Jon Savage, the author of ‘This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else,’ discusses the post-punk singer, who committed suicide on May 18, 1980 at age 23.
A few months into 1980, the British post-punk group Joy Division were ready to take the next steps in their promising career. Led by their compelling lead singer Ian Curtis, the emerging quartet from Manchester were gaining momentum with an acclaimed debut album in Unknown Pleasures; their live shows were must-see draws; and they had gotten exposure on television and favorable reviews in the music press. Now Joy Division were set to embark on their first-ever U.S. tour and release a new record, Closer, that saw them expanding on their sonic palette. But that all came to a tragic halt when Curtis – who struggled with personal and health issues – committed suicide at the age of 23 on May 18, 1980.
“A poetic, sensitive, tortured soul, the Ian Curtis of the myth—he was definitely that,” former Joy Division bassist Peter Hook remembered Curtis in his 2012 memoir, also titled Unknown Pleasures. “But he could also be one of the lads—he was one of the lads, as far as we were concerned…At the time I just thought he was a great guy. And he was a great front man.”
Following Curtis’ death, the surviving members of Joy Division – Hook, guitarist Bernard Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris – carried on together as the hugely successful group New Order. Meanwhile, the legacy of Joy Division has been immortalized through album reissues, books, documentaries and a dramatized movie. In the present, New Order has performed Joy Division material at their shows, as well as Hook with his own band the Light (A limited-edition clear vinyl version of Closer to mark the album’s 40th anniversary is scheduled for reissue on July 17).
“It’s a story that’s not going away,” says the veteran British writer Jon Savage, who has extensively covered the band from their beginnings in the late 1970s; his 2019 book, This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else, is an oral biography on Joy Division that will be reissued in paperback this fall. “I thought they were fantastic. They were getting big. They were like the hottest underground group in the U.K. at the start of 1980. And that was part of the appeal, because Ian died right at the crest of a wave for them. So in a way Joy Division are always becoming, just about to be really successful. It’s frozen at that moment.”
Inspired by a performance by the Sex Pistols in Manchester in 1976, Joy Division formed (their previous band moniker was Warsaw) and later signed to the indie label Factory Records, co-founded by TV journalist Tony Wilson. Compared to their contemporaries, the group forged a distinctive kind of sound—one that was punk-influenced but also moody and darker, and informed by the band members’ upbringing and surroundings in post-World War II Manchester. In a short period of time leading up to 1980, Joy Division’s recorded output – highlighted by their classic debut, 1979’s Unknown Pleasures – was quite prolific, while their reputation as a live band grew. Yet Curtis was suffering from epileptic fits beginning in December 1978 that would remain with him for the rest of his life and affect the group’s live performances.