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Dead Pop Stars 101: Celebrate Ian Curtis and Joy Division

The story of Ian Curtis and Joy Division

“The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless.” — Leo Tolstoy

The story of Ian Curtis and Joy Division is a particularly heartbreaking one. While there is no shortage of Greek tragedies in the annals of rock and roll history, the tortured figure of Curtis has continued to captivate people in a big way. Over time, he has become a cultural icon whose influence is still discernible even in the music of today’s groups, such as Interpol.

Like Jim Morrison before him, and Kurt Cobain after, Curtis was one of an elite visionary few that paved the way for future generations of musicians, and his enduring legacy continues to garner interest in the music of Joy Division some 28 years after his suicide ended the group’s short yet influential career.

When my editor first suggested that I should write a Joy Division feature for Goldmine earlier this year, I thought it sounded like a great idea. Interest in the group has never been stronger thanks to Anton Corbijn’s gorgeously shot yet flawed biopic “Control” and some nifty Rhino reissues (double-CD, Collector’s Editions of Unknown Pleasures, Closer and Still last fall, and The Best Of, this spring), and I know the band’s music well. While not a fanatical admirer of Ian Curtis, I nonetheless felt I could write a well-balanced overview of Joy Division for readers who were perhaps more familiar with classic rock than say, gloomy, British Post-Punk.

But in preparing to write this article, I became painfully aware of a nagging question that I still don’t quite know how to answer: how do you write about someone who has become more of a mythical figure than an actual person? And how do you do that when the subject is the cryptic Ian Curtis, a man who everyone, including the people who knew him most intimately, admits to not having a clue to who he actually was?

It’s for this reason that I won’t endeavor to fill these pages with every minute detail about Joy Division B-sides, bootlegs, previous band names, etc. I’ll leave that to Wikipedia. What I will attempt to do here is to give the band’s general back-story, but also to try and get the feel of Joy Division across to you, dear reader, as Ian Curtis the man may have imagined it. To share his ideas in such a way that you feel the need to get up and experience songs like “Transmission,” “Dead Souls” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” whether it’s for the umpteenth time or the very first.

Despite the fact that Joy Division released only two proper albums and a self-released EP between the years 1978 and 1980, its reach extends far beyond its meager discography. They were the first true post-punk band, extolling the DIY aesthetic of punk while pushing the music far beyond the limited creativity set by earlier groups like The Sex Pistols.

You could argue that Curtis and Joy Division were to punk what Morrison and The Doors were to the Hippie culture. Theirs was a brand new direction, and you could either follow or be left behind. While they were often portrayed as nihilists, there was something strangely emotive, even passionate, about the music of Joy Division that set them apart from the “Pretty Vacant” punks that came before them. This was music of substance.

Oddly enough, it was at a Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester on June 4, 1976, that Curtis, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner all saw the possibilities of punk firsthand. The three were all there separately, but when bassist Hook and guitarist/keyboardist Sumner quickly put together a band and Curtis expressed interest at having a go at singing, he was accepted without so much as an audition.