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Thirty-two years ago, on May 18 1980, Ian Curtis was found dead in his house in Macclesfield, UK. The singer of the British post-punk band Joy Division committed suicide hanging himself, with the rope of a clothesline in his kitchen, two months before his 24th birthday.
The death of Ian Curtis is as obscure as his character. He married at the young age of 19 and became a father at the age of 23. While being hit by quick success, in late 1970s, he was also diagnosed as epileptic.
Epilepsy worsening and marriage difficulties interweaved with Joy Division’s growing success, making him fall into a depression. He collapsed due to frustration and concern for his illness, pressure for the band’s busy schedule and raising expectations, instability due to epilepsy medication, increase in seizures, and failure in balancing musical ambitions with his private life.
Epilepsy was an ever present component for Curtis, not just in life but also on stage, and it characterized his frenetic dancing style as well. Performing on stage got increasingly difficult for him, and seizures would often happen during live shows.
After the release of their debut album with Factory Records ‘Unknown Pleasures’, in July 1979, Joy Division’s popularity rapidly increased and events followed one another very quickly.
At the beginning of 1980, they started a European tour and a new album recording. ‘Closer’ was recorded in only two weeks, in March, working through the nights with very little rest and this strongly affected Curtis’s physical and mental health.
“Ian was very ill with epilepsy when we were recording the Closer album. He was having a lot of blackouts. There was one horrible occasion where he was missing for two hours in the studio. I went in the toilet and there he was spark out on the floor – he’d had a fit and split his head open on the sink. There were a lot of occasions like that,” wrote Joy Divion’s bassist, Peter Hook , in an article published by The Guardian.
“We recorded the album in March. He made his first suicide attempt in April, so it was pretty close. [...] I know Joy Division will always be overshadowed by Ian’s death. […] Listening to Closer again, it’s heart-rending. Ian created a wonderful testimony of how he felt at the time: apprehensive, fearful but powerful. Not in control of your destiny: you can hear how that break evolved.”
Ian Curtis was the singer and lyricist of the band. All the Joy Division’s song lyrics were written by him and they reflect his gloomy feelings. Among others, he was inspired by novelists William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard, and by the musician David Bowie. Isolation, alienation, death, and urban decay are recurring motifs in his songs. Words and imagery of “coldness, pressure, darkness, crisis, failure, collapse, loss of control” characterize his writing. Also the low baritone voice of his singing, in contrast of his tenor speaking voice, mirrored his dark frame of mind.
His early death, which occurred on the eve of the band’s first North American tour, meant the end and dissolution of the band because the members had previously agreed that Joy Division would cease to exist if any of them left for any reason.
Despite the breakdown of a short and bright career, Ian Curtis and Joy Division are an important piece in music history. In his biography of the band, John Bush of Allmusic stated “Joy Division became the first band of the post-punk movement by later emphasizing not anger and energy but mood and expression, pointing ahead to the rise of melancholy alternative music in the ‘80s”.
Joy Division have influenced lots of bands over the last thirty years. Ian Curtis remains an emblematic figure of the post punk music scene and his songs maintain the same dark and gloomy emotional value for the contemporary generations.
After more than 30 years, we are still here listening to Joy Division and Curtis’s lyrics and we want to remember him with the song ‘Atmosphere’.
“Walk, in silence. Don’t walk away, in silence.
See the danger, always danger,
endless talking, life rebuilding, don’t walk away.”