In a piece cited in a Warner Bros, publicity release Melody Maker magazine called Joy Division “the greatest band ever, the group whose music inspired [modern-rock stalwarts] U2, Depeche Mode, Nirvana, Radiohead and countless others.” The Northern English band’s gloomy post-punk was extremely influential, to be sure, but its mythic importance owes much to the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis in 1980. The remaining members found greater success as New Order, but Joy Division continued to exert a profound spell on subsequent generations of alternative rock musicians and fans.
The band was born in Manchester, an industrial town in Northern England, in the late 1970s. Punk rock was a burgeoning phenomenon, and the genre’s most powerful exemplars, the Sex Pistols, performed at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976. Attending this performance were three school chums, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Terry Mason. Sour Times printed a quote from Sumner regarding the Pistols: “They were terrible,” he recalled. “I thought they were great. I wanted to get up and be terrible too.” Their musical aspirations kicked into gear by the energy of the punk movement, the three decided to form a band. With Sumner on guitar, Hook on bass and Mason on drums, they lacked only a singer. Curtis, whom they knew from various shows around town, agreed to front the group, which was initially called Stiff Kittens, and then Warsaw. The latter name was inspired by “Warzawa,” a moody instrumental on protean British avant-rocker David Bowie’s album Low,
Mason was replaced by Tony Tabac on drums before Warsaw’s first gig, a show at Manchester’s Electric Circus in May of 1977 that also featured punk-pop favorites the Buzzcocks. The band continued playing regionally, replacing Tabac with Panik’s Steve Brotherdale during the summer, but the latter lasted only a few months— albeit months during which Warsaw made its very first recordings, known collectively in lateryearsas The Warsaw Demo. Stephen Morris came on board toward the end of the year. “Steve Morris played cabaret style and we had to teach him the way we wanted him to play, which was difficult,” Hook recalled in Goldmine, “but when he learned he was brilliant.” The newdrummer helped the group to forge its sonic identity, and they returned to the studio in December to record four songs for an EP, An Ideal for Living. This disc attracted the attention of RCA Records, but the label’s attempt to make the group sound “more professional” led to a parting of ways.
The success of a London band, Warsaw Pakt, persuaded Warsaw to adopt a new moniker. The name Joy Division came from the term for prostitution units frequented by Nazi officers during World War II; the band learned it from a novel, Karol Cetinsky’s The House of Dolls. A fight broke out at the first Joy Division show, and riots became a staple of their live appearances. Their name and cryptic, frequently Germanic artwork inspired speculation that the group members were Nazi sympathizers, a charge they passionately denied.
Joy Division eventually signed a deal with Factory Records, which was founded by local music producers Tony Wilson and Rob Gretton. Their initial release on the label was part of a compilation called A Factory Sampier, which featured two Joy Division songs; the band also re-released their first EP and recorded some material for influential BBC disc jockey John Peel’s program. Their full-length debut came with 1979’s Unknown Pleasures, which Goldmine’s Fernando Lopez De Victoria called “one of the most impressive debut albums ever issued.” The group began playing more high-profile shows, even opening for popular alternative-rockers The Cure in London. The music paper NME wrote, “Joy Division now sketch withering grey abstractions of industrial malaise,” adding “Musically Joy Division is more punishing than any Heavy Metal band…. When Joy Division left the stage I felt emotionally drained. They are, without any exaggeration, an Important Band.” Later in the year, the group joined the Buzzcocks on tour, and recorded what would become their signature song, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” for Peel’s program. Though not yet commercially available, it became extremely popular.
For the Record…
Members include Ian Curtis (born July 15, 1956; died May 18, 1980), vocals; Peter Hook (born February 13, 1956), bass; Stephen Morris (born October 28, 1957; joined group 1977), drums; Bernard Sumner (born Bernard Albrecht, January 4, 1956), guitar; Steve Brotherdale (bandmember 1977), drums; Terry Mason (bandmember 1977), drums; Tony Tabac (bandmember 1977), drums.
Band formed c. 1976, Manchester, England; initially called Warsaw. Released EP An Ideal for Livin. on own Enigma label, 1978; signed with Factory Records and contributed songs to A Factory Sampl. compilation EP, 1978; released album debut Unknown Pleasures, 1979; dissolved after suicide of Curtis, 1980; singer’s widow, Deborah Curtis, published Touching from a Distance, a remembrance of Curtis and the band, 1995; band was subject of tribute album A Means to an En. on Virgin label and compilation Permanent: The Best of Joy Divisio. on Qwest, 1995.
Addresses: Record company —Qwest/Warner Bros., 3800 BarhamBlvd., Ste. 503, Los Angeles, CA 90068. Website —Warner Bros:http://www.wbr.com; Factory Records “Fac 2.07” site:http://www.u-net.com/foctory/; Joy Division Shadowplay:http://subnet.virtual-pc.com/~wa540709/.
The band toured across Europe in early 1980, but the bloom began to come of the rose of success for Curtis. His marriage was compromised by his relationship with a Belgian woman, Annik Honore, and he suffered an epileptic fit after a London concert in April. Never previously diagnosed with the illness, he was devastated by it. “He was only like 22 or something,” Sumner told The New Music television program, which was transcribed for the Much Music web site. “We took him to the hospital and they said, ‘Yeah, he’s had an epileptic fit.’ After that, he just got really bad and he started getting it more and more.” The treatment offered at the time, Sumner added, “was just to dose someone up with barbs, so he was on really heavy barbiturates all the time and that just changed his whole personality, really, but there was nothing we could do about it.” In a book written by Curtis’ widow some years later, Hook maintains that the singer nonetheless concealed the extent of his despair. “He must have been a pretty good actor,” asserted the bassist. “We didn’t have a bleeding clue what was going on. You tried to help him with your limited experience, and you did what you could, but as soon as you left him, he went back, you know?”
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” appeared on Joy Division’s second full-length album, Closer, which received excellent reviews. Yet the content of the recording was a tipoff for some of Curtis’ deteriorating emotional condition. And Deborah herself later acknowledged—in a radio interview transcribed for a web site–that Curtis had long contemplated ending his life. “He’d always said that he would kill himself and he didn’t want to live after the age of 25,” she affirmed, but recalled hoping “he’d grow out of it,” since the two had a child and the band was doing well. Yet Curtis also pictured himself as a pop-cultural martyr, like singer Jim Morrison of the Doors or movie idol James Dean, both of whom died young and left behind powerful myths. Whatever his motivations, Curtis hanged himself at his home in the town of Macclesfield on May 18, 1980, just before Joy Division was scheduled to leave on a tour. He had apparently just watched a dark German film on television; an album by proto-punk trailblazerlggy Pop was allegedly on his turntable when his body was found.
In the wake of Curtis’ suicide, Close. sold briskly; the remaining members of the band went on to form the far more successful band New Order. 1981 sawthe release of a posthumous collection, Still. Though many fans viewed the latter as an opportunistic release, the legacy of Joy Division exerted a powerful force on the subsequent generation of alternative rock. “It was very important,” singer U2 singer Bono of the band in an interview for The New Music. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails covered a Joy Division song for a film soundtrack some years later, and a couple of tribute albums during the mid-1990s testified to the staying power of Joy Division’s songs, with contributions by techno artist Moby, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, Girls Against Boys and many others.
In 1995, Qwest Records released Permanent, a collection comprising most of Joy Division’s celebrated recordings and a remix of “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” That song in particular had come to be recognized as a defining moment in the history of rock, and Bill Wyman listed a portion of the track at the top of his list of “100 Greatest Rock’N’ Roll Moments” for Addicted to Noise. “’Love Will Tear Us Apart’ may contain one of the most haunting melodies every concocted,” claimed Johnny Angel of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. “Ian Curtis and Joy Division were one of the turning point of rock music,” said Tom Atencio, an executive producer of one tribute anthology and American representative of New Order, in Billboards “The Sex Pistols, Joy Division, and Nirvana are all essential for modern rock.” Mark Williams, then an executive at Virgin Records, described Joy Division in the same article as “our generation’s [cult-rock phenomenon] Velvet Underground. “More people know about them than actually bought their records when they came out.”
An Ideal for Living, Enigma, 1978.
A Factory Sampler, Factory, 1978.
The Peel Sessions, Dutch East India, 1979.
Unknown Pleasures, Factory, 1979.
Close. (includes “Love Will Tear Us Apart”), Factory, 1980.
Still, Factory, 1981.
Substance, 1977-80, Qwest, 1988.
Permanent: The Best of Joy Division, Qwest, 1995.
Addicted to Noise, January 11, 1996.
Billboard, August 5, 1995.
Chicago Tribune, January 12, 1996; May 13, 1996.
Goldmine, February 7, 1992.
Melody Maker, June 1995.
New Musical Express (NME), May 26, 1979.
San Francisco Bay Guardian, July 9, 1996.
Sounds, November 21, 1981.
Additional information was provided by Warner Bros./Qwest publicity materials, and from the Internet sites HotWired, Joy Division Shadowplay, Much Music, Sour Times and various unofficial Joy Division sites.
"Joy Division." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/joy-division
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