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Monday 18 May 2020

18th May 1980

Ian Curtis died forty years ago today. The details are public knowledge- found by his wife in his kitchen in Macclesfield, a cord around his neck tied to the clothes drying rack,  Iggy's The Idiot on the turntable, a Werner Herzog film the last thing he watched.

The Ian Curtis death cult is a bizarre thing. You can find it easily on the internet, people from all over the world who have taken on the view first expressed by Paul Morley at the time, that 'he died for you', that he was too pure a soul for this world. Anton Corbijn's 2007 film Control, made with the full co- operation of family and bandmates, has fed into this myth- beautiful, romantic, poetic, doomed Ian. It's a stunning bit of filmmaking and the performances are sincere and sympathetic. I'm not sure though that it's healthy to portray suicide this way. It's pretty clear that Ian's suicide has had a huge impact on those he left behind. His widow Deborah couldn't stand to listen to New Order between Ceremony and True Faith. His daughter Natalie grew up without knowing her father. Bernard has said the suicide has affected him ever since. Hooky has often referred to the shadow Ian's death has cast. This isn't the 'romantic' side of suicide. It's people left behind not knowing why he did it and the guilt that they could have done more to prevent it. The Joy Division industry and the endless Unknown Pleasures merchandising is a spin off that I don't think anyone on the evening of 18th May 1980 would have seen coming.

Joy Division Oven Gloves (Peel Session)

The Joy Division publishing industry has given us the autobiographies of the main players- Bernard Sumner, Deborah Curtis, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris. So many other people around the band have also now passed away- Rob Gretton, Martin Hannett, Tony Wilson- who would surely have written their versions had they lived. Wilson wrote the book version of Twenty Four Hour Party People which also covered the events.

All of which sometimes overshadows the sheer dark brilliance of Joy Division and their music, a band who were more than just Ian Curtis and three mates despite what Hannett said about them being 'a genius and three Man United fans'. Ian's untutored voice, Bernard's rhythm guitar, Hooky's melodic bass and Steve's lead drumming, perfectly balanced, each contributing 25% to the whole and Hannett's production giving them that extra quality, the dark stardust. The fact that Ian's death is now forty years old underlines just how young everyone involved was and maybe how difficult it was in 1980 for anyone around to have been able to do anything to stop him as his marriage collapsed, his illness got worse and his medication exacerbated his problems, and the US tour loomed. Recent gigs had been chaotic as he had seizures on stage. Mental health services in 1980 were not like they are today. Young men didn't talk about these things. They didn't even take his lyrics at face value despite Closer reading like a forty minute suicide note.

R.I.P. Ian. Remember him, listen to the music, dance to the radio but let's not fall into the trap of the romantic suicide. It's a dead end with no way out for those left behind.

This is a dub cover version of their most famous song by a New York group called Jah Divison. This isn't a novelty cover by any means.

Dub Will Tear Us Apart

This is She's Lost Control, live on Something Else in 1979, the real thing, northern post- punk, a reflection of the post- industrial city they were formed in and formed by, what Wilson called 'the last true story in rock 'n' roll'.


TheRobster said...

What a thoughtful and honest piece, Adam. I didn't realise it was the anniversary today. I agree with everything you wrote. The same may well also apply to Kurt Cobain of course - the myth, the legend, whatever you want to call it, is nothing more than a marketing ploy to flog us countless reissues and merch.

Both Ian and Kurt were undoubtedly very talented but very troubled people. What happened to them was tragic, but like so many others like them, the people who are left behind will always suffer, always wonder if they could have done something, always carry the guilt with them.

Suicide is an intensely personal thing, only committed as a final act of desperation. No one fully understands it. Whilst we must never denounce those who do it as being selfish or cowardly, we must also never mythologise it as an act of heroism. Ian Curtis was special, there's no doubt about it, but he had three band mates who went on to huge success without him. He was one man. His death did little but cause grief, sorrow and guilt. And make some people an awful lot of money.

drew said...

Excellent SA.

londonlee said...

I didn’t know he had a wife and kid until I read it in the NME the week after he died. I was shocked and as you say took the gloss off the romantic view of his suicide

Anonymous said...

The consumption machine commodifies everything in the end, but can you commodify an idea, a feeling like a religion? I've seen it grow and rise like a tide in the populace over the years. Perhaps in the future, like the oven gloves, there will be Joy Division priests, Joy Division police, Joy Division holidays and even a Joy Division Pope.

Nick L said...

Beautifully written piece Adam.
I was only 12 when Ian Curtis died, and had only really just got into Joy Division. It was a real shock at the time, not just his death but some of the stuff written about it afterwards. As someone who was only just that year getting into the NME, to read the thoughts of people like Paul Morley and Dave McCulloch were a real glimpse into another world, a world of which I had yet to acquire any knowledge. I hadn't known anyone who'd died by that stage, and suicide seemed like something unspoken about at that time. Thank goodness things are more open today. The book by Deborah Curtis "Touching From A Distance" puts over the more human, day to day side, and thank goodness someone did. You get the strong impression he was definitely no martyr or cult leader, even in waiting, he was a bloke with imperfections, a husband and a Dad.

Anonymous said...

As always, Adam, thoughtful stuff.

Had forgotten the anniversary until I heard Peter Hook on Radcliffe & Maconie yesterday.


Brian said...

This was so well done, Adam. Thank you.

JC said...

As others have said, a lovely, thoughtful and erudite piece.

The suicide was horrendous and shocking. As a fan of the band, the ‘tortured soul’ side of things was totally unknown.

I cried loudly at the end of ‘Control’, which I saw at a 10am showing during the Toronto Film Festival and thus made for a long and difficult day. It was actually the scream from Samantha Morton as Debbie that got me....that’s when it really hit home who his death hurt the most.

Echorich said...

Very well said SA. For 4 decades, I've tried to stay away from the questions and the what if's. It's always seemed to me to speculate and impose my views was really not something that would bear any fruit. As a fan it was a loss and I certainly have empathy for all those affected. Ian Curtis' death certainly heightened the awareness of his art, the band's art and kept an ever lit spotlight on them that has shone strong and dimmed and shown strong again over the years. We have record of his genius, we are privy to some of the world he inhabited and we are thankful for time he had on this mortal coil.