Ian Curtis and the Emotion of Joy Division

Reminiscing about the enigmatic frontman on what would have been his 65th birthday

Ian Curtis Forever (Art: Ron Hart)

Forty years ago, I wrote a story for the Boston Globe about The Doors and Joy Division.

More specifically, a comparative piece about Jim Morrison, on the rise as a dead icon (There was that Rolling Stone cover line: “He’s hot, he’s sexy and he’s dead!”), and Ian Curtis, dead only a year, but someone who’d acquired iconic status among a bereft cult audience. They shared a baritone voice and a penchant toward darkness. Curtis was someone, I implied, whose iconic status might grow over the years to Morrison-esque proportions. 

I’m not always right, but I was this time. You know all the bands Joy Division has influenced. You’ve burrowed as deep as you can go into their catalog. You’ve watched the biopic, Control. You’ve seen all the brand-spanking new Unknown Pleasures T-shirts on fans of all ages on Facebook and on city streets. 

Curtis, who would have turned 65 on July 15, is unquestionably the post-punk generation’s most iconic and tragic figure: forever 23, dead by his own hand, Iggy Pop’s The Idiot on his turntable as he hung limp inside his Manchester, England home. Curtis was an enduring presence for those who saw him perform in the UK or listened to him anywhere when he was alive, but also for subsequent generations that came to the posthumous party. 

The timing of his death could not have been more inauspicious. It happened on the eve of what would have been Joy Division’s first U.S. tour, May 18, 1980. The following month, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” – the quintessential Joy Division hit – was released. NME called it the “greatest single of all time.”

 

VIDEO: Joy Division “Love Will Tear Us Apart”

Some of that Boston Globe piece from 1981: The Doors and Joy Division, formed ten years apart, are linked by sound and vision – seductive music filled with angst and existential despair. They’re also linked by the tragedy of mortal coincidence – Jim Morrison and Ian Curtis each fulfilled the dark prophecy of their art – they died young and unhappy, finding their ultimate release in self-destruction…. Today their call comes from beyond the rock ‘n’ roll crypt.

Ok, maybe the prose was a little purple, but just a little. 

Joy Division was a band, really, for about two and a half years. Over the course of two albums, three singles and tracks on various compilation albums, Curtis and company strung together fragments of tragedy and defeat and dressed them up in melodies both grand and subtle.  

Peter Hook, whose bass playing often carried the melodic line, credits their success with extreme good fortune at what he calls the “riff bank” – great songs just came flowing out of them. 

“We were all so fired about what you were doing you literally never stopped,” Hook told me. (We’ve talked a lot over the years; most of what’s here comes from interviews over the past ten years or so.) “Ian had a wealth of material. You lived and breathed the songwriting process every moment every day. It was a great, organic process.” 

Another asset, he wrote in his Joy Division book, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, was that the band members weren’t trained musicians. They didn’t know which chord should “properly” follow another and this allowed them to take chances with structure and thus break boundaries.

 

 

“Our different styles all came together to make perfect bedrock for Ian to put his wonderful lyrics to,” Hook said. “We had a perfect fantastic recipe. With those ingredients, you couldn’t go wrong. You have to say the music has lasted as long it has because we were all perfectly in tune at that time.”

Hook said the lyrics on the band’s debut album, Unknown Pleasures, are “very aggressive, very strong, delivered very passionately. By the time you get to Closer, that was much more melancholy and more inward looking for Ian. I think in our minds when he delivered them, he was at odds with his feelings. He was standing there singing them and he looked strong, confident and well. He was by no means an emotional blubbering wreck.”

A few samples from Closer: “Destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away,” he sang in “Twenty Four Hours.” “To the glory of loved ones now gone,” he droned in “The Eternal.” “I’m doing the best that I can … I’m ashamed of the person I am,” he implored in “Isolation.”

The lyric that stops you cold is – especially in retrospect – in “Passover.” As the song grinds downward, Curtis sings, “Watching the reel as it comes to a close, brutally taking its time/Can I go on with this train of events? … I know that I’ll lose every time.”

In 1983, I was in New York and writing a New Order feature, ever respectful of had gone down. I sat with Hook, guitarist Bernard Sumner, drummer Stephen Morris and new keyboardist Gillian Gilbert. It was Sumner who took the lead for much of the interview. 

“A lot of people say the songs were doom songs, but I think that’s totally untrue,” he said. “To me, Joy Division songs were very sad, very touching, which isn’t doom – it’s emotion.”

I’d concur, but must also note not much of the emotion was in the uplifting zone. “Transmission,” a brilliant song, would make the cut. Not sure what else might.

Let’s consider “In a Lonely Place.” It was written and recorded as a Joy Division song and there are various Joy Division/New Order versions out there. Officially, it became the B-side of New Order’s debut single, backing “Ceremony.” 

Sumner sings about a hangman whose “cord stretches tight and it breaks.”  “When we listened back to the rehearsal tapes,” Sumner said, “and heard that line, we just couldn’t believe it. Ian had attempted suicide by taking a drug overdose which really shocked all of us two weeks before he died. When he was in hospital recovering, he wrote that song; when he came out of hospital, he wrote the lyrics.”

 

 

Jesus Fucking Christ! I might have said. Or more likely thought. (I was pretty respectful around them, given what they’d been though, though as I also learned, for them, part of being young and carefree in New York was having fun and doing drugs.) 

“When Joy Division finished it felt like you’ve been caught up in this whirlpool,” Sumner said. “All of what we’d been working for as a group – as well as obviously the personal loss we felt when Ian died – we’d lost all that. It was like being in a train that was knocked to the ground.”

Yet, and I’ve subsequently talked to Hook a lot about this, the surviving band members, all in their early 20s, didn’t know how to handle their friend and frontman’s depression or even if they clearly saw it in person or heard it in the songs. 

“He was a very hail fellow, well meant,” Hook told me. “He would never tell you he was depressed. I would take him to hospital when he had these epileptic fits and I’d sit there holding his tongue for an hour and a half till he stopped fitting. He’d come round and say, ‘Right, where’s the party?’ I’d say ‘Get in fucking bed, will you.’ He really was his own worst enemy and he was our greatest fan and critic. If any of us started to falter, it was always him that grabbed you by the collar and dragged you through. He really was the best at helping you get through. 

“I think he knew he maybe might have been struggling, but I’ll tell you what he was definitely not going to let us down. We’d say over and over to him, ‘Rob said, ‘Well. stop take a year off, do what you want, get yourself better’ and he’d go “No, no, I don’t want to let the lads down.’” He was his own worst enemy in that respect, but because we were so young and inexperienced, we just couldn’t handle it.”

I tell Hooky how it seems almost inconceivable to those outside the band. Consider, say, “Isolation.”

“He was mostly a lad with you,” Hooky said, “and you concentrated on your own parts, relishing Ian’s ‘power’ but not really hearing the vision. But you see beyond that now to his life with Deborah, with [his mistress] Annika, his interests in serious art, his difficulty being in a bad/early marriage and fatherhood when he wanted to join you in your pursuits of birds. His epilepsy and the drugs, the barbiturates that killed his sex drive and his spirit. I think the thing Ian felt, He was such a nice guy and very generous was that he probably didn’t want you to suffer because of him. In a sporting way, he was taking one for the team. At 23, you were so glad to hear it.”

 

VIDEO: Peter Hook & The Light Salford 2020

Now, many years down the road Hook leads Peter Hook & The Light, playing sets (very good sets) of Joy Division and New Order material, him taking over Ian’s lead vocalist role. He sings in the same register and it sounds almost uncannily “right.” (The sound is the sheen familiar to fans of the albums, not the “rougher” live band Joy Division was and can be heard on Still.)

And so, the long gaze from decades down the road …

“I look back on Joy Division very fondly indeed,” Hook said. “I know that of course the band came to a tragic end, but that does not change the fact that Joy Division was a great band to be a part of. Everybody was just really focused on the music, there were no distractions at all. We were all completely focused on the band and making it the best we could, it was a very pure atmosphere which I will always remember fondly. We had our issues of course – Ian’s illness, riots after the gigs, difficulties in the studio – but, overall, it was a great time.”

 

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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