The death 30 years ago of the Joy Division singer Ian Curtis saw the start of a legend that still haunts the band's other former members.
Living with Ian
Thirty years ago today, an obscure British rock singer took his own life at his modest home in the humdrum mill town of Macclesfield, south of Manchester in England. The death of Ian Curtis was a private tragedy which went largely unrecorded at the time, even in the local newspapers. And yet the legend surrounding the Joy Division singer has grown ever since, fuelling the mystique of the much-fabled Factory label and subsequent generations of Manchester musicians.
Today, the Ian Curtis industry is bigger than at any time during his short life. Boosted by a clutch of recent films, most notably Anton Corbijn's reverential 2007 biopic Control, the singer now enjoys a huge following among younger rock fans born long after his death. Musicians also revere him, with U2, Moby, the Killers and the Editors among his famous devotees. The U2 singer Bono has always cited Curtis as a huge influence and even wrote a song about him, A Day Without Me.
Much of this enduring appeal lies in the ferocious intensity of the singer's gloomy lyrics, haunted voice and riveting stage performances. But his early death adds a morbid seal of authenticity too. Curtis can never grow old, never disappoint us with complacency and compromise. Friends recall Curtis as a practical joker, voracious reader, and conscientious husband. But he was also a tortured soul who struggled with a failing marriage, depression and epilepsy. At the time of his death the singer was torn between domestic life with his wife Deborah and new daughter Natalie, and passionate romance with his new love, a young Belgian called Annik Honoré. He was just 23 years old when he took his own life on May 18, 1980.
"Ian had a certain unpredictable quality," recalls the former Joy Division guitarist Bernard Sumner, who recently launched his new group, Bad Lieutenant. "His way of dealing with problems was very extreme and explosive, and he wanted our music to be like that. He wasn't interested in the middle path. And that, I think, is what eventually destroyed him." With cruel irony, Joy Division was on the brink of global success at the time of the singer's suicide. Their debut album, Unknown Pleasures, had transformed the Manchester post-punk quartet into the most revered British band of their generation, with a reputation for electrifying live shows. They had also just finished recording their second album, Closer, and were due to fly out for their debut US tour the day after Curtis died.
Curtis displayed few warning signs during the recording of Closer at Pink Floyd's Britannia Row studio in London. The singer was in good humour, although his eerie, funereal lyrics would later take on an ominous sense of prophecy. He was also taking barbiturates intended to control his increasingly violent epileptic fits, which only deepened his depressive moods. "He had one fit in the toilet in Britannia Row," recalls the bass guitarist and Joy Division bandmate Peter Hook. "He'd been missing for about an hour and I went and found him. He'd fallen and banged his head on the basin. Ian was always his own worst enemy, because he always told you what you wanted to hear. He immediately said he was all right, didn't want to go hospital, and he was up bouncing around. He really was fighting it tooth and nail."
Sumner recalls all of the band playing pranks on each other during the album sessions. But nobody spotted the despair that lay behind the singer's clowning. "Ian would never pour out his innermost thoughts," Sumner shrugs. "I guess he did it on record. But he did say to me late one night that he felt like he was in a whirlpool, and it was dragging him down. He also said all his lyrics seemed to be coming to very quick conclusions, like they were writing themselves. I didn't know what to make of that. I had no inkling that he was considering suicide."
In early April, immediately after completing the Closer sessions, Joy Division played a short run of London shows, during which Curtis suffered more seizures. Two days later, after returning home to face his ongoing marriage problems, the singer took an overdose of barbiturates. After he survived, his bandmates and bosses at Factory dismissed this unfortunate incident as a "cry for help" rather than a real attempt.
"I honestly thought Ian's lyrics were really brilliant, but that he was writing about somebody else," says the Joy Division drummer Stephen Morris. "That's how naive it was. Even after he attempted suicide, it didn't seem that he was that hellbent on destruction." Two days after that overdose, Joy Division unwisely pressed on with their next scheduled show in the Manchester satellite town of Bury. A bleary Curtis sang only a couple of quieter numbers, but most of the vocals were shared by two Factory label mates, Alan Hempsall of Crispy Ambulance and Simon Topping of A Certain Ratio. This confused and angered the crowd, resulting in a riotous fracas between the band and audience members.
"Bury should never have gone ahead," argues Joy Division's former tour manager, Terry Mason. "I remember Hooky telling me of Ian's suicide attempt and neither of us could understand why it was going ahead. It also brought a new realisation of Ian's condition, and with it a new set of situations that a bunch of young men from Salford would have no knowledge of how to deal with." Following the Bury disaster, the Factory head, Tony Wilson, invited Curtis to rest and recuperate at his cottage in rural Derbyshire, an hour outside Manchester, where his then-wife, Lindsay Reade, became a close confidante during the singer's darkest hours.
"In Bury, Ian told me he saw it going on without him," recalls Reade, who is the co-author with Mick Middles of a Curtis biography called Torn Apart. "He felt very removed from it. Later it sounded prophetic, but he was saying it not as a prophecy of his own demise, just that he saw the band carrying on without him. With the epilepsy, he just knew he couldn't carry on with the performances." But Vini Reilly of the fellow Factory band The Durutti Column spoke to Curtis during this period, and insists his suicide attempt was no mere cry for help. He had genuinely wanted to die.
"He was a real soul in torment," Reilly says. "The epilepsy was getting worse and worse, and they were giving him barbiturates, which was the way they treated epilepsy at that time. The problem with barbiturates is you lose your grip on reality when you have a lot of them, and they were giving him really high doses. I think the combination of all these things, plus the idea of going to tour America, was just too much."
Following a final strained encounter with his wife Deborah, Curtis hanged himself in his Macclesfield home in the early hours of Sunday May 18. The BBC radio DJ John Peel, long a champion of Joy Division, announced the news on his Monday night show, playing the band's eerily beautiful new track Atmosphere in tribute. The surviving members of Joy Division would regroup as New Order just weeks after their singer's death, but Peter Hook recalls feeling only numb shock at the time. "Once he died, I can't really remember anything," he says. "We were too young, and none of us handled it well."
Factory delayed the planned release of Closer until July, but decided not to alter its chillingly ominous sleeve design, chosen by Curtis, which featured an ornate Italian tombstone. Meanwhile, the band's new single, Love Will Tear Us Apart, became their biggest chart hit following the singer's suicide. The tragedy surrounding Curtis helped gain Joy Division and Factory worldwide cult mystique, but it also sent shockwaves of guilt and blame throughout the Manchester music scene.
"To commit suicide is an incredible act of violence, and we felt angry at Ian for doing it for a very long time," Sumner says. "In a way, we felt guilty that we didn't stop it. But of course you can't do that. We tried everything under the sun to try and help him, but obviously he wasn't interested." "You do blame yourself," says Reade. "It was horrific, the guilt I had. I also blame Factory - Factory became very dark for me after that. They shouldn't have been doing those gigs, the intensity of the gigs they were doing. They should have given him some downtime."
Thirty years later, the death of Ian Curtis is clearly not just another rock anniversary but still a tender, sensitive, living memory for former friends and peers. "I couldn't listen to Joy Division for years and years," admits Morris. "It was very painful. The only way you can really listen to it is when you can put it on and pretend you had absolutely nothing to do with it." Joy Division's former members are no longer on speaking terms after New Order's acrimonious split in 2007, but nevertheless various events have been planned to commemorate the 30th anniversary of their singer's death. Hook led the way last month by touring Britain with a stage show of music, memories and anecdotes entitled Unknown Pleasures.
Tonight, Hook will host a special tribute night at his recently reopened Factory club in Manchester, which will include a live set of Joy Division numbers. He insists that the mood will be celebratory, not sombre, bidding farewell to Curtis in a way he was unable to 30 years ago. "Ian's lyrics, when you look back, say it all," Hook says with a sigh. "We just chose not to listen. We were too young, too inexperienced in the ways of the world. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It's a terrible waste, really.
"If only you didn't have to live with him every day. I've spent my whole life surrounded by him, immersed in Joy Division. It never goes away."