Ian Curtis: Joy Division
Ian Kevin Curtis (15 July 1956 – 18 May 1980) was an English singer-songwriter and musician. He is best known as the lead singer and lyricist of the post-punk band Joy Division. Joy Division released their debut album, Unknown Pleasures, in 1979 and recorded their follow-up, Closer, in 1980. In the early hours of 18 May 1980, Curtis committed suicide by hanging himself in the kitchen of his house at No.77 Barton Street, Macclesfield, at the age of 23. He had just viewed Werner Herzog’s 1977 film Stroszek and listened to Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot. His wife found Curtis’s body the next morning; he had used the kitchen’s washing line. Deborah claimed later that he had confided to her on several occasions that he had no desire to live past his twenties. Curtis’ body was cremated at Macclesfield Crematorium and his ashes were buried at Macclesfield Cemetery.
Curtis, who suffered from epilepsy and depression, took his own life on 18 May 1980, on the eve of Joy Division’s first North American tour, resulting in the band’s dissolution and the subsequent formation of New Order. Curtis was known for his bass-baritone voice, dance style, and songwriting filled with imagery of desolation, war, emptiness and alienation. After Curtis’s death, the remaining members continued as New Order and achieved critical and commercial success. Although their career spanned less than four years, Joy Division continues to exert an influence on a variety of subsequent artists.
In 1976 at a Sex Pistols gig, Curtis met Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook. They were trying to form a band, and Curtis immediately proposed himself as singer and lyricist. The trio then tried unsuccessfully to recruit several drummers before selecting Stephen Morris as their final member. Initially, the band was called Warsaw, but as their name conflicted with that of another group, Warsaw Pakt, they changed it to Joy Division. The moniker was derived from a 1955 novel The House of Dolls, which featured a Nazi concentration camp with a sexual slavery wing called the “Joy Division“. The cover of the band’s first EP depicted a drawing of a Hitler Youth beating a drum and the A-side contained a song, “Warsaw”, which was a musical retelling of the life of Nazi leader Rudolf Hess. After starting Factory Records with Alan Erasmus, Tony Wilson signed the band to his label following the band’s appearance on his So It Goes television programme, itself prompted by an abusive letter sent to Wilson by Curtis.
While performing with Joy Division, Curtis became known for his quiet and awkward demeanour, as well as a unique dancing style. Although predominantly a singer, Curtis also played guitar on a handful of tracks (usually when Sumner was playing synthesizer; “Incubation” and a Peel session version of “Transmission” were rare instances when both played guitar). At first Curtis played Sumner’s Shergold Masquerader, but in September 1979 he acquired his own guitar, a Vox Phantom Special VI (often described incorrectly as a Teardrop or ordinary Phantom model) which had many built-in effects used both live and in studio. After Curtis’ death, Sumner inherited the guitar and used it in several early New Order songs, such as “Everything’s Gone Green“.
Curtis’ last live performance was on 2 May 1980, at High Hall of Birmingham University, a show that included Joy Division’s first and only performance of “Ceremony“, later recorded by New Order and released as their first single. The last song Curtis performed onstage was “Digital“. The recording of this performance was included on the compilation album Still.
Curtis was portrayed by Sean Harris in the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, which dramatised the rise and fall of Factory Records from the 1970s to the 1990s. In 2007 a British Ian Curtis biographical film called Control was released, based on material from Deborah Curtis’s book Touching from a Distance. It was directed by the Dutch rock photographer and music video director Anton Corbijn, who had previously photographed the band and directed the video for “Atmosphere“. Deborah Curtis and Tony Wilson were executive producers and Todd Eckert of Clara Flora was the producer. Sam Riley, the lead singer of the band 10,000 Things, portrays Curtis, while Samantha Morton plays his wife, Deborah. The film had its debut at the Cannes Film Festival on 17 May 2007 to great acclaim, taking three awards at the Directors’ Fortnight. It portrays Curtis’s secondary school romance with Deborah, their marriage, his problems balancing his domestic life with his rise to fame, his relationship with Annik Honoré, his struggle with poorly medicated epilepsy and depression, and his suicide.