On the fortieth anniversary of the death of Ian Curtis (15 July 1956 – 18 May 1980) [this blog post has been edited to mark the occassion in 2020], the inevitable articles will be written and social media posts will abound honoring the memory of Joy Division’s lead singer and lyricist. Many will romanticize Curtis’ suicide, misunderstanding the real contribution Curtis made to culture and modern music. Most will simply mourn the life of a talented frontman and artist that helped usher in what is now known as post-punk or proto-goth.
Joy Division were formed in 1976 in Manchester, England. They began as a punk band inspired by The Sex Pistols, but through an evolution of dogged determination to transcend punk and a desire (actualized by producer Martin Hannett) to experiment with sound, grew to become a band unlike any previously heard in the history of popular music.
In the end, Joy Division produced only a handful of singles (most notably “Transmission” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”), and two official studio albums: the groundbreaking Unknown Pleasures (June, 1979) and the hypnotic Closer (released July, 1980 [after Curtis’ death]).
Although a number of compilations were produced in the wake of Curtis’ death, it is the two seminal albums and the aforementioned singles that would secure the band — consisting of Curtis, guitarist and keyboardist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris — their place in music history.
Part of a movement that has since been labelled post-punk, Joy Divsion helped usher in a new age of popular music. The band that would rise from its ashes as New Order —with Sumner, Hook and Morris surviving — would go on to produce the 1980s dance hit “Blue Monday” along with alternative / college radio hits like “The Perfect Kiss” and “Regret.” Their longevity lasted well into 1990s with disbandment and reunions pretty much up to the present-day.
The influence of the Joy Division sound on New Order was short-lived. After recording material begun with Curtis and finished without him (the formidable single “Ceremony” with its haunting b-side “In a Lonely Place”) , New Order would turn to up-tempo electronica.
With the exception of tribute concerts by Peter Hook and occasional live performances of Joy Division songs performed by New Order and sung by Bernard Sumner over the past decade, New Order and its members clearly distanced themselves from the specter of Joy Division, especially in the early days (understandably, as the loss of Curtis profoundly affected his bandmates).
Other artists, however, so admired Curtis that they would go on to record songs alluding to him — U2’s 1980 “A Day Without Me” most notable among contemporaries. U2 had worked with Joy Division producer Martin Hannett on Boy and been given a tour of the studio when Joy Division was recording “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Bono was so enamored with Curtis that he would go on to tell Tony Wilson (founder of Factory Records, Joy Division’s label) that he thought Curtis was the best vocalist of his generation.
A number of artists have covered Joy Division songs over the years. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” alone has been covered numerous times (although not by David Bowie as once incorrectly reported). Moby, long a Joy Division devotee, recorded “New Dawn Fades” for the soundtrack to the 1995 DeNiro / Pacino movie Heat. The Killers covered “Shadowplay” in 2007. The list goes on.
Joy Division songs have even found their way into more recent pop culture. Britain’s “East Enders” television drama continually used an uncredited version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” throughout the series (2010, 2011…); NME would go on in 2012 to name it the #1 song of the last 60 years. Then there’s the recent Lady Gaga vehicle “American Horror Story: Hotel” (2015-2016) which featured both “The Eternal” from Closer and New Order’s aforementioned “In a Lonely Place.”
All these years after Curtis’ death, the influence of Joy Division is as ubiquitous as ever. Bands like Interpol, The Editors, and The Killers are evidence that the influence of Joy Division is alive and well these days.
And then there are the truly bizarre inheritors of the spirit of Ian Curtis: those that go beyond standard rock and roll arrangements and introduce sounds that Curtis himself (a fan of so many genres, including Reggae) would have at the very least found interesting. Yann Tambour, from Stranded Horse, a Frenchman who has been making his own versions of koras — the 21-string West African lute-bridge-harps, for years — covers “Transmission” in what has to be the most “out there” interpretation of a Joy Division song ever.
36 years on, and Joy Division is still inspiring experimentation.