When Ian Curtis came home to Macclesfield

Since his death in 1980, the Joy Division singer has acquired legendary status. Now the town where he grew up is to honour its most famous son.

Jon Savage
Saturday 22 May 2010 00:00

It's 16 October 1979. Joy Division are playing their first-ever European show at an arts festival held in Plan K, a former sugar refinery situated at the Rue de Manchester in Brussels. The event would only exist in the past tense had it not been for a young Belgian, called Michel Isbecque, who took along a VHS recorder and filmed the whole concert.

Fragments have leaked out over the years but an upgrade of the whole show has recently come to light. And it is a revelation. The picture quality is grainy and the sound frazzled, but the group is at its brief peak. Live, Joy Division were passionate, focussed, brutally visceral: "I wanted just to lop people's heads off," bassist Peter Hook has said, "like Iggy Pop live."

The murky videotape captures a rare intensity that still burns, three decades later. You can hardly see drummer Stephen Morris, but on one song at least – "Insight" – his syndrums are all you can hear. Guitarist Bernard Sumner and bassist Peter Hook stand, as they always did, either side of the stage. They are the solid phalanx that gives Ian Curtis the room and the support to take centre stage, to calibrate to the room, and then launch himself into the void.

The second song is "Wilderness", from the album Unknown Pleasures. Curtis begins with his characteristic "dead fly" dance partially derived from northern soul moves. Although he is loose-limbed, he holds himself erect and stiff. The effect, whether intentional or not, is paradoxical: he is seeking escape, if not transcendence, yet his whole body language indicates that this is impossible.

The lyric speaks of martyrs, of time travel, of "all knowledge destroyed". Serious stuff for a 22-year-old, you might think – and potentially ludicrous – but Curtis is totally in the instant. Transported by amplified electricity, he enacts his visionary words with lightning fast, jack-knife movements. As the camera closes in, he shows an open face, with watery eyes, that is all emotion.

Ian Curtis died in the early hours of 18 May 1980. At that time, Joy Division were an up-and-coming group based in a still provincial city, Manchester, recording for a small independent label. Since then, their status has risen and risen to the point that they are now enshrined among the all-time rock greats: the subject of three feature films, extensive reissues, and an ever-expanding fan base.

You will be able to see the Plan K footage and much more at the Unknown Pleasures Festival in Macclesfield this July. As well as film showings and community-based events, there will be an exhibit – including contributions from all the group – that will feature artefacts loaned by the group's fans as well as unseen items from their brief career.

It is the first time that Macclesfield has honoured its most famous son. The town is not noted as a cultural centre, as evidenced by the recent announcement that its primary historical asset, the Silk Museum, is having its funding cut. It seems strange that an event that will bring hundreds of people into the town is not receiving unqualified support, but that is the way of the place.

This ambivalence was reciprocated by the young musicians who would form half of Joy Division (Sumner and Hook are from Salford). "Ian felt the same way about Macclesfield as everyone else in the late 1970s," says fellow resident Stephen Morris. "They couldn't wait to leave the place. Nobody got further than Manchester and then they all came back again. We all must be masochists."

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Morris still lives nearby. He adds with dry humour: "It's bad now, but when Joy Division were starting there was nothing. No bands in pubs, and you got thrown out for putting the wrong record on the jukebox. It was a shithole back then but it gave you something to kick against, to rise above and transcend."

Despite its mainline train station, Macclesfield still feels somewhat isolated. Nestling in a fold of the Pennines which loom steeply to the east, it seems much further away from Manchester than it is (about 20 minutes by train). But with its industrial past – it was the centre of the UK's silk production – it is a good place to begin retelling the story of its most famous former resident.

All the articles, all the books, all the films, and all the exhibits surrounding Joy Division are perhaps a vain attempt to unravel a highly enigmatic young man. Ian Curtis kept his cards very close to his chest: neither his manager, Rob Gretton, nor his band mates, nor even his wife – Deborah Curtis – really knew what he was thinking and feeling.

It is perhaps this absence that resonates more than the brutal fact of his suicide. Joy Division conducted very few interviews. There is almost no first-hand data from Ian Curtis about why or how he wrote his lyrics – except for an early 1980 interview with the young musician Alan Hempsall, in which he talked about J G Ballard and William Burroughs. This has helped to secure their longevity: there is no code, no key, and so the puzzle endures.

Joy Division were active between 1977 and 1980. They formed in the wake of punk, inspired by the Sex Pistols, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop. At first they were called Stiff Kittens – under which name they supported Buzzcocks in May 1977 – and then Warsaw. Flyers and handbills show them playing at Manchester punk venues like the Squat and the Electric Circus.

Then comes the Factory – set up in spring 1978 by Tony Wilson, Alan Erasmus and Peter Saville – at the Russell Club in Hulme. The design changes from scrappy punk-style graphics to Saville's clean, beautifully worked and coloured, still-iconic images. The group are now called Joy Division, and with the name change comes focus: rehearsal, honing and refining, learning and refining.

Within six months Joy Division comprise one side of the first Factory record, the Factory sample. Peter Saville becomes the full-time designer for their records: often using found imagery supplied by the group themselves, his elegant sleeves are in contrast with the wide variety of montaged and/or Xeroxed punk and post-punk designs on the group's concert posters and handbills.

The group's story is now familiar: how they teamed up with producer Martin Hannett for successful first album Unknown Pleasures and followed it up with a series of storming live concerts and a mesmerising TV performance on BBC2's Something Else – where they performed blistering versions of "She's Lost Control" and "Transmission" to a stunned studio audience.

Turning full-time musicians in autumn 1979, Joy Division were unhampered by the usual music industry demands: they could write and record at their own pace. The next months saw a furious burst of creativity, with constant live shows interspersed by recording sessions that produced almost an album's worth of material – the phantom record between Unknown Pleasures and Closer.

This was accompanied by increased personal turmoil. Ian Curtis suffered from epilepsy, and his attacks got worse as the pressure to perform and write increased: the lifestyle of a rock group was totally incompatible with his illness. As Deborah Curtis noted in her memoir, Touching From A Distance, his stage movements began to resemble the thrashing of a full-blown grand mal.

At the same time, he was beginning to leave Macclesfield – where he lived with Deborah and his new-born baby Natalie. He had begun an affair with Belgian writer Annik Honore: the start of the love triangle explored – with complete black and white fidelity to Macclesfield's austere backdrops – by Anton Corbijn's compelling feature film Control.

With all this exposure reopening old wounds, many have chosen to keep their private correspondence out of the forthcoming exhibit, but there is one document that shows the turmoil that existed under the pliable surface that Curtis presented as his illness worsened. "He wouldn't say no to anyone," Morris sighs, "he wanted to keep everyone happy. Which you can't do."

While a January 1980 tour of Northern Europe passed without incident, the recording of the group's second album was marked by an ominous mood. Bernard Sumner has recalled a conversation with Ian where the singer talked of being sucked down by a whirlpool. Whereas before he had found lyrics difficult to complete, during Closer Curtis found them resolving with a curious finality.

In a handwritten note sent to Rob Gretton that late winter, Curtis castigates himself and the masterpiece the group had just recorded. It is a strange mixture of self-denigration and vaunting confidence. It is, in fact, much as you'd expect from an intelligent, confused 23-year-old. Given his mental state, he would have as likely reversed his opinion a day later.

"Judged purely on my own terms," Curtis begins, "and not to be interpreted as an opinion or reflection of mass media or public taste, but a criticism of my own esoteric and elitist mind of which the mysteries of life are very few and beside which the grace of god has deemed to indicate in a vision the true nature of all things ... (I) decree that this lp is a disaster. IK Curtis."

Because he was unwilling and/or unable to communicate his true wishes, Curtis was given no relief from the demands placed upon a group about to break through to mass success. The artefacts tell the story: shows at larger venues, like London's Lyceum; an in-creased velocity of record releases; the arrangements and tour schedule for the group's first American visit in May 1980.

Curtis' death occurred just as he and the group were about to find their escape – from England's North West, from Manchester, Salford and Macclesfield. "He lived in Barton Street with Debbie," says Stephen Morris. "It was a very nice house. But he was leaving the country. He was off to the romantic horizons of Europe. But maybe he wasn't. He just couldn't make his mind up."

Perhaps it is this impossibility of escape – enacted in Ian Curtis' lyrics and stage gestures – that keep successive generations of fans coming back to this spirited, compelling performer. It is part of the human condition to want to escape our limitations, but how many of us ever can? So the singer returns to Macclesfield, where he lived, and where he died – 30 years ago.

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