It just doesn't get any better

May 17 2000 / The Times

Joy Division could scarcely play their instruments when they started out. They made only two albums - Unknown Pleasures (1979) and Closer (1980). They disbanded almost exactly 20 years ago. And yet they remain deeply remembered. George Michael described Closer as his favourite album, and anyone from Bono to the Cure to the Gallagher brothers cites Joy Division as formative influences.

Nothing ever sounded like Closer, before or since. Its nine songs have, at times, an almost cathedral hush; they may be bass and drums-led and punctuated by moments of extreme dissonance, but the fragility of the performances and the melancholy of frontman Ian Curtis’s untrained voice take your breath away. This is music, as critic Paul Morley wrote in the NME, “filled with the horror of our times”.

Much of the originality of that music - and the continued aura of fascination surrounding the band - derives from the dysfunctional personality of Curtis, as songwriter and manic performer (his frenzied stage presence was likened by the rock journalist Dave Simpson to “a demented marionette or a man in flames”). An epileptic and morbid introspective, Curtis committed suicide on May 18, 1980. He was 23.

Many rock stars play at nihilism and despair; Curtis meant it. He lived much of his life in a kind of perpetual rage. As a teenager, he was fascinated by a romantic idea of doomed youth, by figures such as James Dean and Jim Morrison who had died violently young.

His widow Deborah Curtis, in her fine memoir, Touching From a Distance, discusses her husband’s “unhealthy obsession with mental and physical pain”, his youthful experiments with drugs and hardened feelings of alienation.

Joy Division were products of the post-punk explosion of bands inspired by the Sex Pistols. Curtis and the rest of the band - bassist Peter Hook, guitarist Bernard Sumner, drummer Steven Morris - were all in the audience when the Pistols played the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976. They were electrified.

But Joy Division weren’t strictly a punk band, even in the early days when their music was hard-edged and raw. There was a complexity and lyrical sophistication to their sound that was quite unlike any other band at the time. Curtis was an extraordinarily literate man, his songwriting informed by his reading of J. G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Sartre. Some of his song titles - The Atrocity Exhibition, Dead Souls - were taken from the novels he admired most, just as I have borrowed one of his album titles for my own forthcoming first novel, Unknown Pleasures.

As Joy Division became more successful, so Curtis began to hurtle further out of control. The last year of his life, even as he improved and matured as a songwriter, was one of intense misery. His epilepsy, for which he was prescribed barbiturates, was deteriorating, to the extent that he was having regular fits onstage. His marriage had all but ended and he was locked into a destructive affair with another woman, Annik Honore.

After his first suicide attempt, he went back home to live with his parents. For a time, his condition seemed to stabilise, and he was preparing for the first Joy Division tour of America. Curtis had everything he wanted, it seemed, and yet he remained desperately unhappy, a helpless prisoner of the self. He eventually hanged himself in the kitchen of Deborah’s house. On his tombstone are inscribed the words “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, after one of his most popular songs.

What is left, in the end, is the music. And what music! No band, perhaps with the exception of Nirvana, has captured so completely that ambivalent dreamtime of early adulthood, when our lives appear hazily suspended between boundless opportunity and the putative world of work and responsibility waiting to engage us; and when youthful intoxication is followed, as it was for Curtis, by a bitter fall into experience, into a sad accommodation with the ways of the world and its often imprisoning events.

Curtis, at the age of 23, had already achieved everything he wanted (he told Deborah, once Unknown Pleasures was released, that his life’s ambition was complete). There was nowhere else to go.