May 18th marks the tragic anniversary of Ian Curtis’s suicide to celebrate his band’s genius we reprint a chapter from John Robb’s ‘North Will Rise Again – an oral history of Manchester Music’. Book is available from here.
‘Leaving the 20th century’” Joy Division
Out of the ashes of punk came the new sound.
In Manchester there were several local bands of various capabilities inspired by punk that were moving away quickly from the London punk scene’s rock n roll roots into something quite different – some called it post industrial, some called it post rock.
Rising like the post modernist architecture in Manchester’s seventies concrete cityscape these bands were throwing away the rule book with a lot more success than the architects had done in the city.
One of these bands was called Warsaw. They had met at the Sex Pistols gigs and formed as a punk band but were already moving in their own direction. Their frontman was a charismatic young Bowie/Doors/underground rock fanatic from Macclesfield called Ian Curtis and his dark worldview and love of Iggy and the Doors and arthouse literature was pushing his band into a different place.
Soon to be renamed Joy Division they would become perhaps the most influential band of the post-punk era.
Warsaw were terrible. They had a real attitude as well. They were quite aloof and they didn’t fit in with other bands in Manchester – they thought they were better than everyone else but they had nothing to back that up when they started.
I saw them at the Circus first gig supporting John Cooper Clarke, I though they were the Prefects! Then I thought I know that guy Ian Curtis from the they were so nervous you could tell they just wanted to get off the stage, you wouldn’t have known grasped where he would take it from that point, his voice was thin the band were just learning at this point.
The next big event for me would have been coming up to Manchester to see the first Pere Ubu (arguably another of the first post punk bands, except they formed in Cleveland USA in1975 so would seem to be a ”pre-punk-post punk band or more simple avante-garage as they termed themselves. Echoes of the band’s atmospheric brooding rock could be heard in many post-punk British bands) date in the UK. I remember seeing members of Joy Division there and when I eventually heard Joy Division I thought maybe if they didn’t get the idea of the high bass sound from Pere Ubu then Pere Ubu were very influential for them because Pere Ubu had a way of dealing with post industrial space and there were all these link ups between post industrial American cities and Manchester which then was a very post industrial city – which links up eventually to the Hacienda and all those rust belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland.
I saw Joy Division loads of times and I thought they were fantastic. I appreciated something very special was happening. I saw them at the Leigh festival. I actually made the effort to see Joy Division.
Their best gig was Leigh Rock Festival in 1979, most of their gigs were great actually – the Free Trade Hall one supporting John Cooper Clarke with Ian going mental was absolutely unbelievable.
Leigh was great. It was outdoors and a big space, they were getting better and better. The thing about Ian that no one ever talks about is that most great pop performers have stage craft which means your always pacing yourself, holding, giving and stepping back and stepping forward- watch someone like David Bowie, whose a consummate performer. He knows how to pace his set , it’s not calculated, he knows stagecraft and he’s brilliant at it. Ian had no stage craft! He would come on and go ”Ëwaaagh – and that would be it and keep that same level of intensity, which is very hard to do. And he totally opened himself up which is a very, very hard thing to do in a rock club and is actually very dangerous. I always thought that was part of his problem ultimately- Ian was too open and he gave too much in his performance.
The first time I met Ian Curtis I think was at the Sex Pistols concert at the Electric Circus. It was the third time that the Sex Pistols had played in Manchester in 1976. You couldn’t miss him really; he had ”ËHate’ written on his back in big white letters. There were so few people around at the time on the scene and you would see them all the time at the same gigs like the Eater concert or at the gigs at the Squat.
You’d go over and say ”hello’ to anyone because you had something in common with them – like having spiked hair and pants all ripped up. It was quite easy to strike up friendships at the time.
When you meet someone the only thing you talked about was your band. Ian told us about his band and me and Barney told him about our band. He had a drummer and a guitarist, Bernard and I had a bass and a guitar and there was talk of joining together but punk bands in those days didn’t have 2 guitarists. It wasn’t allowed! It wasn’t in the rules (laughs).
So we couldn’t join together at first but when his guitar player left he joined Bernard and I as a three piece and then we went looking for a drummer.
Sumner was fired by the anti star vibe of the Sex Pistols and felt that the band had “destroyed the myth of being a pop star, of a musician being some kind of god that you had to worship.” Along with Peter Hook they had the core of a band adding fellow traveler Terry Mason on drums
I suppose that the perfect situation would have been that we (me, Hooky, and Barney) actually noticed Ian at the Lesser Free Trade Hall Pistols gig, but that’s the bollocks that you’d expect on Joy Division/New Order fan sites. We actually would have seen the ‘two Ians’ (Ian C and Iain Grey) in the months following the initial outbreak of punk at the gigs round town including the Electric Circus – and by the time of the two dates on the ”Anarchy’ tour that December certainly we would have been on nodding and grunting terms with Ian Curtis if not talking, our earliest conversations would have been about the difficulties in finding drummers which is where I came in.
In November 1976 at a Buzzcocks/Chelsea gig I was promoting I met Ian Curtis. I got talking to him. He seemed very interested in the emerging punk phenomenon, he said that he had been out to the Mont de Marson punk festival for his summer holiday where The Damned had played with a load of pub bands in the south of France, it was not quite what he was expecting, it was not where his interests were. He was quite disappointed by it. He was more interested in the sources from where that music was coming from more than the music itself. He seemed very, very interested in music.
He was just like us. He was bonkers. Mind you he was lot nicer than me and Bernard (laughs). Me and Bernard were a lot more street wise than Ian was.
He was much more educated and middle class, me and Bernard were more rough and ready, more working class. Ian was more shy and quiet but he could be as wild as anybody especially when he had had a drink, he could be a maniac like everybody else! He was very eager to please, he just wanted to make everybody happy (laughs), which is not a bad thing really.
As the two Ians had been there from that start of punk in Manchester we saw them as part of the initial wave like ourselves, the Ians both dressed very similar – both wearing donkey jackets to gigs and to the locals of Collyhurst, dressing like normal people- albeit with narrower trousers. Both Ians were quite shy, but once a band got on stage that’s when Ian C came into his own – he was all over the show.
Ian was very bright and a social chameleon, he could reflect on any situation with anyone. I think it’s this ability that has everyone having their own personal Ian. Along with this bright personality was the way that Ian would become very animated, sometimes wildly, over minor issues.
I got chatting to him gradually over the next few months. He and his mates had formed a group by then. He was quite driven to do something. It was a time when people would just form a band and then work out what they were going to do with it. When I used to go and see them rehearse in the early days it was at a pub by Weaste bus depot. I would chat and have a drink and when they seemed ready to play I put them on at another self-promoted gig on May 29th 1977 with the Buzzcocks and Penetration. They were billed as the Stiff Kittens- we tried to foist the name on them and they didn’t like it! They went on stage and said ”We are Warsaw’. (the name was probably from the recently David Bowie ”Low’ album track ”Warszawa’ and a big favourite with Ian Curtis)
Ian Curtis was smart, intense, and intelligent and had a certain drive that was little inarticulate at first. He had a spark about him. He came more from the Iggy and The Stooges side of things. That sort of thing. Simple existentialism.
I have a photograph that I’ve labelled ‘Stiff Kittens’ which shows Ian Curtis talking to John the Postman at The Electric Circus.
Ian finished me and Bernard’s musical education. Ian was into the Doors, which we had never heard of somehow. I was into John Cale but not the Velvet Underground, which was pretty weird. Ian was also into Kraftwerk. It’s funny really we would get compared to the Doors and we would say who are The Doors?
Ian introduced me to Chinese dim sum!
Mick Rossi (Slaughter And The Dogs)
We used to rehearse in the room next door to the early Joy Division at TJ Davidson’s in Manchester. (TJ Davidson’s was in a now demolished warehouse on Little Peter Street down the road was Hulme and round the corner would eventually be the Hacienda and the Boardwalk. The video for ”ËLove Will tear Us Apart’ was filmed there.) Everyone on the scene used to rehearse down there like the Buzzcocks. The first time I met Ian was down there it was when they were called Warsaw before they were called Joy Division.
Mark Standley (V2)
TJM’s which is what everyone called it even though it was also called TJ Davidsons. There were three directors of the company. Tony Davidson, Michael Something and Woody.
Michael was a tramp that Tony Davidson found asleep in his garden one day. He gave him the job of looking after the rehearsal studio. He lived there in the basement. With his Alsatian dog!
The Buzzcocks were downstairs, Joy Division above us. Hucknall across the way and loads of others. There was a place called ‘Brenda’s Cafe’ on the corner. On any day you could go in and there would be Buzzcocks on one corner taking ages over a cup of tea, us in another in full Glam gear sharing some toast. This used to annoy Brenda, as she could not fit in the people who bought proper meals and kept her cafe going.
The band I was in now was White Dice and we rehearsed underneath Joy Division in TJ Davidson’s that’s were the scene was.
All the rooms were grimy and cold. You could hardly play because your hands were frozen. After a while, we realised that an old cooker in the corner still worked. So suddenly we had the only room with any heating. I think this might have been the reason that one day in 79, we were asked to let Joy Division use our room to film a video. We were given £10 and asked to go to the pub. We were a bit disgruntled, but didn’t mind the free drink! That is the famous ‘Love will tear us apart’ video in our room.
There was some rivalry between us and Joy Division. They supported us a couple of times, but we always went to see them live.
Then you couldn’t find practise spaces and TJ Davidson’s rehearsal rooms was a bit rough- the health and safety inspectors used come down all the time.
All the benches were covered by nasty fibre glass which would stick in you. I had to sleep in the rehearsal room a couple of times because the landlord was going to nick our stuff because we couldn’t pay the rent. Luckily for me that’s how devoted I was!
I remember playing with an early Warsaw gig at an all-day event The Collective organised at The Mayflower in Gorton, A Wart Hog’s Picnic featuring ourselves, The Fall and Warsaw and several other bands. We all had to share the dressing room so it was a tight fit, with the various bands staking their claim to corner spots. I’d seen Ian Curtis up close quite a few times before though I never spoke to him, Barney always seemed the most friendly. But I do remember his pale complexion, watery blue eyes, his intense gaze before a gig, an air of wiry concentration about him. Onstage I didn’t think much of Warsaw, they sounded as chaotic and raw as the rest of us. However, Ian WAS mesmerising to watch even then, jerking and flailing his arms like a demon possessed, like a man out of place, drowning and waving, in the smoke-filled air. Course it’s easy to see with hindsight, that he was both expressive of a generation and cursed with a dystopian introspection. I don’t think many people knew he was epileptic at the time. They probably thought it was part of the show, a larger-than-life projection.
Larry Cassidy (Section 25)
Me and Paul Wiggin and Vin went to Eric’s in Liverpool for a Joy Division matinee gig (July 15th 1978) . We often did this, we preferred it to going in the evening. We thought Joy Division were out of the Salvation Army or something, then when they came on just three of them and started with ”ËNo Love Lost’ – after the long intro Ian came out and started to sing. I was completely mesmerised and so was Paul and Vin. At that time we promoted gigs in Blackpool. We hired the Imperial Hotel Ballroom from around lunchtime to 11pm (July 27th 1979) and we put 4 bands on – Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark who had just released ”ËElectricity’ on Factory, Glass Torpedoes and Final Solution and ourselves. All the bands got £30 and we opened early to let the kids come in. In the evening it was more of an adult do. We printed tickets, Joy Division played third on the bill after OMD then Final Solution with Duncan Disorderly and Fozzie, just the two of them doing weird keyboard stuff. In the dressing room I met Rob Gretton. He seemed to like what we were doing and said he would get us some work supporting Joy Division.
I always found them pretty friendly pretty and down to earth. I never got the unapproachable vibe. I was part of the Factory family even then I knew that they could be difficult particularity with journalists, Rob was crucial he was the fifth JD.
Everything seemed to move very fast from Warsaw to Joy Division. It was so intense all that period of time that it escapes me.
I got a Warsaw live tape that I was listening to and six months later a Joy Division live tape and we were completely different. The songs had changed. It was unbelievable. I was there and I don’t know how it happened. I can listen to the two tapes and go ”Jesus! That’s unbelievable!’ from ‘Leaders Of Men’ to having the first Joy Division album done in six months. Unbelievable!
I remember playing the Mayflower. It was the first time we played ”ËTransmission’ which as a piece of music is so simple but it was so effective and the crowd just stopped dancing and stood there stunned and stopped to watch. The hairs on back of your neck just go up. I thought ”Ëfucking hell we got something here!’ It was really a weird moment. We knew we were getting good at that point. It was an amazing moment. One minute there is no-one there then the next the gigs are full and we were playing the same stuff!
When we started off Joy Division we did not feel like we were part of the Manchester scene. There was Buzzcocks, Magazine, The Drones and Slaughter And The Dogs and all that lot- the Manchester music mafia and then there was them oiks Joy Division.
Eventually me and Ian harangued the Buzzcocks a couple of times. Richard Boon was the manager and we spoke to him and they eventually got us on that tour in 1978. That was one of the big steps up the ladder for us. They were just on the other side of their peak. Before that we thought maybe we should jack it in but decided to write some songs instead and came up with the album..
I had a lot of problems in my youth. I had a lot of very heavy illness in my family. I was brought up by my grandparents, everyone was ill, and people started dying in my family. It was a horrible period for me in my teens because everyone was dying. Basically I was a bit freaked out in my head. My contribution to the band was heavy because of this.
My first impression was that they needed to get cleaner (laughs). Their clothes were a bit smelly. Ian always had this coat on- like the sort of coat that bus conductors in Manchester would wear and they had suits on that were all shiny from years of ironing- really beat up old looking clothes! As a person Ian was very nice but a bit introverted. He was always sat there observing from a distance.
But it’s always the quiet ones innit! He said very little but there was always something going on in his head. When people like Ian said something it was always worth listening to. But when he was onstage that was when he really came alive with all that whirling around.
He was quiet and he was shy but when he would go on stage and go like the bleeding clappers! Which was shocking and inspiring at the same time, when you were playing behind him you thought this is fucking top!
I saw them play quite a few times. There would be very few people at their gigs at first. Even though their music sounded very grey in terms of feeling there was always something going on.
We all got on quite well. Mind you it isn’t long in a band before all the back biting starts! It always does! But it never got serious. Steve was very quiet and shy as well, Ian was quiet, me and Bernard had a lot of scope really! The best thing Rob Gretton did was to tell us to shut up in interviews because we were a pair of thick bastards! (laughs), he reckoned it was better to say nothing than have me and Bernard talk- most of Joy Division allure came form Rob Gretton’s foresight.
We used to rehearse on Sunday in Salford and Steve because he was the only one who could drive would drive us into Manchester – on the way we had fun with Steve, when we pulled up at traffic lights if there was any girls there we would shout out of the windows, ”hey show us your tits! for me and the driver!’ and he would cringe, ”c’mon love how much? the driver with black hair wants to know!’.
We were infantile, fucking idiots. We made this really serious fucking music and then we were quite infantile in behaviour which made life quite interesting.
Bob Dickinson (journalist)
Back at Rafters in 1978 I DJ’d the night Joy Division played the Stiff/Chiswick challenge, when they famously went on late after backstage ructions with the Negatives. At first I thought they were some kind of short-haired heavy metal band because they were wearing leather boots and jackets. But it soon became obvious they were not a metal act, or a pub-rock act like the rest of the bands that had previously played. They were just really intense, and Rob Gretton, whom I was talking to afterwards, was completely blown away by them. He stood there amid all the broken glass and cigarette ends after the crowd had gone home and just ranted on about how he was going to manage them and they were going to change the world.
The first time I ever saw Ian Curtis he came up to me at Rafters (One of the next wave of post punk Manchester venues with gigs initially promoted by Rob Gretton) and said ”fuck you. You’re the bastard off the TV, you cunt.’ I asked him why he said that and he said it was because I had never put them on the telly. He was really nasty, really confrontational. And this was when they were a completely unknown band. It worked. I put them on pretty soon afterwards. I never saw him like that again in the 3/4 years that I knew him, he was this thoughtful schoolboy, an emotionally quite deep thoughtful schoolboy.
The first feature I did was Joy Division and they were hopeless it was just before they met Hannett and he made them into something amazing they were sort of half there, they were doing this little tour they needed publicity they had one live review by then we just did I went to pub with them that was first feature I did with them it was Hooky pretending to be a Nazi and miserable and Ian being really lovely and interesting. They were thrilled by it when they read it amazing it was a dodgy piece though!
I thought Ian Curtis only stood out because he was the singer, singers always stand out they? You don’t look at the others. I didn’t see him with a superstar quality like Tony did. Tony had a strong first impression of Ian that night! He thought he was weird especially after their ”Ëconversation’. I don’t recall the moment he went up to Tony and shouted at him. Maybe Tony exaggerates that story! Tony is hugely cinematic! Ian was very gutsy though and he had said something to Tony.
Generally though Ian was shy. When he met Annik later on I got to know him a lot better. He was a really nice, honourable and humble person. He would have retained his humility if he had survived and become famous. Ian would have remembered who gave them the leg up to start with, it was my money as much as Tony’s that started them off in the first place and Ian remembered that.
Mick Middles said Ian would never have jumped the queue for a gig even when he was famous. He never had that sort of ego. I’m not sure if he could have gone on with the band even if he hadn’t died. He couldn’t go on with the epilepsy, He didn’t have the character of a superstar, and everyone except Tony said so. He had a lot of conversations with Genesis P. Orridge they were talking about doing something together, something weird and obscure.
”Unknown Pleasures’ and the great leap forward.
Signing to Factory, it placed them in the middle of a creative team who were waiting for the catalytic spark, which the band would provide.
There was a major and understandable change in Ian following his major seizure following the first Hope and Anchor gig.
Most of time Ian was alright just odd moments when he would have a bit of a rant and a bit of a rave- everyone loses their temper in their own way. He was the most polite person, very, very interesting to talk to- very opinionated but not in a negative way, not judgemental- he didn’t go round putting people down he was pretty positive. I guess the illness took over. Things change. Its very well known that he had epilepsy.
He could be babyish, arsey…all day on the way down to London to the Hope and Anchor I had never seen him like that. I remember being very ill and not wanting to play the gig. I didn’t want to go down there and play to 15 people and it was shit. I was really ill, so I was really shivering in back of car in my sleeping bag. Ian was in a very bad mood. The gig was very bad. I had the worst flu ever and was sat under my sleeping bag on the way back. We were driving back in Stephen’s car somewhere near Luton and he grabs my sleeping bag off me. I said ”Ëdon’t be fucking stupid!’ and he grabbed it again and just covered himself with it growling. I yanked it back and he started punching out, he punched Stephen whilst he was driving. We thought ”Ëoh there’s something wrong’ and we shouted ”Ëpull up Stephen, pull up!’ Stephen was pretty upset because he had hit him. Me and Hooky and Rob got out of the car on the hard shoulder and grabbed Ian and realised he was having a fit. I pinned one arm down, Hooky another and Rob his legs. Stephen went inside his pockets and got his cigarettes off him and had one (laughs). When he calmed down we drove really fast to the nearest hospital and they said he was ill and should see a doctor.
Ian knew only too well what epilepsy was about. Ian seemed ashamed of his condition, and I got the impression he thought that he was letting the rest of us down somehow. As Ian’s diagnosis and subsequent medication moved forward Ian moved inwards to himself, and some days it seemed like he was just going through the motions when dealing with the outside world. Poor sod, the drink, drugs, and women that most boys from bands get access to were now for others not him. Ian’s concerns were insuring that he stuck to his prescribed drugs. It wasn’t even as if any major money was rolling in to compensate either!
He was ill early on, the dates always escape me. He was ill quite quickly from when we started. He was his own worst enemy. How can you tell the lead singer of a shit hot band to go to bed early and not to drink? He rebelled against it, as soon as the doctors told him to take it easy he rebelled against them and then he wouldn’t let us tell him either. The more we told him the more he went for it and the more he turned into Iggy Pop on stage! His idol was Iggy Pop but Iggy was not epileptic! If we knew then what we knew know it would be so different but unfortunately we didn’t.
Well he did grow more withdrawn; he didn’t relish the attention he was getting. Part of him wanted it but part of him was not comfortable with the expectations being draped over him, he didn’t ask for that.
I had some idea do some pictures around Princess Parkway the road out of Manchester in Hulme because that’s the road that bands take to get rich and famous and get out of town. We were stood on that bridge over the Parkway. They had gone to the middle of the bridge and I was loading the camera waiting for people crossing the bridge to go past so that we had the bridge to ourselves. The band were so far away and it looked so bleak that I thought I can’t see who they are. They are just part of the landscape. I took three shots- three frames of that and I thought ”Ëquite nice picture bit The NME won’t use them because you can’t recognise them! I did a close up shot of them on the bridge, there were no cars underneath because it was a Saturday afternoon and it had that sort of bleak east European feel. Its probably my best ever session. (It’s one of the best ever rock photo sessions- the snow covered bleakness of Hulme adding the band’s music and cementing them perfectly- it’s very rare that a band and photo can be so perfectly matched)
I moved to Manchester at about the same time as Morley moved down to London so Morley had been writing about Joy Division and then I was the person writing about Joy Division and Tony helped me to get a job knowing that I would be writing about Joy Division so it worked out for everybody.