, cymbals restrained, and the vocals are “drier”. The guitar has a sound typical of that used on the album Movement. Drum hits in the opening verse are dramatically panned in the mix. There is a greater contrast between verse and chorus, with the latter sections reaching some of the emotional pitch of the original. In addition to the new recording of the a-side track, the b-side track “In a Lonely Place” was slightly remixed and added more synthetic “thunder” noises throughout the song. This alternate mix also appears on the second disc of Substance and subsequent compilations.
The sleeve (pictured) was changed to a light cream with a vertical blue stripe, though with the same motif and typography as the original 12″ single. After supply of the re-designed sleeve ran out, copies of the originally-designed sleeve were re-used. Accordingly, the two versions of the song were packaged indiscriminately in the original sleeve. However, the run-groove notation (phrases pressed onto the vinyl) differ according to the version. The original says “Watching love grow forever”. The re-recording says “This is why events unnerve me”. Both phrases are excerpts from the lyrics of “Ceremony”.
“Ceremony” is a mid-tempo rock song in the key of C major. The song contains two implied chords, C major and F major, shown through the driving bassline. The song does not contain any keyboards, which became a common staple in Joy Division’s later sound, and New Order’s eventual sound. The song, in its original recording, featured a faster tempo than that of the September re-record, as well as clearer production and a more processed guitar tone. “Ceremony” utilises quiet-loud dynamics and artificial reverb to give the song its trademark flowing atmosphere. The song reverts to its quieter stage for the guitar solo, a practice carried over to New Order by Bernard Sumner.