The cult of Ian Curtis.
Anton Corbijn's eagerly-awaited biopic of Joy Division's lead singer opens at Cannes this week. It's just the latest example of the extraordinary fascination that's grown up around the short-lived star, says Andy Gill.
Published: 14 May 2007
This week, the photographer Anton Corbijn's film about the late Joy Division frontman, Control: The Ian Curtis Film, will be premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on the 27th anniversary of the singer's suicide.
Co-produced by his former label boss Tony Wilson and the singer's widow Deborah Curtis, with a screenplay based on her account of their life together, Touching From A Distance, it represents the most comprehensive attempt so far to provide some insight into the troubled life of a gifted young man who has become an icon for successive generations of fans.
Already the subject of several biographies and a bottomless well of internet sites, forums and message boards, this is the second time in recent years that Curtis and Joy Division have been featured in a movie - although this one is likely to be rather more sombre than Michael Winterbottom's Tony Wilson biopic, 24 Hour Party People, a light-hearted romp through two decades of the Manchester music scene.
In it, Curtis was a serious, somewhat scary presence, at odds with the otherwise genial, amused tone but this time, if Corbijn's distinctive monochrome rock photography is anything to go by (he created The Joshua Tree image for U2), the film is shot in stark black and white, in keeping with both the mood of the band's music, the sense of alienation in Curtis's lyrics and the bleak Northern backdrop of 1970s England, which in those pre-Playstation, pre-internet, pre-postmodern times still had the dour post-war tone of the kitchen-sink dramas of the 1960s. Indeed, in an earlier era, Ian Curtis would have been played by the young Tom Courtenay rather than Sam Riley, the newcomer who takes the role in Control.
In the immediate post-punk years, Joy Division were part of an emerging new-wave strain of music sometimes known as "industrial" rock, whose leading lights also included Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and the American band Pere Ubu.
They shared certain values, most notably an attitude that prized aesthetic over commercial success and a belief that their music should reflect the grim post-industrial wastelands in which it was created: just as The Beach Boys hymned California's sun 'n' surf culture in glorious, soaring harmonies, so did the industrial bands incorporate machine noise and discordancy into their dark, brooding pieces, as sonic signifiers of what Marxists claimed was the alienating effect of industrial culture.
They were among the earliest groups to employ primitive drum machines, which both anchored their sometimes abstract compositions to decisive, untiring rhythms, and - following Kraftwerk's lead - offered an implicit condemnation of the robotising effect of industrial labour.
Visually, they shunned colour to match the bleak tone of their environment and their attitude - although this was also partly a matter of economics.
"Peter Hook says he always thinks of Joy Division as a black and white band," says photographer Kevin Cummins, who photographed the band several times. "There are very few photographs of them, and they are all black and white, and the reason is that nobody published in colour back then. Why would we shoot in colour when it would cost us twice as much and nobody would use it?"
Likewise, the expensive, multicoloured light-shows favoured by the era's heavy metal, glam- and prog-rockers were replaced in the industrial bands' shows by stark white lighting, collaged black-and-white film backdrops, and sometimes strobe lights.
The latter could be a problem for Joy Division if lighting engineers ignored their instructions not to use them, triggering the epileptic seizures that increasingly afflicted Ian Curtis in his final months. The epilepsy doubtless contributed to his terminal depression, along with several other factors: worries about his troubled marriage; guilt over the affair he was conducting with a Belgian fan, Annik Honore; his growing burden of responsibilities as the band's lyricist and frontman; anxiety over whether he would be able to endure the band's first American tour, which was due to start the day after his body was found; and a more generalised pessimism that pervaded the dystopian worldview he shared with his favourite authors, William Burroughs and JG Ballard, whose books furnished the song-titles "Interzone" and "The Atrocity Exhibition".
He did his best to disguise his depression; on the few occasions I met him, he was cheerful, engaging and articulate, discussing literature and films with the eagerness of the autodidact but entirely free of intellectual snobbery and rock-star arrogance.
Onstage, however, he was a completely different creature, transformed into a staring, wide-eyed maniac, his arms windmilling wildly about as he slipped into a sort of trance-dance whose spasmodic twitching resembled his epileptic seizures. It was a riveting spectacle, quite unlike any other rock performer. At the side of Curtis's involuntary gyrations, the stage antics of even such extremist showmen as Iggy Pop and Lux Interior of The Cramps seemed like affected, calculated exercises. In his case, it really did seem as if he were possessed by demons, a spectacle wretched and compelling.
According to his former bandmates, even when not performing he could plunge without warning into rages that echoed that stage persona, and which would sometimes presage full-blown seizures. These days, such vertiginous mood-swings would perhaps be diagnosed as bi-polar disorder; but back in the 1970s, they were generally viewed as separate episodes of hyperactivity and melancholia, rather than a single syndrome.
Not that it would have made much difference in the case of someone dedicated to pursuing a stressful lifestyle which, doctors warned him, was inimical to controlling his seizures, which accordingly increased in frequency and severity.
As the American tour loomed, his condition deteriorated rapidly. Early in April, the band played two shows in one night at separate London venues, and Curtis suffered fits during both. Three days later, he attempted suicide, taking an overdose of barbiturates. He was taken to a psychiatric hospital, where his stomach was pumped. Unbelievably, he still tried to make the following night's show in Bury but was too ill to perform, and a riot broke out when punters objected violently to the use of a stand-in singer who had been brought along as cover.
Curtis sat backstage, head in hands, mortified by misplaced guilt. The burden of responsibility had never been as crushingly evident on him. Several subsequent shows were cancelled in preference to a repeat of that night's riot and, for the next few weeks, Curtis stayed with Tony Wilson, guitarist Bernard Sumner and finally his parents, to avoid having to return home to his wife, who was initiating divorce proceedings.
On Saturday 17 May 1980, he went back to their Macclesfield home, and after discussions with Deborah, asked her to stay that night at her parents' place. He watched Werner Herzog's film Stroszek, a glum tale of a German naif who moves to America and is destroyed by the experience: his eventual suicide occurs off-screen, while the world carries on regardless. Then he listened to Iggy Pop's The Idiot, before hanging himself in the kitchen.
Curtis's death sent shock-waves through his circle of friends, and through the wider music community. A few weeks later, the tragically beautiful "Love Will Tear Us Apart" became the first Joy Division song to reach the Top 20, partly propelled by the ghoulish romanticism that sudden death drapes around such records.
It's worth remembering that earlier performers as diverse as Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Reeves had all scored their most significant chart successes in the wake of their premature deaths. Just as drivers slow down to gaze at the carnage of road accidents, so too is the public's attention drawn by tragedy to celebrities in whom they had previously never displayed the slightest interest.
Joy Division's case, however, was different to those of Hendrix, Redding and Reeves, and to more recent instances, such as Tupac and especially Kurt Cobain, in that they were not yet celebrities, having only secured themselves a cult following by the time of Curtis's suicide.
Indeed, it's debatable whether they would ever have developed such a formidable reputation had that tragedy never occurred. A short while after his death, the band's second album Closer appeared, clad in a sombre sleeve which, designer Peter Saville later realised, resembled a tombstone. Musically, it was an even darker affair than their debut Unknown Pleasures, and its lyrics contained several intimations of Curtis's troubled state of mind, such as the lines "an abyss that laughs at creation" and "existence, well what does it matter?" from "Heart And Soul", and "this is a crisis I knew had to come/Destroying the balance I'd kept" from "Passover", which seems to hint at his coming suicide. In contrast to its predecessor, the album reached the Top 10.
Subsequent compilations helped keep the band's memory alive, whilst the bleak tone of their music and Curtis's worldview became the seed-corn of what would become known as Goth, a musical scene based around dark imaginings that has since become a lifestyle - particularly in America, where it provided a rallying-point for teens excluded from the hierarchy of "jocks" and their attendant cheerleaders.
As the years passed, the band's posthumous reputation expanded. A significant factor in cementing its mystique was James O'Barr's Goth comic-book The Crow, which was laced through with Joy Division references. When the actor Brandon Lee, son of the martial arts star Bruce Lee, was accidentally killed whilst starring in the film adaptation, that mystique expanded exponentially. Bands such as Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails (who had covered Joy Division's "Dead Souls" on the film soundtrack) became standard-bearers for a community of malcontents and outsiders, for whom Curtis became a tragic icon. As the band's producer Martin Hannett once said of the singer: "Ian Curtis was one of those channels for the gestalt, the only one I bumped into during that period: a lightning conductor." And his memory continues to attract those flashes of recognition today.
This process has been facilitated not just by the nature of his work, but by its paucity too: having such a slim catalogue of releases meant that Joy Division never reached the decomposition stage of their career. They never had to face the hurdle of that "difficult third album", so their reputation became frozen at its peak, providing a touchstone of tragic perfection for successive generations of dissatisfied young outsiders rebelling against a world of prefabricated pop-culture.
As with Jim Morrison and Scott Walker, Curtis's sombre baritone imparted a seriousness to the band's work that seemed to deliberately turn its back on pop's usual cheap thrills. That refusal to court popularity became a vital component of later youth movements such as grunge, a keystone of dissatisfaction that has itself become just as much a rock cliché as leather trousers and eyeliner.
"When a band gets frozen at a certain point like that, people can imagine whatever they want about them," says Kevin Cummins. "I get loads of messages, from the US especially, from people who are just obsessed with Joy Division, and they imagine Ian Curtis being 24 today, really. But who knows what might have happened? Ian might have been fronting an Oasis dad-rock type of band today."
That seems unlikely; although the prospect of a Joy Division-themed Yo Sushi! meal would have seemed just as unlikely a few years ago, yet today you can feast on the "Love Will Tear Us Apart" Salmon & Tuna Box. In the 21st century, everything is up for grabs, including legacies as seemingly uncommercial as Ian Curtis's. These days, Joy Division is just another brand, a development that would have nauseated him. Just the other day, the sportswear company New Balance announced they had commissioned two pairs of trainers themed around the band, one featuring the cover design of Unknown Pleasures, and the other bearing the Factory Records logo and the legend "One Of One Made In Macclesfield". How long before some enterprising toy manufacturer comes up with the Ian Curtis doll, complete with vocal soundbites and authentic twitching limbs (battery not included)? Don't bet against it.
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