Curtis performing with Joy Division at the Mayflower in Manchester in 1979
|Birth name||Ian Kevin Curtis|
15 July 1956|
Stretford, Lancashire, England
|Died||18 May 1980
Macclesfield, Cheshire, England
|Associated acts||Joy Division|
|Vox Phantom VI Special|
Ian Kevin Curtis (15 July 1956 – 18 May 1980) was an English musician and singer-songwriter. He is best known as the lead singer and lyricist of the post-punk band Joy Division. Joy Division released their debut album, Unknown Pleasures, in 1979 and recorded their follow-up, Closer, in 1980.
Curtis, who suffered from epilepsy and depression, committed suicide on 18 May 1980, on the eve of Joy Division's first North American tour, resulting in the band's dissolution and the subsequent formation of New Order. Curtis was known for his bass-baritone voice, dance style, and songwriting filled with imagery of desolation, emptiness and alienation.
In 1995, Curtis's widow Deborah published Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division, a biography of the singer. His life and death have been dramatised in the films 24 Hour Party People (2002) and Control (2007).
Curtis was born at the Memorial Hospital in Stretford, Lancashire. He grew up in Macclesfield in Cheshire, and from an early age he exhibited talent as a poet. He was awarded a scholarship at the age of 11 by the King's School, Macclesfield. Despite this, he was not a dedicated pupil and did not further his education beyond O-level.
After leaving school, Curtis focused on the pursuit of art, literature and music. He was employed in a variety of jobs, including being a civil servant in Manchester and, later, Macclesfield.
On 23 August 1975, Curtis married a school friend, Deborah Woodruff at St Thomas' Church, Henbury. He was 19 and she was 18. Their daughter Natalie was born on 16 April 1979. She is a photographer.
In 1976 at a Sex Pistols gig, Curtis met Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook. They were trying to form a band, and Curtis immediately proposed himself as vocalist and lyricist. The trio then unsuccessfully recruited several drummers before selecting Stephen Morris as their final member.
Initially, the band was called Warsaw, but as their name conflicted with that of another group, Warsaw Pakt, the name was changed to Joy Division. The moniker was derived from a 1955 novel The House of Dolls, which featured a Nazi concentration camp with a sexual slavery wing called the "Joy Division". The cover of the band's first EP depicted a drawing of a Hitler Youth beating a drum and the A-side contained a song, "Warsaw", which was a musical retelling of the life of Nazi leader Rudolf Hess.
After starting Factory Records with Alan Erasmus, Tony Wilson signed the band to his label following the band's appearance on Wilson's So It Goes television programme, itself prompted by an abusive letter sent to Wilson by Curtis.
While performing for Joy Division, Curtis became known for his quiet and awkward demeanour, as well as a unique dancing style reminiscent of the epileptic seizures he experienced, sometimes even on stage. There were several incidents when he collapsed whilst performing and had to be helped off. Regarding Curtis' stage performances, Greil Marcus in The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs quotes Jon Savage from the music magazine Melody Maker: "Ian's mesmeric style mirrored the ever more frequent epileptic spasms that Deborah Curtis had to cope with at home." Marcus remarks that Curtis' performance "might also have been a matter of intentionally replicating fits, re-enacting them, using them as a form of energy and a form of music."
Although predominantly a vocalist, Curtis also played guitar on a handful of tracks (usually when Sumner was playing synthesizer; "Incubation" and a Peel session version of "Transmission" were rare instances when both played guitar). At first Curtis played Sumner's Shergold Masquerader, but in September 1979 he acquired his own guitar, a Vox Phantom Special VI (often described incorrectly as a Teardrop or ordinary Phantom model) which had many built-in effects used both live and in studio. After Curtis's death, Sumner inherited the guitar and used it in several early New Order songs, such as "Everything's Gone Green".
Curtis's last live performance was on 2 May 1980, at High Hall of Birmingham University, a show that included Joy Division's first and only performance of "Ceremony", later recorded by New Order and released as their first single. The last song Curtis performed on stage was "Digital". The recording of this performance is on the Still album.
As described in Deborah Curtis's Touching from a Distance, Curtis was staying at his parents' house at this time and attempted to talk his wife into staying with him on 17 May 1980, to no avail. He told her to leave him alone in the house until he caught his train to Manchester the next morning. In the early hours of 18 May 1980, Curtis hanged himself in the kitchen of his house at 77 Barton Street, Macclesfield, at the age of 23. He had just viewed Werner Herzog's film Stroszek and listened to Iggy Pop's The Idiot. At the time of his death, his health was failing as a result of his epilepsy and, attempting to balance his musical ambitions with his marriage, which was foundering in the aftermath of his close relationship with journalist Annik Honoré (who in 2010 stated it was not an "affair" and merely a close and platonic relationship). His wife found Ian's body the next morning; he had used the kitchen's washing line to hang himself. Deborah claimed later that he had confided to her on several occasions that he had no desire to live past his 20s.
Curtis was cremated at Macclesfield Crematorium and his ashes were buried. His memorial stone, inscribed with "Ian Curtis 18 – 5 – 80" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart", was stolen in July 2008 from the grounds of Macclesfield Cemetery. The missing memorial stone was later replaced by a new stone with the same inscription but in a different typeface.
In a 1987 interview with Option, Stephen Morris commented on how he would describe Curtis to those who asked what he was like: "An ordinary bloke just like you or me, liked a bit of a laugh, a bit of a joke."
In 1990, Psychic TV released "I.C. Water", a song dedicated to Curtis.
Deborah Curtis wrote Touching from a Distance, published in 1995, a biographical account of their marriage, detailing in part his supposed infidelity with Annik Honoré, which the latter still denied until her death in 2014.
Authors Mick Middles and Lindsay Reade released the book Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis in 2006. This biography takes a more intimate look at Curtis and includes photographs from personal family albums and excerpts from his letters to Honoré during their alleged affair.
Paul Morley wrote Joy Division, Piece by Piece, writing about Joy Division 1977–2007; it was published in late 2007. The book documents all of his writings and reviews about Joy Division, from their formation until Tony Wilson's death.
The words "Ian Curtis Lives" are written on a wall in Wallace Street, Wellington, New Zealand. The message, which appeared shortly after the singer's death in 1980, is repainted whenever it is painted over. A nearby wall on the same street on 4 January 2005 was originally emblazoned "Ian Curtis RIP", later modified to read "Ian Curtis RIP Walk In Silence" along with the incorrect dates "1960–1980". Both are referred to as "The Ian Curtis Wall". Steve McKinlay recalls after having watched 24 Hour Party People and drinking several pints with his brother, a well known New Zealand beer brewer, in the early hours of the morning he drove with a bucket of paint and a small roller to Wallace Street and repainted the wall after it had long since faded. On 10 September 2009, the wall was painted over by Wellington City Council's anti-graffiti team. The wall was chalked back up on 16 September 2009. Following this, council spokesman Richard MacLean said, "They [the anti-graffiti team] may turn a blind eye to it". The wall was repainted on 17 September 2009, and has been removed and repainted on and off. A new and improved design, with correct dates and the original "Walk In Silence", was painted on the wall on 27 February 2013.
Curtis was portrayed by Sean Harris in the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, which dramatised the rise and fall of Factory Records from the 1970s to the 1990s. In 2007 a British Ian Curtis biographical film called Control was released, based on material from Deborah Curtis's book Touching from a Distance. It was directed by the Dutch rock photographer and music video director Anton Corbijn, who had previously photographed the band and directed the video for "Atmosphere". Deborah Curtis and Tony Wilson were executive producers and Todd Eckert of Clara Flora was the producer. Sam Riley, the lead singer of the band 10,000 Things, portrays Curtis, while Samantha Morton plays his wife, Deborah. The film had its debut at the Cannes Film Festival on 17 May 2007 to great acclaim, taking three awards at the Directors' Fortnight. It portrays Curtis's secondary school romance with Deborah, their marriage, his problems balancing his domestic life with his rise to fame, his alleged affair with Annik Honoré, his struggle with poorly medicated epilepsy and depression, and his suicide.
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