In the late 1970s the two big post-industrial cities in England’s North West corner – Liverpool and Manchester, were manfully struggling to stay alive. Ignored and despised by central Government, a population proud and defiant dared to shout, “We are still here!” It was impossible to live there at that time, as I did, and not be affected by the economic collapse that opened the door for the divisive politics of Thatcherism. A cynical new era characterised by greed and selfishness was being ushered in, and many artists were making their feelings felt through art and music.
I have often asked myself why I was drawn so strongly to the music and imagery of Manchester rock band Joy Division. On the surface, their music is gloomy and petulant, riding off the back of the punk rock anti-establishment, anti-everything that has made life a struggle in the grim North. But for me, their music was strangely uplifting – defiance in the face of overwhelming odds, and a determination to have the best life possible in difficult circumstances. The positive energy that comes through their music inspired a generation of young post-punk rock fans, and still resonates today.
From the lilting love-gone-wrong lyrics of the beautiful ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ to the rolling drums and pulsing beat of ‘Twenty Four Hours’. Yes, lyrics tinged with regret and hurt, but ultimately smashing through the gloom to a brighter day. There was hope, and through it all we must keep going. Sadly, for singer Ian Curtis, the heavy weight of life’s problems proved to be overwhelming. He couldn’t square the circle; he couldn’t go on any more. He committed suicide on the eve of their first US Tour, just when they were on the verge of making the Big Time.
OK, the TV documentary points out that he was in the middle of a love triangle, and his suicide by drug overdose followed a showdown with his estranged wife. He had a complicated love life and was battling medical problems – crushing depression and worsening epilepsy. The impending tour was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the thing that finally pushed him over the edge. With hindsight we can say that we should have seen it coming – the lyrics of their final album – Closer – can be interpreted as one long suicide note from Curtis – asking over and over again for help.
We heard him, through his music, and were drawn to his battle – a battle against environment, health and emotions. Wasn’t it like that for all of us? Trying to come to terms with an angry and increasingly divided society. Ian Curtis spoke to me. That’s why I was so captivated when I first saw Joy Division on stage, supporting the Buzzcocks, at the Mountford Hall in Liverpool in 1979. He was so absorbed in his own performance, it was mesmeric. He commanded you to watch him, and everyone in the room did. Punks stood and watched, not sure how to dance to their distinctive music. ‘She’s Lost Control’ a powerful memory, with Curtis’s strange, twisting butterfly dance, like a man trying to escape from a straight-jacket.
I bought their records and got into their music, fascinated by Ian Curtis’s lyrics – a man of his time, shouting to be heard. The band had developed what many others had failed to do – their own distinctive rock music style – brooding, northern and compulsive. I was a member of Eric’s Club where most of the up and coming punk and post-punk bands played. I went to see Joy Division there and a repeat of their first album set – Unknown Pleasures. Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio.
In early 1980 the younger brother of one my friends called on me with a strange request – would I accompany him on a coach trip to Manchester to see Joy Division at the Factory? No one would go with him, and he really wanted to see the band. He was sixteen or seventeen at the time and I was nineteen. I agreed, and we bought out coach and gig tickets from Probe Records in town. Boy, was I glad I went on that trip. April 1980 at the Russel Club (The Factory) in Manchester. What an amazing set – all their second album stuff, including brilliant versions of Twenty Four Hours and Atrocity Exhibition. Add to this, Love Will Tear Us Apart, Transmission, Dead Souls and Shadowplay, and you have the set of a maturing rock band, ready to take on the World. I bought a cassette of the gig on the way out. This was real. This was special.
Barely one month later, Curtis was dead, and the band and fans were left devastated, picking through the ruins of what might have been. I read Paul Morley’s obituary in the NME with a tear in my eye. It was a personal loss, a bereavement in my wider cultural family. The band decided to continue, releasing their next scheduled single, ‘Ceremony’ under a new name: New Order. The ‘b’ side – ‘In a Lonely Place’ is a wonderfully melancholic farewell to their tragic friend. With this single there was a belligerent sense that life goes on, and the band must play on. Ian would have wanted it, and they still had plenty to say.
‘Here are the young men, a weight on their shoulders’, sang Curtis. Young people making their way through life…the challenge is to keep going – don’t give up. Continue to develop yourself and look for opportunities. Work is a means to a better life, but stay true to yourself, your beliefs, ethics and cultural identity. I wish Ian had found the help he needed to continue the fight. A casualty in the ongoing battle to survive and make sense of it all. Thanks, Joy Division. You helped show me the way through the urban jungle to a brighter day.