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Genius? Poet? Twat?

Ian Kevin Curtis was born on 15th July 1956 to parents Kevin and Doreen Curtis in Memorial Hospital, Old Trafford Manchester.

An only son, with one sister, he made firm friends with a few of the other boys at school, continuing a couple of these friendships up until his untimely death in 1980.

During his teen years, he came across to others as a bit of a loner, though with a wicked sense of humour. Solitary at times, he would sometimes puzzle and even infuriate his close friends with his sometimes bizarre, introspective attitude to life. Perhaps this was somewhat reflected in that, when he tired of his friends, he sought his company in the form of the many records in his collection, being a particular fan of Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Toots and the Maytals, Bob Marley etc.

Another of the young Ian’s loves was his poetry, much of it probably inspired not only by the music he adored, but his surroundings. Working class Manchester, at the time, had a rather dank, grey, bleak image, partly deserved, partly not. It was to this poetry that Ian turned when nothing else seemed to make sense. Whereas other teenagers tended to ‘grow out’ of the poetry-writing stage, he persisted, keeping bundles of handwritten pages of poetry in files, boxes and binders.

A comment that Ian occasionally made to close friends, and also to his future wife, Debbie (who he married on 25th August, 1975) was that he intended to live fast and die young, predicting that he would not ‘make it past 24’. Many teenagers trying to cope with the changes and trials of adolescence make these somewhat over-dramatic claims, so few, if any, paid attention to Ian himself making that assertion.

Ian often went to see local bands play, and had decided to either join, one or form one of his own. He placed an advertisement in the music press, somewhat surprisingly only getting one reply to the advert – from Iain Gray, a guitarist, with whom Ian, at first, swapped notes on lyrics and song writing in general.

When the Sex Pistols played in the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester, Ian wanted to go. He missed the first performance and was there for the second night – the same night as three other local lads who had known each other from school – Peter Hook, Terry Mason and Bernard Sumner, all of whom Ian had previously met either in record shops or at other local gigs. A few weeks later, Ian and his wife Debbie bumped into Bernard and Terry at an Iggy Pop gig.

Shortly after this, Bernard and Terry also placed an advertisement in their local Virgin Records store, stating that they wanted a vocalist for a new punk band. Various potential frontmen applied, but were rejected for a wide variety of reasons, in one case that the prospective singer didn’t even bother to get up to sing in front of them! When Ian Curtis phoned, Bernard remembered him from the times they had met up at gigs and, on the spur of the moment, accepted him as the singer without even going through the audition process or consulting the rest of the band.

The new band started rehearsing, but had problems finding a name for themselves. ‘Stiff Kittens’ was suggested by an acquaintance of Ian’s, who, at the time, was managing The Buzzcocks, another Manchester band. This name was rejected out of hand, in favour of ‘Warsaw’ which, some report, was after the David Bowie song ‘Warsawa’ on the album ‘Low’. Others say this was not correct, as these events happened around May 1977, before the release of the Bowie album. For the ‘record’, the original release date for Bowie’s ‘Low’ is recorded as 1st January 1977, though record companies do not release new product on Bank Holidays in the UK. It may be presumed though that the actual release was the following Monday, so the anecdotes of where ‘Warsaw’ got their name seem to ring true, as Ian would definitely have bought a copy of the album as soon as possible, being an avid Bowie fan.

On the 29th May, 1977, Warsaw played their first ever gig at the ‘Electric Circus’. NME journalist, Paul Morley, was at the gig and reviewed the band, giving a favourable report. It should be noted that Paul Morley, a fan from the start, played a major part in reporting on the live and studio efforts of Warsaw, later Joy Division and New Order.

Gradually, more gigs followed, including Rafters in Manchester and Eric’s in Liverpool. By this time, it became apparent that Terry Mason was not really up to the job of drummer and he became the band’s nominal manager. Tony Tabac was a short-term solution, quickly replaced by Steve Brotherdale.

In July 1977, the band recorded a demo tape at Pennine Sound Studios, Manchester. The main three members found that they didn’t really get on with Steve Brotherdale and shortly after, recruited Stephen Morris, an old school friend of Ian’s as their new drummer.

After recording a self – funded EP, entitled ‘An Ideal For Living’ at the end of the year, the band changed their name to ‘Joy Division’, which was the name that appeared on the new release. The origins of the name are discussed elsewhere and so will not be reiterated here.

One anecdote worthwhile mentioning was of the events in the basement bar at ‘Rafters’ in April, 1978, as told by Debbie Curtis, in her book ‘Touching From A Distance’;

“…he [Ian] sat down next to Tony [Wilson, later of Factory Records] obviously trying to summon the courage to speak to him. Being ill-mannered didn’t come naturally to Ian, but he forced himself.
‘You’re a fucking cunt, you are, you’re a bastard.’
‘Oh yeah?’ said Tony, ‘Why’s that?’
‘Cos you haven’t put us on television.’ “

That incident was one of the most significant in the history of the band, as it paved the way for a new manager, (Rob Gretton ex-manager of ‘The Panik’) a recording contract, and their first ever television appearance, as Wilson promised that Joy Division would be the next band that appeared on one of his shows. Thus began a long-running, often wary and eventually acrimonious relationship between members of the band and the (at the time) Granada Television broadcaster, Tony Wilson. To his credit, Wilson was true to his word, and arranged that Joy Division could perform the song ‘Shadowplay’ on the next available edition of the show, ‘Granada Reports’ in the ‘What’s On’ slot. This performance was well received and Ian and the band took heart from this, writing several new songs and playing more gigs with a renewed determination.

Around this time, Joy Division had recorded an album’s worth of material for RCA. At the end of the summer, RCA made an offer to the band, saying that they’d release the album and, depending on sales, release a second album. They stipulated that the band would receive no cash advance and that the band would receive minimal royalties from sales. Rob Gretton replied on the bands behalf, saying that the band wanted ten thousand pounds up-front and to receive a royalty cheque, split between them, of fifteen per cent per copy sold. RCA refused point-blank, but Gretton wisely recruited a solicitor, who advised that the original contract was legally dubious and that RCA would be sued in court if they tried to release the album in whole or part. RCA relented and allowed the band to buy the master tapes to cover the production expenses – the total being £1,500. For this, the band had to borrow heavily from their parents to raise the necessary cash.

The next offering from the band was a re-release of ‘An Ideal For Living’, with improved sound and a completely different, less ‘offensive’ cover design (the first, designed by Bernard, featured a Hitler Youth member, beating a drum on the front).

Towards the very end of 1978, Ian suffered his first major epileptic fit. The band were returning to Manchester from a gig at the Hope and Anchor in London, Bernard actually quite unwell, due to a bout of the ‘flu. Worrying about Ian’s health, Steve Morris drove them all to hospital, where Ian was prescribed some tablets to help calm his condition. Around this point, the band felt so dejected that Ian even talked about leaving. His epileptic fits increased from being almost unnoticeable to sometimes four a week

On the 13th of January 1979, Ian appeared on the front cover of the New Musical Express, in his now famous greatcoat. By the end of the month, the band were in the BBC Radio One studios, recording their first radio session for the DJ, John Peel. For many bands, this was a stepping stone to far greater things and this also proved true for Joy Division.

Debbie Curtis was expecting their child at this time, and in a moment of quiet reflection, Ian told her of the band’s pact, where, if any member either left the band or died, the others would only carry on under a new name. She took this as an intimation that the others might even be considering kicking Ian out of the band. This worry became greater throughout the spring of ’79, as Ian’s fits became worse and his on-stage dancing reflected his illness even more. Ian and Debbie’s daughter, Natalie, was born on the 16th April 1979.

In June, Joy Division’s first official Factory Records album, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ was released to great critical acclaim, as the band had built up quite a following due to their live performances.

The album was made even more special by the production expertise of Martin ‘Zero’ Hannett, who had been persuaded to work on the recording by Rob Gretton. Detractors of Tony Wilson should note that, though he has, over the years, been variously described as a ‘financial idiot’, ‘twat’ and in rather more blunt terms by Ian on their first meeting, he used most of his life savings to finance ‘Unknown Pleasures’. Wilson was proved right in his faith in the band, and got his money back after the first pressing. The band received around £1.80 per copy sold, although Factory had problems pressing enough copies to meet public demand. The main problem was that Factory could only afford each ten thousand pressing once the previous batch had sold. Because of this, Joy Division missed out on an album chart placing with their very first release. However, this also helped to reinforce the perceived ‘mystery’ behind the band – from the boys’ writing, to Hannett’s production, to Peter Saville’s stylish but somewhat oblique design – the album’s cover not even featuring the band’s name or the title on the front! Instead, Bernard had found a diagram of radio waves emitted by the first pulsar discovered, depicted in an encyclopaedia. Saville had taken the diagram and presented it in negative – white on black, rather than the converse, the end result being an equally dark and ‘mysterious’ cover.

After the release of the album, Ian was, again, featured on the front cover of NME, this time with a very boyish-looking Bernard beside him. The music press were very eager to interview the band, but, due to a mixture of shyness, inexperience, mix-ups and a slight mistrust on both sides, Joy Division avoided interviews for the most part, preferring the music to ‘speak for itself’ rather than having to explain themselves. Ian’s deteriorating health may also have played a part in this decision.

In August, Joy Division were asked to support The Buzzcocks on tour, which meant them giving up their day jobs. The tour was blighted by sub-standard sound mixes, bad acoustics, violence and Ian’s continuing health problems. At the end of the tour, it was suggested that Joy Division should accompany The Buzzcocks on their proposed tour of the USA. However, The Buzzcocks intended to fly, and of course, Joy Division and Factory Records could not afford the air fare for band, roadies, manager and equipment. Factory released their first Joy Division single, ‘Transmission’ backed with the old but revamped and some say improved, ‘Novelty’. Shortly after, in October, Fast! Records released a compilation called ‘Earcom 2: Contradiction’, which featured two Joy Division tracks, ‘Autosuggestion’ and ‘From Safety To Where?’

During September, Ian’s epilepsy seemed to get slightly better, the attacks being limited to two or three over the next couple of months. In October, during a gig at Plan K in Brussels, Ian is reported to have met his future mistress, Annik Honore, who was variously described as chubby, thin, a journalist and a tour arranger…

On the 26th November, Joy Division recorded ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. The band couldn’t agree on which version they preferred, so they recorded two separate versions of the song, one fading out, the other ending ‘properly’. The other song to be included on the proposed release was ‘These Days’, recorded in early 1980, also with Martin Hannett.

1980 started with plans for Joy Division to embark on a true European tour, rather than just a few odd dates. Unbeknown to Debbie, Annik accompanied the band on the tour, often becoming a major distraction to Ian. On his return from the tour, Ian was even more distant in his manner as far as Debbie was involved. On the back of the money made on the European tour and projected/actual record sales, plans were already being made for the previously suggested tour of the USA, with Joy Division as the headline act.. At the same time, the band had been recording tracks for the planned new album, to be called ‘Closer’.

In April 1980, Factory arranged for Joy Division to play three gigs at the Moonlight Club in London. The first two gigs went down very well, but on the third night, the band decided that they had enough time to play two gigs in one night. They were booked to play support for The Stranglers at the Rainbow Theatre, planning to go on to the Moonlight later in the evening. The lighting crew at The Rainbow were unaware of Ian’s epilepsy, and, despite repeated requests to the contrary, kept on using strobe lights, which triggered one of Ian’s more serious attacks. He was sent staggering backwards into Steve’s drumkit. The audience simply interpreted this as the ‘grand finale’ of the gig and applauded even harder.

The band managed to get to the Moonlight gig, however, after only five songs, Ian was unable to continue and Peter Hook was forced to take over on vocals. This brought it home to everyone that eventually, the band would have to either split up or find a new singer.

Around the same time, the US tour was finalised – the band’s departure date being set for the 19th May. Also, Warner Brothers had offered Joy Division a US distribution deal, with an up-front payment of one million US Dollars, enough for the band to be able to record another album at their leisure, pay for the tour outright and still be able to fund other recordings. Despite the state of Ian’s health, it was decided that the tour should go ahead regardless, everyone expecting Ian to be fully involved. The band were booked to play several ‘warm-up’ gigs in preparation for the tour, though many were either cut short or cancelled altogether, due to Ian’s increasing ill health.

Joy Division filmed the video for ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ on the 25th of April, in a run down warehouse room that they used to use for rehearsals. The band, Gretton and Wilson already expected the track to be a hit single, so agreed on the video – something that they had avoided for ‘Transmission’, partly due to cost and partly because they were worried about looking stupid! Even so, for this video, they refused to mime to the backing track, preferring to play live and have the video edited to sync with the music as best as possible.

The last gig, scheduled as a ‘farewell’ before the band left for America was at Birmingham University’s City Hall (later making up the live section of the album ‘Still’). The various band members went home to spend a short time with their families. For Ian, this meant keeping his epilepsy clinic appointment at Parkside Hospital.

It turns out, as told by Debbie, that Ian got the dates wrong and they arrived at the hospital two weeks early for his appointment. As well as spending time with family and friends, the band got together to rehearse for the forthcoming tour, polishing the two newest tracks, ‘Ceremony’ and ‘Little Boy’ (later renamed ‘In A Lonely Place’).

When the songs seemed rehearsed enough, Ian announced he was ‘having a break’ and arranged to meet Annik, for a stay in a small country B&B. However, Ian and Annik ran out of money, ending up on the doorstep of Rob Gretton’s flat, with nowhere to stay – obviously Ian felt he could not take Annik back to his and Debbie’s house in Barton Street, Macclesfield. When Debbie Curtis finally admitted to herself that her husband was with someone else, she understandably decided to file for divorce, seeing no other way around the situation. To her credit, she had put up with a great deal at Ian’s hands, supporting him all the way, and even managed to retain the dignity to say ‘no’ when it was suggested that she defer the divorce petition until after the tour, when she could make a great deal more money out of the situation.

On the 13th May, Ian returned to Macclesfield. He met up with Bernard and another friend to play pool in a pub that Thursday night and during the evening, they arranged to meet up again in two days time for a last beer before the US tour. Ian had been staying at his parents’ house and on the Friday evening, after getting a lift back from Peter Hook, he rang Bernard to say that he wouldn’t be able to make their Saturday meeting and would, instead, meet them at the airport on the Monday morning.

On the Saturday, Debbie had been working, leaving Natalie in the care of her parents. Before starting her evening shift, she made her way home to see Ian, who had, by then, arrived back at the family home. Ian had been watching the Werner Herzog film, ‘Stroszek’, the theme of which, on reflection, seemed to mirror his own situation fairly accurately. After a long talk, Ian told Debbie that he wanted to be alone that night, so she returned to her parents’ house and her daughter.

Sometime that night, Ian wrote a long letter to Debbie, which seemed, to him, at least, to explain how he felt. By the time he had finished writing, it was dawn. He was listening to Iggy Pop’s album, ‘The Idiot’.

Debbie found Ian’s body mid Sunday morning. He’d hanged himself in the small kitchen of their home. The note he had written to her was propped up on the mantelpiece.

Accordingly, Joy Division’s US tour was cancelled. John Peel, for whom the band had recorded two well received radio sessions, announced at the start of his show on Monday 19th May 1980, ‘Bad news lads, Ian Curtis of Joy Division is dead.’ He then played the single ‘Atmosphere’ as a tribute. Shortly afterwards, Factory released the album ‘Closer’ and the recently recorded ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.

Ian Curtis – Genius? Poet? Twat?

- Chris Nash


Touching From A Distance – Deborah Curtis
Pleasures & Wayward Distractions – Brian Edge
Dreams Never End – Claude Flowers
An Ideal For Living – Mark Johnson, David Lees, Paul Morley & Jon Wozencraf

Last updated on 11/05/2005 4:32:54 AM - 4:32:54 AM
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