Curtis performing live 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|
Ian Kevin Curtis (15 July 1956 – 18 May 1980) was an English singer-songwriter and musician. 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 both epilepsy and depression, took his own life on 18 May 1980, on the eve of Joy Division's first North American tour and shortly before the release of their second album. His suicide resulted in the band's dissolution and the subsequent formation of New Order. Curtis was known for his bass-baritone voice, dance style, and songwriting typically filled with imagery of desolation, emptiness, and alienation.
Curtis was born on 15 July 1956, at the Memorial Hospital in Stretford, Lancashire and grew up in a working-class household in the market town of Macclesfield in Cheshire. He was the first of two children born to Kevin and Doreen Curtis.
From an early age, Curtis was a bookish and intelligent child, displaying a particular flair for poetry. He was awarded a scholarship at the age of eleven at Macclesfield's independent King's School. Here, he would develop his interests in philosophy, literature, and eminent poets such as Thom Gunn. While a student at King's School, he would be awarded several scholastic awards in recognition of his abilities—particularly at the ages of 15 and 16. The year after Ian had graduated from King's School, the Curtis family purchased a house from a relative, and relocated to New Moston.
As a teenager, Curtis chose to perform social service by visiting the elderly as part of a school programme. While visiting these people, he and his friends would steal any prescription drugs that they found and later take them together as a group. On one notable occasion when he was sixteen, after consuming a large dosage of Largactil he and his friends had stolen, Curtis was discovered unconscious in his bedroom by his father, and subsequently taken to a nearby hospital to have his stomach pumped.
Curtis had held a keen interest in music since the age of twelve, and this interest would develop greatly in his teenage years, with artists such as Jim Morrison and David Bowie being particular favourites of his, and thus influencing his poetry and art. Nonetheless, as Curtis hailed from a working-class background, he could seldom afford to purchase records, leading him to frequently resort to stealing them from local shops.[n 1] By his mid-teens, Curtis had also developed a reputation among his peers as a strong-willed individual, with a keen interest in fashion.
Despite gaining nine O-levels at King's School, and briefly studying A-Levels in History and Divinity at St. John's College, Curtis soon became disenchanted with academic life, and thus chose to abandon his studies and commit himself to finding employment. Nonetheless, despite abandoning his studies at St. John's College, Curtis continued to focus on the pursuit of art, literature and music, and would gradually draw lyrical and conceptual inspiration from evermore insidious subjects.
Having stated to his family and friends that he did not wish to continue with his studies, but to actually obtain employment, Curtis obtained a job at a record shop in Manchester City Centre, before obtaining more stable employment within the civil service. His employment as a civil servant saw Curtis initially deployed to Cheadle Hulme, where he worked for several months within the Ministry of Defence, before he was offered alternate employment within the Manpower Services Commission in a building located at Piccadilly Gardens. He would later find alternate employment as a civil servant in Woodford, Greater Manchester, although at his request, approximately one year later, Curtis was posted to Macclesfield's Employment Exchange, where he worked as an Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer.
On 23 August 1975, Curtis married Deborah Woodruff, a friend of his with whom he had become acquainted through a friend of his named Tony Nuttall, and whom he had been dating since December 1972, when both had been 16 years old.[n 2] The service was conducted at St Thomas' Church in the Cheshire village of Henbury, and at the time of the wedding, he was 19, and she was 18 (their only child, a daughter named Natalie, would be born on 16 April 1979). Initially, the couple lived with Ian's grandparents, although shortly after their marriage, the couple relocated to a working-class neighbourhood in Chadderton, where they undertook a mortgage while working in jobs neither particularly enjoyed. Before long, the couple became disillusioned with life in Oldham, and remortgaged their house before briefly returning to live with Ian's grandparents. Shortly thereafter, in May 1977, the couple moved into their own house in Barton Street, Macclesfield, with one of the rooms of the property becoming colloquially known between the couple as Curtis's "song-writing room".
At a July 1976 Sex Pistols gig at Manchester's Free Trade Hall, Curtis encountered three childhood school friends named Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Terry Mason. The trio informed Curtis—whom they had seen at earlier punk gigs at The Electric Circus—of their intentions to form a band, and Curtis informed them of his then-recent efforts to do likewise, before proposing himself as both their singer and lyricist. Initially, Mason became the band's drummer, although his rehearsal sessions were largely unproductive, and he briefly became the band's manager. The group then unsuccessfully attempted to recruit several drummers before selecting an acquaintance of Curtis's named Stephen Morris as their final member in August 1977. The band would subsequently be managed by Rob Gretton, who—having already seen Joy Division perform live at local venues such as Rafters—offered to become their manager in 1978.
Initially, the band named themselves "Warsaw", with this inspiration deriving from the title of a song upon David Bowie's then-recent album Low, but as this name somewhat conflicted with that of a London-based group named "Warsaw Pakt", they soon opted to name themselves "Joy Division". This moniker was derived from the 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 founding Factory Records with Alan Erasmus, Tony Wilson signed the band to his label following the band's first appearance on the TV music show he hosted, So It Goes, in September 1978. This appearance had been largely prompted by an abusive letter personally sent to Wilson by Curtis, and saw the band play the song "Shadowplay".[n 3]
While performing with Joy Division, Curtis became known for his quiet and awkward demeanour, in addition to a unique dancing style often reminiscent of the epileptic seizures he would begin experiencing in late 1978. Although predominantly a singer, 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 Sumner and Curtis played guitar). Initially, Curtis played Sumner's Shergold Masquerader, but in September 1979 he acquired his own guitar, a Vox Phantom VI Special (often described incorrectly as a Teardrop or ordinary Phantom model) which had many built-in effects used both live and in studio.
Curtis's widow has claimed that, beginning in August 1979, Curtis began conducting an affair with a Belgian journalist and music promoter named Annik Honoré, whom he had first met at a gig that month. Reportedly, despite the fact he had for many years exhibited a somewhat controlling attitude within their relationship (which had included his actively minimising any opportunity for his wife to come into contact with other males), Curtis was consumed with guilt over this affair due to his being married, and the father to their baby daughter, but at the same time still yearning to be with Annik. On one occasion in 1980, Curtis asked Bernard Sumner to make a decision on his behalf as to whether he should choose to remain with his wife, or form a deeper relationship with Annik, although Sumner refused to make this decision on Curtis's behalf. (Honoré would claim in a 2010 interview that although she and Curtis had spent extensive periods of time in each other's company, their relationship had been a platonic one.)
Curtis's bandmates would later recollect Curtis began to become slightly "lofty" and distant from them after he had become acquainted with Honoré, who herself was noted to be demanding of both his time and attention. These facts would occasionally invoke pranks directed at himself and Annik from them. He is also known to have become a vegetarian—likely at Honoré's behest—although when not in her presence, he is known to have eaten meat.
Curtis began suffering epileptic fits in late 1978; he would be officially diagnosed with the condition on 23 January the following year,[n 4] with his particular case being described by doctors as so severe, his "life would [be] ruled to obsolescence by his severe epilepsy" without the various strong dosages of medications he was prescribed. Having joined the British Epilepsy Association, Curtis was initially open to discuss his condition with anyone who would inquire, although he soon became withdrawn, and reluctant to discuss any aspect regarding his condition beyond the most mundane and necessary aspects. On each occasion it became apparent a particular prescribed medication failed to control Curtis's seizures, his doctor would prescribe a different anticonvulsant, and his wife would note his being "full of renewed enthusiasm" this particular formulation would help him bring his seizures under control.
Throughout 1979 and 1980, Curtis's condition gradually worsened amid the pressure of performances and touring, with his seizures becoming both more frequent, and more intense. In addition, following his diagnosis, Curtis continued to drink, smoke, and maintain an irregular sleeping pattern—all of which is contrary to advice given to individuals suffering from the condition. Furthermore, the medications Curtis was prescribed for his condition produced numerous side effects, including extreme mood swings. This change in personality was also observed by Curtis's wife, family and in-laws, who noted how largely taciturn he had become in his wife's company. In addition, following the birth of his daughter in April 1979, because of the severity of his medical condition, Ian was seldom able to hold his baby daughter in case he compromised the child's safety.
At the time of the recording of the band's second album, Curtis's condition was particularly severe, with his enduring a weekly average of two tonic-clonic seizures. On one occasion throughout these recordings, Curtis's bandmates became concerned when they noted he had been absent from the recording studio for approximately two hours, only for the band's bassist, Peter Hook, to discover Curtis unconscious on the floor of the studio's toilets, having split his head open on a sink following a seizure. Despite instances such as this, Hook would state that, largely through ignorance of the condition, he, Sumner and Morris did not know how to help. Nonetheless, Hook was adamant that Curtis never wanted to upset or concern his bandmates, and would "tell [us] what [we] wanted to hear" if they expressed any concern as to his condition. In one notable incident at a concert held before almost 3,000 people at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park in April 1980 and in which Joy Division appeared alongside the Stranglers, the lighting technicians at this venue—contrary to stern instructions given to them by Rob Gretton prior to the gig—switched on strobe lights midway through Joy Division's performance, causing Ian Curtis to almost immediately stagger backwards and collapse against Stephen Morris's drum kit in the throes of an evident seizure. Resultingly, he had to be carried offstage to the band's dressing room to recuperate.
When Curtis had recovered from this first seizure, he was adamant the band travel to West Hampstead to honour their commitment to perform their second gig of the evening at this location, although some 25 minutes into this second gig, Curtis's "dancing started to lose its rhythmic sense and change into something else entirely" before he collapsed to the floor and experienced the most violent seizure he had endured to date.
Curtis's onstage dancing was often reminiscent of the seizures he experienced, and has been insensitively termed by some to be his "epilepsy dance". Throughout Joy Division's live performances in 1979 and 1980, several incidents occurred in which Curtis collapsed while performing and had to be carried offstage. To minimise any possibility of Curtis enduring epileptic seizures, any form of flashing lights was prohibited at Joy Division gigs, although despite these measures, Bernard Sumner would later state that "sometimes a particular drum beat would do something to [Curtis]. He'd go off in a trance for a bit, then he'd lose it and have an epileptic fit. We'd have to stop the show and carry him off to the dressing-room, where he'd cry his eyes out because this appalling thing had just happened to him". To minimise any detrimental effects Curtis's condition had upon his personal or professional life, in the spring of 1980, Terry Mason was appointed as a minder to ensure Curtis took his prescribed medications, avoided alcohol consumption, and undertook sufficient sleep.
Regarding the choreography of Curtis's stage performances, Greil Marcus in The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs chose to quote 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 remarked that Curtis's 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."
Curtis's final live performance with Joy Division was on 2 May 1980. This performance was at the High Hall of Birmingham University, and included Joy Division's first and only performance of "Ceremony", later to be recorded by New Order and released as their debut single. The final song Curtis performed onstage with Joy Division prior to his death was "Digital".[n 5]
Following Curtis's first definite suicide attempt on 6 April 1980, Tony Wilson and his partner, Lindsay—expressing deep concerns as to Joy Division's intense touring schedule being detrimental to Curtis's physical and mental well-being—invited him to recuperate at their cottage in the village of Charlesworth. At this address, he is known to have written several letters to Honoré, proclaiming his love for her as he recuperated from this initial suicide attempt.[n 6]
By the spring of 1980, Curtis's marriage to Deborah was floundering, as she had commenced divorce proceedings due to his having failed to cease all contact with Honoré.[n 7] Curtis had been an individual who enjoyed solitude, but had never been mentally equipped for living alone. In addition, he was having difficulty balancing his family obligations with his musical ambitions, and his health was gradually worsening as a result of his epilepsy, thus increasing his dependency upon others. On the evening prior to his death, Curtis informed Bernard Sumner of his insistence upon seeing his wife that evening, stating: "I'm going to see Debbie; I want to talk to her." He had also made firm plans to rendezvous with his bandmates at Manchester Airport the following day, prior to their departure for America.
On the evening of 17 May, Curtis asked his wife to drop her impending divorce proceedings; she replied that he would likely have changed his mind by the following morning, then—mindful of his previous suicide attempt and also concerned his state of anxiety and frustration may drive Curtis into an epileptic fit—offered to spend the night in his company. Deborah then drove to her parents' home to inform them of her intentions. When Deborah Curtis returned to Barton Street, Ian's demeanour had notably changed, and he informed his wife of his intentions to spend the night alone, first making her promise not to return to the house before he had taken his scheduled 10 a.m. train to Manchester to rendezvous with his bandmates.
In the early hours of 18 May 1980, Curtis committed suicide by hanging himself in the kitchen of his house at 77 Barton Street, Macclesfield. He was 23 years old. His wife Deborah found his body the next morning; he had used the kitchen's washing line to hang himself after having penned a note to her in which he declared his love for her despite him recently conducting an affair with Honoré.[n 8] In her biography, Touching from a Distance, Deborah Curtis recalls when she found his body:
I didn't call his name or go upstairs. At first, I thought he had left because the house smelled strangely fresh. The familiar clinging stench of tobacco wasn't there. He must have caught the train after all. There was an envelope on the living-room mantelpiece. My heart jumped when I realized that he had left a note for me. He was kneeling in the kitchen. I was relieved – glad he was still there. 'Now what are you up to?' I [then] took a step towards him, about to speak. His head was bowed; his hands resting on the washing machine. I stared at him, he was so still. Then the rope – I hadn't noticed the rope. The rope from the clothes rack was around his neck.
At the time of his suicide, Joy Division were on the eve of their debut North American tour, and Deborah Curtis has stated Ian had viewed this upcoming tour with extreme trepidation, not only because of his extreme fear of flying (he had longed to travel to America by ship), but because he had also expressed deep concerns as to how American audiences would react to his epilepsy. Deborah Curtis has also claimed Ian had confided in her on several occasions that he held no desire to live past his early twenties. He had furthermore expressed to both his wife and Annik Honoré his deep concerns as to his medical condition being likely to kill him in addition to his receiving mockery from the band's audiences, and that this mockery would only increase from the band's impending American audiences on their upcoming tour.[n 9]
According to Lindsay Reade (the wife of the manager of Factory Records), Curtis had informed her shortly before his death of his belief that, with his epilepsy, he could no longer perform live with the band. In addition, he had claimed that with the impending release of Closer, he believed the band had hit an artistic pinnacle. Tony Wilson would later opine his belief that Curtis likely saw his act of suicide was somewhat altruistic.
Bassist Peter Hook would later reflect: "The great tragedy of Ian's death was that all he really wanted was to be successful, and he missed it ... by a week." On the subject of Curtis's prescribed medication, Hook would also reflect that, prior to the release of the 2007 documentary film Joy Division, when a specialist in epilepsy had viewed the combination of the cocktail of drugs Curtis had been prescribed for his condition, this specialist had said: "Oh my God. This was guaranteed to kill him".
Curtis's body was cremated at Macclesfield Crematorium on 23 May; his ashes were later buried at Macclesfield Cemetery. A memorial stone, inscribed with "Ian Curtis 18 – 5 – 80" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart", was placed above his ashes.[n 10]
In a 2007 interview granted to The Guardian, Stephen Morris stated: "This sounds awful, but it was only after Ian died that we sat down and listened to the lyrics. You'd find yourself thinking, 'Oh my God, I missed this one'. Because [we would] look at Ian's lyrics and think how clever he was putting himself in the position of someone else. I never believed he was writing about himself. Looking back, how could I have been so bleeding stupid? Of course he was writing about himself! But I didn't go in and grab him and ask, 'What's up?' I have to live with that."[n 11]
Shortly after Curtis's cremation, Sumner, Hook, and Morris—strongly aided by Rob Gretton—made the decision to continue with their careers via forming a new band. Initially calling themselves "The No Names" and playing largely instrumental tracks, they would soon label themselves "New Order". English music journalist Paul Morley would later recollect: "Ian didn't just kill himself and it all just disintegrated and the whole thing fell apart; the group just picked themselves up and kept going which was extraordinary. I would never have thought it would happen so quickly, [but] it was only a matter of weeks."
Shortly after Curtis's death, Bernard Sumner inherited the Vox Phantom VI Special guitar Ian Curtis had acquired in September 1979; he would use this instrument in several early New Order songs, including the single "Everything's Gone Green".
In 1985, New Order released the instrumental song "Elegia", which was written in memory of Ian Curtis. Label sharing band the Durutti Column released in 1981 their album LC, including the Ian Curtis tribute song "The Missing Boy". In 1990, Psychic TV released "I.C. Water", a song dedicated to Curtis.
Deborah Curtis has written a biographical account of their marriage, Touching from a Distance, which was first published in 1995. This biography details in part his relationship with Annik Honoré. In 1999, the post-hardcore band Thursday released a song titled "Ian Curtis" on their debut album, Waiting.
The 2002 New Order song "Here to Stay" was dedicated to Ian Curtis, Rob Gretton and Martin Hannett. 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 relationship. Music journalist 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".
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.
In 2016, a group of veteran musicians from Seattle, WA formed She's Lost Control as a tribute to Ian Curtis and Joy Division. Frontman Rickie Hart imitates Ian's singing style, dress and eccentric dance.
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 entitled Control was released. This film was largely based upon material sourced from Deborah Curtis's book Touching from a Distance. This biographical was directed by the Dutch rock photographer and music video director Anton Corbijn, who had previously photographed the band and directed the video for their single "Atmosphere". Deborah Curtis and Tony Wilson were executive producers, while 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.
Control was debuted at the Cannes Film Festival on 17 May 2007, and was met with critical acclaim, taking three awards at the Directors' Fortnight. Control portrays Curtis's secondary school romance with Deborah, their marriage, his problems balancing his domestic life with his rise to fame, his struggles with both his major depressive issues and his poorly medicated epilepsy, and his later relationship with Annik Honoré. The film ends with his suicide.
In 2014, the house in which Curtis committed suicide became saleable. Upon hearing this news, a fan named Zak Davies initiated a campaign via Indiegogo to raise funds to purchase the house with intentions to preserve the property as an intended museum dedicated to Ian Curtis and Joy Division. Via this project, Davies stated his intentions to "raise awareness and educate future generations on the music and [the] life of Ian Curtis, and allow existing fans the experience to walk the same floorboards as the man himself," while also creating a potential new tourist location in Macclesfield. However, the campaign only garnered £2,000 out of the intended final goal £150,000. The money raised was later donated to the Epilepsy Society and MIND charities.
Upon hearing of the failure of this project, an entrepreneur and musician named Hadar Goldman purchased the property; offering to pay a £75,000 compensation fee on top of the requested house price of £125,000 in order to secure the purchase of 77 Barton Street and thus reverse the transacted sale from a private purchaser, which at the time in question was already in progress. Justifying his decision, Goldman stated he intended for the property to act not only as a Joy Division museum, but also as a digital hub to support musicians and other artists worldwide. Further adding that any proffered endeavours to preserve the heritage of Joy Division would be sympathetically taken into consideration, Goldman stated his intentions to "welcome the input and ideas of anyone interested in being part of such an exciting project; commemorating a meaningful part of musical history".
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