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Issue: 88
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There can be few more melancholic, harrowing albums than Joy Division's Closer. Driven by bassist Peter Hook's elegiac basslines and Stephen Morris' clipped, sparse percussion, it's well known that singer Ian Curtis drew on the disintegration of his marriage and his frequent bouts of epilepsy to create a poignant, nightmarish opus that has few peers in the rock canon. What's less publicised is that shortly after recording it, three of the members of Joy Division decided to show a porno featuring a variety of buxom ladies and an eel to some steel workers who were striking up the road. A posh French journalist interrupted this pleasant scene, who'd fully expected them to find them leafing through novels by Camus and Solzheinitsyn. "She seemed pretty shocked," beams bassist Peter Hook.

And this is symptomatic of a dichotomy at the heart of Joy Division. As journalist Roy Wilkinson pointed out in a review of The Complete BBC Recordings, the band crafted some of the most sublimely gloomy music imaginable while at the same time "they'd enliven journeys to London by mooning at fellow travellers from their transit".

Enthused by the Sex Pistols' disregard for musical competence, the quartet (Curtis, Hook, Morris and guitarist Bernard Sumner) came together under the suitably morose name Warsaw, but were forced to change because of a long forgotten group called Warsaw Pakt. So, unfazed, they came up with the even more depressing name Joy Division, lifted from the World War II novel House of Dolls, brothels kept by SS officers in concentration camps.

Unsurprisingly, early songs pegged them down in the Pistols slipstream, but they were destined to move beyond the three-chord orthodoxy. Unlike their amateurish peers, the band immersed themselves in the Velvet Underground, The Doors, the Stooges and the cold electronica of Bowie and Kraftwerk.

The band were signed to Tony Wilson's fledgling Factory label (despite a violent altercation between Wilson and Curtis on their first meeting, the band crafted the steely, claustrophobic Unknown Pleasures in June 1979. Recorded under the truly strange producer Martin Hannett, it's certainly the finest album to come out in the post-punk period, an edgy, venomous distillation of urban dis-ease.

But the success of the album and the single 'Transmission' only led to increased pressure on Curtis. Being diagnosed with epilepsy did nothing to tone down his boozy lifestyle. To make matters worse, Curtis' extra-marital affair and constant drinking blighted the recording of the band's elegiac second album Closer. With a US tour set to start on Monday 19th May, 1980, Curtis returned to his house in Macclesfield on the Saturday to discuss divorce proceedings with his wife. Alone, Curtis watched the film Stroszek, in which a musician commits suicide rather than choose between two women. In the early hours of Sunday morning, after listening to Iggy Pop's The Idiot, Curtis hung himself. He was 23 years of age.

Of course the band continued under the guise of New Order. And Joy Division's influence has never been greater, whether filtered through the more dolorous moments of Primal Scream's XTRMNTR or in a variety of post-rock bands from Mogwai to Godspeed You Black Emperor! Indeed, one of the biggest bands in the world wouldn't exist without their steely legacy - Bono frequently pays tribute to "the holy voice of Ian Curtis" while Tony Wilson believes that had Curtis lived, Joy Division would be in the position U2 hold today. And who could forget Paul Young and PJ Proby's covers of Love Will Tear Us Apart? Everybody, hopefully.

The definitive Joy Division Book is Touching From A Distance: Ian Curtis And Joy Division (Faber and Faber 1995), written by Ian Curtis's widow. The singer's erratic behaviour and illness are tragically and movingly detailed, and the book reproduces many of his unfinished lyrics. There are also many fantastic websites especially Here Are The Young Men.
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