This article was first published on CLUAS in May 2000
Procession moves on, the shouting is over
Kevin on Ian Curtis of Joy Division, 20 years after his suicide...
It is probably impossible that you haven't heard the indie disco classic "Love will tear us apart". The first time I heard it was in Cork's Freakscene, I was drunk and I thought it slightly bizarre but I remembered it for some reason. The next time I heard it was by chance on one of those radio top 100 things. I then realised it was one of the greatest pieces of music I had ever heard.
This month marks the twentieth anniversary of the suicide of Ian Curtis, lead singer and lyricist of Joy Division, the group who are beautifully responsible for the previously mentioned classic 'Love will Tear us Apart'. On paper what Joy Division achieved is not that impressive. They released two studio albums - 1979's "Unknown Pleasures" and 1980's "Closer". The highest chart position they achieved with a single was no 13 and, of their albums, 'Closer' made it to number 6. About as big as Rollerskate Skinny made it you could argue. But why then can you still buy their records?
No band before or since has sounded quite like Joy Division. They were perhaps one of the first conventional guitar bands to toy with what the instruments could sound like.
For me the unique Joy Division sound started not with the 'Warsawza' EP or the early singles but the opening of 'Unknown Pleasures', the almost mechanical beat introducing a excited sounding bass riff and then Curtis coming in sounding like an android "I've been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand". It is an album full of gloomy riffs and machine beats (which were later to be an influence on the beginning of British dance music). It sounds epic, transcending its subject matter to sound like a Kafkaesque nightmare vision of modern life. It is full of deathly sounds and shouts out of darkness. Take for example the stomach churning moment on "Day of the Lords" when - over dirge-like guitar riffery - Curtis begins to shout out of nowhere "This is the room / the start of it all / Through childhood through youth / I remember it all / Oh I've seen the nights / filled with bloodsport and pain / and the bodies obtained... Where will it end? where will end?".
'Closer' was as their debut, but only filled out on to a broader canvas. Emptiness was always central to Joy Division's music the paradox was that with Closer there was a full sound that propelled them to greatness. The development is obvious on "The Eternal", an almost stately funeral march. It would be wrong for me to say that the songs were written by Curtis under the knowledge that, for him, it was soon to be all over but the second half of the album is filled with an almost universal doom. It ends with 'Decades' a song about the futility of being in a band and the futility of life. Oh and the music, a repetitive chime moving from massive to minor and back. So understated beautiful and sad, that it moves me almost to tears. Guitar music today is greatly in debt to joy division. If punk reclaimed the guitar as a blunt instrument, then Joy Division were the band to use it to create mood, light and darkness with out being Pink f**king Floyd.
Ian Curtis the lyricist
There is a phrase popular among music journalists of our time for describing a certain type of lyric as "personal experiences with a tweak to the universal". In that field Curtis was lyricist laureate. One of his finer pieces was the statement of horror at entertainment culture, making art out of misery in "Atrocity exhibition": "...asylums with doors open wide / Where people had paid to see inside / For entertainment they watch his body twist / Behind his eyes he says 'I still exist'". Or take the crystal imagery of "Love will tear us apart" a song about the breakup of his marriage: "Why is the bedroom so cold? / You've turned away on your side / Is my timing that flawed? our respects run so dry.....You cry out in your sleep / all my failings exposed / and there's a taste in my mouth / as desperation takes hold".
It has been said of Kafka and T.S Eliot that they showed up the failings of modern man and the fact that the possibilities that were open to his forefathers no longer are open to him. Curtis' lyrics are a kind of medium-to-low art extension of this. In the recession doomed early eighties no lyricist was to match him. Martin Fry/Kevin Rowlands pop escapism just seemed like a cop-out. A lot of Morrissey's self loathing would arguably have been better left in the soiled bedroom. Ian Curtis remained unparalleled (until McGowan emerged) as a lyricist.
Ian Curtis the Man
"Ian Curtis was a bundle of paradoxes, he was a Tory yet he liked the writing of bohemian authors like Jg Ballard and William Burroughs. At the same time he wrote haunted lyrics and gave mesmeric performances, he was a great practical joker. He could be both a charismatic leader and highly suggestible, he hated confrontation and could be all things to all men." (Jon Savage, NME).
Ian Curtis was born in Macclesfield in July 1956. His adolescent years were spent living in the cultural wasteland that inspired the punk revolution. In August 1975 he got married to Deborah Curtis. Joy Division were apparently formed on the night of the Sex Pistols Free Trade Hall Manchester gig by Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, they met Ian Curtis shortly afterwards and Steve Morris joined in 1977. In late 1978 Curtis' epilepsy worsened and by 1980 he was having fits on stage. His daughter was born in 1979. That year he met Annick Honore and started to have an extra marital affair with her. His wife later admitted that because of his deteriorating mental condition he needed somebody to look after him. In early April he broke down after a Stranglers support spot, during which he had had a fit and had to be carried off stage. On April 7 he attempted suicide. The next night he was pulled out of a psychiatric hospital to play a gig, he couldn't go on and the crowd rioted, resulting in Curtis having another breakdown. The Friday of the weekend of his suicide Peter Hook recalls him laughing and being excited about the forthcoming American tour. On the morning of Sunday 18th of May 1980 Ian Curtis hung himself. He was 23.
As tragic as it is, Ian Curtis' suicide should not be an issue concerning the music of Joy Division. Any guitar band today are as in debt to them as they are to the Beatles or the Sex Pistols. The lyrics are up there with any words ever set to music. Some people will say that it reflected the life of a man living in a cold and unloving world but it was a stronger, more universal experience than that. These paragraphs may give you just one writer's side of the story of Ian Curtis and Joy Division. But no matter what, here was a band whose short-lived life demands an opinion. If you have not done so already be sure to check them out for yourself. Yesterday.