Today marks the 32nd anniversary of the passing of Ian Curtis. Though I do not truly consider myself an expert on him, I have been interested in is work and persona enough to extensively research his biography.
We begin with the roots of the music scene with Peter Shelley and Howard Devoto. They were ahead of the music scene by spending thirty two quid to book the hall on Friday, June 4 1976. Later, on July 20th, the two would once again be on the cutting edge of the music scene and become The Buzzcocks.
The band began after a Sex Pistols gig. “Free Trade Hall nights was the very first time we played ‘Anarchy In the UK’ on stage,” said Glen Matlock. “”That was the night that Tony Wilson saw us and immediately booked us for his television show, So It Goes.
Later Warsaw would be playing a gig which was to be recorded by Virgin Records. The record surfaced in April 1978, by then would be Joy Division, would have one track from the punk filled night at The Electric Circus, :”At A Later Date,” which is one of the memorable nights of the band with Ian Curtis screaming, “Do you all remember Rudolf Hess?” at the beginning of the song.
The writing portion was a serious task that was done by Ian alone, but the creations of the tracks themselves were done by the band just, “fucking about.”
Starting with Warsaw, we hear them release, “An Ideal for Living,” which was their first album done without the assistance of Factory Records. All of the tracks from this EP, whose sleeve was a Nazi drummer kid, became the foundation for this group and put them into the Manchester Punk Scene along with bands like The Buzzcocks and Slaughter and The Dog.
The lyrics to, “Leaders of Men,” show the frustration that was felt all throughout Manchester, with the gloomy post-industrial era and post-war era, by saying, “The leaders of men. Born Out of Your Frustration. The Leaders of Men. Just a strange infatuation. The leaders of men. Made a promise for a new life.”
All of the lyrics had a personal reflection of the life of Ian Curtis, which though seems to be a bit irrelevant right now, will play a major role once the band becomes well established.
When Joy Division came to the scene, was around the time that Factory began to truly become an emblem which resembled the change that was about to take place with music. Unknown Pleasures was the hallmark that pushed the band to a level that could not be reached by any other band. What led them to this sound was producer Martin Hannett, who was known for his work previously with The Buzzcocks. He did marvelous work and was considered to be the genius behind the evolution of the bad with the use of the AMS digital delay. In order to master this device he befriended some students who created the device and taught him the inner workings, which led to the sounds which define Joy Division.
On the way home from a gig Ian had his first epileptic seizure which scared everyone in the vehicle. They pulled over in the middle of the night on a dark road and held him down as they heard him growling and tremble on the hard top surface. This was the beginning of what would normally limit individuals, by being told by doctors to stay away from drugs, drinking, flashing lights, and late nights. All of which was contrary to the rock and roll lifestyle, let alone the life of an emerging band with the member being barley in their early 20’s in an era of anarchy.
Though he did a lot of gags and jokes with the band and did things an ordinary youth would do that that age at times, he was not really living the life he could have. Being married matured him that much faster than the rest of the band, which only escalated more when his daughter was born. He was a rock star and an idol for people like Morrissey (The Smiths) and Bono (U2) but he saw himself more of a father and husband who needed to support his family. This led to the extensive touring schedule as a Joy Division and also, “…worked as a civil servant for the government department which was responsible for the payment of unemployment benefits and for helping unemployed people to find work.” We go on to see that, “Ian probably worked here until well into 1978 before moving to a new job as an Assistant Disablement Resettlement Office based at the JobCentre in Macclesfield. The aim of his new job was to help people with special needs, due to some type of physical or mental disability, to find and retain employment. One of the factors that motivated him to apply for the job in Macclesfield was that it would take him about five minutes to walk from home to work instead of the awkward journey he had to by public transport to central Manchester.”
One day while on the job assisting a normal looking girl with a helmet she had a, “fit.” These fits are actually seizures that spontaneously occur. This was out of the ordinary for Ian to witness which left a mark in his life. A few weeks later on a follow up call he discovered that the girl had died from a over aggressive fit. From this incident dawned, “She’s Lost Control.”
The band then grew in popularity and toured with The Buzzcocks, which turned a bit of a problem for both bands when one magazine sent two separate journalists to do separate pieces on both bands. This was the indication that Joy Division was surpassing The Buzzcocks. It was an unprecedented situation and made it obvious that they were scared of Joy Division.
In the back of a postcard Ian foreshadows his future by a quote from T.S. Eliot:
Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone
Being married at 19 was a hardship that he endured during this life, and then having a child with Deborah named Natalie 16 April 1979 made it that much more difficult financially for him. He needed the income and would do second hand tasks. During their break from The Buzzcocks gig, the band played at the Electric Ballroom in London, which would become the first place that Ian shared a kiss with Annik Honore. She was of Belgium descent but worked as an interpreter for the French Embassy as well as a part time reporter, which was how she met Ian.
A lover of music herself, Annik would plan for the band to go across Europe to perform at different countries and venues. Mainly she was known for planning gigs at Plan K which was a venue in Brussels, which was one of the few places, which bootleg recordings of the band took place. Though she and Ian had an affair, it was not one built on lust but rather emotion.
Factory records had grown and Tony Wilson wanted his make his own band. He then created A Certain Ratio the counterpart and balance to the gritty and revolutionary sounds that were made by Joy Division. They would open for Joy Division whenever possible, which was the case in their Electric Ballroom gig. Annik still had the times and set list from that night:
8.15-9.00 A Certain Ratio; 9.15-10.00 The Distractions; 10.30-11.30 Joy Division.
Underneath Annik had written the testament to what happened that night by saying: “He took me by the hand took me in his arms in the backyard of the Electric Ballroom. He was beautiful and shy. We spent the night together. 1st kiss Ian Annik. 2 lovers forever.”
No one in the press or fans of the band new of Ian’s condition which put pressure on Ian to hide his seizures. “On one gig we found ourselves doing extra encores just to allow time for the ambulance to get away,” said Steve Diggle of The Buzzcocks.
With “Closer,” the band turned into a dark force once again with the help of Hannett. This was the evolution of Synthesizer for the band, which would be the dominant sound of New Order. This was the first time in history that there was rhythm and melody on different instruments. This is heard I, “Isolation,” though most turn to “Blue Monday.” “Blue Monday,” was the first record without Martin.
In this album, we hear the lyrics change to a melancholy sound, which was a sign that Ian was deciding his fate. Though Annik told Tony Wilson, creator of Factory Records, that he honestly believes and feels his lyrics, he dismissed it as art and assured her not to worry. Even the most subtle lyrics turned into a true part of Ian’s personal life. In the track, “The Eternal,” he says, “Accept like a curse an unlucky deal, with children my time is so wastefully spent.”
“That song is about a guy that he used it see near where he lived in Macclesfield who, at the time, we would call mentally retarded,” said Vini Reilly, leader of the Factory band The Durutti Column, when he called Ian at the Wilson’s residence after he and Debbie had an argument about Annik. “He described a grown man who had the mental age of about four or five – there was obviously something wrong with him. This man hung out with the children in the park near where Ian lived. Ian used to watching this guy with the kids. This guy couldn’t communicate with any other grown-ups; he could only communicate with children. Basically what Ian was saying was that every song, every single line or phrases had a specific meaning for him. It was actually about something very specific. It wasn’t a general vibe – they were very specific his lyrics and people didn’t understand that. I was quite surprised. I didn’t really understand what he meant until I heard the song on “Closer.” Of course most people wouldn’t know that he was actually describing something that really exists in reality as part of Ian’s life. He said that every lyric in every song was basically multi-layered and had many meaning and could be applied to either him or sometimes it was inspired by describing another person but most of the time, in fact a lot for he time, he was describing himself.”
After a suicide attempt by overdosing on the prescription pills he was given for his seizures, he told Vini, “I actually mean it you know…it wasn’t a cry for help. – I actually want out.” Vini recalls more of the phone conversation, “It had been a log conversation before he said that. He seemed quite happy about it. He didn’t say it in some dreadfully doomy voice it was just like he’d made the decision and it was a very clear one he’d made.” Ian kept to himself a lot to the extent that his parent did not know of the attempted suicide attempt.
Martin Hannett was the house producer for Factory after having done Unknown Pleasures and came to produce other bands such as A Certain Ratio, Happy Mondays, and finally New Order.
“Ceremony,” made its debut in a gig the band did at Birmingham which consisted of Ian singing immensely evocatively. At this time the song had no name since on the set list it was titled as, “NEW ONE.” This song was a demonstration to how far the band has gone and the ultimate progression that they would become later on in their career as New Order. This was one of the only tracks that were played at the begging of New Order which was written by Ian.
After this set, the band booked a session with Martin specifically to record, “Ceremony, “and, “In A Lonely Place.”
There was then a moment of celebration when the bands manager Rob Gretton booked a small American tour. Ian talked to Annik and told her that he didn’t want to leave. She left for Egypt to go holiday with her Mother because the trip was booked well in advance. Annik was one of the few people who saw Ian and knew what he was planning on doing. Even though Ian stayed with Lindsay Wilson (Then wife to Tony Wilson) for the duration of a week, she claims that he showed no signs of anxiety of depression that would reach a suicidal extent. “Someone said that the words ‘if only’ are two of the saddest words in our language,” says Lindsay.
“Deborah Curtis discovered Ian’s body on Sunday morning,” which was the day before the band were to leave on their American tour. The neighbor Kevin Wood was washing his car when Debbie ran to him. Kevin said, “I glanced at the mantelpiece and I could see an envelope and I then looked into the door that led you into the kitchen and Ian was there, unfortunately hung. Not as people would probably imagine, he’d tied a rope to the old fashioned clothes rack on a pulley, but by this time the rope had stretched and cut into his neck and he was knelt on the floor as though he was praying.”
His influence and music lives on and is an example of what can achieve in any given amount of time. Joy Division later went on to form New Order which also revolutionized music and mainstreamed the synthesizer. We commemorate Ian Curtis today and will keep the band and his affect in music with us for the remainder of the years to come.
The Life of Ian Curtis: Torn Apart by Mick Middles and Lindsay Reade