Ian Curtis – circa 1979
“Asylums with doors open wide / Where people had paid to see inside / For entertainment they watch his body twist / Behind his eyes, he says, ‘I still exist’ / This is the way, step inside…” – ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ (Joy Division)
The doctor shuffles his papers. It’s never easy to deliver unpleasant news. He looks at the young man seated on the other side of the desk, a gangly fellow with skin so pale it is almost translucent. No sense in putting it off. “You have epilepsy,” the doctor tells the patient. This is a kind of short-circuit of the brain’s electrical functions which can produce involuntary spasms; a ‘fit’ or, more technically, ‘a grand mal seizure.’ The doctor offers words of reassurance. It’s a terrible condition. It won’t go away entirely, but it can be managed more effectively. Take the prescribed medication, go to bed early, give up the alcohol, and avoid bright, flashing lights. All very sensible, but not really the way a young man wants to live his life. It’s even more troubling for this patient because he is the singer in a rock band. How can he cope with this illness and still function in the group? The patient’s name is Ian Curtis and the band is Joy Division.
Ian Kevin Curtis (15 July 1956 – 18 May 1980) is born in Memorial Hospital in Stretford, Lancashire in Great Britain. He grows up in Macclesfield in Cheshire. Aged 11, he wins a scholarship from The King’s School, Macclesfield. Despite showing some talent with poetry, Ian is ‘not a dedicated student.’ He is a fan of rock music acts like David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.
After high school, Ian Curtis works ‘in a variety of jobs.’ His interest is really in music, literature and art. On 23 August 1975 he marries Deborah Woodruff, a former school friend. Ian is 19 and Deborah is 18. Ian gets a job with the Civil Service, first in Manchester and later in Macclesfield.
In Salford, Greater Manchester dwells another pair of young men. Bernard Sumner (born Bernard Dicken a.k.a. Bernard Albrecht, 4 January 1956) and Peter Hook (born Peter Acton or Peter Woodhead, the son of Irene Acton and John Woodhead, 13 February 1956) have been friends since they were 11 years old. Both boys change their surnames to those of their respective step-fathers. “It [Manchester] was such an ugly place,” recalls Bernard Sumner. “You were thought of as factory fodder.”
On 20 July 1976 The Sex Pistols play a show at Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall. The Sex Pistols are a punk rock band. Their snarling songs of disillusion are resonating with young audiences across the country. Perhaps equally importantly, The Sex Pistols are fairly basic musicians, espousing a do-it-yourself ethic. Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook separately attend this Sex Pistols show. “I thought it was s**te,” exclaims Hook, but adds that it was also “chaotic, exciting.” As Bernard Sumner says, “I could just about do that.” And so, the two youths decide to form a band. The day after the gig, Peter Hook borrows thirty-five pounds from this mother and buys a bass. Bernard Sumner opts for a guitar. Another lad they know, Terry Mason, also attended The Sex Pistols show and he buys a drumkit, so they have a band. School friend Martin Gresty is offered the job of vocalist, but turns them down to work instead in a factory. The youngsters place an advertisement for a vocalist in the window of the Virgin Records store in Manchester. Ian Curtis responds. The other aspiring musicians already know Ian, having met him at other bands’ concerts around the area. “I knew he was all right to get on with and that’s what we based the whole group on,” says Bernard Sumner. “If we liked someone, they were in.” Perhaps they didn’t like Terry Mason so much, because the group soon has a vacancy for a drummer. Terry Mason switches over to become the outfit’s manager. Tony Tabac is added as drummer two days before their first gig.
For their first show, Curtis and company are billed as Stiff Kittens. (Depending on which version of the legend you prefer, the name was suggested by either the manager, Richard Boon, or the frontman, Pete Shelley, of another Manchester group, The Buzzcocks.) Shortly before the show, Stiff Kittens decide to change their name to Warsaw, a choice inspired by the David Bowie song ‘Warszawa’ from the album ‘Low’ (1977). And so Warsaw make their public debut on 29 May 1977 as a support act for The Buzzcocks.
In June 1977 drummer Tony Tabac is replaced by Steve Brotherdale. By July, Brotherdale too is shown the door. Warsaw again resorts to placing an ad in a music shop window: “Drummer wanted for local punk band, Warsaw, phone Ian.” The only applicant is a former school chum of Ian Curtis, Stephen Morris (born 26 October 1957). With this addition, the line-up stabilises as: Ian Curtis (vocals, occasional guitar), Bernard Sumner (guitar, keyboards), Peter Hook (bass) and Stephen Morris (drums).
In December 1977 Warsaw records four tracks for what will be their first EP, released in June 1978.
Early in 1978, the band changes its name to avoid confusion with a London punk band called Warsaw Pakt. Warsaw’s new name is Joy Division. The name is taken from the novel ‘The House Of Dolls’ (1955) in which the prostitution wing of the World War Two concentration camp at Auschwitz, maintained by the Nazis and peopled by enslaved Jewish women, is dubbed ‘Camp Labour Via Joy’ or ‘Joy Division’. Of course, there is nothing ‘joyful’ about it, but the music pumped out by the band formerly known as Warsaw is also grim. The band members make an agreement that, if any of the quartet leaves, the group will abandon the Joy Division nomenclature. Their first gig as Joy Division is at Pip’s Disco in Manchester on 25 January 1978.
RCA Records arranges for Joy Division to record a cover version of Nolan ‘N.F.’ Porter’s ‘Keep On Keepin’ On’. Although the song has an interesting guitar line, it is basically a dance song and the still strongly punk-influenced Joy Division struggle with the concept.
At this time Tony Wilson has been the face of ‘So It Goes’, a program on Granada Television. Spotting Tony Wilson at Rafter’s Club in Manchester on 14 April, Ian Curtis complains to him that Joy Division should be on his program. Although ‘So It Goes’ has been cancelled, Tony Wilson is apparently already thinking of his next program and Joy Division were already factored into his calculations, so Curtis’ remonstrations have little positive effect. However, he does catch the attention of Rob Gretton, the disc jockey at Rafter’s. Rob Gretton replaces Terry Mason as Joy Division’s manager and plays an important role in the band’s improving fortunes.
In May 1978 Joy Division extricate themselves from their deal with RCA since it has not helped either party, Joy Division being unable to provide the expected cover version single.
In June 1978 the EP recorded the previous December, ‘An Ideal For Living’, is issued by Joy Division themselves on the Enigma label. The four tracks are ‘Warsaw’, ‘Leaders Of Men’, ‘No Love Lost’ and ‘Failures’. These songs are all fairly similar to many other punk bands of the day. Peter Hook testifies that, “I wasn’t interested in depth or anything y’know, I just wanted to kick ‘em [the audience] in the teeth.” ‘Warsaw’ counts down “Three, five, oh, one, two, five, go!” for the inexplicable chorus of “three one gee” over and over. The ‘Leaders Of Men’ are said to be “born out of your frustration” while the ‘Failures’ are “all the failures of the modern man.” Ian Curtis shoots out the words in standard punk manner. He is barely recognisable on these recordings as the singer he would become. ‘No Love Lost’ is probably the most interesting of the quartet with its lengthy loose-wire introduction and “I need it” chorus. Most striking though is the spoken word midsection, intoned by Curtis, that references the inspiration for Joy Division’s name: “In the hand of one of the assistants she saw the same instrument which they had that morning inserted deep into her own body / She shuddered / Instinctively / No life at all in the house of dolls.” The sleeve design features an Aryan drummer boy, leading to some grumbles about the band being Nazi sympathisers.
‘At A Later Date’, a track recorded live in October 1977, is included on the compilation album ‘Short Circuit: Live At The Electrical Circus’ (1978).
In September 1978, Tony Wilson makes good on his earlier intent and Joy Division make their television debut.
Perhaps more significantly, Tony Wilson starts his own record label, Factory Records. Alan Erasmus is a partner in the operation. Joy Division’s manager, Rob Gretton, is also made a partner in the label because Joy Division are one of the first acts signed.
In October 1978 Joy Division contribute two songs, ‘Glass’ and ‘Digital’, to the EP ‘A Factory Sample’. These tracks begin the band’s association with producer Martin Hannett and the difference is marked. Hannett is something of a technical whiz kid, inventing some of the devices used in the recording studio. He is also a ‘spliffhead’ [i.e. a marijuana smoker] prone to giving the band bizarre directions like “a bit more yellow.” With these songs, Ian Curtis’ voice drops to a very deep baritone, lending much more power and gravity to the vocals. Electronic hand claps accompany the warning in ‘Glass’ that “Hearts fail / Young hearts fail.” ‘Digital’ sports a particularly bouncy bass line as Ian Curtis sings “Feel it closing in / Day in / Day out.”
By now Joy Division are developing a distinctive sound. Aside from the alteration in Ian Curtis’ vocal timbre, the key ingredient is Peter Hook’s style of bass playing. Bass is often the least noticeable instrument in the sound mix, but that’s not the case here. Peter Hook explains how his approach developed: “When I played low I couldn’t hear anything – at all! When I played high I could pick it out…’Cos of the row, ‘Cos Barney’s amp was really loud…Then Ian just latched on to you playing high and he’d say, ‘That sounds good when you play high…Barney [the nickname of Bernard Sumner] plays guitar, we should work on that, it sounds really distinctive.’ Just a happy accident like that gave us our sound, y’know.”
“The chemistry was unbelievable,” Peter Hook claims. “And it was easy, it was easy writing those songs and playing that well.” The songwriting in Joy Division is credited to the band collectively, but it is acknowledged that the lyrics are all written by Ian Curtis. “We haven’t got a message really; the lyrics are open to interpretation. They’re multidimensional. You can read into them what you like,” Curtis states. However, the singer’s wife, Deborah Curtis, observes that “All of Ian’s spare time was spent reading and thinking about human suffering.” Inevitably, this colours the gloomy, doom-laden lyrical landscape. Yet guitarist Bernard Sumner points out that “We never really listened to his lyrics that much.”
“Ian was still working for the Civil Service,” says Deborah Curtis. “As Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer, he worked closely with disabled people.”
On stage, Ian Curtis develops a highly individualised performance. He flails about in an oddly rhythmic manner, almost like a marionette whose strings are tangled. “A lot of people thought he was off his head on drugs,” Bernard Sumner notes, before countering, “He wasn’t. Never, ever, ever…Music seemed to just put him in, like, a trance.”
On 27 December 1978, on the way home from a Joy Division gig at the Hope and Anchor pub in London, Ian Curtis has what Bernard Sumner describes as a “grand mal fit in the car.” As a result of the seizure Curtis is taken to hospital. “After that really he just got diagnosed with epilepsy,” Sumner concludes glumly. Stephen Morris says that the epilepsy “was very, very strong…” Referring both to the band and the singer’s home life, Deborah Curtis says they came to “the realisation that Ian’s illness was something we would have to learn to accommodate.”
Deborah Curtis delivers a daughter, Natalie (born 16 April 1979) to her husband, Ian Curtis.
June sees the release of Joy Division’s debut album, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (1979) (UK no. 71, AUS no. 82). The waveform used for the cover image is that of Pulsar 1919 from The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy. One of Ian Curtis’ clients as a Disablement Resettlement Officer provides the inspiration for the album’s strongest song. “‘She’s Lost Control’ was about a girl…that came in to see him,” explains Bernard Sumner. “One day she didn’t come in and she died from a fit.” The irony of these circumstances in light of Curtis’ own diagnosis of epilepsy (probably subsequent to the writing of the lyric) is inescapable. Stephen Morris’ drums sound like banging plastic lids on this track. A crawling ivy of bass and guitar winds about Curtis’ voice as he intones, “She turned to me and took me by the hand and said ‘I’ve lost control again’.” The booming ‘Novelty’ suggests Curtis feels the weight of his new role as a rock star: “When people listen to you / Don’t you know it means a lot.” The album also includes ‘Shadowplay’ and ‘Twenty Four Hours’. Martin Hannett is rightly lauded for providing a sonic setting in which the instruments seem so separate and there is such clarity and space. Yet, as Peter Hook declares, “The songs were great anyway. Martin didn’t write them; he only produced them.” Despite Bernard Sumner’s uneasiness about the end product – “It was so dark…It’s too b****y heavy” – ‘Unknown Pleasures’ is Joy Division’s best album. It catches the band afire with twitchy energy, counterbalancing the crushing weight of its themes.
Joy Division performs on Granada Television again in July 1979 and make their only national television appearance in September on a program called ‘Something Else’ on BBC2.
A gig at Futurama in Leeds in September proves fateful. Amongst the crowd is a Belgian girl named Annik Honore (pronounced An-EEK on-OR). She works as a secretary at the Belgian Embassy in London and is also a rock music fan. “Ian on stage was something fascinating,” she recalls. The feeling is mutual, as Ian Curtis takes an interest in this young lady.
Joy Division contribute two tracks to the compilation album ‘Earcom Two: Contradiction’ (1979), released in October. Through the slow building psychic fog of ‘Autosuggestion’, Ian Curtis sings “Here / Everything is kept inside / So take your chances, step outside.” ‘From Safety To Where’ alters from a slow-paced verse to a more propulsive chorus, but the lyrical images are similarly dour: “The memories scarred and the vision is blurred.”
A national tour as the support act to The Buzzcocks in October is a tipping point, providing sufficient income for the members of Joy Division to quit their day jobs.
A one-off single, ‘Transmission’ is released in November. The bass and snappy percussion of ‘Transmission’ makes its exhortation to “Dance to the radio” irresistible. Yet the song contains a darker undertow: “Touching from a distance / Further all the time.”
In January 1980 Joy Division undertake a European tour. Annik Honore accompanies the band’s retinue on most of these dates. She and Ian Curtis begin a ‘relationship’, though, at times, she has claimed this was not an ‘affair’, but a ‘close and platonic’ association.
All this time, Ian Curtis is still struggling with epilepsy. He has two grand mal seizures. “Considering he had such a horrible illness, he was a real trooper,” Peter Hook says admiringly. “He didn’t want pity. He didn’t want looking after. He just got on with it.”
In March 1980 Joy Division release a limited edition single of just one thousand copies on the French Sordid Sentimentale label. The songs are ‘Dead Souls’ backed with ‘Atmosphere’. In ‘Dead Souls’ Ian Curtis pleads, “Someone take these dreams away / And point me to another day,” alternating between fluttering and hammering musical passages. ‘Dead Souls’ offers the anguished singer no relief: “They keep calling me.” ‘Atmosphere’ is all frosty keyboards and has the dirge-like incantation “Walk in silence / Don’t walk away / In silence.”
Work begins on Joy Division’s second album but the physical toll on Ian Curtis is mounting. He has seizures on stage leaving him ‘feeling depressed and ashamed.’ Bernard Sumner describes the problem: “We didn’t have flashing lights, but sometimes a particular drum beat would do something to him. He’d go off in a trance for a bit, then he’d lose it and have a fit. We’d have to stop the show and carry him off to the dressing room where he’d cry his eyes out because this appalling thing had happened to him.”
On 7 April 1980 Ian Curtis attempts suicide with an overdose of Phenobarbital. “It was a complete surprise,” says Bernard Sumner. “When he took his overdose…it seems…unbelievable to me that we didn’t stop and sort him out,” admits Peter Hook with the benefit of hindsight. Instead, at the next evening’s gig at Derby Hall in Bury, two guest vocalists, Alan Hempstall (of Crispy Ambulance) and Simon Topping (of A Certain Ratio) augment the band. Ian Curtis performs a few songs, but the crowd, not fully comprehending the situation, riot. Other April gigs are cancelled and Joy Division give what will be their final performance on 2 May 1980 at the University of Birmingham’s High Hall. The last song they perform is ‘Digital’.
Joy Division’s first tour of the United States of America is planned for May 1980. Ian Curtis is feeling troubled. His illness weighs heavily upon him, but he doesn’t want to let the rest of the band or the record label down. His domestic situation is a further source of concern, as he feels divided between Annik Honore and his wife and daughter. Stephen Morris reports that Ian told him, “’I want to leave the band’, but then, ‘No, no’, he’s changed his mind.”
Deborah Curtis files for divorce. Ian Curtis stays at his parents’ house. On 17 May 1980 he asks Debbie to stay with him until he catches his train in the morning to join the band for the beginning of the U.S. tour, but she declines. He tells her to leave him alone in the house at 77 Barton Street, Macclesfield. He watches the Werner Herzog film ‘Stroszek’ (1977) and listens to Iggy Pop’s album, ‘The Idiot’ (1976). In the early hours of 18 May 1980 Ian Curtis hangs himself using the kitchen’s washing line. Debbie Curtis returns around midday and discovers his body.
The news is delivered via telephone to Peter Hook while he is having lunch with his partner, Iris Bates and their two children. “Just couldn’t take it in, really,” admits Hook. Stephen Morris says he felt, “Fifty per cent sad and fifty per cent angry…Angry at him…and angry at yourself for not doing something.”
The deceased singer is cremated.
Despite the death of Ian Curtis some previously completed Joy Division work is subsequently issued. Two tracks surface in June 1980 on a flexi-disc from Factory Records. The jerky ‘Komakino’ warns “This is the hour when the mysteries emerge.” ‘Incubation’ is a slow-building instrumental and one of the few times Ian Curtis plays guitar on record.
In June 1980 Joy Division’s finest single, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (UK no. 13), is issued. Deborah Curtis uses the title for Ian’s memorial stone. Peter Hook recalls, “We wrote ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ in three hours. We found the riff one night and Ian went ‘I’ve got an idea for that.’ When he sang it to us, we didn’t think ‘Oh, that’s about Debbie and Annik’…” Bernard Sumner plays synthesiser on the song. Peter Hook’s unmistakeable bass and Stephen Morris’ trap-drums power the catchy melody. The lyrics ache with romantic conflict: “Why is the bedroom so cold? / Turned away on your side.”
Joy Division’s second album, ‘Closer’ (1980) (UK no. 6, AUS no. 23), is released in July. The title is subject to multiple interpretations. It may be considered ‘closer’ as in more intimate. It may be considered ‘closer’ as in nearer to the band’s objectives. Ian Curtis’ passing gives the title a third meaning: ‘closer’ as in bringing to a conclusion. The cover image, chosen by Ian Curtis with the assistance of designer Peter Seville, is a photograph by Bernard Pierre Wolff. With Ian Curtis’ death it takes on eerie significance. It is a photo of the Appiani family tomb in Cimitero Monumentale di Staglieno in Genoa, Italy. ‘Closer’ includes ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, a song based on the 1970 book of the same name by J.G. Ballard. On the propulsive ‘These Days’, Curtis sings “Spent all my time learning a killer’s art.” The album as a whole features more keyboards and a slicker, synthetic sound. Bernard Sumner opines, “I thought ‘Closer’ got closer to the sound that I particularly wanted.” ‘Closer’ is ‘regarded by many critics as the most brilliant rock album of the 1980s’. Yet it is also viewed as ‘one of the most depressing albums ever made.’
‘Still’ (1981) (UK no. 5, AUS no. 73) ‘collects the remainder of the group’s material, most of it in primitive form.’ ‘Substance’ (1988) (UK no. 7, US no. 146, AUS no. 53) is a compilation of hits and ‘several out-of-print singles.’ Factory Records goes bankrupt in 1992 and London Records acquires the Joy Division catalogue.
True to their earlier vow, the surviving members of Joy Division retire that band’s name after the death of Ian Curtis. Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris are joined on keyboards by Morris’ girlfriend Gillian Gilbert in forming New Order. Sumner assumes lead vocal duties as well as playing guitar and keyboards.
Ian Curtis’ death was a tragedy. His life was marked by terrible illness and harrowing heartache. Yet, amidst all that, he and his companions in Joy Division created music that has only gained in significance over the years. Would he have lived a better, happier life had he abandoned his musical ambitions? Perhaps, or maybe the lack of a creative outlet would have led him to the same dark place. It’s impossible to know. All that is left is to celebrate the life he had and be grateful for the music that is still there to be discovered and enjoyed. ‘…Joy Division was determined to live up to the bitter irony of its name…Group leader Ian Curtis wrote and sang songs of unknowable dread, while the band played oppressively heavy beats and distorted, jangling chords,’ ‘It would be hard to find a darker place in music than Joy Division. Their name, their lyrics and their singer were as big a black cloud as you could find in the sky. And yet…you feel from this singer, beauty was truth and truth was beauty, and theirs was a search for both.’
- wikipedia.org as at 8 April 2013
- ‘The Lost Boy’ by Andy Lowe (‘Total Film’ magazine no. 82, September 2007) p. 60, 61
- ‘Joy Division’ (2007) – A documentary film directed by Grant Gee (Brown Owl Films / Madman Entertainment)
- lyricsfreak.com as at 28 April 2013
- ‘Printed Noise’ fanzine, Ian Curtis interview quoted in (1) above
- ‘Touching From A Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division’ (1995) – Biography by Deborah Curtis quoted in (1), (2) p. 60 and (3) above.
- dontgetoutmuch.over.blog.com – Interview with Annik Honore (18 June 2010)
- answers.com as at 29 April 2013
- ‘The Virgin Encyclopedia Of Eighties Music’ – Edited by Colin Larkin (Virgin Books, 1997) p, 267
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 54
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Alternative Scenes: Britain’ by Ken Tucker (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 583
- ‘U2 By U2’ (2009) – Bono’s description of Joy Division quoted in (1) above
Song lyrics copyright Fractured Music / Zomba Music
Last revised 4 September 2014