Joy Division - Biography

By Marcus Kagler

When the Sex Pistols performed at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4, 1976 little did they know they would be directly responsible for reshaping the industrial despair of Manchester into an alternative music hotbed. Although bands like The Smiths, Buzzcocks, and The Happy Mondays all sprang from the northern English city, post punk pioneers Joy Division remain the most notable due to the untimely demise of singer Ian Curtis, whose suicide at age 23 created Joy Division’s enduring mythology. Despite Curtis’ tragic death, the sparse dark beauty Joy Division’s musical canon remains some of most influential music in history spawning 80’s gothic rock, industrial, and the current post punk resurgence. Born out of the free thinking fires of punk, the band was the first to inject the punk aesthetic with mood, texture, and poetic lyrics. Deemed too artistic for punk rock, Joy Division was the first band to be described as “post punk” blazing the trail for the influential 80’s alternative rock scene and beyond.

Contrary to popular belief, Joy Division wasn’t the brainchild of Ian Curtis but rather that of guitarist Bernard Albrecht (later known as Bernard Sumner although his actual last name is Dickens) and bassist Peter Hook when the two found inspiration at that fateful summer evening Sex Pistols show. Upon witnessing their first glimpse of punk the two decided to give music a go. After placing an ad at their local Virgin record store the two hired vocalist Ian Curtis without an audition. Along with original drummer Steve Brotherdale the band christened themselves Warsaw after the David Bowie song, “Warszawa”. The music of Warsaw was very much aligned with the loud, abrasive punk aesthetic of the time with Curtis shouting his lyrics rather than singing them. Warsaw made their live debut in May of 1977 supporting the Buzzcocks. After a demo recording session the following month Brotherdale’s aggressive punk rock personality began to clash with the rest of the band. Allegedly the group let Brotherdale go by asking him to check out a flat tire one night after a gig. When Brotherdale got out of the car the other three members sped off without him. A few months later he was replaced by drummer Stephen Morris, an old school mate of Curtis.

Since there was another English punk band called Warsaw Pact at the time the band decided to change their name to Joy Division, a moniker taken from the division of a Nazi concentration camp where female Jewish detainees were forced to prostitute themselves to German soldiers as noted in the book The House of Dolls by author Ka-tzetnik 135633. In the summer of 1978 the band met their future mentor, and label head, in local television personality Tony Wilson. A long time music fanatic, Wilson had just formed his own label, Factory Records, and was keen to sign the band. Ultimately, the band chose to self-release their debut EP, An Ideal for Living (1978) on their own Enigma Records imprint before signing to Factory. The combination of their namesake and the EP’s cover, a drawing of a Hitler Youth beating a drum, sparked neo-Nazi political affiliations that would haunt Joy Division for the remainder of their career. Although the band denounced the white supremacist rumors the ensuing political intrigue drummed up significant publicity for the unknown band. Later that year Joy Division made their television debut on Granada Reports, a news show coincidentally hosted by Tony Wilson.

The band spent the remainder of the year writing demos for their debut full length, however life for Ian Curtis took a dramatic downward turn when he fell victim to his first epileptic seizure while returning home from a gig. Although he had never exhibited any symptoms of the disease as a youth, Curtis developed a severe form of epilepsy that would grow increasingly worse until his death. Undaunted the band entered Strawberry Studios in the spring of 1979 to record their debut album, Unknown Pleasures (1979-Factory) with producer Martin Hannett. Although the band had spent the better part of two years honing a loud aggressive live sound, Hannett was an eccentric sonic mastermind who filled the songs with a haunted sparse quality. The band disagreed with the atmospheric sound of the final product but there was no denying Hannett’s contribution was a significant part of their developing sound. Unknown Pleasures was an instant underground success that inspired a cult following called “The Cult With No Name” characterized by young men wearing gray overcoats. Joy Division’s first European tour in the winter of 1980 was mired in turbulence due to Curtis’ rapidly deteriorating health. During the tour, Joy Division would usually play under a white wash of light that many thought to be an artistic statement. In truth, the band couldn’t change up their lighting design as it would send Curtis into violent seizures. As his stage presence was defined by wild gyrations it was often unclear to the band when Curtis was going into a seizure until he collapsed onto the stage. 

 Upon returning to England the band once again went into the studio to record with Hannett. Closer (1980-Factory) expanded Joy Division’s sonic pallet dramatically by adding blankets of atmospheric keyboards and often shifting from the dissident noise compositions to haunting, almost gothic, slowcore anthems. Awaiting the release of Closer the group hit the road once again even though Curtis health was deteriorating rapidly. Joy Division shows during the winter and spring of 1980 were often characterized by Curtis succumbing to seizures on stage. Since fans were unaware of Curtis condition most thought the seizures were part his stage performance. The night before their show at the Derby Hall in Bury, Curtis attempted suicide by overdosing on phenobarbitone. Without a singer the band asked Simon Topping of A Certain Ration and Alan Hempstall of Crispy Ambulance to fill in. Curtis only performed part of the set but when Topping stepped up to fill in he was greeted with thrown bottles. The venue soon erupted into a riot.

Two days before the band were to embark on their first American tour, Ian Curtis returned to his estranged wife in their home town of Macclesfield, outside of Manchester. Ian and Debra Curtis had married as teenagers but their relationship was quickly deteriorating from the stress of Ian’s health, the rigors of touring, and his extra-marital affair with a Dutch woman named Annik Honore. After an argument Curtis asked his wife to leave him alone until he caught his train to Manchester in the morning. Around noon the next day Debra Curtis returned home to find her husbands lifeless body in the kitchen. Ian Curtis had hung himself.

Since the nature of Ian Curtis’ ailments were not made known to the public during his lifetime, the circumstances surrounding his shocking end became the stuff of rock & roll mythology. Overnight, Curtis and the music of Joy Division achieved iconic cult status. The following month, Joy Division’s swansong single, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was released to unanimous praise and today the song is seen as the band’s crowning achievement. The posthumous release of Closer only solidified Joy Division’s growing popularity but by then the band had officially broken. Before Curtis death, the members of the band made a pact to retire the name Joy Division if any one person left the band. Albrecht, Hook, and Morris adhered to that pact, eventually carrying on under the name New Order. In 1981, Factory released a compilation of b-sides and live recordings titled Still (Factory). The first New Order single, “Ceremony” included the last two songs the band recorded with Curtis although Albrecht (now going under the name Bernard Sumner) handled the vocal duties. New Order would eventually become one of the most influential and popular bands of 1980’s by marrying the atmospheric post punk of Joy Division with electronic dance beats and synthesizers. By 1988 much of the Joy Division catalogue had gone out of print so Factory released a best of compilation titled Substance (Factory). A four disc box set titled Heart and Soul (Rhino) was released in 1997 and both Joy Division and New Order were inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005. In 2007 director Anton Corbjin, who served as Joy Division’s unofficial photographer, released the Ian Curtis biopic Control based on Debra Curtis memoir Touching from a Distance. Re-mastered extended editions of Unknown Pleasures, Closer, and Still accompanied the release of the film with New Order providing new tracks for the Control soundtrack. Nearly 30 years after his death, the legacy of Ian Curtis and Joy Division thrives within new generations of fans. Although their career was relatively brief, Joy Division remains an inspiration to music fans the world over. In the past 30 years Joy Division has become more successful than Ian Curtis ever dreamed.        


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