Joy Division and Ian Curtis: the myths

Forty years ago this Sunday, 3rd June, Joy Division released their first record, An Ideal For Living.

Joy Division's Ian Curtis. Image: Remko Hoving (CC 2.0)

Ian Curtis and Joy Division stand out. Not least because their music portrayed emotions, sorrows and terrors in a way that most popular music never comes within a country mile of and because Ian Curtis held nothing back in revealing his inner feelings, both live and on record. Indeed, he seemed to be singing directly to the listener in a way that seems too personal for a pop record.

As Robert Smith of the Cure, himself no stranger to seriously soul-searching habits and music, put it: ‘I remember hearing Closer [Joy Division’s second and final album] 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”.’

Graffiti in Joy Division's hometown, Manchester, England, United Kingdom, 2006.
It reads: ' Holy Mother of Fuck I Love Joy Division!' Photo: Duncan Hull (CC 2.0

Dirty old town

To understand why Joy Division sounded the way they did, it is important to look at the time and context that they grew up and lived in.

The British Empire and class structures were crumbling and unemployment and inflation were sky-high. Britain was in an economic decline with huge public spending cuts, political polarization, and an infinite number of strikes, not to mention the added danger of IRA bombs and hooligan violence, as England had failed to qualify for two consecutive Football World Cups in the seventies. The optimism of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ was well and truly gone.

This was especially true for the north of England in general, and Manchester in particular – a city that played an important role in the industrial revolution.

Joy Division guitarist Bernard Sumner remembers a Manchester of factories where ‘nothing that was pretty, nothing’, and growing up in a place where ‘you didn’t have much chance of progressing in the word, really.’

You could hear the landscapes and soundscapes of seventies Manchester in Joy Division’s music. Indeed, Joy Division’s first album Unknown Pleasures was ‘the album that most perfectly evoked the spirit of 1979’, according to journalist Mick Middles and, friend of Ian’s, Lindsay Reade who was married to Joy Division’s label Factory Records boss Tony Wilson at the time.

‘Joy Division sounded like Manchester: cold, sparse and at times, bleak’, as Bernard Sumner said in his autobiography. ‘They sounded like the place they came from, without a doubt’, as a fellow Mancunian, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, put it.

Joy Division. Image: Remko Hoving (CC 2.0)

Day in, day out

But for Joy Division’s lead singer, there were also interior landscapes to contend with. Ian Curtis might have been 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’ on Digital and ‘a dual of personalities, that stretch all true realities’ on Dead Souls it rang true.

In fact, there seemed to be several Ian Curtis’s:

The husband and father who took pride in helping disabled people at the employment exchange in Macclesfield, where he worked as an Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer.

The lad who partook in all manner of laddish pranks with band and friends, such as fighting, drinking, ‘chasing groupies and pissing in ashtrays and looking at turds in toilets’, as Joy Division bassist Peter Hook remembers.

The aesthete who had an obsession with death and rock and film stars who had died young. Who read about human suffering in Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Hesse and Ballard, read to his wife Debbie about how ‘there is no mystery so great as misery’ from Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, and talked about poetry and literature with his girlfriend Annik, who he met after a concert in August 1979.

According to Peter Hook, ‘there were just too many Ian’s to cope with. The perfect friend or partner for Ian would have combined all those things, but if that person exists they were nowhere near our social scene, so he had to be a chameleon … Thinking about it, I bet even Ian didn’t know who the “real” Ian was.’

The myth and the man

A lot of the myth and mystique surrounding Joy Division in general, and Ian Curtis in particular, tends to portray a rather more one-dimensional sense of torment and gloom.

Perhaps because the band did few interviews, because the cover-art contains little information about the band, or because the pictures and footage that were published and released of them were almost exclusively black-and-white. Including the otherwise excellent film Control, based on Ian’s wife Debbie Curtis’s book, Touching from a distance.

According to Joy Division’s main photographer, Kevin Cummins, Ian was fun to be with, ‘but has this image of a depressed reclusive gloomy romantic hero because I only released photographs of Ian looking depressed.’

This is echoed by Ian’s mother, who has emphasized that her son’s life wasn’t tragic and by Peter Hook, who describer Ian as a people pleaser and ‘one of the lads, as far as we were concerned.’

Look beyond the day at hand

But however much Ian kept a straight face and could be fun to be with, in retrospect there were many signs that he was not well. He had already tried to commit suicide once. His epilepsy, which he had been diagnosed with in December 1978, was getting worse as fits were becoming stronger and more frequent, both on-stage and off. And the medicine he had to take for the fits had lots of unpleasant side effects.

Ian’s lyrics had always portrayed images of human cruelty and coldness, pressure, crises, failure and the loss of control. But they were becoming increasingly depressing as his marriage and health deteriorated and he felt the pressure of bearing his soul as a lead-singer of an increasingly popular band.

He was singing lines such as ‘Existence, well what does it matter’, ‘It’s creeping up slowly, that last fatal hour’, ‘I’ve lost the will to want more’, ‘Watching the reel as it comes to a close’, ‘Look beyond the day at hand, there’s nothing there at all’, and ‘Hangman looks round as he waits, cord stretches tight then it breaks’, the latter from what was probably the last song the band ever wrote, ‘In a Lonely Place’.

Mancunian journalist Paul Morley, who has written extensively on Joy Division, even describes Joy Division’s final album Closer as ‘a series of blatant suicide notes to a number of people in Ian’s immediate vicinity.’

Photo of flyer taken at Piccadilly Metrolink Station, Manchester, England, United Kingdom on 12 August 1979. Credit: Mikey (CC 2.0)

Don’t walk away in silence

But did Curtis wish to die a romantic death, along the lines of one of his favorite artists David Bowie’s Rock’Roll Suicide? Was it the medication that made him end his own life, as his wife and several friends believed? Or was it all the soul searching, the illness, and having to make a life-choice between his wife and girlfriend?

Curtis himself perhaps alluded to one reason when he told Radio Blackburn in 1980 that ‘basically, we want to play and enjoy what we like playing. I think that when we stop doing that, I think, well, that will be time to pack it in. That will be the end.’

According to his wife, he had only intended to make one album and one single and was unhappy with the music business and the pressure of being in Joy Division. As Curtis wrote in a letter to girlfriend Annik, ‘Joy Division in itself is such a great responsibility not only for my own health and peace of mind but the fact that on me rests the future of others and more beside. Indeed the strain had become too much.’

The idiot

Whatever the reason, Ian Curtis hanged himself in the early hours of 18 May 1980, only 23 years of age, after having received divorce papers from his wife the previous day. It was the day that Joy Division was to embark on their first tour of America.

‘Reality is only a term, based on values and well-worn principles, whereas the dream goes on forever’ – Ian Curtis

Ian had been drinking coffee and spirits. Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot was on the record player, where he would have heard the song ‘Tiny Girls’ that starts with the line ‘well the day begins, you don't want to live, cause you can't believe in the one you're with.’ And he had seen Werner Herzog’s films Stroszek the previous night, which is about a musician who moves to America, is betrayed by his girlfriend, and ends up killing himself.

He had left a note on the mantelpiece for his wife that everyone believed was a suicide note. According to neighbour Kevin Wood, it turned out to be a letter to Debbie, saying that when he got back from America he wanted to get back with her and be part of a normal family again.

Everyone seemed to have a different explanation of what had happened and why. Peter Hook said Ian had seemed happy to be going to America. Ian’s friend and colleague Genesis P-Orridge, on the other hand insisted that ‘he had said that he would rather die than go on that tour.’

According to Ian’s sister Carole, one of the reasons for this was that her brother could ‘mask his emotions. He never let you know what was really going on. He wouldn’t want to upset you … [But] in my mind I never thought he’d see it past 30 to be honest.’

The grave of Ian Curtis. Photo: Bernt Rostad (CC 2.0)

One of the last true stories in pop

Joy Division ended up selling hundreds of thousands of records without advertising, pluggers or marketing budgets, due to the freedom given by their anarchic and idealistic (some would say flippant and financially unsound) record company, Factory Records. Indeed, both the band’s albums received 10 out of 10 reviews from the NME when they were released and Closer reaching number 6 in the UK albums charts.

At the same time the members of the band held down day jobs for several years while playing gigs, and during the recording of Closer, after they had quit their jobs, they were living on 50 pounds (USD$67) per week. They never made much money from the band while Ian Curtis was alive.

According to in-house-designer, Peter Saville, who designed Joy Division’s covers and material, ‘Ian’s story is one of the last true stories in pop … in a business-dominated pop culture.’

John Lydon a.k.a. Johnny Rotten had started it all when Curtis, Hook and Sumner had seen the Sex Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1977 and decided to form a band. He believes young musicians today ‘have no bollocks. No guts. They’re all young and fed up with their lives. But they don’t sing about it. They don’t do anything to change it.’

Unlike Joy Division, who obviously ‘meant it’ to a degree that they ended up influencing everyone from George Michael to The Cure and Interpol, as well as forming the basis for another popular and influential independent British band New Order.

‘The sound of Joy Division is omnipresent,’ as influential British music magazine the New Musical Express wrote a few years back.

The dream goes on

Dead heroes do not age, do not fade away, do not make bad albums in later years. They allow us to project our fears, hopes and dreams onto them like a musical version of Dorian Gray and let them stare into the abyss for us and describe what they see.

Ian Curtis once said that ‘you either stay outside the system or go in totally, and try and change it.’ Let it be part of his legacy that he tried and had to give up in the end.

But as he wrote in a note found by his wife, ‘reality is only a term, based on values and well-worn principles, whereas the dream goes on forever.’

Peter Kenworthy is a British/Danish journalist and Master of Social Science who writes about international development, climate, music, education and football.