1976 in Manchester, England. The situation was desperate. Neighborhoods were run down. Rubble and smoke filled the streets.
It was really hard to find a good job. Most young people felt they had no future. They were destined to work in the factories all their lives.
Two young men: Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook scraped together funds to see a band called the Sex Pistols. They thought the group was terrible. They could barely play their instruments! The sound in the room was unlistenable and distorted. The room rocked with freakish makeup, clothes and dancing. Total chaos.
Something in this scene inspired them, though. They decided to form a band and put an ad in the local paper to find a singer. Ian Curtis answered the ad. He worked in the local civil service office as an advocate for disabled and troubled people who couldn’t find jobs. What the band didn’t know was that Curtis was troubled himself. These days he would have been diagnosed as bipolar, but in 76 they just considered him moody. He wasn’t the world’s most talented singer. His voice slid off-key with regularity. And his dancing was freakish. He waved his arms and gyrated like he was receiving jolts of electricity. Like some robot gone mad!
The band found a permanent drummer, Steven Morris, and named themselves Warsaw at first, but since they were fascinated with the Nazi movement in World War II, they changed the name to Joy Division. Joy Division was originally the name of prostitution wing from Nazi concentration camp in 1955 novel “The House of Dolls.” These prostitutes were female prisoners of war who were kept to please the German soldiers in their off-time.
For the first year or so the sound was rough. But Ian Curtis was a sensitive listener with an ear for a distinctive sound. He suggested that Bernard Sumner play his guitar chords high. The band used echo effects and heavy bass sounds lifted from reggae music. They added keyboards and robotized the sound of the drums. And Ian Curtis’s voice became stronger, and his literary lyrics more dark and flowing.
As the band became more popular, Ian Curtis’s life became more complex. He acquired a steady girlfriend in addition to his wife and child. He developed epilepsy, a disease that caused him to have fits of shaking and loss of consciousness. These fits could be triggered by almost everything a rock star comes in contact with: loud music, flashing lights, happiness, sudden movement.
Joy Division only released 2 albums: Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Ian Curtis killed himself in 1980, 24 hours before the band was supposed to go on their first American tour. The remaining members of the band formed a new wave group called New Order and went on to sell millions of albums. Both New Order and Joy Division have greatest hits collections called Substance. New Order’s came out in 87 and Joy Division’s was put out in 1988.
This week I am producing a radio story for KEXP Documentaries on Joy Division. (It will air Thursday at 3pm and Saturday at 2pm. It will then be archived like all the KEXP Docs in the On Demand section of kexp.org.)
As part of my research I watched the new film doc Joy Division, The Miriam Collection and the dramatization of Ian Curtis’s wife Deb’s book — the movie Control. The story of Ian Curtis is so very sad, yet inspiring. Ian’s illness gave him a sense of bravado at times. The guts to go beyond his potential as a singer and writer and to change the face of underground music. This change led to the sound of alternative rock as we know it today.
It’s the literary honesty behind the lyrics, though, that distinguishes Ian Curtis’s talent as truly great. It is the individual’s ability to express themselves uniquely that makes true art. His words are so true, tragic and beautiful. And this is why Joy Division is still considered legendary and important. Here is their only real hit, Love will Tear Us Apart.
And ambitions are low
And the resentment rides high
But emotions wont grow
And were changing our ways,
Taking different roads
Then love, love will tear us apart again
Why is the bedroom so cold
Turned away on your side?
Is my timing that flawed,
Our respect run so dry?
Yet there’s still this appeal
That we’ve kept through our lives
Love, love will tear us apart again
Do you cry out in your sleep
All my failings expose?
Get a taste in my mouth
As desperation takes hold
Is it something so good
Just cant function no more?
When love, love will tear us apart again.
This blog was posted by Michele Myers and this feature will run on her show Nite Life this Friday night at midnight on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle, kexp.org.