Let’s face it: New Order tends to overshadow Joy Division. But to many diehard fans, the group is legendary and was the defining post-punk band. Joy Division has a cult-like following to this day. As a big fan of theirs, I’m more than happy to write about them.
Joy Division Begins
Joy Division was founded in 1976, during the peak of punk rock’s success. Vocalist Ian Curtis, guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris formed the band after seeing a Sex Pistols concert. They wore these punk roots on their sleeves with An Ideal For Living, a self-released debut EP that made it clear that they liked what they saw. We get the clearest look at Joy Division’s foundation through this record.
You might be wondering: why exactly did the group change so much after this EP? To put it mildly, a lot of shit happened leading up to Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division’s debut album. The band’s big break came in the form of Tony Wilson. He was a music producer who became interested in the group’s music from early on. Soon, the band was being introduced on TV by Wilson, and people started to notice them. But as the band began to grow, Ian Curtis’ illness became more severe. In December 1978, he experienced his first severe epileptic seizure and was hospitalized. His epilepsy severely affected him for the rest of his life.
In 1979, Unknown Pleasures was being recorded at Strawberry Studios. Interestingly enough, the band’s iconic sound wasn’t created exclusively by them. A lot of the credit for that goes to Martin Hannett, an eccentric and frequently difficult producer. At the time, the band was unhappy with Hannett’s drastic changes to their live sound. Funny enough, it worked. The band performed on TV once again, and made their first and only nationwide TV appearance on BBC2’s Something Else. Even at this time, the band had a devoted following.
Following this performance, the band’s touring schedule became demanding. On top of the grueling tour, Curtis’ condition worsened. Long hours and sleep deprivation meant that his epileptic seizures became frequent and intense, to the point where he would have seizures during performances. The audience thought it was part of the show. Already, the band was at risk of falling apart. During their touring cycle, Curtis had to leave the stage or not perform at all on various occasions.
Joy Division Dies
As their tumultuous tour cycle in 1980 continued, Closer was being produced. The band seemed to have high hopes for their future, and was about to embark on a US/Canada tour. However, that all changed when Ian Curtis committed suicide. The sad truth was that Curtis was dealing with a lot and couldn’t handle the pressure. On top of his epileptic seizures, the medication he took for it messed with his mind and body. He was also dealing with a strained relationship with his wife, Deborah Curtis. When you mix health problems, relationship woes, and touring, and you have a recipe for disaster. The surviving band members have since admitted that they should have been more aware of what was going on with Curtis. In an ironic twist, the band peaked on the charts with “Love Will Tear Us Apart” in the wake of his death.
From the ashes of Joy Division came one of the most successful bands for their time (and arguably, one of the most successful bands period). Joy Division had created a pact long before Curtis’ death: should any of the members leave, the band will be renamed. And so, New Order was born. You know, “Blue Monday” and all that.
Joy Division’s dark and unforgettable sound came from very particular circumstances. Everything from Hannett’s unique production, to Curtis’ internal conflict and struggles throughout his short life, to the band members’ affinity for creative thinking defined them. If things had played out even a little bit differently, I think that Joy Division would have been a very different band. Their history and their achievements in the face of a small career have cemented their place as a part of music history. The band has inspired many successors, including The Cure, U2, and Soundgarden. To summarize: music owes a lot to Joy Division, and I hope that you’ll give them a listen if you haven’t already.