In '07, the Joy Division biopic Control was in theaters with Sam Riley playing vocalist Ian Curtis. For a film to be made about a group over a quarter century after they disbanded there has to be some drama and a compelling story line. Joy Division had that, including Curtis' suicide on the eve of the band's first U.S. tour in '80.
Just four years earlier, Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards) and Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals) saw a Sex Pistol's show in Manchester. Inspired, the duo picked up instruments and started a band. They recruited a friend, Terry Mason, on drums. He had also attended the Sex Pistol's concert. Then Curtis was added without an audition. They liked him and thought he fit in.
The group was originally known as Warsaw, taking their name from the David Bowie song "Warszawa." A short time later, when Mason became the group's manager, Steve Brotherdale joined on drums. He was also in another band and tried to get Curtis to join that outfit. Curtis declined. But it wasn't that double-dealing that eventually led to Brotherdale getting bounced from the band. It was his aggressive personality.
Sacking a band member is never easy but give to the future Joy Division credit for the way they unloaded Brotherdale. While the band was riding in a car they thought they had a flat. Brotherdale was asked to go check it. When he got out, they sped off.
Placing an ad for a drummer yielded one applicant, Stephen Morris. Fortunately, he was a keeper. Next the group dropped Warsaw and became Joy Division, the name of the prostitution wing in a Nazi concentration camp from the novel The House Of Dolls. This, and other Nazi references, convinced some Joy Division had fascist leanings, which the group persistently denied. But as long as these allusions attracted attention, the group continued to use them.
'78 saw Joy Division's self-released debut EP, "An Ideal For Living." The following year, their full-length album "Unknown Pleasures" was issued by Factory Records.
Unfortunately, not everyone is geared, physically or emotionally, for a hard run chasing success. While riding home from a TV appearance in '78, Curtis suffered epileptic episode and was taken to a hospital. These seizures would occur repeatedly, often while Curtis was on stage - some fans thought Curtis' uncontrolled movements were just part of the show. The experiences left Curtis ashamed and depressed.
Joy Division completed a successful European tour in '80 then holed up in London to work on their sophomore album "Closer."
Depressed and estranged from Deborah, his wife of five years (they had married in '75 while still in their teens), Curtis attempted suicide by overdosing on phenobarbitone (a prescribed sedative to combat seizures).
Just a month later, Joy Division was slated to begin their first U.S. tour. On the eve of the group's planned departure, Curtis went to talk with Deborah. He asked his wife to drop the divorce suit she had filed. Aside from the difficulties of maintaining a relationship while in a band, Curtis was also having an affair. That certainly didn't help.
He also asked his wife to leave him alone in the house for the evening. When Deborah returned the next day she found that Curtis had hung himself in the kitchen (5/18/80).
"I think all of us made the mistake of not thinking his suicide was going to happen," said Factory Records founder/owner Tony Wilson in '05. "We all completely underestimated the danger. We didn't take it seriously. That's how stupid we were."
The death of a Rock musician, even one who is on the cusp, yields a kind of morbid interest. The single "Love Will Tear Us Apart" went to #13 on the British singles chart while "Closer" peaked at #6 on the album chart. It was the best the Joy Division had done or would ever do. But lost was any acknowledgement of the album's creativity.
The surviving members went on to form New Order (and found greater commercial success) with Sumner handling the vocals.
1979 Unknown Pleasures
1999 Preston 28 February 1980
2001 Les Bains Douches
2001 Fractured Box
2004 Re-Fractured Box
Curtis' lyrics have a dour and dismal tone that's spiked by a numbing hopelessness - no doubt a reflection of his state of mind. His deep, and at times, coldly dispassionate voice projects a sense of angst and doom-similar to the Doors' Jim Morrison's work on his group's extended pieces ("The End," "When The Music's Over" and "The Soft Parade").
But The Doors (a Curtis favorite) also incorporated Blues and Hard Rock, Joy Division pretty much stayed in the same vein. They could almost be called Joy-less Division.
With the notable exception of their 'hit', the synth heavy "Love Will Tear Us Apart" Joy Division are lean, compelling unit.
Neither Punk nor Wave, Joy Division couldn't be pigeon-holed. That attracted a cult-like following but didn't do much for their commercial chances. Of course, that didn't stop anyone from trying.
For a group that had only two studio albums the Joy Division has been mercilessly re-packaged. Most of these albums are either "best of" compilations, live recordings or both "Closer (2 CD Collector's Edition)" being a prime example.
The live shows are of interest because the group adopts a more aggressive stance when there's an audience. Unfortunately, many of the shows were poorly recorded. "The Complete BBC Recordings" is a good place to start - but even here there are some weak spots.
The best option is "Permanent Joy Division 1995." It not only is a good sampling of the group's best work there's very little filler.