When singer Ian Curtis hung himself in May 1980, two days before Joy Division's first North American tour, he abruptly cut short the career of one of the most exciting bands of the era. But despite making only two albums (plus the 1981 odds-and-ends set Still), the group, and its fusion of punk aggression and rudimentary electronic grooves with Curtis' angst-ridden vocals and morose lyrics, has continued to exert an influence as powerful as the Stooges or the Velvet Underground. Artists as diverse as Grace Jones, the Swans, and (unfortunately) Paul Young have covered their songs, and echoes of these Manchester pioneers can still be heard in emerging acts like the Faint.
For years, the surviving members—guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and drummer Stephen Morris—who subsequently morphed into New Order (with the addition of Gillian Gilbert), were notoriously tight-lipped on the subject. Recently, the group has started discussing Curtis in interviews; when I sat down with them earlier this summer to talk about New Order's forthcoming Get Ready, they were downright effusive about their departed colleague.
New Order even included two Joy Division songs ("Love Will Tear Us Apart" and "Atmosphere") in its recent Area: One sets, ending a boycott of nearly two decades. Nowadays, Sumner isn't entirely sure why they stopped performing Joy Division numbers in the first place, especially since New Order was struggling to write fresh material back then. "At the time, we said we dropped them because if one member ever left the band, it wouldn't be right to play any," he recalls. "But maybe it was just too sad. It was a severe thing to do. It was like you had a hard task and made it even harder. . . ."
"Which is a very New Order thing to do," says Morris.
The past year has seen Joy Division feted with a pair of concert albums, and now Rhino has released Heart and Soul, a 4-CD set (originally issued overseas in 1998) featuring every studio recording the group made, plus a live disc. Peter Hook says the band is flattered but nonplussed by the attention. "Sometimes it surprises you how much people want to do [reissues]," he says. "If it came down to us, we'd say, 'People have already had [the material] in one form or another.'"
So why the continued interest? Lots of young bands have had a member die tragically, but nobody's exactly racing to produce a Blind Melon tribute. "With Joy Division, there's something behind the myth, because Joy Division were really good," insists Sumner. "Ian was the real thing, like Kurt Cobain was the real thing. He lived and breathed it 100 percent."
It was Curtis, they claim, who pushed Hook's bass lines to the front of the mix, a trademark of both Joy Division and New Order. "He was so intent on making us the best band," says Hook. "He'd stand there in practice and listen to us three play, and go, 'Oh, that was fucking brilliant—you play that. . . .' He'd orchestrate the group." After his death, they'd rehearse for hours with no discernable sense of how to develop a song.
But despite Curtis' uncontrolled energy on stage and eventual suicide, Sumner insists most people have a wildly inaccurate impression of him. His mood swings in later life ("One minute he was laughing, the next he was crying") were aggravated by medication he took for epilepsy. "He wasn't a depressed sort," swears the guitarist. "I know there's a lot of photographs that make him look like that, but those were taken just two weeks before he died. Before that, he was just like we are now . . . but more polite."
"You wouldn't have thought butter would melt in his mouth," adds Hook. "But have a few drinks, go on stage, and he'd just fucking rip the joint apart."
Among its many treasures, Heart and Soul includes all four tracks from the group's first 7-inch EP, An Ideal for Living. The fidelity is a lot better now than the first time around, as Sumner learned the hard way back in 1978. "I was in a club, in Manchester. We'd got back the single, and I thought, 'I'm gonna get the DJ to play it.'" Nobody could hear a thing. The band hadn't realized that cramming eight minutes of music on sides intended to hold three would have drastic sonic consequences. "It was dead quiet," he recalls, shaking his head.
"It would have been nice to have lasted a little bit longer with Joy Division and made another couple of albums, because it seemed like we were just about to explode," says Sumner. "We were convinced, 100 percent, that we'd found the path, found the sound, and the rest was just procedure. When Ian died, all that was blown out of the water."