This is a feature I did for the Sunday Times in 2007
When Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis hung himself on the night of May 18th 1980 few would have thought that nearly 30 years later his life would be getting made into a major feature film.
Released next month, ‘Control’ arrives with a whole host of critical plaudits. Directed by legendary rock photographer Anton Corbijn It was the most raved about film at Cannes film festival and looks set to be one of the classic rock n roll films. All the more remarkable because of the cult nature of its subject matter. Brilliantly filmed in black and white it is highly evocative of a very different era and captures the times perfectly and also documents the short and tragic life of Curtis with some brilliant acting.
His band had released a critically acclaimed debut album ‘Unknown Pleasures’ on the late Tony Wilson’s Factory label and were on the verge of a breakthrough. The press and the band’s fiercely committed fanbase were enthralled by the group’s intense music and Ian Curtis’s deep, baritone voice and darkly romantic lyrics.
The Manchester based band came out of the ruins of punk and created a sound that was a key influence on post punk and Goth as well as setting the foundations for the whole Manchester scene before influencing every band from U2 to Radiohead from Emo to modern day indie. Its an influence that has echoed throughout the decades making them one of the most important bands of all time and a byword for any darkly mysterious music that dares to go deep into the heart of darkness.
After Ian Curtis died the band finally got their first hit single with ‘Love Will tear Us Apart’ and the second album, ‘Closer’ went top ten. They regrouped as New Order becoming one of the biggest UK bands of the next couple of decades whilst a legend that has been built up around their sensitive late front man.
Band mate and formidable bass player Peter Hook remembers the first time he and childhood buddy and guitarist Bernard Sumner first saw Ian Curtis.
‘It was at the Sex Pistols concert in Manchester in 1976. You couldn’t miss him. He had ‘Hate’ written on his back in big white letters. You’d go over and say ‘hello’ to anyone because you had something in common with them- like having spiked hair and pants all ripped up. It was quite easy to strike up friendships at the time.‘
Peter Hook remembers a pleasant if intensely charismatic young man.
‘He was much more educated and middle class than we were, we were more rough and ready, more working class. Ian was more shy and quiet but he could be as wild as anybody especially when he had had a drink.
He was quiet and he was shy but when he would go on stage and go like the bleeding clappers! Which was shocking and inspiring at the same time.’
The band they formed, initially called Warsaw, were a rudimentary punk band but with a more somber twist. By the time they had changed their name to Joy Division people on the scene had started to take notice like the late Tony Wilson.
‘The first time I ever saw him he came up to me at Rafters and said ‘fuck you. You’re the bastard off the TV, you cunt.’ I asked him why he said that and he said it because I had never put them on the telly. He was really nasty, really confrontational. And this was when they were a completely unknown band. It worked. I put them on pretty soon afterwards. I never saw him like that again in the 3/4 years that I knew him, he was this thoughtful schoolboy, an emotionally deep thoughtful schoolboy.’
Signed to Tony’s Manchester based label Factory in 1978 the band got critical acclaim as their music quickly developed. They started playing nationally and Ian Curtis began to show signs of a deeper illness with epileptic fits.
Peter Hook details the band’s confusion.
‘He was ill quite quickly from when we started and ill a lot. He was his own worst enemy, how can you tell the lead singer of a shit hot band to go to bed early and not to drink? As soon as the doctors told him to take it easy he rebelled against it – the more we told him the more he went for it and the more he turned into Iggy Pop on stage! His idol was Iggy Pop but Iggy was not epileptic! If we knew then what we knew know it would be so different but unfortunately we didn’t. ‘
There was one incident that Hooky remembers vividly.
“On the first national tour that we did supporting the Buzzcocks Ian had the longest fit. He was fitting for an hour and half- eventually we had to take him to hospital. We had to sit on him first. It was unbelievable, I was thinking, ‘Christ! He’s not coming out of this one’. Our roadie went and hid in the cupboard, he said ‘I’m not coming out he’s possessed by the devil that bastard.’ (laughs).
Ian was really shaking. It was frightening you’d think ‘shit, is it worth it’. But he wouldn’t let you stop. I think he thought what we had achieved was so huge to us at our time in life that if he stopped or let it go that it might never come back. He didn’t want to let everyone else down’
Bernard Sumner wistfully remembers his band mates descent into a very dark place.
‘The first time we realised that there was something a bit up was when he turned up at rehearsals covered in knife marks where he had slashed himself. He had woken up and didn’t know what had happened. He showed us his chest with horizontal knife marks. We were going what the fucking hell have you done.’
There were some moments of intensity on stage as well.
‘He used to get pretty carried away onstage, pretty kinetic. At Rafters he started ripping the stage apart, ripping the floorboards and throwing them at the audience. I did think that was pretty unusual! People threw bottles back, which smashed onstage, and he dived in rolling around- kinda like Iggy Pop. ‘
Ian’s bouts of intensity contrasted sharply with his normal demeanour, as Bernard remembers.
‘He was the most polite person. Very, very interesting to talk to. Very opinionated but not in a negative way. Not judgemental.
He was quite intellectual. He read William Burroughs and Nietzsche. Me and Hooky didn’t know what the fuck he was going on about half the time!
Just going by his lyrics Ian obviously had issues but to be honest with you we never really listened to his lyrics till he died.’
The band were recognised by the music press and growing fan base as the most important band of their era. Their serious music matched the mood of the post punk times. They were quickly seen as the escape route for punk and the future of rock.
At the same time the troubled singer’s life was fast getting complicated. The fits were getting worse, his was unsure of where to go with his music and his affair with Belgian journalist Annik Honore was causing the already married singer all sorts of guilt.
Time was quickly running out for the singer. His life was in crisis.
On the last night of his life ian Curtis was in turmoil. Before he hung himself there was a long phone call to the avante garde frontman of Throbbing Gritsle, Genesis P. Orridge. The pair of them had struck up a friendship in the past couple of years and there was talk of doing a project together.
‘I spoke to Ian on the phone that last night. He was singing ‘a song of mine about suicide called ‘Weeping’ over the phone. The tone of his voice was haunting. It was awful. He talked. He sounded anguished, frustrated and very depressed, a feeling that events were slipping out of control, I could just feel it straight away having been there myself. He didn’t say ‘I’m going to kill myself’ but it felt wrong. I tried to get in touch with people but technology was much more primitive then. I was calling everyone in Manchester desperately to go round and try and stop Ian but the people I was calling were not there, I was always angry that I could not get through.’
A couple of hours later Ian Curtis hung himself.
The underground music scene was shattered. The band was on the cusp of a breakthrough but Ian Curtis’ life had become too complicated.
Nearly three decades later this dark tale of a brilliant talent is about to be played out in cinemas across the country in one of the best rock n roll films ever made.
It’s a fitting epitaph to a brilliant and short career.