Paul Morley On Ian Curtis – ‘The Myth Gets Stronger’

Today (May 18) marks the 35th anniversary since Joy Division icon Ian Curtis sadly took his own life. This is the full obituary that appeared in NME in June 1980.

So why do we get so animated and enthralled by Joy Division?

Rock’s such an infuriating thing it’s a marvel we get so confused. Mostly rock is an unstable, stale slab of crudity and stupidity; an endless roll of superficiality and lies. Some people, though, achieve within it even more than the usual palatable, topical noise, create something beautiful enough to sustain our faith. The rock music that is above and past the status quo and narcissism of the enduring rock tradition that reaches us through business channels, that doesn’t set up as its restraining barrier the cynical elements of Good Time and consolation, can be broadly split in two.

Good rock music – the palatable, topical stuff – is an amusement and an entertainment; the perfect pastime for this current season of hell. The very best rock music is created by individuals and musicians obsessive and eloquent enough to inspect and judge destinies and systems with artistic totality and sometimes tragic necessity; music with laws of its own, a drama of its own. The face of rock music is changed by those who introduce to the language new tones, new tunes and new visions.

The very best rock music will frighten us as much as it will entertain us.

It will always be the rock music that reflects the enormity of our struggle and our unease, that achieves a language you feel in your heart, your spine, your eyes, rather than that which submits to fame, fortune and fashion, that supports our faith in rock music. It’s a faith worth having. It’s certainly not a problem.

Joy Division throw us out of balance. Their music is undoubtedly filled with the horror of the times – no cheap shocks, no rocky horror, no tricks with mirrors and clumsy guilt, but catastrophic images of compulsion, contradiction, wonder, fear. The threatening nature of society hangs heavy; bleak death is never far away; each song is a mystery, a pursuit. The music is brutally sensual and melancholically tender. The songs never avoid loneliness, cruelty, suffering; they defy these things.

All this isn’t out of a love for deep oppressive seriousness, we’re not celebrating gloom. More it’s a loathing for mediocrity and hypocrisy and complacency, the deceptions rock often seems proud to mould. There can be nothing so silly as believing that rock is a saviour, and nothing as outrageous as accepting it as an artificial attractive network of trash and flash. People tend to take rock music for granted – and never think what it could be.

Joy Division never took it for granted and pushed its possibilities to the limits.

The very best rock music is art, and that is nothing to be ashamed of. Good rock music is entertaining and amusing, legitimate and intelligent, and from week to week, single to single, upset to upset, it keeps us going. The very best rock music – that is because of the roots, the hedonism, the delinquency and the screaming of rock tradition – is dramatic, neurotic, private intimate and draws out of us more than just admiration and enthusiasm.

Whether it’s Jimi Hendrix or Joy Division it suggests infinity and confronts squalor. In direct opposition to the impersonal exploitation of the rock structure it miraculously comes from, it cares for the inner person.

It is rarely straightforward intelligence and wit that produces the very best rock music, it is exuberance … there are dreams that shout for a better world and a deeper understanding. These are dreams of the very best rock music.

Joy Division make art. The prejudice that hangs around the word ‘art’ puts people off, makes them think of the untouchable, the unreachable and the unrealistic. Joy Division put reality into rock. Yet for all the intensity and violence of their images, the music never relinquishes a classic accessibility; rhythm, melody, atmosphere are awesomely sophisticated.

Joy Division make art. Joy Division make the very best rock music.

This is heavy stuff, and why not? Joy Division achieve something unique. Joy Division are not merely a hip new wave group on a fashionable independent label. Oh no!

The month before what ere to have been their first American gigs. Joy Division completed an impromptu set of British dates. In keeping with their corporate aversion to regulation and routine, the gigs hardly qualified as a tour proper.

Spread through April, they followed hot on the heels of the fortnight spent in Islington’s Britannia Row studios on the new ‘Closer’ album. the dates took in London venues as diverse as the Rainbow, where they supported The Stranglers, to three nights at the Moonlight Club. Out of town, they went largely unannounced or were advertised only locally. Though a few of the dates were cancelled an Ian Curtis feel ill, it was a period of hectic and intense activity for the group.

The last of the gigs was in the University of Birmingham ’s High Hall on Friday May the 2nd. It was also, fatefully, the last public appearance Ian Curtis made as vocalist in Joy Division.

Four days before the Birmingham gig, a video was filmed in Manchester for the forthcoming ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ single. The location – a disused, windswept, Dickensian warehouse converted into a rehearsal studio – seemed the ideal place for a Joy Division video. But the band’s attitude to proceedings was withdrawn and disinterested. Even on camera, they seemed to have little time for such promotional niceties.

Such lethargy could hardly have been further removed from the mood in the university dressing room later that week as the band prepared for the Birmingham gig: Joy Division, despite their reputation as sober individuals, despite the myth of romanticised gloom that seemed to extend way beyond their vivid musical imagery, despite the cryptic humour of manager Rob Gretton, were earthy and easy-going people.

As Tony Wilson says, ‘‘To people they seemed a very gloomy band, but as human beings they were the absolute opposite.’’

The absolute opposite. Indulging in the customary dressing room horseplay and practical joking, beer swilling and football talk – Ian Curtis was a Manchester United supporter. Just because they painted graphical music landscapes of unprecedented power in their work, didn’t mean that Joy Division never joked or smiled in their quieter moments.

Or even split their sides laughing, as when ‘Twinny’, their red-haired roadie chief, managed to shatter the dressing room window as he tried to sneak a couple of fans into the gig and then lied brazenly to the gig promoters when they came to investigate the rumpus.

But the earthy offstage demeanours – the blunt, wary Peter Hook, the mischievous Bernie Albrecht, the quiet, easy-going Stephen Morris and the shy, fragile, polite Ian Curtis – were transformed the minute the group stepped into the misty blue and green glare of the stage spotlights.

Though a reticent student audience were sluggish into warming to them, Joy Division’s power and purity of purpose was immediately apparent in the undiluted vigour of their music.

Their ultimate live set, characteristically, made few concessions to rockbiz tradition, the opening number being an unfamiliar, untitled instrumental built around a revolving drum motif, one of two new songs already written and rehearsed in the few weeks since the completion of the LP.

A ripple of cheers greets a feedback-ridden, faster then usual ‘Shadowplay’. But Joy Division never stopped to easy games, and follow the familiar song with to choppy, strident ones from the new album, ‘Means To An End’ and ‘Passover’. Indeed, it is only with the end of the slow, mournful ‘New Dawn Fades’ that Ian Curtis acknowledged the audience verbally for the first time with a curt ‘hello’.

But the crowd, surprisingly, stand transfixed, their feet taking all five numbers to warm the dark dance music as the swirling, shifting guitar, and drum patterns of hypnotic ’24 hours’ give way to the pulsebeat of the throbbing bass introduction to ‘Transmission’. The band’s third single suddenly seems to take on an aura of the hit it should have been as the audience finally begin to respond with any real vigour for the first time during the entire gig, their reticence melting in the face of the frightening intensity of Joy Division’s performance.

The euphoria rises through ‘Disorder’, Curtis’s flailing robotic juggle dance taking on almost violent proportions as Morris and Hook hold down the backbeat with precision and power and Albrecht studiously picks out the purest improvised guitar solos.

The guitarist takes over on synthesiser for the two closers, both again from the new LP, the translucent ‘Isolation’ and the serene ‘Decades’, a track, like the awesome ‘Atmosphere’ or ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ that accentuates the delicate side of the group and provides a sharp counterpoint to the more physical hard rock that comprises most of their set.

Curtis, however, stumbles from the stage before the end of the song, totally exhausted and obviously showing signs of strain. The band, despite demands for more, return for only a sharp one-song encore, a re-vamped version of the 1978 Factory Sampler track ‘Digital’…

It doesn’t really need saying, but Ian Curtis was highly emotional, deeply romantic and acutely sensitive. It was these qualities, plus an irrational willingness to take the blame for things, combined with a set of problems it’s not relevant to reveal, that made hum decide to leave us. A change of scenery, for him, perhaps, freedom.

On Saturday, May 17, four days before Joy Division were to fly to America, he had visited his old house in Macclesfield to watch the televised film Stroszek by his favourite director, Herzog. Hours later, in the early hours of the Sunday morning, he hung himself. He was 23.

That a myth will develop is inevitable, if only because of the ‘type’ of group Joy Division seem to be, the passions they arouse, Ian Curtis’ words are vivid and dramatic. They omit links and open up perspectives; they are set deep in untamed, unfenced darkness. He confronted himself with ultimate realities.

However, it’s written, this piece contributes to the myth. Things need to be said, things that would have been said anyway, without perhaps so much unconstrained emotion. Ian’s leaving gives his words and his images a final desperate, sad edge of clarity. It’s a perverse way for Joy Division to get their deserved attention.

When we listen to past and future Joy Division records the myth takes on new shape and stature. Our memories add to the myth. Ian Curtis’ own myths, the myths he dragged up from the deep and tuned to our reality, inspire it.

The myth gets stronger … we might as well get on with it. Ian would love this myth. Ian Curtis was young, but he had already seen the depths. His death is a waste, but he had already given us more than we dare hope for anyone.

We were looking towards him. And he was no longer there.

Joy Division played their first gig at the Electric Circus supporting Buzzcocks and Penetration in May 1977 after many months of excited preparation. Their name then was Warsaw, having rejected the Pete Shelley suggestion of Stiff Kittens. The Warsaw was derived from ‘Warszawa’, a song on Bowie’s ‘Low’.

Warsaw were undistinguished but there was great belief and romance guiding them. Slowly, the noises formed. In the first months of their existence it was mundane business problems that hindered their natural growth. They recorded a four track single ‘An Ideal For Living,” and planned to release their EP using their new name Joy Division – Joy Division being the prostitutes wing of a concentration camp.

Poor sound quality postponed the release and even when it was put out as both 7 and 12 it created no stir although something was obviously forming. In 1978 Joy Division felt isolated. Played a few gigs, met their manager Rob Gretton who took away from the cumbersome organising duties and concentrated on developing their music.

Martin Hannett took an active interest in the group and he and Gretton became fifth and sixth members.There was no great plan behind joy Division linking up so neatly with factory records. It was just a series of circumstances that eventually developed into funny logic. Joy Division had a quarter of the “Factory sampler”, contributing two Martin Zero-produced songs. These two were the first indication that Joy Division had a special understanding.

Following the “factory sampler” it was never certain that factory could afford to put out another LP. And Joy Division after early silly mistakes were taking their time before committing them selves to a record contract. Finally Factory took the plunge, and just in time as Joy Division had seriously considered signing to a Martin Rushent ran subsidiary of Radar Records.

“There was a point where we were thinking about signing, but we weren’t rushing anything,” Ian Curtis said. “We went down to London to see what type of working relation ship we would have, but by that time we’d already agreed to do the first LP with factory. So we decided to wait and see how that went. It started selling well so we realised there was no need to go to a major.”

The progress of Joy Division could be logically followed from record to record, but still their completeness and strength of their first LP ‘Unknown Pleasures’, was unnerving.

The group had discovered their own potential, and had quietly, effectively travelled from one extreme to the other. On ‘An Ideal For Living’ they were coyly boasting,” this is not a concept, this is an enigma.” With ‘Unknown Pleasures’ they were offering no clues at all.

Every word counted every line had a chilling penetration. Somewhere between ‘An Ideal For Living,’ and a few months later when ‘Pleasures’ was recorded, a radical transformation had taken place.

An audience began to look their way but Joy Division never let go. They quietly established their independence prolifically and ambitiously expanding on their already considerable originality. They played countless gigs but never made it seem that they were merely promoting a product. They created their own pace. They made it look so easy. “It” being something like a total lack of compromise.

Joy Division’s powerful work will naturally persist and live on the name Joy Division will not be used by Hook, Albrecht and Morris. The group had decided a long time ago that if any of the quartet should for what ever the reason in what ever way depart the rest would in cautious recognition they were making something special would change the name of the group.

There are no set plans for the future but it must be said that Ian Curtis was not the major force in the group. He wrote and offered contributions to the musical make up. Hook and Albrecht wrote the melodies, Morris composed the rhythms. Curtis was a dazzling focus but each contribution was equal.

Hook Albrecht and Morris are for obvious reasons impatient for the release of the remaining Joy Division songs. There are many to come.

Within a matter of days a maxi-single including a slow and quick version of the penultimate of our time is released – ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (a song that had traumas in mixing). The LP ‘Closer’ (Hard ‘s’, an in closer to the centre) is suffering production problems but should be out within six weeks. Without being insensitive we can thank whoever that it was complete. It is something you will never forget (Factory Records hurry to the point out that the LP sleeve – a gothic portrayal of dead Jesus – was decided upon months ago. A photo-copy of the sleeve pinned on an NME wall for weeks does confirm this.)

Ironically, because it probably would have happened anyway, there’s a possibility ‘Closer’ will chart. So too the single. The name Joy Division means something more than it did a few months ago,’ due to both Curtis departure and growing recognition of their magic. Curtis always anticipated commercial success, but felt it was more likely to happen first in Europe and America. All that’s swept out of the way now.

There’s enough songs for perhaps half an LP, with live stuff making up the other half, that may somehow somewhere surface. For those despairing that they weren’t one of the thousand and odd who found a copy of the Sordide Sentimental single ‘Atmosphere/ Dead Souls’ , ‘ Atmosphere’ will be the B-side of a readily available American 12” re-recording of ‘She’s Lost Control’ (a song incidentally on the B-side of Grace Jones next single). ‘Dead Souls’ will turn up eventually, somewhere. And the flexi-single ‘Incubation’, which you can get just by walking into a record store and asking for, is not a limited edition and will be repressed until everyone who wants one will have one.

Joy Division’s innate suspicion of the established music industry and their dissatisfaction with numbing routine extended to their dealings with the music press.

Though it landed them a reputation among many journalists as awkward customers, their distrust of the standardised rock interview procedures was genuine and largely valid.

The original plan for Joy Division feature had been for a journalist to spend a day with the band, with the interview of sorts only a vague possibility. In the event, the formalised question and answer type interview in the dressing room was ruled out, largely by manager Rob, although the band themselves had differing opinions themselves on the subject.

While Morris and Albrect seem relatively unconcerned about interviews, Curtis was against too formalised a set-up. Peter Hook is the most hostile in his objections to the procedure.

“To me personally, it is redundant. I don’t read interviews, I read music papers but I can’t read a question and answer interview. One of the best things I’ve ever read was Lester Bangs’ article on The Clash in NME ‘cause it wasn’t actually an interview but it was full of stories and things about the tour. That was interesting but interviews as such I don’t find interesting.”

But doesn’t a refusal to do interviews put up an unnecessary barrier around the band?

“The way we look at it is that any interview is a bit forced. The only reason a journalist wants to do an interview is that it makes it easier for him to write his piece. But to me it is obvious that if your spend a bit of time with people and get to know them in a very informal way, you’ll get a lot more out of them.”

Ian almost begs to differ.

“I can see the point of interviews. People want to know why things are the way they are. If they buy a new car, they want to know how it works. Why doest do this? Why can this car go faster than that one? Why does it loo better than that one?”

Rob Gretton interjects to make wider, perhaps not so valid, points about the media in general.

“I can understand that journalists are just doing a job. What I don’t agree with is the job they are sent out to do. I think it’s a very stylised, outmoded way of doing things. The average guy in the street tends to read his paper and takes what he reads as the truth.

“I think that they don’t analyse it enough. The average guy in the street just takes it in. I think the fault lies in the press ‘cause they don’t make it clear that any article is just a purely personal opinion.”

The impact of Joy Division can only grow stronger, more importantly so than any myth. Joy Division can not clean away the trivia and delusion of mass-based rock music, but they throw a shadow over it all. They emphasise the vanity and vulgarity of the rock musics sop recklessly publicised and glorified by industry and media, the plain mundanity of the majority of pop, and their own complete lack of conceit or ego indicates the uselessness of pretending rock is some sort of weapon of change. The very best rock is part of a fight, part of a larger decision, a widespread perception, something that actively removes prejudice and restriction.

Rock’s greatness is its emotional effect on the individual. Joy Division’s worth is immense to every individual who does resent their strange awareness, who does not mock the lack of explanation of artistic emotions. The struggle and the conflict never ceases. There is no real safety, no consolation, and often the evil, futile boundaries of existence become too claustrophobic.

Ian Curtis decided to leave us, and yet he ;eaves behind words of such strength they urge us to fight, seek and reconcile. Joy Division will not change The World. But there is value; there has to be.

The effect of Joy Division, the unknown pleasures each individual fully tuned into Joy Division discovers, can only be guessed at. But the moods and the insight must inspire us …

The value of Joy Division is the value of love.