Joy Division Biography

Originally known as Warsaw, this Manchester post-punk outfit is widely regarded as one of the most important bands of their era. Joy Division comprised Ian Curtis (15 July 1956, Manchester, England, d. 18 May 1980, Macclesfield, Cheshire, England; vocals), Bernard Sumner (b. Bernard Dicken, 4 January 1956, Salford, Lancashire, England; guitar/vocals), Peter Hook (b. 13 February 1956, Salford, Lancashire, England; bass) and Stephen Morris (b. 28 October 1957, Macclesfield, Cheshire, England; drums). Curtis, Sumner and Hook had formed Warsaw in April 1977, with Steve Brotherdale on drums. By the following March, with Morris already on board, they had emerged under their new title, borrowing their name from the prostitution wing of a Nazi concentration camp. After recording a regionally available EP, October 1977’s An Ideal For Living, they were signed to Manchester’s recently formed Factory Records and placed in the hands of producer Martin Hannett. Their 1979 debut, Unknown Pleasures, was a raw, intense affair, with Curtis at his most manically arresting on the insistent ‘She’s Lost Control’. With its stark, black cover, the album captured a band still coming to terms with the recording process, but displaying a vision that was piercing in its clinical evocation of an unsettling disorder. With Morris’ drums employed as a lead instrument, backed by the leaden but compulsive bass lines of Hook, the sound of Joy Division was distinctive and disturbing.

By the time of the propulsive single ‘Transmission’, the quartet had already established a strong cult following, which increased after each gig. Much of the attention centred on the charismatic Curtis, who was renowned for his neurotic choreography, resembling a demented marionette on wires. By the autumn of 1979, however, Curtis’ performances were drawing attention for a more serious reason. On more than one occasion, he suffered an epileptic seizure and blackouts onstage, and the illness seemed to worsen with the band’s increasingly demanding live schedule. On 18 May 1980, the eve of Joy Division’s proposed visit to America, Ian Curtis was found hanged. The verdict was suicide. A note was allegedly found bearing the words: ‘At this moment I wish I were dead. I just can’t cope anymore’.

The full impact of the tragedy was underlined shortly afterwards, for it quickly became evident that Curtis had taken his life at the peak of his creativity. While it seemed inevitable that the band’s posthumously released work would receive a sympathetic reaction, few could have anticipated the quality of the material that emerged in 1980. The UK Top 20 single, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, was probably the finest of the year, a haunting account of a fragmented relationship, sung by Curtis in a voice that few realized he possessed. The attendant album, Closer, was faultless, displaying the band at the zenith of their powers. With spine-tingling cameos such as ‘Isolation’ and the extraordinary ‘Twenty Four Hours’, the album eloquently articulated a sense of despair, yet simultaneously offered a therapeutic release. Instrumentally, the work showed maturity in every area and is deservedly regarded by many critics as the most brilliant rock album of the 80s. The following year, a double album, Still, collected the remainder of the band’s material, most of it in primitive form.

Within months of the Curtis tragedy, the remaining members sought a fresh start as New Order. In 1995 Curtis’ widow, Deborah, published a book on her former husband and the band, while a compilation album and a re-released version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ were back on the shelves on the 15th anniversary of his death. In 2002, the Joy Division story was touched upon in the fictionalised Factory Records biopic 24 Hour Party People. The more substantial Control (2007), directed by photographer Anton Corbijn, was based on Deborah Curtis’ Touching From A Distance.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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