Lost Notes: 1980 - Ep. 3: 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.

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 14 th , 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.

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. 

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.