Today 15 July, on the occasion of what would have been his birthday, we are talking about Ian Curtis. Although he died too young, Ian Curtis, with his Joy Division, gave a different course to contemporary music, influencing numerous artists. Let’s find out the whole story here.
Ian Curtis, first years
Ian Kevin Curtis was born in Northern England on July 15, 1956. He grew up in a working class family with a younger brother.
From an early age, Ian Curtis proved to be a curious, intelligent and very balanced child, with a strong passion for poetry. At 11 he received a scholarship at the King’s School in Macclesfield where, in recognition of his skills, he received numerous school awards, especially at the age of 15 and 16.
Curtis had a keen interest in music as early as the age of twelve, and this interest developed considerably during his teenage years, with artists such as Jim Morrison and David Bowie among his favorites. In fact with the first Ian Curtis he shares the passion for poetry, with the second, the one for art. Since Curtis couldn’t afford to buy his idol records very often, he found himself stealing them from local stores.
By his mid-teens, Curtis had also developed a reputation among his peers as a strong-willed individual with an interest in fashion.
Also around that time, Curtis began performing social work at a retirement home as part of a school curriculum. During a visit, he and his friends stole all the drugs they found and it seems that, as a joke, they took them all.
On a specific occasion, at the age of sixteen, Ian consumed an overdose of Largactil (used in schizophrenic patients). Curtis was found unconscious in his bedroom by his father and was immediately taken to the hospital to receive gastric lavage.
Some time later, despite his school success, Curtis abandoned his studies to engage in looking for work, but still having an interest in art, literature and music. Curtis got a job in a record store in central Manchester before he got a more stable job as a civil servant. After about a year, he was sent to the Macclesfield employment office, where he worked as an assistant to reintegrating disabled people.
On August 23, 1975, at the age of 19, Curtis married Deborah Woodruff, who was 18. The two lived in the home of Ian’s grandparents, then moved from house to house until they returned to them. In 1979 Nathalie Curtis was born, the couple’s only daughter, today a photographer.
The birth of the band
The Joy Division band was born in 1976, when Ian Curtis is 20 years old.
Guitarist Bernard Albrecht and bassist Peter Hook had met during the show of Sex Pistols in Manchester and later decided to form a band, Stiff Kittens. After placing an ad in a Manchester record store, they found singer Ian Curtis and drummer Steve Brotherdale.
Stiff Kittens changed their name to Warsaw (from David Bowie’s “Warszawa“) and made their live debut the following May, along with the Buzzcocks and Penetrations at Manchester’s Electric Circus. After recording several demos, Brotherdale left the group in August 1977 and was replaced by with Stephen Morris.
Another change of name and Warsaw became Joy Division in late 1977. This change was necessary due to another band with a similar name, Warsaw Pakt.
The name Joy Division is inspired by Karol Cetinsky’s WWII novel The House of Dolls. In the book, the term “division of joy” is used to define the concentration camp units where female prisoners are forced into prostitution for the enjoyment of Nazi soldiers.
The success of Ian Curtis and Joy Division
Playing frequently in the north of England in early 1978, the group stood out and surrounded themselves with some influential figures in the world of music. Among them Derek Branwood, a record manager of RCA Northwest, who recorded some sessions with the band in May 1978, for what was expected to be the Joy Division debut LP of the same name.
Although several songs were linked by punk energy, the rest of the album showed what will become the distinctive themes of the band: post-industrial restlessness, emotional despair, jagged and inconstant sounds. In other words, Joy Division joined the Goth movement.
Joy Division’s first self-produced album was released in June 1978, when the initial demos of mid-1977 were released as EP An Ideal for Living.On December 27 of the same year, during the return trip home from the concert at the Hope and Anchor in London, Curtis had the first serious epileptic seizure recognized and was hospitalized. Meanwhile, Joy Division’s career progressed and Curtis appeared on the cover of NME on January 13, 1979. That month the band recorded their session for BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel. According to Deborah Curtis, “In the midst of these two important points of reference was the awareness that Ian’s illness was something we should have learned to accept”.
The albums and the progress of Ian Curtis’ illness
In 1979 the group began recording with producer Martin Hannett and released their first official album, Unknown Pleasures. The album was a huge critical hit and remained on the independent UK charts for a long time. Encouraged by the success of the punk era, the American label Warner Bros. offered a distribution contract to the band, who ignored it.
In late 1979, the Joy Division’s live show brought many new followers, sadly in part because of rumors about Curtis’ poor health. Ill with epilepsy, Curtis was in fact subject to erratic behavior and convulsions while on stage.
However, it soon became difficult to distinguish epileptic seizures from his convulsive dance and manic behavior. As live dates continued and approached the 1980s, Curtis weakened and became more prone to seizures. After a short rest during the Christmas holidays, Joy Division embarked on a European tour in January, although several dates were canceled due to Curtis’ health.
In 1980, the group then began recording their second LP after the end of the tour and released their second Closer album in March. The single Love Will Tear Us Apart, taken from the album, came out soon after. The critics praised it but it did not climb the independent music charts of the time.
Ian Curtis’ death
Joy Division had to start the first tour of North America and Canada. Curtis had expressed enthusiasm for the tour, but his relationship with his wife, Deborah, was under pressure. Deborah was even excluded from the band’s internal circle and Curtis began a relationship with the Belgian journalist and music promoter Annik Honoré, whom he met on tour in Europe in 1979.
The night before the band’s departure for America, Curtis returned to Macclesfield’s house to talk to Deborah. He asked her to abandon the impending divorce lawsuit and also asked her to leave him alone in the house. After spending the night watching Werner Herzog’s film Stroszek, Ian Curtis hang himself in his kitchen. It is May 18, 1980. Forty years ago.
Later that day, Deborah discovered Ian’s body. Suicide shocked his wife, the band, all the entourage and fans. Ian Curtis also left a one year old daughter. Burial took place in Macclesfield cemetery.
Ian Curtis’ legacy
In June 1980, Joy Division’s single Love Will Tear Us Apart was released again, which reached number thirteen on the UK Singles Chart. The following month, Closer reached sixth on the album chart in the UK.
Various journalists, after Curtis’ death, said that Joy Division would not have survived without him. In fact, the members had made a pact that, if one member left, the remaining members would change the name of the band.
And so it was. The band without Ian Curtis reformed as New Order, with Sumner on vocals. In 2002, director Michael Winterbottom directed the film 24 Hour Party People which tells the story of the Joy Division record company, the death of Curtis and the transformation of the latter into New Order.
In addition to the New Orders that received a first grade bequest, there are many subsequent artists influenced by Ian Curtis and his Joy Division.
U2 dedicated the song A Day Without Me to Curtis, released shortly after his death in 1980. The Cure dedicated the first song of the album Faith again to the late singer.
In 2007 the story of Curtis was brought to the big screen by Anton Corbijn, director of numerous videos of Depeche Mode (big fans of Joy Division), in an incredible film, Control.
We conclude with a curiosity. In the first draft of the comic The Crow, the author had considered to title each chapter with a song by Joy Division in honor of Ian Curtis, to which James O’Barr dedicated the first issue released in the late 80’s. The project for a song for each chapter was however abandoned .
The expressiveness of the melodies, the intensity of the sound and the suffering told in the Joy Division songs do not abandon us, because “love will tear us apart”, but music will not.