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Joy Division

25 August 2007

Frustrated by the post-industrial climate of late Seventies Manchester and imbued with the power of punk, the brooding melancholy and fierce delivery of Joy Division’s music continues to reverberate today. To mark the 30th anniversary of the band’s inception, Chris Barrett charts the pioneering act’s tragically short career with band members Peter Hook and Stephen Morris.

It is difficult to underestimate the revelatory impact of the Sex Pistols at the height of their power. And, for two 20-year-old friends at the band’s Lesser Free Trade Hall gig in Manchester on July 20, 1976, the raw impact and the attitude of its delivery would change their lives forever.

For Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, friends since they were 11, their respective jobs in graphic design and at the Manchester Ship Canal Company were soon to be discarded in favour of a frenetic life in one of Manchester’s many young and ambitious punk bands.

Borrowing £35 from his mum the day after the Pistols gig, Hook bought his first bass guitar and immersed himself in the local punk scene.

“It was like being a member of a semi-secret society; it was us against the world,” he reflects fondly.

Circulating in that same social underbelly was enigmatic singer and labour exchange employee Ian Curtis, who was eager to join Hook and guitarist Sumner after the recent demise of his own band.

Having responded to an advertisement for a drummer in a Macclesfield music store, Stephen Morris met Curtis outside Strangeways Prison, they immediately clicked and the line-up was secured.

Initially named Warsaw, after the track Warsawa from David Bowie’s Low album, and promoted by local student Martin “Zero” Hannett, the band set about earning a reputation for their uncompromising and often violent live shows.

While Curtis’ lyrics expressed an emotional desolation and dark literary fascination, they were in sharp contrast to the act’s fiery onstage energy. “I was thinking of getting t-shirts printed with the slogan ‘I’ve been bottled at a Warsaw gig’,” chuckles Morris.

Having learnt of the existence of London punk outfit Warsaw Pakt, the name Joy Division was swiftly adopted. Curtis found inspiration for the new moniker in the pages of the novel The House Of Dolls, which describes a Joy Division as being an area of a Nazi concentration camp designated for the prostitution of female prisoners.

Despite the change of name, the atmosphere at gigs remained as chaotic as ever, with Joy Division’s first concert, at Manchester’s Pips Disco in January 1978, proving no exception.

“Ian got thrown out for kicking a bottle and we had to plead with the bouncers to let him back in,” says Hook. “He was going mental outside and when we finally got him back in and started playing the whole place erupted into a huge fight. It wasn’t the most successful of gigs really,” he laughs. The focal point of Joy Division’s live shows, Curtis made for a frenzied physical presence on stage.

“The thing I will always remember about Joy Division gigs was the transformation that would come over Ian,” says Morris. “When we were in rehearsals he would usually be hunched up with his lyric book, mumbling into a microphone, but when he took to the stage he became highly animated.

“I remember one time we gatecrashed a gig at a club in Manchester and we persuaded them to let us play. Halfway through the first song there were all these pint pots whizzing past my head and I thought, ‘Bleeding hell we’re not going down too well here.’ I looked up and it was Ian who was throwing them.”

It wasn’t long before the band had earned something of a reputation in Manchester and found it increasingly hard to get bookings. As a result they took time out to knuckle down to write and practice their songs.

“We got a place at TJ Davidson’s, an old derelict mill with fibreglass walls,” says Morris. “There were the Buzzcocks in one room and Manicured Noise across the way. We would practice twice a week, on Wednesday evenings and Sundays.”

Hungry for attention, the band’s now infamous first meeting with Granada TV presenter and Factory boss Tony Wilson took place at the Rafters club in spring 1978. Wilson had previously waved the band’s An Ideal For Living EP at the camera during his local news slot, Granada Reports, but Curtis was nonetheless furious that his band hadn’t been invited to play live.

On Friday April 14, the Rafters held a battle of the bands contest hosted by Stiff and Chiswick Records. Curtis wasted no time pinning Wilson against a wall and berating him for not inviting Joy Division to perform on his show. A stunned yet obviously impressed Wilson assured him they would be the next band on.

Joy Division finally took to the stage, with Curtis irate, at 2.10am after a scuffle with makeshift act the Negatives, made up of writer Paul Morley, Kevin Cummins and Richard Boon, who insisted on performing first.

“When Ian was angry he was really angry. They kicked down the dressing room door and it got pretty heavy,” says Morley, a local contributor to NME and one of the band’s most enthusiastic supporters. “I loved that night because when they went on in the early hours of the morning their anger was so intense that suddenly you saw them breaking out of the chains of Warsaw and becoming this other group, it changed everything.”

That night, Joy Division made another lasting impression, this time with the venue’s resident DJ and Factory cohort Rob Gretton. Having experienced the band’s furious live show, Gretton set about persuading them to take him on as their manager.

Gretton’s involvement with the musicians would continue beyond Joy Division, remaining closely involved with New Order until his death in 1999.

“He was always thinking and coming up with an idea,” says Hook. “What I miss about not having Rob is that he always had a scheme on the go. He did come up with crazy ideas though; right from the start he wanted New Order’s first LP to be called Fuck. He wanted to call every LP Fuck,” he laughs.

With Gretton on board and Wilson not only inviting the band to perform Shadowplay on TV, but later requesting that they return for renditions of Transmission and She’s Lost Control, a song inspired by a young girl’s epileptic seizure in front of Curtis at the labour exchange, Joy Division had taken their first sure step toward success.

Impressed by Curtis’s inimitable songwriting and delivery, coupled with the band’s unique sound, which often found Hook’s basslines playing lead to Sumner’s rhythm guitar and Morris’s metronomic drumming, Wilson was eager to sign them up to his fledgling label Factory Records.

Hook modestly claims that he developed his distinctive bass sound as a result of buying a poor quality speaker from his former art teacher for £10. “It sounded shit, the only way I could hear myself, because Barney’s guitar was so loud, was to play high.” Hooks explains. “Ian was always the spotter. It was Ian that said ‘it sounds really good when you play high and Barney plays rhythm’. We used that formula on many songs including She’s Lost Control and Insight.”

Primarily a club promotion vehicle, Factory took its first step into the record business with the release of A Factory Sample; a double seven-inch single containing tracks by Joy Division, The Durutti Column, Cabaret Voltaire and John Dowie, all of whom had played at the Factory club night on Moss Side.

April 1979 proved a busy month for the act – especially Curtis who, after becoming ensconced in Stockport’s Strawberry Studios recording Unknown Pleasures, became a father.

Having produced Joy Division’s contribution to the Factory Sampler, Hannett set to work on the group’s debut album. Assured of his own maverick abilities after working with the likes of The Buzzcocks, Hannett’s uniquely stark approach to production provided the perfect foil to the rawness of Joy Division’s live sound.

“At the time we thought he was diluting our live power,” says Morris. “He put the guitars through a Marshall time modulator and made me do daft things with the drums, he was a bit of a mad scientist but we went along with it.”

Despite not always finding him the easiest to get along with, Hook was impressed by Hannett’s imagination. “He was a broadband thinker. Bernard and I were the most vocal and we just wanted to rock, but Martin saw something in the music, so instead of it being an eight o’clock at night record it became a five in the morning record.”

Along with Factory came the visual flare of designer Peter Saville, whose uncompromising modernist approach to sleeve design perfectly complemented the band’s austere sound.

The album was released in June with an initial pressing of 10,000 copies, featuring an anonymous black cover on which Saville had masterfully placed the waveform of a dying neutron star that Sumner had discovered in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy.

Despite being reviewed in Sounds under the headline “Death Disco”, Unknown Pleasures was critically well-received and reached number 71 in the albums chart. The hectic touring schedule continued and was beginning to taking its toll on Curtis. He suffered his first epileptic fit on the way back from the band’s London debut at the Hope and Anchor pub in Islington and been presented with a dazzling array of drugs and instructed to rest by doctors.

“To be told he had to completely change his lifestyle, it was impossible for him,” says Morris. “It was the worst thing that could happen in the world because being in a band was all he wanted to do, and everything that came with it.”

As the punishing lifestyle and array of drugs increasingly took their affect on Curtis, so Joy Division’s live shows became ever more frenetic, as their frontman’s animated dancing often resembled – and occasionally resulted in – a seizure.

“You saw the moment slip between something he controlled to something that controlled him,” says Morley. “At first it was exhilarating, but where once he could calm it down, in the latter days he often couldn’t. It became a metaphor for the way he was losing control.”

“Ian’s dancing had become a distressing parody of his off-stage seizures,” says Curtis’ wife Deborah in her revealing biography Touching From A Distance.

With the strain on the band intensifying, one particularly eventful evening after a gig at Bournemouth’s Winter Gardens in November 1979 sticks in Hook’s mind.

“I remember sitting for an hour and a half after the gig holding Ian’s tongue before we could get him in the car and take him to hospital. Looking back you think, well we shouldn’t have taken him on to the next gig, which was Cardiff. “That was the wonderful night when our roadie disappeared. I went looking for him and found him hiding in a broom cupboard, I asked him what he was doing and he said ‘He’s fucking possessed by the devil that bastard!’.

“So we had the lead singer in hospital on a bleeding stretcher and the roadie wouldn’t come out of the cupboard. I was sober because I was driving, all the other fuckers where in the bar pissed. To cap it all, we got Ian in the car and had the syndrums in a plastic bag and instead of Steve putting them in the boot, he put them by the boot. So we drove off and went all the way to Cardiff before we realised and had to come all the way back.”

Curtis’ increasingly poor health meant he was not always able to perform and Morris believes that the singer was beginning to blame himself. “I think part of his illness made him think he was holding everyone back. We said we should have some time off but he wouldn’t have it.”

Despite the obvious warning signs, a gruelling European tour ensued before the band decamped to London’s Britannia Row Studios, in March 1980, to record their second album, Closer.

With slow, hypnotic rhythms and synthesisers to the fore, Closer’s sombre tone marked a remarkable sonic step forward for the band, with Hannett on increasingly experimental form. While songs such as Heart And Soul, Colony and Decades demonstrated a fresh musical approach, Curtis’s tortured lyrics provided an alarming hint at the singer’s state of mind, not least on Isolation, during which he intones, “I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through, I’m ashamed of the person I am.”

Two months later, just days before leaving for a scheduled American tour, Curtis committed suicide at his home in Barton Street, Macclesfield.

“It never occurred to me that he was writing about himself,” reflects Hook. “After he committed suicide we couldn’t find his lyrics anywhere, so we sat down and wrote them out and started to think ‘Oh my God!’.

“We would ask Ian if he was OK and he would tell us that he was absolutely fine. We would think it was weird, but what could we do? We just didn’t have the expertise, education or experience at that age to deal with it. It breaks my heart; the fact that Joy Division might have had something to do with his demise.”

A month after Curtis’s tragic death, Joy Division had the biggest hit of their career with Love Will Tear Us Apart reaching 13 in the UK charts. In July, Closer was unveiled to a now-avid fanbase. Receiving widespread critical acclaim, it reached number six on the UK albums chart.

For the three remaining band members, with their lives ahead of them, there was a sense of determination that their music careers would not be cut short and so in September 1980 they formed New Order.

“The wave was unbroken; it was never a question of let’s call it a day,” says Morris. “The decision to carry on was quite easy, it was how that was the problem,” agrees Hook. “We were enjoying what we were doing and wanted to carry on. That was easy, teaching ourselves to write and trying to fill the hole that Ian had left was a whole other story.”

Postscript :

Joy Division Timeline

July 1976 - At a Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall, a conversation between Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook sparks a string of events that will lead to the formation of Joy Division

May 1977 - Warsaw play their first show

July 1977 - Warsaw’s first demo is recorded

January 1978 - Having dropped the name Warsaw, Joy Division play their first gig at Pips Disco, Manchester

April 1978 - Joy Division meet Tony Wilson and Rob Gretton when they perform at the Stiff/Chiswick Challenge at Manchester’s Rafters club. Rob Gretton asks if he can manage the band

June 1978 - Joy Division release their first record, An Idea For Living, which was recorded in December 1977

September 1978 - Joy Division perform Shadowplay on Tony Wilson’s TV show Granada Reports

December 1978 - Ian Curtis suffers his first epileptic fit returning from a gig at the Hope & Anchor pub in Islington, London

January 1979 - Fac-2, A Factory Sample, is released. The double seven-inch single contains the tracks Digital and Glass by Joy Division, plus songs from The Durutti Column, Cabaret Voltaire and John Dowie

April 1979 - Joy Division record debut album Unknown Pleasures at Strawberry Studios, Stockport with Martin Hannett producing

April 1979 - Ian Curtis becomes a father

June 1979 - Unknown Pleasures is released and peaks at number 71 in the chart. A 10,000 copy run is produced, funded by Tony Wilson

November 1979 - Anton Corbijn attends Joy Division’s concert at the Rainbow Theatre, London and makes contact with the band. The following day he photographs them for the first time

March 1980 - Joy Division record their second album Closer at Britannia Row Studios in London, Martin Hannett produces

May 1980 - Birmingham University’s High Hall is the scene of Joy Division’s last-ever gig

May 1980 - Ian Curtis commits suicide

June 1980 - Love Will Tear Us Apart peaks at 13 in the UK singles chart

July 1980 - The band’s second album, Closer, is released by Factory and peaks at number six in the albums chart

September 1980 - The three remaining members of Joy Division form New Order

July 16 1998 - New Order play Joy Division songs live for the first time in 18 years at the Manchester Apollo Theatre. It is the first time the songs have been heard live since Ian Curtis’s death

October 12 2005 - Honouring the first anniversary of the death of John Peel, New Order perform a six-song set made up entirely of Joy Division songs

May 17 2007 - Control, Anton Corbijn’s film based on Deborah Curtis’ novel Touching From A Distance, premieres at the 60th Cannes Film Festival, on the eve of 27th anniversary of Ian Curtis’s passing

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25 August, 2007


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