Manchester, England in the 1970s had a rollicking music scene. In the wake of the gritty punk synonymous with the Sex Pistols, the late '70s ushered in a new era and genre: post-punk. Although still rooted in the earlier punk rock traditions, post-punk was more introverted, complex and instrumental, punk all grown up perhaps. The pioneers of this movement were arguably a couple of guys, Hook and Sumner, of Salford, Greater Manchester who, after seeing the Sex Pistols live, decided to form their own band in 1976. After Ian Curtis replied to an ad looking for a singer, the band finalized the line-up and became Joy Division.
Warsaw (as the band was originally known), with then drummer Steve Brotherdale, played their first gig on May 29, 1977 supporting the Buzzcocks, Penetration and John Cooper Clarke at the Electric Circus. Having garnered the attention of the national music industry, the band recorded a demo of five tracks at the Oldham, Pennine Sound Studios, later released as An Ideal for Living. But the demo recordings didn't go well due to Brotherdale, whom the band ditched on the side of the road after he tried to poach Curtis for his other band, Panik. Stephen Morris, who'd attended the same school as Curtis, soon joined the band as the new drummer. The band played their last gig as Warsaw on New Year's Eve 1977 at the Swinging Apple in Liverpool.
The name Warsaw, in reference to Bowie's song "Warszawa" was soon replaced to avoid confusion with another band called Warsaw Pakt. In keeping with the allusion to WWII, the band took the name Joy Division from a prostitution wing of a Nazi concentration camp as mentioned in the 1955 novel by holocaust survivor Ka-tzetnik 135633, The House of Dolls. The newly named Joy Division performed their first gig January 25, 1978 at Pip's Disco in Manchester.
The band caught the attention of entertainment industry mogul Tony Wilson during the Stiff/Chiswick Challenge concert at Manchester's Rafter's Club. With a musical sound akin to Lou Reed's Velvet Underground combined with Curtis' gloomy lyrics sung in his bass-baritone and influenced by the likes of William S. Burroughs, Joy Division, managed by Rob Gretton signed with RCA to record their first album. Dissatisfied with the label's insistence of adding synthesizer to the band's otherwise aggressive and stripped down sound, they bought themselves out of their contract and moved over to Wilson's indie label, Factory Records.
Due to the Nazi imagery used on the packaging for An Ideal Living released in June 1978 and the band's name in connection to WWII, many speculated that the band had a neo-Nazi leaning, a notion further provoked by Hook and Sumner's admitted fascination with fascism. Morris, however, stated that the band merely wanted to keep the memory of WWII alive as a tribute to the sacrifices their parents and grandparents had made during that time and bore no relation to their political ideals, neo-Nazi or otherwise.
On December 27 1978, after a show in London, Curtis suffered his first epileptic seizure during the ride home and was rushed to hospital. Epilepsy in the '70s was a disorder not easily treated and Curtis began a regimen of various medications as doctors tried to find the best chemical cocktail for his condition. This took a serious toll on the young singer.
In April 1979, Joy Division returned to the studio, this time Strawberry Studios in Stockport, to record their debut album titled Unknown Pleasures. The non-album single "Transmission" was released in November that year and catapulted the band to startling success complete with a following of fans dubbed 'The Cult with no Name,' consisting of mostly serious-faced, intense young men sporting gray overcoats. Curtis also became famous for his jerky, spasm-like dance moves perhaps inspired by the involuntary muscle movements experienced during his epileptic fits.
With Curtis' epilepsy considered stable, the band enjoyed a European Tour in 1980 and recorded their second album Closer at London's Britannia Row Studios. The band released the single titled Licht und Blindheit (Light and Blindness) featuring the songs "Dead Souls" and "Atmosphere." "Dead Souls" went on to be one of their greatest hits and was later covered by Nine Inch Nails and included on the soundtrack for the 1994 cult film, The Crow. The lyrics of "Dead Souls" also epitomize Curtis' bleaker outlook commenting on the obvious theme of death, desolation and emptiness. In 1980, long hours of work, lack of sleep and back to back shows took their toll on Curtis and his epilepsy became uncontrollable, resulting in numerous seizures on stage during shows, a situation that left Curtis feeling ashamed, despondent and depressed.
On April 7, 1980, Curtis attempted suicide with a phenobarbitone (anti-convulsant barbiturate) overdose. Despite Curtis' deteriorating health, the band recorded promotional footage to be used in the video for what is possibly their most famous song "Love Will Tear Us Apart" - a song since covered by many artists and featured in a number of films including Donnie Darko, and even an episode of the TV series Criminal Minds. Curtis' personal life with high school sweetheart and wife, Deborah, complicated by his relationship with a Belgian groupie and severe epilepsy, sunk the singer into a depression from which he did not recover.
On the eve of their American tour, May 17, 1980, Curtis returned to his home in Macclesfield to beg his estranged wife not to file for divorce. On the morning of May 18, at the age of 24, Curtis took his life, hanging himself in his kitchen. Tony Wilson is quoted saying, "I think all of us made the mistake of not thinking his suicide was going to happen... We all completely underestimated the danger. We didn't take it seriously. That's how stupid we were." Morris too, berated himself for not taking the signs seriously, "it was only after Ian died that we sat down and listened to the lyrics... I'd look at Ian's lyrics and think how clever he was putting himself in the position of someone else. I never believed he was writing about himself. Looking back, how could I have been so bleedin' stupid? ...I didn't go in and grab him and ask, 'What's up?' I have to live with that."
"Love Will Tear Us Apart
" was released posthumously in June 1980 followed by the release of Closer in July. Having made a pact that were any member to leave Joy Division, the band would change their name, the three remaining members decided to stick together and formed New Order, a band that went on to enjoy greater commercial success than its predecessor.
Since Curtis' death assured Joy Division a place in the annuls of music history, two films have been made detailing the band's rise and fall. 24 Hour Party People is a 2002 British film specifically about Factory Records and the Manchester Music scene with Steve Coogan playing Tony Wilson as the main character while Sean Harris takes the role of Ian Curtis, depicting the band's early days on stage as well as Curtis' tragic descent into depression. Another film dedicated to Curtis and his personal tribulations as a member of Joy Division is the 2007 black and white biopic Control, the name taken from the song "She's Lost Control." This film stars Sam Riley as Ian Curtis and depicts the singer's life in all its gritty detail while being sensitive to the fact that a largely misunderstood illness was the catalyst for self-destruction. The film included Curtis' daughter, Natalie, as an extra in the crowd during one of the gigs. Hook remarked that "Control is a hell of a lot more accurate than 24 Hour Party People."
Despite or perhaps because of the tragedy surrounding Joy Division, the band has had an indelible effect on the post-punk music scene, which later morphed into the 1980s gothic rock, industrial and alternative rock genres inspiring bands such as The Sisters of Mercy and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Joy Division songs remain a firm favorite on the indie and goth circuits, and an be still heard in clubs and on the radio throughout the world.
The two-bedroom property at 77 Barton Street, Macclesfield, where Ian Curtis lived and committed suicide was purchased by Hadar Goldman in 2015. The house was purchased by the entrepreneur and classically trained musician for £190,000 (approx $300,000) with the intention of transforming it into a Joy Division museum.