Dark star: The final days of Ian Curtis by his Joy Division bandmates

Married at 19, the brightest star of the post-punk scene at 22, dead at 23. The life of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis is the stuff of rock mythology – and a much talked-about new film. Here, his former band-mates talk exclusively to Jon Savage about their troubled singer’s last days


Saturday 27 October 1979. I’m up in the gods of the Ardwick Apollo, a huge 1930s cinema situated in the middle of slum clearance. The Buzzcocks’ manager Richard Boon is fiddling with the tripod of a primitive Beta video camera as he attempts to get the stage area into focus. His primary purpose is to film his group, who are headlining tonight, but he inadvertently ends up capturing a piece of history.

Framed within the cinema’s huge proscenium arch, Joy Division walk out and launch into “Dead Souls”. The peculiarity of this song is that it has a long, rolling introduction that allows the group to orient themselves in their environment for the night. Like many of the venues on this 24-date national tour, the Apollo is larger than the clubs that have been the group’s environment to date. But they are not intimidated. They inhabit the space.

Then he begins to sing: “Someone take these dreams away/ That point me to another day”. The lyric to “Dead Souls” is an unsettling evocation of psychic possession and the presence of past lives. The chorus is an anguished chant: “They keep calling me”. From today’s materialistic cultural perspective, this might excite derision, but like many others in that hall, I’m totally gripped.

Their presentation is as spare as their austerity-era clothing. Guitarist Bernard Sumner and bassist Peter Hook occupy flanking positions stage front, while drummer Stephen Morris is set back. Within this solid phalanx, singer Ian Curtis has room to move, and he slowly fills it: edging backwards and forwards on his toes in a crab-like fashion, building up to the moment when, transported by the music, he launches himself into the void – arms flailing and legs pumping.

As the tense, metallic music ebbs and swells, Curtis holds nothing back. This intensity – and the tension it causes – can be seen in his body posture. Even when dancing at full speed, he is stiff. Together with his severe haircut and utilitarian clothing, he has an almost militaristic rigidity that subverts his attempts at physical release. Lacking fluidity, his movements resemble the jerkings of a marionette.

Curtis is trying to break through – in the manner of charismatic rock stars such as Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop – but he is frustrated by his own limitations. There are moments when he suddenly looks exhausted, sighing and closing his eyes. When they reopen, they are wide and unfocused, blurry as if filling with tears. Then he’s off again, manically dancing as though a switch has been flipped.

Three decades after that show, Joy Division are the biggest rock group in the country. Their current profile is a testament to the marketing power of film. The release of Anton Corbijn’s love-letter to the group, Control, has triggered the reissue of three Joy Division albums – Unknown Pleasures, Closer and Still – as well as a film documentary, simply called Joy Division, set for imminent release. For a group that had no hits in their lifetime, this is an extraordinary achievement.

There are several reasons why this is Joy Division’s moment. The late 1970s and early 1980s have come back into fashion, as current rock groups such as Interpol and Editors mine the rigorous style of post-punk for musical inspiration. The 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, whatever its historical flaws, turned the story of Joy Division and Factory Records into a mainstream topic. Plus, the records still sound great – which is why they are being promoted as if they are a new release.

Joy Division are also the subject of myth. The first, and more obvious, centres on Curtis’s May 1980 suicide, which is seen as romantic. Like Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain or Thomas Chatterton, Curtis is a numinous figure cut down before his prime, destined to never grow old and thus to permanently inhabit adolescence. His death, so the story runs, legitimises his lyrics and Joy Division’s music.

The other has to do with the memories of those who saw Joy Division. Just as Curtis’s early death caused great distress to his family, bandmates and close friends, so it was echoed in the sense of loss felt by those who had witnessed ‘ Joy Division’s extraordinary performances or were professionally involved. The Joy Division cult began here, in the attempt of photographers, writers, family and fans to make sense of a sudden, devastating loss.

A turning point in the story was the publication, in 1995, of Deborah Curtis’s memoir Touching From a Distance – the basis for the Corbijn film. When I was handed the manuscript by an editor at Faber and Faber, and asked my opinion, I told them to publish. Apart from offering that rare thing, a woman’s perspective of the music industry, Deborah gave an unsparing account of her marriage that lay bare the emotions beneath her husband’s controlled, controlling façade.

There have been other books about Joy Division since, but Curtis remains an enigma. In researching and interviewing for the forthcoming film documentary about the group, I went back and talked to Sumner, Hook and Morris, who were remarkably thoughtful and candid about this extraordinary period in their lives with which they are still struggling to come to terms. Dying young, their charismatic singer posed a set of questions that remain vivid 27 years later.

Ian Curtis was born in July 1956 and raised in Macclesfield, a small industrial town on the south-east extremity of Cheshire. The bright child of working-class parents, he loved history books from an early age. At 12, he gained a place at the fee-paying King’s School but dropped out before taking his A levels. Only one recorded story from his early life hints at anything out of the ordinary: at the age of 16 he took an overdose of Largactil and had to have his stomach pumped.

Curtis was obsessed with pop as an escape from everyday life. Fired up by David Bowie, the Velvet Underground, Roxy Music and the Stooges, he had visions of being a charismatic rock star but could see no way of closing the gap between inspiration and practice. He wanted to live in his own world, but “real life” intruded all too quickly: by the time he married Deborah in August 1975, he was settled into a civil service job.

In Touching From a Distance, Deborah recalls the early years of her marriage in Chadderton, near Oldham. “Our existence had become boring and the fact that we both hated our jobs didn’t help. I became very depressed. Sometimes I was unable to stifle the tears on the long bus journey home. We had mistakenly saddled ourselves with a mortgage and a stability we weren’t ready for. We were still only 19 years old and Ian’s ideas of a musical career didn’t seem like extravagant dreams at all. They gave us something to look forward to.”

Within a year, Ian Curtis was presented with an unforeseen opportunity when the Sex Pistols came to Manchester twice. Both Sumner and Hook – childhood school friends – went to the group’s first concert at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976. Curtis saw the return show in July. The 23-year-olds joined the floating pool of would-be musicians galvanised by what Hook remembers as “like a car crash. You had the blinding flash that you could do it.”

Sumner and Hook began looking for a lead singer. They recognised Curtis from shows at Manchester’s prime punk club, The Electric Circus; he had a donkey jacket with “HATE” painted on the back. Curtis found a name for the fledgling group, taken from the track “Warszawa” on David Bowie’s instrumental album Low: Warsaw. It fitted the monochrome aesthetic that they aspired to. With the addition of Morris, another Macclesfield native, they clicked.

The fledgling group learned through trial and error. “We just picked up our instruments,” Sumner remembers. “Ian was listening carefully and he’d spot the riffs. Once we’d got them the three of us would work on the arrangement. Ian would step out a little bit then he’d come in with the vocals. Ian always had a box of words and he’d just pull some words out and start singing them. He’d be at home writing every night, so it was pretty quick.”

Joy Division were laddish, like any group of young men, but Richard Boon – who helped the group out in their early days – remembers Curtis stood out. “He was possessed by burning youth. He was enthused by his own sense of alienation. He was trying to work something out. He could be as loutish as the rest of them, but you always sensed that he was making an effort to be a lad. He was really a little more withdrawn, a little more thoughtful.”

Morris was surprised, on his first encounter, to find that Curtis was polite and educated. When Warsaw went down to the Electric Circus to play at the venue’s final night in October 1977, Morris saw another side: “Ian got very aggressive with the people on the door. I’d never seen him like that before. He got really wound up. We got on the stage and all of a sudden, he’s turned into a whirling dervish. His manic routine wasn’t put on: it was passion.”

I went to that show to review it for Sounds, one of the weekly music papers. Although they were way down the bill, something in Warsaw’s performance stuck in the mind: a kind of existential desperation, a burning need to communicate that went way beyond their visible talent. This was a feature of the punk period, as was the urgency contained in the one audible lyric, “What are you gonna do when the novelty’s gone?” At the moment when punk’s energy was fast dissipating, this was a pertinent question.

Warsaw’s first record – the “Ideal for Living” EP – developed these signs of promise. The key track, “No Love Lost”, featured a rolling introduction and a half-spoken, half-sung lyric taken from the 1955 novel House of Dolls, by Ka-Tzetnik 135633. This account of brothels inside the Nazi concentration camps gave both an insight into Curtis’ lyrical preoccupations and also pointed the way to the group’s new name, Joy Division.

Born in the mid 1950s, the members of Joy Division grew up with war damage. Sumner’s close relatives talked “about the Second World War all the time. For a young mind like mine it was a bizarre thing for the whole world to be up at each other’s throats. Obviously I thought that it was dreadfully wrong what the Nazis had done, but what interested me was how people can turn so bad. Living in Salford I saw a lot of violence and I just wanted to understand the causes of why people behaved like that.”

Things accelerated. Within a few months in mid 1978, Joy Division acquired a manager, Rob Gretton, whose wise counsel and hard work contributed much to their astonishing growth; a promoter and publicist, Anthony Wilson, who put them on Granada Television; a residency at the Russell Club in Hulme; and a record label, Factory. They also began to attract a fanatical audience. The filmmaker Malcolm Whitehead saw those early shows: “They were absolutely stunning. They hit me not in my head but in my stomach.” For Liz Naylor, a 16-year-old runaway, Joy Division “corresponded exactly with my emotional state. They were melancholy. There was anger there, but they really chimed with how I felt – which was self-destructive and depressed and confused.”

Both saw something extraordinary in Curtis’s performances. “The band were great,” Whitehead remembers, “but Ian was really laying himself bare every time they played. That’s what got to me, the massive courage of the man.” Naylor recalls how “Ian’s dancing was like time stopping. He was like a shaman: you were just pulled into the moment.”

Joy Division also mirrored their environment. “It was the last days of an industrial city,” Naylor adds. “The centre of Manchester was full of the people who were left after everyone who could had moved out. It was overrun by the dispossessed. And you had this police chief, James Anderton, who believed he was going to remake the city as a more wholesome place. It felt really threatening.”

In the spring of 1979, Joy Division recorded their first album with Martin Hannett, who found the group “a gift to a producer, because they didn’t have a clue”. Emphasising new technology, in particular the AMS digital delay line, Hannett converted Joy Division’s live force into a muted ambience that combined sound effects – most famously, the studio lift – with synthesised drums.

Sumner and Hook hated the production. “I just wanted us to be how we sounded live,” says the latter. “I wasn’t interested in depth or anything, I just wanted to lop people’s heads off.” Unknown Pleasures, however, successfully presented the group to a wider audience. Housed in a black-and-white Peter Saville sleeve – depicting the radio waves of a dying star – its dreamlike ambience caught a mood of anger and anxiety that mirrored a society in transition.

Unknown Pleasures stands today as a coming-of-age statement from a young man facing a hostile world. This was a radical departure. As Anthony Wilson remembers: “Punk enabled you to say ‘Fuck you’, but somehow it couldn’t go any further. Sooner or later someone was going to want to say, ‘I’m fucked’, and that was Joy Division.”

I reviewed Unknown Pleasures for Melody Maker. I’d just moved to Manchester, from London, and I found the record an astonishingly accurate guide to finding my way around this new city. With its filmic aura, it seemed to mirror the hidden dangers of this post-industrial environment, as well as the curious comfort that existed within the claustrophobia of Manchester on a cold, foggy night.

It was hard to equate the record with the way that the group sounded live and the way that they were off-stage. Compared with London musicians, they were down-to-earth and friendly, albeit reserved. Hook was the most outgoing, while Sumner and manager Rob Gretton would make wry comments. Like many people who met Curtis during that period, I remember him as polite and sociable, but closed. He was not one to lightly reveal what was on his mind.

During the summer of 1979, two films were premiered that explicitly related the group to its place and time. Malcolm Whitehead’s Joy Division mixed rapid-fire cut-ups (of Manchester street-scenes, ads, James Anderton) with three songs from a show at the Bowdon Vale Youth Club.

“They were the resistance group against Anderton’s oppressive regime,” says Whitehead today. “The whole idea was that art and culture will be bigger than all this right-wing politics, because it’s more human.”

At the same time, Charles Salem’s No City Fun used a text by Liz Naylor to orient the viewer through Manchester’s streets. The camera roams the city to find the forgotten zones which tell an existential truth: the monolithic crescents of Hulme, wastelands full of rubble and parked cars. Soundtracked by Unknown Pleasures, this was nothing less, as Naylor recollects, than “psychogeographic filmmaking”.

The second half of 1979 saw Joy Division become a national, if not an international, act. They appeared on BBC2’s Something Else, where they tore up the studio with a berserk version of “She’s Lost Control”. They travelled to Belgium for their first foreign date, where they shared the bill with William Burroughs and where Ian Curtis met Annik Honore. They continued to write and record songs at a dizzying rate: “Transmission”, “Dead Souls”, “Atmosphere”.

By 1980, Joy Division were poised for success. They had a sure-fire hit in the live favourite “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, and were moving further into synthesised dance music. They were music-press darlings, attracting bigger and bigger crowds across the country. But, as often happens, success brings problems. The pressure on Curtis was increasing just at the point where his medical condition was becoming critical.

On his way home from a London concert in December 1978, Curtis had a serious epileptic fit. While it seems this was not his first, it was the first time that the group were aware of his illness. The rest of Joy Division tried to work around Curtis’s condition, but all the things that young men experience in rock bands were bad for him: alcohol, over-stimulation, flashing lights, travel.

The medical advice was to live a calm, sheltered life, but that was impossible with Curtis’s temperament and inclinations. “Ian had a desire to explore the extremes,” says Sumner. “He wanted extreme music, manic performances. Generally, he was incredibly pleasant, polite and really nice, but sometimes in life if you don’t have teeth, people take advantage. Ian’s response was to become totally explosive.”

By the time the group were recording their second album, Closer, Curtis was in serious trouble. Pop had offered an escape, but that was closing down, as he was celebrated for the dance that mimicked his illness and lyrics that were not an artistic statement but a real-life document. People expected more and more but he was giving everything. At the same time, he had embarked on an affair with Annik Honore and was torn between his new life and his family life with Deborah and daughter Natalie, born in April 1979.

His response was a slow withdrawal from Deborah, who was kept in ignorance of what was going on. She was being shut out of her husband’s life. “The nasty and deceitful side of him seemed to be winning,” she wrote in her memoir. “People weren’t as friendly as they used to be and it was understandable. Ian had fallen into a routine of telling his comrades how unhappy I was making his life and, as Peter Hook told me, putting over an uncomplimentary image. Our marriage was over and he hadn’t told me.”

As Curtis’s epilepsy worsened, he was treated with medication that produced severe mood swings. Sumner recalls that “while we were working on Closer, Ian said to me that doing this album felt very strange because he felt that all his words were writing themselves. He also said that he had this terrible claustrophobic feeling that he was in a whirlpool and being pulled down, drowning.”

If “Love Will Tear Us Apart” documented, all too nakedly, the breakdown of a close relationship, the lyrics to the songs on Closer depicted a bleak interior landscape. Any sense of engagement with the world had been replaced by anguish, guilt and resignation – leavened by beautiful melodies and the crisp snap of dance music. “Mother I tried please believe me,” Curtis sings on “Isolation”, “I’m doing the best I can. I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through. I’m ashamed of the person I am.”

The signs were there, but nobody could interpret them. In early April, Curtis attempted to commit suicide with pills. A Joy Division show in Bury planned for a few days later was not cancelled; the crowd rioted when it became clear that Curtis was not going to perform a full show. “To have done something for Ian would have taken great responsibility,” says Sumner, “and it was nowhere to be found.”

“Ian would always say what you wanted to hear,” remembers Morris. “He was in a spiral, and it was just getting worse. Sometimes I think the best thing we could have done was to say, ‘Look, let’s just stop everything until you’ve got yourself sorted out.’ Ian rang up once and said, ‘I’m going to move to Holland to open a bookshop,’ and the next minute he’s saying, ‘Oh, come on, we’re playing in Bradford on Saturday.’ It was that one conversation and it never came up again.”

“He was a very determined person,” recalls Sumner. “If he was going to do something he certainly wouldn’t discuss it with you. I remember coming back from rehearsals one day and we took a short cut through the graveyard and I said to him, ‘You’re lucky, your name could be on one of those stones if you’d succeeded the other week. You really want to think about it, it’s not worth ending up like that.’ He was just like, ‘Right, yeah, right.’ No connection in the response.”

Joy Division kept on working, shooting a video for their next single, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, recording a live show at Birmingham University, demo-ing new songs, preparing for their first tour of America to begin on 20May 1980. On Friday 18th, the group went shopping for new stage clothes. The next day, Curtis killed himself in the kitchen of his home on Barton Street.

To his family and friends, it was a devastating blow. “Everything seems a blur after that,” says Hook. “We just couldn’t take it in. Since then, I’ve lived with his death every single day. He might have gone away physically, but he’s never gone away musically or mentally.”

“I was in a state of shock,” says Sumner, “because quite apart from everything else it’s an incredible act of violence to kill yourself. But he was under tremendous pressure from all sides. I don’t think it was one thing that killed him. It was all these terrible pressures that, if you took any one of them in isolation, there wasn’t a solution for any one of them. He couldn’t find a solution and we couldn’t find a solution.”

Within weeks, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was released and went into the top 10 – the group’s first hit. Closer quickly followed. Joy Division’s long and curious afterlife had begun, a fascination that has its roots, beyond Curtis’s death, in a very different, lost pop culture moment. The group were operating just before the explosion of youth media in this country; the shooting of a pop video for “Love Will Tear Us Apart” shows them on the cusp of this change.

For much of their career, Joy Division were living hand to mouth: Britain was in recession and they were working in forgotten cities outside the mainstream music industry. Dominated by the idea of do-it-yourself – necessity turned into an ideology – the post-punk arena was a boot-strap economy of small audiences and limited releases. For an act growing in popularity, they were ill-documented: Richard Boon’s Apollo footage is one of the only records of their live performances. This scarcity adds to their allure.

Out of these restrictions came an adamantine drive. Curtis’s life might have become the stuff of legend – if not soap opera – but at the core of the story is Joy Division’s music, which, in its classicism, technological innovation and emotional depth, remains modern. “We wanted a majestic quality: that was our escape,” says Sumner. “You were brought up in such a brutal landscape, so when you did see or hear something that was beautiful, you really appreciated it. You were always looking for beauty.”

Jon Savage is the writer of film documentary ‘Joy Division’, which premieres in the UK at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival on 7 November and will be released early in 2008. Joy Division’s albums are out now on Warner Brothers. ‘Control’ is on general release now

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