“A change of speed, a change of style” sang Ian Curtis in the opening line of New Dawn Fades: a track from Joy Division’s first album, Unknown Pleasures, released in 1979. By accident or design, this visceral debut captured the essence of Manchester at a juncture in its social and cultural history. It was music that had been brewed on the city’s post-industrial misfortunes and electrified with the spirit of punk and impending modernity. In reviewing Unknown Pleasures for Melody Maker, Jon Savage wrote that Joy Division’s “Spatial, circular themes and Martin Hannett’s shiny, waking dream production gloss” reflected “Manchester’s dark spaces and empty places”.
But it was also music that was charged with forward momentum: a trajectory that arced well into the new millennium. What aspect of this temporal and place specific sound still resonates today? And how did the sensibility of such a transient post-punk band—that emerged from the grit of dour city streets—become exalted to the echelon of high art; casting an immeasurable influence on the music and culture that followed in its wake?
At the crux of these questions is Ian Curtis. The almost mythic musician whose light shone the brightest and burned the quickest; who exorcised his tortured genius through his lyrics and intense performances. In May 1980, at the age of 23, Curtis hung himself. This tragedy occurred two months before the release of Joy Division’s second and final album Closer; and on the eve of the band’s first American tour.
Instead of riding on the crest of international success, Curtis joined ranks with the tragic heroes who lived fast and died young before him: icons like James Dean, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, all of whom Curtis revered in his lifetime. But in doing so he blindsided his band mates and left behind a wife and a one-year-old daughter. To indulge in the mythology is to divorce the dark romance from the human cost of Curtis’ blunt action. And while the remaining band members went on to form New Order and forge an identity distinct from their frontman, we won’t give up the ghost of Curtis.
Kevin Cummins is one of Britain’s most acclaimed rock photographers, with a portfolio including shots of David Bowie, Patti Smith, Mick Jagger, Morrissey and Nick Cave. In 1979, as a recent graduate, he photographed what were to become some of the most iconic images of Joy Division. He believes our fixation with figures like Curtis is part of human nature. “We want tragic heroes,” he says, “we yearn for these people who are exceptional. [And] as the rest of the band grows old and Ian Curtis doesn’t, he’s forever preserved as that photograph.”
“While Curtis may not be a blank canvas,” says Cummins, “we don’t know too much about him, apart from the very basic: that he had a crap job, he got married too young, he had a child, he met somebody else and couldn’t actually cope with that. And also that he had epilepsy, which at the time was stigmatised. But otherwise, that’s it. He can be anything you want him to be. You just look at a picture of him and listen to the music and he can be your ideal man.”
Perhaps the most haunting and affecting image of Curtis is one Cummins took of him in the snow: staring soulfully at the camera, cigarette in mouth. It’s hard to imagine that just out of shot was “The rest of the band … trying to make him laugh,” as Cummins recalls. It was he who determined that Curtis should look serious: young, broke and just out of art school, he was working on an economy of film rolls and had no frames to waste on messing around. “So the reality is different to what you see on the final image, but the final image is actually all that matters.”
Others too brought their own instinctual vision to Joy Division. Many music commentators, including Cummins, believe it was Martin Hannett’s avant-garde production techniques that ensured the band’s music is timeless and resonant today. The band’s manager Rob Gretton limited the number of interviews its members Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris gave for risk of them coming across as uninteresting; and the result—a happy side effect—was to bolster their enigmatic aura. In his art direction and graphic design for Joy Division’s album artwork and posters, Peter Saville imbued the band with a highbrow, fine art aesthetic. “It’s all the elements together that turned them into what they became,” Cummins says. “The production, the almost antistyle look, the photographs, the artwork.”
This overall sensibility has travelled through the decades and its influence can be seen both patently and tangentially. Savage, who has revisited the topic of Joy Division throughout his career as a writer and music journalist, sees the band’s influence today largely in the world of fine art: “There are a lot of painters who are fascinated by Ian Curtis and Joy Division,” he says. “And certainly … Joy Division and New Order [have] always attracted fine artists and fine designers to work on their records and concert posters.” Saville’s work in particular has been embraced by high fashion and his collaborators have included Yohji Yamamoto, Stella McCartney and John Galliano. In 2003, Belgian designer Raf Simons gained access to Peter Saville’s archive to produce a collection of youth culture inspired parkas, hoodies and sweatshirts integrated with Joy Division and New Order album artwork. Simons named the collection Closer, for the Joy Division album, and wore his long held interest in underground music and subcultures quite literally on his sleeve.
Joy Division’s myriad of influences on music cannot be overstated either. On one level, the band helped to establish the popularity of its label Factory Records, and set in motion its path to success: which encompassed the opening of legendary nightclub The Haçienda and the emergence of techno and acid house genres via its biggest exports New Order and Happy Mondays. And if New Order proved to be a pioneering electronic band, it was on the Joy Division track Atmosphere that its members first used synthesisers.
“I think most bands these days have been influenced by Joy Division”, says Cummins, who comments that British band White Lies “even go on stage in black trousers and grey jumpers”, a utilitarian look made fashionable by Curtis. Who in fact, wore his heavy grey overcoat as a practicality says Cummins; remembering the ex-army surplus store, in Manchester city centre, that sold cheap East German and Russian overcoats to weatherproof its residents against harsh Northern winters. Echoes of Joy Division can also be heard in the postpunk revival sounds of Interpol and in the indie-rock of Editors and Bloc Party.
Bands that might not immediately sound comparable draw inspiration from Joy Division’s melody carrying basslines, fractured guitar playing and world weary lyrics: Radiohead, The Smashing Pumpkins, U2, Moby, Pet Shop Boys, Jane’s Addiction and others have acknowledged the band as an influence.
It’s true that Joy Division equalled a sum greater than its parts, but to settle on this thought is to do disservice to Curtis; to ignore the many moments of resonance that suggest he himself had an inkling of Joy Division’s transcendent power and future legacy. His lyrics are consistently startling in their prescience. When Savage concluded his 1979 Melody Maker review on this note, “Leaving the 20th century is difficult; most people prefer to go back and nostalgise, Oh Boy. Joy Division at least set a course in the present with contrails for the future,” did he perceive it too, or did he simply employ a slick of poetic licence? “I suppose I was in tune with what they were trying to do,” Savage reflects today. “I did have a sense of something, absolutely.”
While we reflect back through the decades, it feels as though Curtis has already stood from our vantage point. As he sang on Wilderness in 1979, “I travelled far and wide through many different times”. It may well be gauche to interpret his writing so literally, but there was undeniably something uncanny about Curtis, as if he held fragmented memories of both the past and the future. Curtis traversed time through existential and science fiction literature. He sought but found no escape in the claustrophobic realms of Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Satre and William S. Burroughs; imagining for himself dystopian futures. “Take my hand and I’ll show you what was and will be,” he sings on Atrocity Exhibition, named for the JG Ballard book. He was equally fascinated by the notion of past lives. In the several times he was hypnotised by bandmate Bernard Sumner, “Ian insisted that … he had regressed to a previous life … and for those few minutes … he was an old man on his deathbed,” Curtis’ widow Deborah records in her memoir, Touching From A Distance. It was certainly startling for Saville to realise, upon Curtis’ suicide, that the image for the cover of Closer they had selected months earlier depicted a tomb.
Curtis inhabited the present feverishly, but nonetheless seemed to intuit his rise to success, death and legacy. As Deborah Curtis wrote, “Although it was exciting seeing the acceleration of Joy Division’s popularity, and I had believed in them from the beginning, there was a surreal quality as Ian’s predictions and dreams began to come true”. In his foreword for the same book, Savage writes of Curtis as a “Singer and lyric writer of rare, mediumistic power,” and today reaffirms this: “The song they often used to start with was Dead Souls, which is like a Gustave Doré engraving of hell,” he says. “So it’s already mythological, and Ian certainly was very interested in history and myths. [After a two-minute intro] Ian would launch into this extraordinary song about invoking the spirits of the dead, and how they had a hold on him. I still get chills when I hear that song.” Many of his songs proved similarly anticipatory. “So there’s something going on that goes beyond intellect and rationality,” Savage continues. “Which is of course what pop music is about anyway, it’s distilled emotion.”
Can the heart of Joy Division be expressed by the two simple words, distilled emotion? Can our feelings of love and hate and the gamut inbetween, be condensed into the three minutes of a song? On stage and through his lyrics, Ian Curtis certainly tried and gave it his all.