Ian Curtis

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Ian Curtis performing live onstage at the Lantaren in Rotterdam, January 1980 Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns via Getty Images

This piece was written for the KCRW music documentary podcast Lost Notes. This season, the poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib explores a single year: 1980 - the brilliant, awkward and sometimes heartbreaking opening to a monumental decade in popular music. You can find all the episodes from Lost Notes: 1980 here.  Support KCRW original programs like Lost Notes by donating or becoming a member

In May of 1980, Joy Division was preparing to embark on their first tour of the United States. They were still riding high off of the immense critical success of their debut album “Unknown Pleasures. If you don’t know the album itself, it is very likely that you’ve seen the cover, or at least some version of the cover’s black and white radio waves, which look like tiny mountains. The cover has been repurposed to fit all manner of t-shirt expression – from support for a political candidate to solidarity with Mickey Mouse.

The cover of Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” released in 1979

“Unknown Pleasures” wasn’t immediately commercially successful, but in the fall of 1979, Joy Division went on tour in support of the Buzzcocks, drumming up further critical acclaim and an excitement for their second album already in the works, “Closer. 

*To celebrate the release of Lost Notes Season 3, join KCRW for an epic conversation about the albums that made a forever stamp on 1980. At the virtual table will be Lost Notes S3 host Hanif Abdurraqib, KCRW DJs Anne Litt and Eric J. Lawrence, Music Journalist and Historian Dart Adams, and YOU. RSVP HERE!

It was the band’s performances that got the press going, particularly due to the movements of frontman Ian Curtis. A dark cloud of sweat starting out small and then moving south along his button-down shirts. His movements on stage were chaotic and unpredictable: a moment of stillness followed by a windmill of rapid arm movements, or his body, twisting and turning into a brief and uncontrolled tornado before settling into abrupt calm again. There are videos online – compilations of these moments that people can watch and marvel at. Through the grainy black and white footage, the small fists of Curtis cut through the darknesses, like he’s fighting some invisible demon, circling the stage.

Joy Division performing “She’s Lost Control” 

In 1978, a year before the band released its first album, Ian Curtis began suffering epileptic seizures. He was officially diagnosed with epilepsy in January 1979, when his seizures grew more severe. So severe that doctors warned they would disrupt his life to the point that he might not be able to function for more than small bursts of hours at a time. When not recording or touring, Curtis became withdrawn. There were those who called his frantic movements on stage his “epilepsy dance” – something Curtis did to take back control of his body’s faculties, but also movements that mirrored his seizures. So much so that when he’d sometimes pass out on stage and fall into a seizure, there were moments where the audience wouldn’t be able to decipher if he was dancing, or in agony. 

Ian Curtis performing at The Lyceum in London, February 29, 1980. Photo by Chris Mills/Redferns via Getty Images

Despite his diagnosis, Curtis didn’t follow doctor’s orders as strictly as those close to him might have wanted him to. He still drank and smoked, and didn’t sleep much. The anticonvulsant medications he was given forced him to have mood swings, and become even more withdrawn than he’d already been. By the time Joy Division had begun to tour and record more vigorously, Curtis saw his condition worsen. By the time they began recording “Closer,” he was suffering about two seizures a week on average. During one recording session, Curtis went to the bathroom, had a seizure and hit his head on the sink. It was nearly two hours before his bandmates found him unconscious on the floor. 

And so, when it came time for the band to prepare for their American debut, Curtis, was anxious, concerned, and growing increasingly depressed. He was worried about how American audiences would react to his dancing, or the threat of him passing out on stage and having a seizure. Joy Division had captivated audiences in the UK, who were eager for the way Curtis massaged some lyrical beauty out of otherwise mundane anguish. But it was less certain if they’d garner the same response in the states at the turn of the decade. It was spring in America. The Voyager 1 had confirmed a new moon of Saturn. The Miracle on Ice had happened and the country was still buzzing. “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Pac Man” were released on back to back days. Not everything in the states was all good, of course. But there was a future-facing excitement that had taken hold at the start of 1980, and Joy Division was planning to drop directly into it with visceral and monotone depictions of the human condition, articulated from the stage by a twisting whirlwind of a frontman.

Ian Curtis and Bernard Sumner (L) performing live onstage at the Lantaren in Rotterdam, January 1980. Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns via Getty Images.

On April 6th, 1980, Ian Curtis attempted suicide for the first time. The band had just wrapped the recording of “Closer” in about two weeks. They were still a month away from going on tour in the states, but excitement was growing. Despite that excitement around their music, the band members didn’t have much money. They couldn’t afford to eat consistently, and could barely buy their own drinks. Despite the critical buzz around them, they were still a fairly underground band. Because of this, they had to pack in as many gigs as possible until the album was released. Playing four gigs in three days wasn’t an uncommon week. The pressure of the moment wore on an already unwell Curtis. The breakneck pace of recording had weakened him, and he still wasn’t sleeping well. One night, drunk, he sliced himself repeatedly with a kitchen knife. Then, on April 6th, he attempted to overdose on his own medication.

New Order photographed by Laura Levine during soundcheck at downtown NYC club Tier 3 (TR3), 1980. Photo © Laura Levine

Sometimes, when people talk about suicide, they do it as though they’re already talking through a person. So much of this fueled by the anxieties that are taught about dying. The uncertainty of what might be on the other side of a life. If there is anything at all. But Ian Curtis was suffering. He was suffering so deeply, and so consistently, that he felt the need to run into that uncertainty. He was in the midst of a suffering so all-consuming, that the idea of any uncertain other side of it felt like a comfort. 

Tony Wilson was the head of Joy Division’s label, Factory Records. After Ian’s first suicide attempt, Wilson was the one that picked Curtis up from the hospital. He took him directly to a rehearsal. On April 8, just two days after his initial suicide attempt, Joy Division was scheduled to play a gig just outside of Manchester. Curtis wasn’t well enough to perform, but took the stage anyway. The hall had a capacity of 400, but with the room at capacity early, someone opened the fire doors and let an additional 200 people in. The band’s manager, Rob Gretton, had arranged for Alan Hempsall from the band Crispy Ambulance to stand in on vocals for Curtis. But Gretton, behind the scenes, also urged Curtis to sing a few songs if he could. And so, near the end, Curtis emerged from backstage and took over for the last few songs.

Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook photographed by Laura Levine during soundcheck at downtown NYC club Tier 3 (TR3), 1980. Photo © Laura Levine

None of the audience was aware that Curtis was unwell. Rumors had started to swirl about his stay in the hospital, but they were scattered – news didn’t travel like it does now. He didn’t take the stage until three songs into the set. For the song “Decades." It opens with the lyrics: "Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders. Here are the young men, well where have they been." Perhaps prophetic for a more aware audience. But in that room – hot and packed beyond the capacity of its own walls, confusion turned to annoyance. By the time Curtis finished his second song, he exited the stage. And then, someone threw a pint glass. It was the tipping point that sparked a small riot. The thing that pushed a room of people over the edge. A room that was already eagerly knocking at the door of violence, bodies pushed uncomfortably into one another.

After that show, Curtis grew even more anxious and withdrawn than he already was. There was an endless pressure on him. The band needed him to carry on, when he could barely carry himself. Curtis became a recluse. Tony Wilson offered up a spare cottage in Charlesworth where Curtis could recuperate and rest up before taking on the United States.

Singer Ian Curtis and guitarist Bernard Sumner of English post punk band, Joy Division, at TJ Davidson's rehearsal room, Little Peter Street, Manchester, August, 19th 1979. Photo by Kevin Cummins/Getty Images

If you look on the internet today, you can find copies of Curtis’s lyric sheets. Handwritten on small pieces of notebook paper. Curtis wrote in all caps. Looping and curved letters, but still clear. His handwriting, childlike but eager. The ending of a “C” flowing right into the line that connects an “A." An “E” and an “H” indistinguishable from each other but for the full word they rested inside of. His lyrics were all written like he was in a rush. Like he didn’t trust himself to hold on to his own ideas. In an early draft of the lyrics to “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Curtis scratched out one word and writes "why is my timing so flawed" above it, in smaller letters. His lyrics, when laid out this way, apart from being mapped onto instrumentation or drowning in the sweat of performance, feel more plain. Anguished, and consistently questioning. He was pulled between his wife and a mistress. Pulled between his illness and a band who was relying on him. Pulled between his desires and his abilities. It all felt, indeed, like his timing and the timing of the world around him never seemed to align.

On the night of May 17, 1980, Curtis told his bandmates that he’d take a train to Manchester and meet them for their flight to the states. He contacted his wife, Deborah, to ask her to stop their in-process divorce proceedings. He asked her to come and spend the night with him, but when she arrived, his mood had changed and he told her that he would spend the night alone. In the early hours of the next morning, he hung himself using a clothesline in the kitchen. In his suicide note to Debroah, he told her that he loved her. It was nearing dawn, he wrote. He could hear birds singing. 

Ian Curtis’ body was cremated. His ashes were buried at Macclesfield Cemetery, where they remain today. His headstone has the words “Love Will Tear Us Apart” engraved into it. He was 23 years old.

There were those close to Curtis who expressed regret. Heartbroken that they didn’t see his pained living before it was too late. Even with how it lived in the frantically handwritten lyrics. How it lived in his performances. Violently thrashing his body up against its limits. But it is easy to separate the living from the anguish they are enduring. Particularly in the case of Curtis, who often told the people close to him that he was fine. Who performed, even when just getting out of a hospital. Death opens the window to a dawn of questions. An entire chorus of regrets.

“Closer” was released in July of 1980. It reached #6 on the UK Charts, and the song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” became a top 20 single on the UK charts. On the cover of “Closer,” there was a photo of the tomb of the Appiani family of Italian nobles. It’s carved out of stone. The photo was taken by Bernard Pierre Wolff in 1978. In it, a body lays flat on a slab. On the album cover, one can see the body surrounded by a small group of three mourners.  

Cover of Joy Division’s “Closer,” released in 1980  

Left in the wake of Ian Curtis’ suicide were Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and Bernard Sumner. Shortly after the loss of Curtis, the band decided that they would carry on. Though not as Joy Division. Even prior to the death of their singer, the band had made a pact not to carry on with the Joy Division name if any one member was to leave. The band was unable to effectively play any songs from “Closer” without Curtis. So the new unnamed trio made their live debut in late July, less than two weeks after Closer’s release. They played at Manchester’s Beach Club. It was an article in the Guardian, found by manager Rob Gretton, that gave the band their name. It’s headline was about The People’s New Order of Kampuchea. The band became known as New Order. Each member of the band tried their hand at lead singing. Eventually, Sumner was the choice that was landed on. The logic was that he could sing while he wasn’t playing his guitar.

In January 1981, New Order released its first single, “Ceremony.” It was written when Ian Curtis was still alive, and one of the last Joy Division songs to be composed. The lyrics, written by Curtis. There are versions of “Ceremony” as recorded by Joy Division. The most prominent and well-circulated version is from a studio session on May 14th, 1980. Four days before Curtis’ death. On this version, Curtis’ vocals are muffled and slurred, almost filler to rest over the music. There are bursts of clarity, before the muffled droning begins again. Curtis never transcribed the lyrics to the song. Since they were inaudible on every surviving recording, Bernard Sumner put the recordings through a graphic equalizer in order to at least get close to the lyrics Curtis had written. Its opening line haunts the first verse. This is why events unnerve me. One cannot detach it from the anxieties that blanketed Ian Curtis at the end of his life.

New Order performs Ceremony in 1981 

For all of New Order’s success throughout the 80s – the band’s soundtrack-ready songs and rapturous live performances, I love the way the first single came to life the most. I think a lot about the voices of the dead – the voices of our dearly beloved and how they can fade into memory after too long. How many people have I lost? And, through that loss, how many memories of a voice echoing through a better moment have I lost? I sometimes remember the laugh of a dear friend who I buried some time as a teenager. I can remember the music of certain words, but not full sentences. Only when I open an old diary or read an old letter does the sound of someone’s voice come flooding back to me. The way that some people write and fall into the language of their old writing is like a lighthouse. Another way to stretch out and expand the memory of a person. To step into their old words. To remember their voice for a moment and ask other people to bask in that memory.

From the cutting room floor, a song with Ian Curtis haphazardly slurring the words he’d written became the first single for a decade-defining band. A band made up of people who were weighed down by grief and regrets. Straining themselves to make sure they did justice to the words Ian Curtis  couldn’t bring himself to sing clearly at the end of a life that was filled with pain. Joy Division, if not for their brilliance, would have been a small blip on the radar of music. They were a band for four years total, but their most public output was two albums in the span of 13 months, and then they were gone. Left to be memorialized by nostalgia and memorabilia, and the romantics of quoted lyrics. Lyrics about living a life that is sometimes impossible but briefly good. 

New Order performs Ceremony in 2002 

The fully lived life and all of its nuances are sometimes the victims of nostalgia. Of romance. That there was a person behind all of our regalia. New Order began with this in mind, on the shoulders of its past. The most generous starting point.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story cited Ian Curtis as being 24 around the time of his death. He was 23. The story has been updated. 

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This story was written and performed by Hanif Abdurraqib. 
The senior producer for Lost Notes is Myke Dodge Weiskopf.
The show’s creator and executive producer is Nick White. He also edited this piece. 
KCRW’s USC-Luminary fellow is Victoria Alejandro, and she provided production support for this series.