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The Tragic Story of Joy Division & Ian Curtis

Today on Rock N’ Roll True Stories they take a look at the tragic story of Joy Division and frontman Ian Curtis. Check it out below!

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Today’s story is about the life and death of Joy Division’s frontman Ian Curtis. Joy Division was a post-punk band first inspired by the Sex Pistols that formed in 1976 in Manchester, England. The band was made up of Vocalist Ian Curtis, guitarist and keyboardist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris. The band had a short lived career only being active between 1976 and 1980 Bernard Sumner’s biography, described the band by saying “Joy Division sounded like Manchester: cold, sparse and at times, bleak.”

Joy Division was a band with a bright future, but they never really experienced the fruits of their labor during their four short years together. It’s members held down day jobs for several years while playing shows , and during the recording of their final studio record Closer, after they had quit their jobs, they were living on almost $70 per week.

Prior to the band’s formation, frontman Ian Curtis was practically a kid, It was 1975 and he was 19 years old and lived anything but a rockstar life working for the government and was married. His wife Deborah Woodruff described their pre-joy division years as “boring and a depressing existence that was somewhat offset by her husband’s musical dreams revealing

“Our existence had become boring and the fact that we both hated our jobs didn’t help I became very depressed and and sometimes I was unable to stifle the tears on the long
bus journey home and we had mistakenly saddled ourselves with a mortgage and stability we weren’t ready for and we were still only 19 years old and Ian’s ideas of a musical career didn’t really seem that extravagant at all so that really gave us something to look forward to” she’d say

Now Curtis had struggled with depression for a long time as at the age of 16 he had to get his stomach pumped after overdosing on prescribed medication used to treat a variety of ailments. While he was dealing with depression he found a glimmer of hope in his life with music, as he was soon inspired by David Bowie, The Velvet Underground and the Stooges. He would long for a day where he would become a rockstar.

While working at a dead end job and being married, Curtis began to follow the punk scene in manchester while at the same time meeting others who shared his passion for music. He would befriend future Joy Divison members, guitarist/keyboardist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, who were childhood friends.

If it hadn’t been for this chance meeting and another important event in Curtis life, Joy Division may have never formed.

So, you’re maybe asking, what was the other important event that happened?

In the Summer of 1976, the Sex Pistols were on tour and they played in Manchester where Hook, and Sumner were in attendance. Unbeknownst to the pair was that their future bandmate Ian Curtis was also in the audience that night. It was that pivotal moment in the trio’s lives that made them want to take up music. And the day following the performance, Hook borrowed £35 from his mother to buy a bass guitar while Sumner bought a guitar. And the pair would team up with drummer Terry Mason who was also at the Pistols show that night. All the trio needed now was a vocalist and they placed an ad looking for a singer in a local Manchester virgin records shop. Curtis who already knew Hook and Sumner applied for the vocalist job and got it without an audition. Hook and Sumner remembered Curtis from the local Manchester Punk Scene as the guy who wore a donkey jacket with the word “hate” printed on it. Sumner would reflect on Curtis saying that “we knew he was all right to get on with and that’s what we based the whole group on. If we liked someone, they were in” he’d say.

And the band called itself Warsaw a homage to the David Bowie track “Warszawa” on his1977 album “Low.” This name reflected their bleak outlook and sparse sound.

And besides being music enthusiasts, the band didn’t have much practical experience as musicians. They’d generally jam until they found a riff they liked, and then worked on an arrangement from there.

Even though Ian Curtis could be deep and introspective, he also had a flip side to his personality that saw him turn on a dime.. At a 1977 performance at the Electric Circus, Morris remembers that Curtis could fly off the handle –

“He got really wound up and we got on the stage and all of a sudden he’s turned into the whirling dervish he’s manic routine wasn’t put on, it was passion.”

Something in the performance struck music reporter John Savage, who was at the show writing for a weekly music newspaper called “Sounds.” In a 2019 interview with the Guardian, he recalled Joy Division being the “the most powerful live group I’ve ever seen.”

And shortly after this legendary performance, the band changed their name to Joy Division. They wanted to avoid being confused with another London punk band called Warsaw Pakt.

Even though the the band’s new name sounded upbeat and positive ( the name actually came from a reference in the 1955 book House of Dolls that talks about a branch of a Nazi concentration camp where officers would go to take advantage of female prisoners.

Shortly after the group’s name change, the band released their debut EP “An Ideal for Living” on their own label Enigma. The release wouldn’t reflect the band’s definitive sound as it leaned heavily more towards their Punk influences and subsequent releases from the group would see them developing more of a post-punk sound.

The album cover featured a Nazi youth playing a drum, sparking controversy that the band were in fact Nazi sympathizers. The album received mediocre reviews, and is an outlier on the band’s discography, with no clear path to their more mature, melancholy sound. It’s a raw, punk album that many disregard as atypical of the band.

And in 1978, Rob Gretton became the band’s manager, and was also the co-director of Factory Records. Gretton had experience in the Manchester punk scene. And he contributed about 250 pounds to the recording of a track by Slaughter and the Dogs called “Cranked Up Really High,” which would become a punk classic. He also co-founded a nightclub in Manchester called “The Hacienda.” which saw him act as a DJ there.

And around this same time, Tony Wilson, who was behind some of Manchester’s most successful acts, also became interested in Joy Division. He was partnered with Rob Gretton and was especially good at booking residencies for the band’s at different clubs. The pair knew how to market the band and the Joy Division’s career was about to explode.

As the band’s star began to rise, frontman Ian Curtis’s health started to quickly started to deteriorate. . Although he had suffered from Depression since he was a teenager, he had his first seizure in 1978 and was officially diagnosed with severe epilepsy by the end of the year.

Local magazine called City Fun organized an all day festival called “Stuff the Superstars” featuring The Distractions, Joy Division, and The Fall which was attended by about 2,000 people and took place on July 28th, 1979 The gig is widely remembered as one of the last “underground” performances by Joy Division before they blew up.

That Fall, Joy Division hit the studio with producer Martin Hannett of Factory Records.who also produced U2’s first international hit “11 O’Clock Tick Tock.”

Hannett had a very distinct editing style which has been described as “sparse” and “cavernous.” He used AMS digital delay line technology and synthesized drums to create the band’s signature sound for their album Unknown Pleasures, which would go gold. The album was officially released on June 15, 1979.

In an interview with Jon Savage for Mojo magazine, Hannett talked about producing Joy Division’s sound saying

“There was a lot of space in their] sound. This were a gift to a producer, because they didn’t have a clue. They didn’t argue.” he’d say

Unknown Pleasures would go on to become a defining record of the post-punk era, and arguably one of the best albums of the last century.

Manchester rock journalist and musician John Robb wrote of the album in his book “The North Will Rise Again: that:
“Unknown Pleasures once sounded like the future – its genius is that, four decades later, it still sounds like the future.”

The iconic album art is the radio frequency of a pulsar, or a rotating neutron star.

And Unknown Pleasures showed off the band’s new sound with Curtis’ deteriorating health shaping the themes of pressure, failure, lack of control, coldness and cruelty.

By 1979, the band had appeared on BBC2 and travelled to Belgium for their first show abroad. The pressure of touring, substance abuse, flashing lights and sleepless nights affected Ian Curtis’s condition, and by the time the band recorded their second studio album Closer, which was released on July 18, 1980, he was suffering from almost two seizures a week.

A 2015 online article talking about Ian Curtis, talked about his on-stage seizure.

At a 1980 performance at The Rainbow in FInsbury Park, the lighting technicians made a mistake and accidentally turned on the strobe lights halfway through the show, causing Curtis to have a seizure onstage.

Not helping things was that Curtis’ medication caused him to have extreme mood swings, which put the band into turmoil. His marriage was also breaking down, coupled with the intense pressure of following up a successful debut album.

In a 2018 New International online article, an excerpt from a note Curtis wrote to his acquaintance Belgian journalist Annick Honore would state:

“Joy Division in itself is such a great responsibility, not only for my own health and peace of mind, but the fact that on me rests the future of others and more beside. Indeed the strain had become too much” he’d say. And one of the more popular songs from Closer was ‘ “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which talked about the breakdown of his marriage, but also reveals his dark state of mind leading up to his death. Curtis has begun an alleged affair with Honore, causing his wife Deborah to leave him and begin divorce proceedings.

Honore claims that the two never had a physical relationship even though he wrote her a number of romantic letters.

And Curtis’s epilepsy deepened his depression as he tried different medications that didn’t seem to work, all while his seizures also became more severe. He also found himself living alone and on April 9, 1980, Curtis attempted to take his life by overdosing on pills. Following this attempt,Curtis has taken time off to recover while his bandmates were about to embark on their first North American tour, which would later be cancelled.

Then on the evening of May 17th, he asked Deborah to drop the divorce proceedings and she declined to, but she would spend the night with him out of the fear that upsetting him could bring on a seizure. He sent her home and told her not to come back until 10:00am the next morning.

And on the morning of May 18, 1980, Curtis hung himself with a washline in his kitchen at 77 Barton Street at the age of 23. He died 2 months before the band’s sophomore album Closer was released and on the eve of a US tour.

Those close to Curtis claimed to have a different story of what they think happened to him
In Curtis’ final hours he was drinking coffee and alcohol while listening to Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot which features the song‘Tiny Girls’ that starts with the chilling line ‘well the day begins, you don’t want to live, cause you can’t believe in the one you’re with.’ He also reportedly watched the german film Stroszek, which tells the story of a musician who moves to America, is betrayed by his lover, and ends up taking his own life.
It was revealed that he had left a note for his wife with his neighbour Kevin Wood, revealing that it was written for his wife saying that he wanted to get back together with her following his tour of America and settle down in life.
His bandmate Peter Hook claimed Ian was excited about the band’s tour slated for America, while another friend claimed Curtis told him that and i quote “would rather die than go on that tour.’
And according to Curtis’ sister Carole, she revealed how closed off her brother was claiming he could ‘mask his emotions. Saying He never let you know what was really going on. He wouldn’t want to upset you … [But] in my mind I never thought he’d livepast 30 to be honest’ she’d say

The words “Love will tear us apart” are inscribed on his gravestone. and the surviving members of Joy Division continued on as the band “New Order.”

And Deborah Curtis wrote a book sharing her more personal stories from her life with Ian called “Touching from a distance,” which would then adapted into a film called Control by Anton Corbin.

And Peter Hook talked about how a neurologist reviewed the combination of medications that Curtis was taking for his epilepsy and thought that Curtis may have been incorrectly treated.

Hook talked about his experience in the band for a 2020 interview with Spin Magazine saying:
“That golden period—when he was well and the band were together—and nothing got in the way, it was probably the best time of my life, to be honest. It’s the best time I’ve had in a group. I’ve not been in a group like Joy Division since, and it’s always lacked something and been much more difficult to be in than Joy Division was” he’d say.

So, that does it for today’s video guys thanks for watching. Be sure to hit the like button and subscribe. And if you guys have suggestions for future topics let me know in the comment section below. Take care.