Ian Kevin Curtis (15 July 1956 – 18 May 1980) was an English singer-songwriter and musician. He was the lead singer and lyricist of the post-punk band Joy Division and recorded two albums with the group: Unknown Pleasures (1979) and Closer (1980). Curtis was known for his bass-baritone voice, dance style, and songwriting typically filled with imagery of desolation, emptiness, and alienation.
Curtis performing live with Joy Division at the Mayflower in Manchester on 28 July 1979
|Birth name||Ian Kevin Curtis|
|Born||15 July 1956|
Stretford, Lancashire, England
|Died||18 May 1980 (aged 23)|
Macclesfield, Cheshire, England
|Associated acts||Joy Division|
Musically, Curtis was influenced by a range of artists such as David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Sex Pistols, Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, Roxy Music, Lou Reed and Neu!, as well as lyrically by writers like William Burroughs, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, T. S. Eliot, J. G. Ballard, and Yehiel De-Nur. Curtis was particularly influenced by Iggy Pop's stage persona.
Curtis, who suffered from epilepsy and depression, took his own life on the eve of Joy Division's first North American tour and shortly before the release of Closer. His death resulted in the band's dissolution and the subsequent formation of New Order.
Despite their short career, Joy Division have exerted a wide-reaching influence. John Bush of AllMusic argues that Joy Division "became the first band in the post-punk movement by ... emphasizing not anger and energy but mood and expression, pointing ahead to the rise of melancholy alternative music in the '80s."
Joy Division's influence has extended from contemporaries such as U2 and the Cure to later acts such as Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, Neurosis, Interpol, Bloc Party, Editors and rap artists such as Danny Brown and Vince Staples.
Curtis was born on 15 July 1956, at the Memorial Hospital in Stretford, Lancashire, and grew up in a working-class household in Macclesfield, 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 11 at Macclesfield's independent King's School. Here, he developed his interests in philosophy, literature, and eminent poets such as Thom Gunn. While at King's School, he was 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 moved to New Moston.
As a teenager, Curtis chose to perform social service by visiting the elderly as part of a school programme. While visiting, he and his friends would steal any prescription drugs that they found and later take them together as a group. On one 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 was taken to hospital to have his stomach pumped.
Curtis had held a keen interest in music since the age of twelve, and this interest developed 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. Curtis could seldom afford to purchase records, leading him to frequently steal 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 abandoned his studies to commit himself to finding employment. 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 ever more insidious subjects.
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 with the Ministry of Defence, before he was offered alternate employment within the Manpower Services Commission in a building at Piccadilly Gardens. He later worked 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, to whom he was introduced by a friend, Tony Nuttall. Ian and Deborah initially became friends then began dating in December 1972, when both were 16 years old.[n 2] Their wedding service was conducted at St Thomas' Church in Henbury, Cheshire. Curtis was 19 and Woodruff 18. They had one child, a daughter named Natalie, born on 16 April 1979. Initially, the couple lived with Ian's grandparents, although shortly after their marriage, the couple moved to a working-class neighbourhood in Chadderton, where they paid a mortgage while working in jobs neither 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' "song-writing room".
At a July 1976 Sex Pistols gig at Manchester's Lesser 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, but 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 Stephen Morris in August 1977. The band was later 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", from the title of a song on David Bowie's then-recent album Low, but as this name somewhat conflicted with that of a London-based group named "Warsaw Pakt", they renamed 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 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, and a unique dancing style often reminiscent of the epileptic seizures he began 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, in October 1979, Curtis began conducting an affair with the Belgian journalist and music promoter Annik Honoré, whom he had first met at a gig held in Brussels that month. Reportedly, despite the fact he had for many years exhibited a somewhat controlling attitude within their relationship (which had included minimising any opportunity for his wife to come into contact with other men), Curtis was consumed with guilt over this affair due to being married, and the father to their baby daughter, but at the same time still yearning to be with Honoré. On one occasion in 1980, Curtis asked Bernard Sumner to make a decision on his behalf as to whether he should remain with his wife or form a deeper relationship with Honoré; Sumner refused. Honoré claimed 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' bandmates later recollected that Curtis began to become slightly "lofty" and distant from them after he had become acquainted with Honoré, who was demanding of his time and attention. These facts would occasionally invoke pranks directed at himself and Honoré from them. He became a vegetarian—likely at Honoré's behest—although he was known to have eaten meat when not in her presence.
Curtis began suffering epileptic seizures in late 1978; he was 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 inquired, although he soon became withdrawn, and reluctant to discuss any issue 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 noted his being "full of renewed enthusiasm" that 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 more frequent and more intense. Following his diagnosis, Curtis continued to drink, smoke, and maintain an irregular sleeping pattern—against the advice given to those suffering from the condition. 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 taciturn he had become in his wife's company. 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 him enduring a weekly average of two tonic-clonic seizures. On one occasion during these recordings, Curtis's bandmates became concerned when they noted he had been absent from the recording studio for two hours. The band's bassist, Peter Hook, discovered Curtis unconscious on the floor of the studio's toilets, having hit his head on a sink following a seizure. Despite instances such as this, Hook stated 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 incident, at a concert held before almost 3,000 people at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park in April 1980, the lighting technicians at the venue—contrary to instructions given to them by Rob Gretton prior to the gig—switched on strobe lights midway through Joy Division's performance, causing Curtis to almost immediately stagger backwards and collapse against Stephen Morris's drum kit in the throes of an evident seizure. 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 termed by some to be his "epilepsy dance". Throughout Joy Division's live performances in 1979 and 1980, Curtis collapsed several times while performing and had to be carried off stage. To minimise any possibility of Curtis having epileptic seizures, flashing lights were prohibited at Joy Division gigs; despite these measures, Bernard Sumner later stated that certain percussion effects would cause Curtis to suffer a seizure. In April 1980, Terry Mason was appointed as a minder to ensure Curtis took his prescribed medications, avoided alcohol consumption, and got sufficient sleep.
Regarding the choreography of Curtis's stage performances, Greil Marcus in The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs quotes Jon Savage from 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 at the High Hall of Birmingham University, and included Joy Division's first and only performance of "Ceremony", later recorded by New Order and released as their debut single. The final song Curtis performed on stage with Joy Division prior to his death was "Digital".[n 5]
Depression and initial suicide attemptEdit
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 Charlesworth. While there, he is known to have written several letters to Honoré, proclaiming his love for her as he recuperated.[n 6]
By early 1980, Curtis's marriage to Deborah was floundering, as she had commenced divorce proceedings after he had failed to cease all contact with Honoré.[n 7] Curtis enjoyed solitude, but had never been mentally equipped for living alone. 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 before his death, Curtis informed Bernard Sumner of his insistence upon seeing his wife that evening. He had also made firm plans to rendezvous with his bandmates at Manchester Airport the following day, before their departure for America.
On the evening of 17 May 1980, Curtis asked Deborah to drop her impending divorce proceedings; she replied that it was likely that he would have changed his mind by the following morning, and then—mindful of his previous suicide attempt and also concerned that his state of anxiety and frustration might 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 she returned to the couple's home at 77 Barton Street in Macclesfield, Cheshire, his demeanour had 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 meet up with his bandmates.
In the early hours of the next morning, Curtis committed suicide at the age of 23. He had used the kitchen's washing line to hang himself after having written a note to Deborah in which he declared his love for her despite his recent affair with Honoré.[n 8] Deborah found his body soon after. In her biography, Touching from a Distance, Deborah recalls finding her husband's body and initially thinking that he was still alive before noticing the washing line around his neck. According to Tony Wilson, Curtis spent the few hours before his suicide watching Werner Herzog's 1977 film Stroszek and listening to Iggy Pop's 1977 album The Idiot. His wife recollected that he had taken photographs of their wedding and their baby daughter off the walls, apparently to view them as he composed his suicide note.
At the time of Curtis's suicide, Joy Division were on the eve of their debut North American tour, and Deborah has stated that Curtis had viewed the upcoming tour with extreme trepidation, not only because of his extreme fear of flying (he had wanted to travel by ship), but also because he had expressed deep concerns as to how American audiences would react to his epilepsy. Deborah has also claimed that Curtis had confided in her on several occasions that he held no desire to live past his early twenties. He had expressed to both Deborah and Honoré his deep concerns that his medical condition was likely to kill him, in addition to causing him to receive mockery from audiences, and that this mockery would only increase when performing before American audiences on the upcoming tour.[n 9]
According to Lindsay Reade, 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. Wilson later said that it was likely that Curtis saw his act of suicide as somewhat altruistic.
In a 2007 interview with The Guardian, Stephen Morris expressed regret that nobody had realised during Curtis' life the distress he was in, even though it was evident in his lyrics.[n 10] In a 2013 Guardian interview, Genesis P-Orridge talked about being the last person with whom Curtis spoke before his death. Bassist Peter Hook reflected on the tragedy of the timing of Curtis' death, just before what might have been a breakthrough to fame. Hook also claimed that, prior to the release of the 2007 documentary Joy Division, a specialist in epilepsy had viewed the combination of drugs that Curtis had been prescribed for his condition and expressed concerns about the drugs' safety.
Curtis' body was cremated at Macclesfield Crematorium on 23 May 1980, and his ashes were 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 11] This memorial stone was stolen in mid-2008. A replacement, bearing the same inscription, was placed in the same location. A central “mowing” stone used to hold floral tributes was reported stolen from the grave in August 2019.
Shortly after Curtis's cremation, Sumner, Hook, and Morris—strongly aided by Rob Gretton— formed a new band. Initially calling themselves "The No Names" and playing largely instrumental tracks, they soon became "New Order". Shortly after Curtis's death, Bernard Sumner inherited the Vox Phantom VI Special guitar Ian Curtis had acquired in September 1979; he used this instrument in several early New Order songs, including the single "Everything's Gone Green".
Numerous New Order songs reference or pay tribute to Curtis. The tracks "ICB" (an acronym of 'Ian Curtis, Buried') and "The Him" from the their debut album Movement both refer to his passing. The instrumental track "Elegia", released in 1985, was also written in his memory, while 2002 song "Here to Stay" was dedicated to Curtis as well as Rob Gretton and Martin Hannett.
Joy Division labelmates the Durutti Column paid tribute to Curtis in the form of "The Missing Boy", which appeared on their 1981 album LC. In 1990, Psychic TV released "I.C. Water", which was dedicated to Curtis. In 1999, the post-hardcore band Thursday released a song titled "Ian Curtis" on their debut album, Waiting, while in 2003, Xiu Xiu released the track "Ian Curtis Wishlist" on their second album, A Promise.
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. 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. 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 biographical film entitled Control about Curtis was released. This film was largely based upon Deborah Curtis' book Touching from a Distance. The film 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 took three awards at the Directors' Fortnight. Control portrays Curtis' 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.
77 Barton StreetEdit
In 2014, the house in which Curtis committed suicide went on sale. Upon hearing this news, a fan initiated a campaign via Indiegogo to raise funds to purchase the house with intentions to preserve the property as a museum to Curtis and Joy Division. The campaign only raised £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 was already in progress. Justifying his decision, Goldman stated he intended the property to act as a Joy Division museum, and as a digital hub to support musicians and other artists worldwide.
with Joy DivisionEdit
- Curtis was a habitual shoplifter in his adolescent years; he frequently stole albums from Macclesfield town centre by hiding them underneath a long grey coat he frequently wore. He and close friends also regularly stole bottles of spirits from local off licences.
- Curtis and Woodruff had become engaged on 17 April 1974.
- Sections of this live version of "Shadowplay" were broadcast with disused, inverted monochrome footage from a World in Action documentary depicting cityscapes superimposed across the footage of the band.
- Curtis may have suffered from epilepsy for several years prior to his diagnosis. His wife later recollected that, following his official diagnosis, he confided in her that, as early as 1972, he had experienced floating sensations as if he had taken drugs when he had not. On other occasions in the early- and mid-1970s, he would have to be supported from venues and premises if disturbed by artificial lights.
- The recording of this performance was later included on the 1981 compilation album Still.
- This first definite suicide attempt was an overdose of barbiturates. After he had consumed these tablets, and having written an initial suicide note, (which Rob Gretton later disallowed Deborah Curtis to actually view), he informed his wife what he had done, and she in turn phoned an ambulance. Curtis later stated that he had phoned his wife because he feared he had not consumed enough tablets for the attempt to be successful, and that he would be left with brain damage. Before this instance, he did once slash his wrists while drunk, although his bandmates remain unconvinced this attempt was serious.
- Deborah Curtis and her daughter had moved into her parents' home in early 1980.
- In this suicide note, Curtis recollected his life with Deborah and recounted his love for her. He also claimed that he could not be so cruel to Annik as to inform her he did not wish to see her again even if his marriage depended upon it. By the time Curtis had finished writing this suicide note, he stated it was dawn and he could "hear the birds singing".
- Deborah Curtis wrote in her 1995 biography Touching from a Distance that Ian had carefully chosen the date of his suicide, stating: "I believe Ian chose his deadline. It was important for him to keep up the charade in front of the band in case they tried to dissuade him. The only reason he was no longer worried about the American trip was because he knew he wasn't going."
- In a 1987 interview given to Option, Stephen Morris was asked to comment on how he would describe Curtis to those who asked him just what he was like. In response, he replied: "An ordinary bloke just like you or me, liked a bit of a laugh, a bit of a joke."
- Due to union disputes, following Curtis's suicide the music video the band had recorded for "Love Will Tear Us Apart" was not aired on Top of the Pops.
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