HERE ARE THE YOUNG MEN
IAN CURTIS AND JOY DIVISION
1st May, 2020
Ardfern - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Here are the young men.
But where have they been?
Ian Curtis, Decades
Everything resembles the truth, everything can happen to a man.
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls
It is said that, although not many people bought the first Velvet Underground album, everyone who did formed a band. The same is often said about Sex Pistols gigs, one of which was certainly responsible for Joy Division. The band members met in their hometown of Manchester at a Pistols gig in 1976 and went on to record two studio albums and several singles. Their critical acclaim lasted from 1979 and the album Unknown Pleasures until May, 1980, when singer Ian Curtis watched Werner Herzog’s bizarre film Stroszek alone in his semi-detached house in Manchester, then hung himself in his kitchen. He died on the eve of what would have been the band’s inaugural tour of the USA. He left a wife and a child. Shortly after Curtis’s death, the band’s album Closer was released.
Joy Division took their name from House of Dolls, a pulp novel about concentration camps, the joy division being Jewish women used for the sexual gratification of camp guards. This was part of a simmering controversy concerning the band, who were often linked with Nazi imagery. The band’s short life was an odyssey of mental unbalance for singer Ian Curtis.
Curtis’s insanity is all the more disturbing for its ordinariness. His is a suburban madness of angst and prescription drugs, he is not Artaud or Brian Wilson. The suburbs of great cities are interesting areas. This I know, having grown up in the margins of London. There is a special madness there. I’m sorry that I hit you but my string snapped, sings Siouxsie Sioux on Suburban Relapse. And the lure of the city, the fierce glamour it puts on the suburbans, creates a dynamic of its own. Thus Curtis on Interzone; I walked to the city limits/Attracted by some force within it.
After Curtis’s death, the remaining members of Joy Division added a keyboard player, the drummer’s wife, and became New Order, the name doing nothing to disassociate the band from a trace element of Nazism. The band’s game-changing hit Blue Monday set a musical trend for pop/dance music. Their first album, Movement, obviously contains some works in production intended for Joy Division, and the band echoes there, the only note missing being the sad, deep croon of its dead singer.
I once spent an enjoyable evening with New Order and their entourage after they had played at the Reading Festival. I had already been introduced to Peter Hook, years before, by Ian Curtis. I felt sure Hook would not remember and said nothing. I talked mostly with Barnie, Bernard Sumner, the guitarist, and there seemed to be a member of the entourage of roadies and helpers who was employed solely to keep joints rolled at an industrial pace. I quizzed Barnie. ‘He is employed’, said the guitarist who, in Joy Division, called himself Bernard Albrecht, ‘just to roll’.
I first heard Joy Division at a party and it stopped me in my tracks. The track Digital was on a sampler EP from Factory Records, Joy Division’s record label. The robotic bassline and slightly thuggish disco beat was compelling, as was the combative, dark-tinted vocal. I bought Unknown Pleasures as soon as it came out.
The same week, my girlfriend and I went to see the band at the University of London. Echo and the Bunnymen supported them and had to repeat a song as an encore as they had only written six and they had played them all. Essential Logic played too, as did The Teardrop Explodes.
They were heady times. Robert Smith of The Cure chatted to me outside – my band all knew The Cure – and Smith introduced to Matt Johnson of The The. I needed the toilet and so my girlfriend and I went into the Union bar using NUS cards, hers real, mine faked.
Exiting the toilet, I saw my girlfriend in the bar, where two other people were also sitting. We walked in and sat down, nodding to the other couple, a man and a woman. The woman I now know was Annik Honoré, Ian Curtis’s Belgian journalist girlfriend, and not his wife, and the man was Curtis himself.
We talked for about half an hour, the girls pairing off and talking easily. Curtis and I talked mostly about music, what was happening in Manchester, what was happening in London. Then we were turfed out of the bar by someone from the college, and we said our goodbyes to Ian and Annik. A few hours later, I would see him again.
The gig changed my life, musically speaking. Joy Division are not really a repeatable band. They sport the classic rock line-up of voice, guitar, bass and drums, but what they did with the formula is unique. The song Atrocity Exhibition, with its tribal drum roll and jagged guitar and bass, with Curtis snarling, this is the way. Step inside changed what I thought rock songs could be.
Two weeks later I saw Joy Division again, another of six times I saw the band. Making my way towards the cavernous old dance-floor of London’s Lyceum Theatre, I heard someone call my name. That soft Mancunian accent again. I looked sideways and it was Ian Curtis, sitting with Peter Hook, to whom Curtis introduced me. We chatted again and I told them both I was looking forward to the gig.
A few months later he was dead. I have played Joy Division’s music regularly since then, and it doesn’t take long to hear the taint of death all over the songs. Joy Division songs tend to have sturdy central bass lines and drum patterns, with the guitar often as an ornament rather than a driving force. Curtis’s voice, often desperate and on the cusp of anger, is singing, to quote the title of a Joy Division song finally recorded by New Order, in a lonely place.
Like fellow Mancunian bands The Smiths, The Fall and The Stone Roses, Joy Division attracted and kept either reverent worshippers or those who bought into neither the music nor the mythos. But whereas The Smiths and The Stone Roses were consummate songwriters, Joy Division – like The Fall and yet unimaginably distant – created soundscapes as a canvas for Curtis’s monochrome expressionism. Joy Division were a monochrome band, from their graphics to their stage clothes, dressing as they did when playing live as office workers.
Live performance was Joy Division’s milieu, and finding a representative song is obviously not easy. The sinister tumbril-dance of The Atrocity Exhibition, the punk-krautrock of Transmission, the majesty and loss of New Dawn Fades. For me, the song Dead Souls drew me to the band when played live.
Named for an unfinished novel by 19th-century Russian author Nikolai Gogol (Curtis was a well-read, literate man), Dead Souls opens with a comfortable, almost melodic duet between Sumner’s Shergold Masquerader guitar and Hook’s Rickenbacker 4001 (I play one myself). The music builds cavernously into a roaring chord descent, then back to the calm waters of the opening before Curtis’s already desperate plea, someone take these dreams away…
By the time Curtis is screaming They keep calling me!, Sumner and Hook are fighting out a brutal dogfight over a tribal drumbeat. The song just ends. It has nowhere else to go. Dead Souls was one of those Joy Division pieces which seemed to possess Curtis. He was famously epileptic – hence the need for medication – and both his signature deranged dervish dancing style and the song She’s Lost Control are comments on his condition. I saw him collapse on stage more than once. Epilepsy. The king’s sickness. Epileptics have often been viewed in history as though they had a type of second sight, like Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.
Rock music, on its wilder shores, throws up a lot of anomalies. Ian Curtis was a rock singer. Then again, so is/was Alice Cooper, Joey Ramone, Paul Rodgers. Joy Division, and Curtis’s petit guignol psychological melodramas, remain one of the bands that show the edges of the territory which a classic four-piece rock band can patrol, and from which they can report back.
Joy Division’s albums, curiously, had a huge impact on American trash and grunge music, being cited by many of its stars. You can hear the domination of the monolithic central bass in U2, the Gothic element in Siouxsie Sioux, Bauhaus and The Cure, the introspection of some strands of rock music since Curtis’s confessionals.
So, goodbye then, Ian Curtis. Rest in peace. You obviously couldn’t find that here. One of your songs was even entitled From Safety to Where? You certainly had an effect on me, and I recall fondly our too-brief conversations.
RIP Ian Curtis
July 15, 1956 – May 18, 1980
Procession moves on.
The shouting is over.
Ian Curtis, The Eternal
Mark Gullick is a philosophy PhD from London, England, who went on holiday to Costa Rica four years ago and forgot to go home. He now works there as a musician. He blogs at https://postcardsfromtraumaville.blogspot.com/