Years ago, while I was still stuck in that “why can't I just fall down a flight of stairs” phase of high school which most of us seem to go through, I put on Joy Division while driving with my brother. After a few minutes of music, he said something along the lines of “What the fuck is this? This guy sounds like he wants to kill himself.” To which I replied “Well, funny story.”
In reality, of course, the 1980 suicide of 23-year-old Ian Curtis, vocalist and occasional guitarist of Joy Division, is not a funny story at all. It's actually a really fucking sad story, one that revolves around Curtis's epilepsy, a love triangle between his wife, Deborah, and Annik Honoré, a Belgian reporter, and the pressures of being in a popular band. Worse, Curtis's often intensely autobiographic lyrics tend to plot out the depths and causes of his depression. “Existence, well what does it matter/I exist on the best terms I can,” he moans in “Heart and Soul,”while “Isolation” has him pleading “Mother I tired please believe me/I'm doing the best that I can.”
Even “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” a track which featured a music video and peaked at number 13 on the UK's single chart, betrays some of Curtis's personal woes. “You cry out in your sleep/All my failings exposed/ And there's a taste in my mouth/As desperation takes hold/Just that something so good just can't function no more,” he sings over a deceptively poppy synthesizer. Had those lyrics been written by another rock singer, the track could easily have been passed off as any of the myriad of mopey, hollow love songs which spewed out of the 80's. But with Curtis, who was quite likely being torn apart by love at the time he wrote the song, it was real.
So powerful and personal are the lyrics that escaping the haunting presence of Curtis while listening is impossible, even for other members of the band. “I'd look at Ian's lyrics and think how clever he was putting himself in the position of someone else. I never believed he was writing about himself. Looking back, how could I have been so bleedin' stupid? Of course he was writing about himself. But I didn't go in and grab him and ask, 'What's up?' I have to live with that,” said drummer Stephen Morris in a 2007 interview.
This is not to say that the band stumbled after Curtis's death with their heads bowed to the ground (after all, “emotive hard core” was nearly a decade away). While Curtis's saga has been a highlight of just about every major story on that era of music, the tale of the remaining members of the band is one of courage, compassion and dance music that is almost as interesting.
With just two full albums recorded, a growing fan base, and a US tour booked, Curtis's suicide left Joy Division in a strange position. Bassist Peter Hook and guitarist Bernard Sumner, who had founded the band in 1976 after seeing the Sex Pistols live, along with Morris, who had joined the band in 1977, had already steered the band through a great many changes. What had begun as a loud punk band tinged with Nazi references called Warsaw had morphed into the brooding Joy Division, a name taken from a Jewish sex slaves kept by the Nazis in the book House of the Dolls.
Rather than cling to Joy Division without Curtis, the band reformed as a group called New Order, after a brief US tour as New Order that year, they released “Ceremony,” one of the final (and, bizarrely, most uplifting) songs they had done with Curtis, in 1981. Though compilations of old, live and unreleased material of Joy Division's were put out by their label, Factory Records, through out the decade, New Order ended up rapidly distancing themselves from rock in general.
Rather than remain rooted in post punk, the genre they had helped define, they instead became increasingly interested in dance music, releasing hits like “Blue Monday” and helping to usher in New Wave... which all sounds pretty weird when you compare it to Joy Division material. But hey, while it's both tempting and saddening to ponder what may have happened had Curtis not died, at least we got some good, though surprising, music out of it.
Joy Division Central – http://www.joydiv.org/index.htm
New Order Online – http://www.neworderonline.com/Default.aspx