When Ian Curtis, Joy Division's ill-starred singer, stepped off stage for the last time, 30 years ago next Sunday, he was a cult icon on the verge of mainstream success. When he killed himself, aged 23, two weeks later his place in the pantheon of rock music's dead, troubled stars was cemented. Since then scores of intense young men, from more than one generation, have immersed themselves in Curtis's bleak legacy.
To mark the anniversary of the singer's death, Peter Hook, the band's bass player, will play the debut album Unknown Pleasures live on 18 May, with his band The Light, at his new club FAC251 in Manchester. In a fitting tribute, two of the singers that will sing as Ian Curtis next month, originally stepped in for him when he was too ill to play three decades ago.
Speaking to The Independent on Sunday from his home in Manchester this weekend, Hook recalled the memories of his friend and band mate, 30 years later.
"One of the saddest things that I have to live with in my life is that I didn't have the experience or the nous to be able to deal with what Ian was going through. None of us did."
Plagued by depression and suffering from epileptic fits, Macclesfield-born Curtis cut an unsettled and shy public figure. However, his gloomy, baritone vocal coupled with the poetic imagery of death, alienation and urban decay in his lyrics made him a cult icon, echoing Jim Morrison and presaging Kurt Cobain in rock music's history of doomed rock stars.
"Ian had a lot more responsibility than the rest of us, he was the only one with a baby and he was the only one that was married," said 54-year-old Hook.
"He was in a different place as a human being. I can't be privy to what happened... in some ways you wished you could be because you get closure. You long for closure."
Despite only releasing two albums – one prior to Curtis' death and one posthumously – and only being a minor cult success at the time, the legacy of Joy Division and of the group's enigmatic lead singer has mushroomed in the last three decades, resulting in countless documentaries, films, books and imitation bands. The influence can be seen in groups such as U2, Editors, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand and Radiohead to name but a few.
From Joy Division's ashes rose the electronic sound of New Order, formed by the remaining Joy Division members, and Acid House in the 80s, flowering into the Hacienda nightclub and "Madchester" sound of the early Nineties. From this crucible, too, came Oasis and other Britpop bands.
Such is the sacred status of the band, that Hook, despite being a founding member, has been criticised for putting on the show without the other two members of the band.
He hasn't spoken to Bernard Sumner or Stephen Morris, with whom he formed New Order in the immediate aftermath of Curtis's death – since they acrimoniously split up in 2007. "It becomes a very difficult thing," he said, "because I'm not in a relationship with Bernard and Steve – that's a sad fact of life. So I'm thinking 'am I not supposed to do anything?'"
His last memory of Curtis remains a happy one, despite painful regrets about the unfulfilled promise of the band: "The last memory I have of him is on the Friday night and we'd finished practicing and I drove him to his house. We were dancing in the car with the very thought and excitement of going to America [for their first US tour]. We were banging the dashboard, screaming 'we're going to America!'" The next morning, Curtis was found hanged in his kitchen by his wife, Deborah.
And so the performance on the 18th will be, in part, a benefit for Mind, the mental health charity. "When you start looking at the statistics of male depression in young post-teenage males, it's very high and becoming more so," said Hook. "There is always a hint of 'ah shit....' in that you're angry with yourself that you couldn't solve the problems Ian had."
Ian Curtis remembered
"He'd made so many decisions by the age of 21 – he'd got married, had a daughter, was in a band, left his job"
Bernard Sumner, Joy Division, New Order
"The Joy Division film [proved] it is better to see one charismatic [show] than 20 lethargic"
Paul Gambaccini, Radio and TV presenter
"Joy Division were imposing, [but] under the weirdness regular lads"
Johnny Marr, Guitarist, The Smiths
"Curtis's music is like the sound of machinery with words spoken over the top"
Ben Ayres, Rough Trade Records
"He was so enigmatic. It's all to do with the unique romance of a tortured artist"
Graham Coxon, Guitarist, BlurReuse content