An insight into one of the best bands of the late seventies read a one to one interview with lead singer Ian Curtis…
The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Hendrix, Iggy Pop, The Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Joy Division. The most influential artists the world of rock ‘n’ roll has ever produced. And their influence carries on to this day. Where, for example, would The Jesus and Mary Chain be without the Velvet Underground? Where would The Black Crows be without The Rolling Stones? Where would Suede be without David Bowie? And where would any of us be without Joy Division?
As the 1970’s petered out amid dreadful New Wave atrocities and the 1980’s announced itself with Insights legions of hapless New Romantics, the often brilliant and ultimately tragic Joy Division gave contemporary music its most intense, most claustrophobic avenue since, well, The Velvet Underground. At the heart of their consuming passion lay Ian Curtis, a man bedevilled by epilepsy and paranoia, yet the finest songwriter of his and possibly any other generation, his intensity such that shrouds of accompanying depression and desolation eventually claimed his life.
Some observers would have us believe he took his life to cleanse our souls, as if some latter day swathe of Christian heroism had engulfed his mind in a blaze of charitable glory. Which of course is nonsense? Whatever the precise circumstances of his death, Ian Curtis committed suicide not for us but for himself, to rid his psyche of the demons, fears and ugliness and betrayal that haunted him. Exactly those things that possessed his music so violently and vividly.
Rather than mourning his demise or inventing fanciful notions of his martyrdom, we should be thankful that this awkward, intelligent, confused and passionate man should be allowed to briefly touch our lives, to leave behind three LPs – ‘Unknown Pleasures’, ‘Closer’ and ‘Still’, that remain as potent and powerful, as brilliant and beautiful as they did almost 15 years ago.
The source of the following interviews is itself shrouded in some kind of mystery. They first appeared in ‘Tongue in Cheek’ magazine in the mid 1980s having been supplied by Jez Willis, then in Surfin’ Dave & The Absent Legends, later to form MDMA, and now the driving force behind Utah Saints. As far as anyone can be aware, Jez himself did not conduct the interviews, the first of which can be roughly dated back to late 1979, but somehow they found their way into the vaults of his tape collection.
The opening interview sees Ian Curtis tracing Joy Division’s history from their inception to shortly after the release of ‘Unknown Pleasures’. The second sees Peter Hook discussing the legacy of Joy Division and the onset of New Order, some later time after Ian Curtis’ death.
The scene: A noisy pub somewhere in the heart of Manchester, Ian Curtis recalling how and why Joy Division first began.
“At first we just got caught up in punk, like everyone else. When we started we were just glad to be playing after seeing the Sex Pistols. It was about the time of the Anarchy tour that we got together and it took a hell of a long time for us to get everything sorted out. None of us could play, well, Barney could play a bit, but Hooky had never touched a bass in his life. We got a couple of drummers and finally we were ready to play, but as it rolled on a bit we could see that we needed something more.”
“These days you get groups going on about death and destruction, y’know, but there’s other things besides that feeling. I don’t believe all this that other people have been saying about us, y’know, ‘death and doom’, we’re not, none of the songs are. Death and doom is too much of a heavy metal thing.” – Ian Cirtis
“From when I was about 16 nothing really appealed to me. I listened to stuff like the Rolling Stones but then I got two Velvet Underground LPs and there seemed to be something very real about them and the stuff they were doing. The lyrics were something you could relate to, well, I could relate to. It’s just what I was going through at the time y’know. I remember seeing Lou Reed being interviewed on TV and he wasn’t the normal figure in a group, there was something more that seemed to carry on into the way you lived your life, instead of just singing about something, you can actually show it as well if cheap jerseys you’re totally involved in what you’re doing.”
“These days you get groups going on about death and destruction, y’know, but there’s other things besides that feeling. I don’t believe all this that other people have been saying about us, y’know, ‘death and doom’, we’re not, and none of the songs are. Death and doom is too much of a heavy metal thing.”
“I think some of the things come out of confusion because I don’t really know what I want. An example of that feeling is when I was at school, I spent one month in the sixth de form, I had a lot of trouble at school. There were three of us, three mates cheap jerseys who always used to stick together, and we all had this idea of going down to London. I don’t know what we were gonna do down there, but it seemed a good idea to go down to London and get a good job. Then wholesale jerseys one of them left, I forget where he’s working now, then I left and the other lad stayed on. And when I left I got this great feeling of freedom, but a couple of months later I was panicking. ‘What am I gonna do?’ y’know, ‘What can I do?’, it was awful. It’s only now that I feel more or less settled, I think it’s because I’, doing what I want to do.”
Do you feel your isolation in Manchester is a help or a hindrance to the band?
“In our terms it has been quite a good thing because we haven’t been influenced by what’s going on elsewhere, we’re apart from Blogging everything and we developed in our own particular way in our own environment. At the time, when we started, there was only three or four groups of the New Wave type in Manchester, yet in London there seemed to be a lot more. I think in Manchester a lot of groups expanded and went there own different ways.”
Before you signed to Factory Records, did you have any ambitions to be signed by a major company?
“Yeah, when we started we did, because it’s everybody’s wild ambition to be the next Beatles or something like that, but the longer you keep at it, the less naïve you become and you realise there’s a bit more to it than that. I’m not really interested in record companies y’know, all those A&R men sniffing around the door. But we’ve changed a lot since we started, we couldn’t really play to be honest, it was all very loose, a bit of a fun thing. It was about August 1977 I think when we really started getting our own particular znasz sound, our own particular way.”
There seems to be certain Velvet Underground or Kraftwerk influence in some of your music, is that what you’re consciously trying to do?
“No, I don’t agree with classifying anything, shoving things in little boxes. What we do is what we do; it’s four people playing the sort of music they want to play. You are influenced to an extent by everything you hear, I mean, absolutely everything has some sort of influence on you, and I listen to different sorts of music, you can’t pin down any specific thing. People keep saying we’re like the Doors, but Barney and Hooky haven’t even heard the Doors, so I can’t really see how they can say we’ve been influenced by them at all.”
With all the attention you’ve been getting in the press and with all these incredibly glowing reviews for ‘Unknown Pleasures’, how does it feel for you as a band to suddenly be the ones everybody’s looking at?
“To be honest, it doesn’t really affect us all because when we started we got very bad reviews, and then we got a few good ones mixed in with the bad ones. We know that not everyone in the country is gonna like us, we know that some people will, so it’s not gonna bother us.”
Sadly, this remains one of the last interviews with Ian before his tragic death.
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