An Excellent Joy Division Documentary And The Death of Ian Curtis.
Above Photo: Screenshot of Bernard Sumner with Peter Hook’s Rickenbacker bass in Joy Division’s rehearsal warehouse.
I recently watched an excellent DVD called ‘Joy Division – The Documentary’, which contained some fascinating insights into the band’s earliest period, and later, the tragedy of Ian Curtis’s death.
As I mention in my Punk and New Wave memoir, Bombed Out!, I used to love watching Joy Division play live in 1979 and 1980. I saw them so many times that I was actually disappointed with their album Unknown Pleasures when it was released in June 1979, because it couldn’t get close to the sheer power of the band onstage.
Watching the documentary again reinforced how similar social and economic conditions were in Liverpool and Manchester at that time – as well as in other cities up and down Britain – which provided such a powerful accelerant to the Punk and New Wave music scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Even seeing the cold, scruffy rehearsal rooms Joy Division used in a disused Manchester factory brought back strong memories of being in bands in Liverpool at that time.
“I don’t see this as the story of a pop group. I see this as the story of a city…” says Tony Wilson at the start of the documentary, and he was right. He then recites a potted history of Manchester from its time as the inventor of the Industrial Revolution, with its ancillary urban poverty, which continued into the 1970s.
Bernard Sumner, Joy Division’s guitarist said “I don’t think I saw a tree until I was about nine,” and Stephen Morris, Joy Division’s drummer, remembered rows of terraced houses being flattened then replaced by “concrete fortresses.”
Bass player Peter Hook said he’d met Joy Division guitarist Bernard Sumner at school when they were 11. Sumner said they’d grown up as little more than ‘factory fodder’ in Salford (ironic considering the Manchester club of the same name which later played such an important role in the band’s progress).
The Sex Pistols’ Lesser Free Trade Hall gig in 1976 opened their eyes to the musical possibilities. Hook said he’d never seen anything like it in his life.
“I thought it was shite. It was just like a car crash”. But it was “chaotic, exciting and rebellious.”
Sumner said ‘It was a right racket. You just thought ‘Fucking hell. I could do that’”.
And that very night Joy Division was formed, although they were called ‘Warsaw’ at that time.
They recruited a singer by an advert. “One guy rang up and he didn’t sound mad” said Sumner, and that was Ian Curtis. Already married by then, he came across as a “really nice guy”. He got the job over the phone.
They recruited drummer Stephen Morris by way of another ad. He was expecting a head banger Punk to answer the phone but instead spoke to a “very mild mannered and chatty Ian (Curtis)”
They played the last night of the Electric Circus in 1977 and shortly after, Bernard Sumner read the name ‘Joy Division’ in a book about Nazi sex slaves and they changed the name of the band.
By the time of their first EP, An Ideal For Living, in 1978, they were very much into the DIY method of Punk recording, ignoring big labels and doing it themselves.
Deborah Curtis, Ian’s wife, said they borrowed GBP 400 from their bank for “furniture” but used the lot to record and press the EP. They then begged a local DJ in a club to play the record, but it was pressed so badly and was so muffled, that it cleared the dance floor.
Then they couldn’t get a gig for 6 months, so they used that time to improve musically, wrote more songs and rehearsed a lot, ignoring other developments in the Manchester music scene as they perfected their own sound.
At an April 1978 Battle of the Bands competition in Manchester, Curtis went from being “a really lovely, nice, polite, intelligent guy” to someone threatening the other bands not to play. He also called Tony Wilson, then a very influential ‘Name’ in the Manchester scene, a “cunt” for not putting Joy Division on his TV show, So It Goes – a programme showcasing Punk and New Wave bands.
The documentary then charts the rise of Joy Division, but inevitably also deals with the terrible and untimely death of Ian Curtis on 18 May 1980.
The documentary takes a very dark and poignant turn when Ian Curtis’s epilepsy is first revealed. The band had played a gig in the Hope & Anchor in London and on the drive back to Manchester Curtis was acting strangely in the van, growling like a dog, then violent punching out, followed by a massive epileptic fit. They stopped the van on the hard shoulder of the M1, pulled him out of the van and had to hold him down.
After that, his epilepsy was diagnosed.
The band members were still understandably affected by his death at the time they were interviewed, and they blamed themselves for not being more aware of the depression that had engulfed Curtis before his death. It was only long afterwards that they even put the dark and clue-littered imagery of Curtis’s lyrics together with his mental state at the time.
Hook comments that Curtis had cut himself up with a kitchen knife and had already taken an overdose before he successfully killed himself. He said “It seems completely unbelievable to me that we didn’t stop and sort him out.”
On 7 April 1980 Curtis had taken an overdose and was hospitalized, but he still attended a gig the following day in Bury. Sumner said “He was in no fit state to play.” They brought in a stand-in singer who went down badly with the audience and a pitched battle between band and audience took place. Unfortunately, Ian Curtis blamed himself and burst in tears.
Ten days later, he was dead.
Peter Hook said he didn’t go to see Curtis’s body before the funeral and has regretted it ever since; not having had the opportunity to have properly said goodbye.
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