Every now and then, there comes along an act whose entire recorded output is a thing of pristine beauty. If we’re being honest, it is also often the case that if the band has a fairly short career, for whatever reason, they never spoil their legend by recording a single song that isn’t perfect. Instead the short canon of songs that they leave behind are immaculate, much loved, shining examples of perfection. Joy Division are such a band.
18 May 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of the Joy Division frontman and lyricist Ian Curtis taking his own life at the age of 23, on the eve of the band’s first American tour. This is everything you need to know about the band whose legend bears little relation to its brief but brilliant catalogue of work.
Joy Division formed in the Salford suburb of Manchester, England in July 1976, inspired by seeing the Sex Pistols’ infamous gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall but forging a completely unique sound and aesthetic. Consisting of vocalist Ian Curtis, guitarist/keyboardist Bernard Sumner and bassist Peter Hook, drummer Stephen Morris would join a little later.
They became the first band in the post-punk movement to emphasise not anger and energy but mood and expression. In that respect the original band name of Warsaw—the English translation and pronunciation of Warszawa—the moody, wordless tribute to the Polish capital on David Bowie’s Low that they were hugely inspired by, kind of makes more sense than the next name they would nick.
That the band ultimately renamed itself Joy Division, referring to the girls in House of Dolls (the notorious sexual slavery wing at the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp; Warsaw’s early track No Love Lost even contains a short excerpt from the torturous novella that details the horrors), was not itself very indicative, considering the frequent fascination of punk bands like the Sex Pistols and the Banshees, who would wear swastikas and SS uniforms with fetishistic zeal for shocking allegorical purposes.
In his 2014 memoir Chapter and Verse, Bernard Sumner claims he was the one who turned Curtis onto De-Nur’s book. “I came across a reference to a section where women were housed for the pleasure of Nazi officers on leave,” he wrote. “It was known as the Freudenabteilung, the Joy Division, and that phrase just leapt out at me immediately as the perfect name for the band.”
Sumner, who, of course, went on to form New Order, another Hitler reference, acknowledges that it was the punk zeitgeist that enabled the band to consider such a “dodgy” name, because “it was acceptable to be unacceptable.” But outrage for outrage’s sake wasn’t the goal. “For me, it seemed to meet all the criteria we were looking for: our sound, our image, even the way the words looked physically on paper,” he writes, before adding that the controversial name might land them in hot water. “It didn’t mean we were Nazis or had any kind of sympathy with them, because we didn’t. … Now, in my more mature years, I probably wouldn’t pick it, because I know it would offend and hurt people, but back then, I was very young and well, selfish. Calling ourselves Joy Division was a bit mischievous.”
That may be his take, but miscreant misbehaviour had nothing to do with Curtis’ decision to troll the story of the infamous block 24 at Auschwitz, his widow Deborah explains in the moving So This is Permanence. The tormented singer-songwriter had always been a history buff; an autodidactic book worm whose father served in World War II, and like father like son, felt burdened by the weight of history.
“Ian’s art was crucial to him,” she writes in the forward. “He did not consider songwriting a mere commercial endeavour. So it was unsurprising he turned to darker, more serious subjects to inspire him. Not specifically the Holocaust, but war itself.” But it was his deep empathy for the suffering of others that allowed him to identify with Holocaust victims. It’s fair to say he was also of a morose disposition, a quality underscored by his deep depressive drone of a voice.
Once you actually give it some thought, this particular allegory becomes fairly frightening, and, if you ask me (OK, you didn’t, but still), the name choice and Ian Curtis’ suicide are both rooted in pretty much the same psychological processes. When the band was still named Warsaw, they still mostly played routine, derivative punk stuff; the name change was accompanied with a major stylistic shift, as they toned down the raw energy in favour of extra heaviness and bleakness – the kind of music that still took its foundation from contemporary punk bands, but its spirit from Jim Morrison and The Doors.
In doing so, Joy Division opened more than just the doors – the floodgates for legions of bands in their wake: post-punk, Goth, grunge, alt-rock, emo, you name it, they all owe some sort of debt to Curtis and his bandmates. Some of that influence may have become more strongly appreciated in retrospect, but the fact remains that, at the time of their existence, Joy Division had little competition in whatever it was they were doing, and in the end, as you investigate the roots of modern pop bleakness, it all comes down to Unknown Pleasures, whether you want it or not.
Slightly inauspiciously, Warsaw debuted on 29 May 1977 at the Electric Circus, supporting the Buzzcocks, Penetration and John Cooper Clarke. But it was a start, and a few weeks later would record their first demos at Pennine Sound Studios in Oldham. To avoid confusion with the London punk band Warsaw Pakt, in early 1978 they decided to rechristen themselves Joy Division, and the four-piece, now with Morris on the sticks, recorded their debut record, an EP, unusually, entitled An Ideal For Living on their own Enigma label.
A self-produced self-funded affair, the contents, the execution and the artwork were, it’s fair to say, pretty primitive. The initial cover sports a black-and-white picture of a blond Hitler Youth member beating a drum, which was drawn by guitarist Bernard Sumner (called Bernard Albrecht on the fold-out poster sleeve). Only a thousand copies were made, and Hooky remembers that, even so, unsold copies of the EP lay in piles in various member bedrooms. He has since sold his own copy, autographed by the whole band, for in excess of a whopping £13,000.
Though the group’s raw initial sides fitted the bill for any punk band, Joy Division later incorporated synthesizers (taboo in the low-tech world of ’70s punk) and more haunting melodies, emphasised by the isolated, tortured lyrics of Curtis. “Joy Division sounded like Manchester: cold, sparse and at times, bleak”, said Bernard Sumner in his autobiography.
They made their television debut on Tony Wilson’s local news show Granada Reports in September 1978. According to Hook, the band received a £70,000 offer and demo time in London from Stranglers producer Martin Rushent’s Genetic label, who had just signed synth supergroup Visage. However, the band’s manager, Rob Gretton, approached Wilson about releasing an album on his local Factory Records label, to be produced by Martin Hannett. However, the other Martin always reckoned his version of Ice Age was better than the speedier version which ended up on Joy Division’s posthumous Still collection in 1981. The Rushent tracks would remain unissued until they surfaced on the Heart And Soul box set in 1997.
Hannett recorded the band (and tinkled on some synths) over the first two weeks of April, in Stockport’s Strawberry Studios, originally set up by founding members of 10cc and so named in honour of the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever. And on 15 June 1979, ten days before I would reach the grand old age of double figures, the first Joy Division long-player was unleashed.
Unknown Pleasures is a goliath of a record. More than 40 years on from its release it still feels like a one of a kind project. Dense, romantic, claustrophobic: there’s something of the night in its Lovecraftian austerity and unpleasantness. And the album’s concerns are human rather than cosmic, so in many respects it’s even worse.
Opening with the devastating Disorder, we see a man question his purpose and sees him acknowledging his lonely, miserable state. I would say I Remember Nothing is the conclusion to this narrative, but it is safe to say that this character (possibly/probably Ian Curtis himself) has abandoned all hope long before the record crackles and fades into the ether. For the frontman there were also interior landscapes to contend with.
That Curtis was such a profoundly troubled young man is endlessly documented, but not a word of it conveys the traumatic tensions in his state of mind, tensions all men can identify with. He was almost certainly bipolar. He certainly had a split personality and was affected by severe mood-swings, and when he sang “feel it closing in, day in, day out” Digital and “a dual of personalities, that stretch all true realities” on Dead Souls it rang true.
It may seem archaic forty years on, and perhaps even offensive, but Joy Division was ostensibly a lad’s band. The sound, attitude and lyrics were all about exploring masculine experience. Macho, yes, but there is no bullying or swagger. This is about the desperation of squaring the circle of toxic masculinity with the morality and responsibility of being a husband and father.
Few albums better showcase the importance of production than Unknown Pleasures does. The oppressive mix compliments the music perfectly. It’s post-punk in the void. Be it Day Of The Lords, which bubbles up from the blackest depths, or Candidate, in which string arrangements shriek and groan along in a wonderfully agonised way, the tracks take you to deep waters then pull you under.
It’s well covered ground, but mention must go to Hooky’s bass sound. Now there’s a meat cleaver of a noise, fit for bludgeoning, and Sumner’s guitars aren’t half bad either. Unknown Pleasures is what the Eighties wished they sounded like. When the band gets harsh it gets really harsh, and when it gets weird—as it does on Insight and She’s Lost Control—it’s as if the whole album is warping out of shape and buckling at the joints.
In October 1979, the quartet followed up Unknown Pleasures with a non-album single, and indeed the first proper Joy Division single, the transitional Transmission. The song had taken more than 17 months to get an official release after its first recording was aborted. Both sides of the 45 originated during sessions for a scrapped debut LP, Warsaw, which was to be released in 1978 through RCA records, then home to David Bowie. The tapes would eventually see the light of day in 1994 and they’re a fascinating document of a band in their nascent phase, all captivating are energy, undisciplined but tuneful.
The re-recorded Transmission starts with a complex, driven bass line before Stephen Morris’s drum hits kick and the song really starts going. However, everything goes quiet as Ian recites some of the most poignant poetry of his entire career, envisioning a grim, hellish world of humans living in blindness as mole rats underground.
It all comes to an overload when he reminds us that with a lack of sight we can still “Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio.” Just sheer sonic perfection and raw emotional catharsis, and seemingly anticipating Bowie’s “Let’s dance to the songs they’re playing on the radio,” that came in rather less nihilistic fashion a few years later.
This is really where you can hear the seeds of New Order. The way that bobbing, modulated bass line anchors scratchy guitars that sound like open air and breathless finality is just a grimmer permutation of the formula that gave us Temptation and laid the foundations for the groundbreaking Blue Monday and Bizarre Love Triangle.
Not unlike Unknown Pleasures, which Peter Saville famously featured a wave plotting of pulsar CP 1919 on its iconic cover, the 7-inch sleeve for Transmission features the Orion Nebula, that was in 1880 the first object of its kind to ever be photographed.
The second Joy Division single, and their last release in Ian’s lifetime was initially issued as a limited edition import in March 1980, packaged under the title Licht und Blindheit, which translated as Light and Blindness in German, despite the pressing being French. The A-side, for me, is the band’s crowning glory, other than the obvious one we’ll come to in a moment.
With its jerky drumscape and cascading chimes, Atmosphere is a desolate, glacially beautiful song that is perhaps the zenith of Hannett’s futurist production, but also highlighted the remarkable alienation in Curtis’ voice, one that eschewed exhibition of emotion for a description of the husk – the ghost, one might almost say – of a feeling that has passed. Indeed, there’s a feeling of a requiem here, a mournful musical farewell.
It’s hardly a surprise that the flip side was a song called Dead Souls. The breathtakingly eternal funereal quality was echoed on the sleeve of the original import issue – a cowled monk, back turned, facing a snow-covered Alpine peak, almost religious in its construction.
The original 7’ was issued with a very specific quota, 1578 copies to be precise, and only available to purchase via mail order. Sadly, the faithful wouldn’t have to wait long for a second chance to own a copy: the track received a wider release two months later on a Factory issued 12” following Ian Curtis’ death. The single was re-released again in 1988 to coincide with the release of the compilation album Substance, accompanied by an Anton Corbijn-directed video featuring characters wearing black-hooded cloaks and white burial shrouds.
The culmination of spiralling depression, worsening epilepsy and marital breakdown, after listening to the Bowie-produced Idiot by Iggy Pop, Curtis hanged himself in his Macclesfield* kitchen on 18 March 1980 exactly two months after Atmosphere’s release. Joy Division had released precisely one album, two singles and an EP, but the reverberations would be felt through the music world for decades.
Disclaimer: Take it from someone who’s felt as low as Cutis—suicide is not the answer. It’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem. There’s no taking it back once you’ve done it. And there is nothing for you down that road. Trust me, there are others. Reach out and find the things worth hanging on to, because believe me, they’re there.
Curtis’s visceral intensity, poetic candour and devastating tragedy infiltrated the underground scene and lay the bedrock for much of the more glowering, portentous and meaningful alternative music to come.
They didn’t have long to wait.
In June 1980 the band’s first posthumous record was released. A song that is Joy Division’s whole history carved into one stone tablet: the legend that’s inscribed on Curtis’s memorial stone, and an entire legacy distilled into 3m 46 sec of perfect pop music. It’s also unlike anything else in their entire back catalog. There’s no heavy murk or Gothic gloom, just that gorgeous, squirrelling synth that’s sad and sweet, vulnerable and lost.
And while Curtis’s words are so often rooted in morbid fantasy worlds, there’s no concept here: just the harsh reality of a relationship withered and gone wrong. “Why is this bedroom so cold? You’ve turned away on your side,” he asks, bitter and bruised, as two people lie next to one another but can’t bring themselves to talk.
Combining candour and timeless, meticulous song-writing, Love Will Tear Us Apart is much more than an eloquent epitaph. It also became Joy Divison’s first ever showing on the UK chart, entering at the end of June 1980—the very week I turned 11**—and rising to No.13 a month later, by which time the band’s second album was in the shops. I’ve always assumed its title was deliberately ambiguous, post Curtis’s death (kloh-zer or kloh-ser), but perhaps that’s just the way I prefer to interpret it.
A quantum leap in terms of production, variety and experimentation, Closer is probably my favourite of the two LPs. Somehow I’ve connected better to its coldly synthetic majesty more over the years, in particular, the grinding sprawl of Atrocity Exhibition, the synthwave electroclash of Isolation and the nuclear winter of Decades. Of course, in retrospect all the signs were there. The most devastating is probably the funeral march of Heart And Soul, and its “instinct that leads to betrayal” as Curtis put it, a track that with hindsight reads as little more than a suicide note. Mancunian journalist Paul Morley, who has written extensively on Joy Division, describes Closer as “a series of blatant suicide notes to a number of people in Ian’s immediate vicinity.”
As the Cure’s Robert Smith, himself no stranger to seriously soul-searching songcraft, put it, slightly tactlessly: “I remember hearing Closer for the first time and thinking, “I can’t ever imagine making something as powerful as this. I thought I’d have to kill myself to make a convincing record”.”
Even George Michael declared it his favourite album of the year.
Given their rapid progression from three-chord punk to the grandeur of Love Will Tear Us Apart, the tragedy of all this is not just personal – who knows what creative limits Joy Division would have reached had Curtis continued.
Even the grand Dame David Bowie, the foreteller of Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide, tipped them a knowing wink with the post-punk chordal bass run on his 2016 swansong Lazarus, recorded when he knew he was dying and issued just days before his own death. Three years later and having failed to chart on original release, Unknown Pleasures made its UK chart debut in 2019 reaching Number 5.
Ian Curtis may be remembered as the heart and soul of this legendary new wave band, and indeed his vision and his all-too-human voice are crucial elements in the success of their all too fleeting output. But it’s a disservice to overlook the contribution of bandmates Bernard Sumner’s slashing art-noise guitar, and (perhaps definitively) Stephen Morris’ driving drumming. Morris really makes the band’s music cohere, whether he’s playing patterns, droning it up, or laying some programming on what might pass for dance music in some circles.
Having made a pact that should any member leave, the remaining members would change the band name, brought in Gillian Gilbert and became New Order.
So what would any subsequent Joy Division songs have sounded like if he’d lived? Would the third album have been as seismic a change and development from Closer like that was from Unknown Pleasures? We’ll never know for sure but you can get a rough idea by listening to the ghostly shadows of New Order’s first album Movement and its compelling spectral production.
Last word to the bassist then.
“People assume that when he died it was like Nirvana but it wasn’t. The last gig we played, in Birmingham, we played to about 150 people. So we were not successful. Ian always said we’d be huge all around the world. Listening to Closer again, it’s heart-rending. Ian created a wonderful testimony of how he felt at the time: apprehensive, fearful but powerful. Not in control of your destiny: you can hear how that break evolved.
“The important thing you realise, as you get older, is that the fact that Joy Division didn’t carry on wasn’t the most important thing for Ian. The most important thing was a daughter lost her father. Parents lost a son. A wife lost a husband. A lover lost a lover. That is really the important thing — because let’s face it, there’s lots of groups. There’ll be another along in a minute.”
*My grandfather also died in Macclesfield, around the corner from the house Ian Curtis shared with Deborah though a good twelve years later.
**Grace Jones was the first artist to cover a Joy Division song on record. Released as the B-side to her Private Life 45 on 27 June 1980 (the day after I turned 11 and the same week Love Will Tear Us Apart entered the chart), her long dubby take on She’s Lost Control won’t be to everyone’s taste but here it is anyway.
Given that her Warm Leatherette LP was released on 9 May 1980, and that Private Life is an album track, received wisdom suggests it was recorded before Ian Curtis died, unless Jones had quickly returned to the studio in tribute, but that’s not very likely given that the track is a mere flipside. “We cut it really just to wind up the session,” said Grace. “I took it literally. I lost control. I can’t listen to that track now. I lost control to such an extent I scared myself. I let everything build, build, build, and I let the words take me over. I decided, Oh, that’s not written for me, but I think it might have been written about me. It’s hard to listen to myself going insane. I had no idea who Joy Division were. I just loved the song. I heard “lost con- trol,” and that was enough for me. As far as I was concerned it was a self-portrait.”
BONUS BEATS: Death as a unifying force. Since Bowie’s passing, whenever they’ve played Atmosphere New Order have incorporated a bit of his Cat People into the moody synth intro of the Joy Division classic, like when I caught them in Argentina a couple of years ago. Pronto!