Curtis performing live with Joy Division at the Mayflower in Manchester in 1979
|Birth name||Ian Kevin Curtis|
15 July 1956|
Stretford, Lancashire, England, United Kingdom
|Died||18 May 1980
Macclesfield, Cheshire, England, United Kingdom
|Associated acts||Joy Division|
|Vox Phantom VI Special|
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 filled with imagery of desolation, emptiness and alienation.
Curtis was born on 15 July 1956, at the Memorial Hospital in Stretford, Lancashire. He grew up in a working-class household in the market town of Macclesfield in Cheshire, and from an early age, he exhibited talent as a poet. Curtis was a bookish child, and was awarded a scholarship at the age of eleven by the King's School, Macclesfield. Despite this, he was not dedicated to his studies, and did not continue his education beyond O-level.
Throughout his childhood, Curtis was a habitual shoplifter. He had an interest in music in his teenage years, but could seldom afford to purchase records, leading him to steal albums from Macclesfield town centre, hiding them underneath a grey coat. As a teenager, he chose to perform social service by visiting the elderly as part of a school scheme. While visiting these individuals, he and his friends would steal any prescription drugs that they found and later consume them as a group. On one notable occasion when he was 16, after consuming too many drugs he had stolen, Curtis had to have his stomach pumped.
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 nineteen, and she was eighteen (their only child, daughter Natalie, would be born on 16 April 1979). Shortly after their marriage, the couple relocated to Chadderton, where they undertook a mortgage while working in jobs neither particularly enjoyed.
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 singer and lyricist. The trio then tried unsuccessfully to recruit several drummers before selecting Stephen Morris as their final member.
Initially, the band named themselves "Warsaw", but as their name conflicted with that of another group, "Warsaw Pakt", they opted to name themselves "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 his So It Goes television programme, itself prompted by an abusive letter sent to Wilson by Curtis.
While performing with Joy Division, Curtis became known for his quiet and awkward demeanour, as well as a unique dancing style. 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 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. After Curtis' death, Sumner inherited the guitar and used it in several early New Order songs, such as "Everything's Gone Green".
Curtis began suffering epileptic fits in late 1978; he would be officially diagnosed with the condition on 23 January the following year. Throughout 1979 and 1980, his condition gradually worsened amid the pressure of performances and touring, with his seizures becoming both more frequent, and more intense. At the time of the recording of the band's second album, Curtis' condition was particularly severe: on one occasion throughout these recordings, Curtis' 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 adamantly 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.
His onstage dancing was reminiscent of the seizures he experienced, sometimes even while performing. There were several incidents when he collapsed while performing and had to be carried offstage. Regarding Curtis' stage performances, Greil Marcus in The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs quoted 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' 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." The medication he took for the condition produced side effects including mood swings.
Curtis' widow, Deborah, claimed that he began an affair with Belgian journalist Annik Honoré in August 1979. Honoré, however, said in an interview in 2010 that her relationship with Curtis had been platonic. At the time of Curtis' death, his marriage to Deborah was floundering, he was having trouble balancing his family obligations with his musical ambitions, and his health was worsening as a result of his epilepsy.
Curtis' 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 onstage was "Digital". The recording of this performance was included on the compilation album Still.
In the early hours of 18 May 1980, Curtis committed suicide by hanging himself in the kitchen of his house at No.77 Barton Street, Macclesfield. He was 23 years old. According to Tony Wilson, prior to his suicide, Curtis had viewed Werner Herzog's 1977 film Stroszek and listened to Iggy Pop's album The Idiot. His wife found Curtis's body the next morning; he had used the kitchen's washing line to kill himself.
Deborah claimed later Curtis had confided to her on several occasions that he had no desire to live past his twenties; 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' prescribed medication, Hook would also reflect that, prior to the release of the 2007 documentary film Joy Division, that when a modern-day specialist in epilepsy had viewed the combination of the cocktail of medications Curtis had been prescribed for his condition, this individual had stated: "Oh my God. This was guaranteed to kill him."
Curtis' body was cremated at Macclesfield Crematorium and his ashes were buried at Macclesfield Cemetery.
In 2008 his memorial stone, inscribed with "Ian Curtis 18 – 5 – 80" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart", was stolen from the grounds of Macclesfield Cemetery. It was subsequently 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 1985, New Order released the song "Elegia", dedicated to 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 wrote Touching from a Distance, published in 1995, a biographical account of their marriage, detailing 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. 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.
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 relationship with Annik Honoré, his struggle with poorly medicated epilepsy and depression, and his suicide.
In 2014, the house that Curtis passed his last moments in Macclesfield went up for sale. Whereupon, a fan named Zak Davies started a campaign in Indiegogo to raise funds to buy the house and preserve it as a museum dedicated to Curtis and Joy Division. Davies planned to "raise awareness and educate future generations on the music and life of Ian Curtis and allow existing fans the experience to walk the same floorboards as the man himself" while also creating a new touristic location in Macclesfield. However, the campaign only garnered £2,000 out of final goal £150,000. The money was later donated to the Epilepsy Society and MIND charity.
One year later, the house was bought by musician Hadar Goldman for £115,000, plus £75,000 to cover the legal fees necessary to reverse the sale to a private buyer that was already in progress. Goldman plans to turn the place into a Joy Division museum and also a digital hub to support musicians and other artists across the world.
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