From Left to Right: Stephen Morris, Peter Hook, Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner
A mere seven months before the assassination of John Lennon, the music world lost one of its most promising and undeniably talented front men. It was thirty years ago this week, on May 18, 1980, that Joy Division leader Ian Curtis took his own life, two days before the band was to embark on their first US tour. While the story of his death is often overshadowed by that of Lennon’s, the legacy that Curtis and his band left behind mark him as an important figure in music history. Joy Division’s influence, like that of the Beatles, is still felt today, decades after their upward trajectory was tragically cut short.
Love Will Tear Us Apart: The Tragic Life of Ian Curtis
There were many ways in which Curtis’ personal life affected his music and, ultimately, his actions. Not long after Joy Division were beginning to gain notoriety, and only five months before the release of their debut album “Unknown Pleasures,” Curtis was diagnosed with epilepsy, a disease that did not have the extensive options for medical treatment that it does today. It required him to take heavy medication, though it did little to control his condition. Many believe that his on stage movements, sporadic and unpredictable, could have been byproducts of his epilepsy, and there were several recorded instances of him seizing on stage. The episodes only continued as the group’s schedule became busier.
Along with his group’s rise to fame and his deteriorating health, Curtis was having troubles at home. Married at a young age to Deborah Woodruffe, he was faced with the pressures of being a husband, a father, and a musician. He soon found consolation in a Belgian woman named Annik Honore, and the two quickly fell in love. When Deborah found out about the affair, she proceeded to file for divorce. This only contributed to Curtis’ depression, and when it all became too much, he decided to end it all. On the morning of May 18, after watching a Werner Herzog film and listening to Iggy Pop’s “The Idiot,” he hung himself in his family’s kitchen. He was 23.
The band’s second album, “Closer,” was released two months later, and ironically it saw the band reach their highest commercial success. The surviving members of the band went on to form New Order, where they would achieve star status and continue to innovate. Although his death marked the end of Joy Division, the group agreed before Curtis took his life that they would break up if any member left, the band’s impact on music is nothing short of revolutionary.
Atmosphere: A Revolution In Sound
The band’s initial incarnation, Warsaw, saw them channel a lot of the music coming out of the British underground during the late 70′s, which was the loud, brash sound of the Sex Pistols and their contemporaries. However, upon changing their name and coming into their full lineup, Joy Division forged their own musical path. Instead of the full on audio assault that many punk groups utilized, the band decided to embrace space and distance in their sound, using their instruments to create an atmosphere all their own. This was largely thanks to producer Martin Hannett, whose genius behind the scenes helped the band focus their sound.
As a result, Joy Division’s music sounded like nothing else at the time. The impact of guitarist/keyboardist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris were immediately felt, as the production put equal focus on each instrument. “Disorder” and “She’s Lost Control,” off of “Unknown Pleasures,” are perfect examples of what defined the group’s sound. They brought together Hook’s brilliant bass lines, Sumner’s atmospheric guitar tones, the tight drumming of Morris, and Curtis’ haunting baritone to a majestic effect. “Closer” marked a heavier use of keyboards in their music, with songs such as “Isolation” and non-album single (and the band’s most popular song) “Love Will Tear Us Apart” anticipating the kind of sound that would come to define the work of New Order, as well as the next decade of pop music. Each of the band’s songs still sound as fresh and vital as they did when they were first released, and their music has had influence well into the 21st century.
Heart and Soul: Spinning Sorrow Into Beauty
Another way in which Joy Division changed music was through Curtis’ lyrics. Instead of concentrating on outward anger and confusion, as was the case with many punk bands, Curtis looked inward into the darkest depths of his psyche. He was one of the first lyricists to tackle introspective subjects such as memory, depression, and the darker sides of love. Much of the suffering and strife that marred his personal life was expressed in his lyrics, as they were often grim, moody, and ominous. “She’s Lost Control” was inspired by him seeing a girl seize in front of him, and in a way it foreshadowed his own battles with epilepsy. Meanwhile, songs such as “Candidate” and “Heart and Soul” can be read as a reflection of his marital troubles. “In fear every day, every evening/ he calls her aloud from above/ carefully watched for a reason/ painstaking devotion and love,” sings Curtis on “Isolation,” emphasizing the pain he felt during his last few months alive. Retrospectively, one can easily interpret some of his lyrics as signs of what was to come.
When he did look outward, Curtis focused on personal experience and his reactions to his surroundings. Several of the tracks on “Closer” were a direct look at the cruelty that men are capable of inflicting on one another. For example, “Atrocity Exhibition” demonstrated the impact that authors such as Albert Camus had on him, as well his disillusionment with the horrors of the Holocaust. Discontent with modernity was another common theme for Curtis. Being from Manchester, he was a first hand witness to the downsides of industrial progress, namely suffering and alienation. As such, many of his songs dealt with these feelings as a reaction to being a product of that world. In a documentary about Joy Division, several people discuss how “Disorder” was partially written about Manchester. It is the ways in which Curtis vividly explored the realities of personal grief and struggle that have made him be considered by many rock critics as one of the most important lyricists of any generation.
Equally as dark as Curtis’ lyrics was his singing style. His voice was that of a man in pain, his low crooning an extension of the melancholy brought about by the subjects he explored. However, Curtis never sounded bored or detached, as he sang with a sense of urgency that brought his lyrics to life, no matter how dark. Whether it was the desperation and sorrow of “A Means To An End” or the mournful tone of “Atmosphere,” he had a way of captivating listeners with his voice. It was at once powerful and a thing of beauty, and though several bands, such as the National, Interpol, and Editors, have successfully explored the same topics and sung in the same register, they all owe a debt of gratitude and respect towards Curtis.
The Eternal: What It All Means
Perhaps the most important impact of Joy Division was the path they paved for the next decades in music. Joy Division were in a league all their own. They almost single handedly started the post-punk genre, though they never regarded themselves as a part of any movement. Their sound was something unique and fresh to an era dominated by disco and classic rock, and was an integral part of shaping the 80′s musical landscape. Although he did not live to see the full effect of his band’s music, Curtis is still one of the most important figures in the history of rock music, and one who deserves to be remembered with respect and dignity on the 30th anniversary of his untimely death.