Joy Division: “We didn’t know Ian Curtis was approaching his breaking point”

Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris on the making of Closer

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By the end of the Strawberry Studios session, however, the band were still unsatisfied with “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Soon after, they moved the operation down to London, settled into their new flats and, on Monday, March 17, began a formal three-week session for Closer at Britannia Row. “In the short time since Unknown Pleasures, they’d moved from buying out-of-hours time at Strawberry Studios to having a 24-hour lockout at Britannia Row,” says Terry Mason, Joy Division’s tour manager.

“Strawberry was pretty plush,” remembers Sumner, “but at Britannia Row, at lunchtime on the first day, the receptionist brought us tea and sandwiches. I had ham and tomato with a little bit of horseradish. We thought, ‘Fucking hell, we’ve made it now. I can get used to this.’ It was a pretty nice studio, the desk was kind of old-fashioned, but the sound was phenomenal.

The sounds of the speakers were a lot of the inspiration for the sonics on Closer, and also a big part of the sonics on ‘Blue Monday’, which we made in the same studio. The room sounded fantastic; I’d never heard bass like that before.”


Michael Johnson, the house engineer at Britannia Row, had been away in the States on The Wall tour with the studio’s owners, Pink Floyd. “When I came back,” he recalls, “I was assigned to this band I didn’t know anything about. It wasn’t that flash a studio, to be honest, it was kind of rough and ready then. The studio had gone from being Pink Floyd’s base to being a commercial studio, so at that point there wasn’t even a lounge for the artists. They used to use the reception area when the rest of the building had gone home. Ian would go upstairs to listen to a record-player in one of the offices, things like a Frank Sinatra record. He did his vocals in a few days; it didn’t take him very long. After that, we never really saw him again.”

Terry Mason claims that “the band started with the intention of working reasonable hours, but that seemed to go out of the window very quickly” – inevitable, perhaps, when they were working with someone like Hannett, who was also chainsmoking joints.

Hook: “Martin insisted that we work through the night, because he felt the vibes were better, a condition that Bernard caught off him after that. We were all moaning about it. Martin was a bastard when he felt it wasn’t going well. But on Closer, he was at his best. He introduced us to sequencers, which we used on the more dreamy tracks.”


Sumner: “We messed about with ambient noises on Unknown Pleasures, but I don’t think we had any keyboards then. For Closer, Martin brought a big ARP modular system in, which sounded great, but it’d take a day for him to get a bass drum sound on it, plugging cables in when he was stoned. He just had a very guess-what-I’m-thinking attitude. He liked his drugs, did Martin, and whatever mood he was in depended on how many he’d had.”

Morris: “On ‘The Eternal’, Martin’s thing was, ‘Right, I don’t want you to play on this one at all, I just want you to make funny noises…’ That’s when we did the synths on the sequencer. It’s quite uncanny that the sequencer fucked up – there’s a big mistake in the drums in the middle of ‘The Eternal’, which we couldn’t figure out. We kept it in, but I should have taken that as a bit of a bad omen. I think Martin fucked about more than we did. He loved fucking about with the drummers, it gave him something to look forward to. How can I torture the drummer today? There was method in his madness, otherwise it wouldn’t have worked as well as it did, but he saw his role as producer to weave a complex web of tensions, and he did that very well. He did love winding people up, particularly studio managers.”

Hook: “Martin mixed the first two tracks – ‘Heart And Soul’ and ‘The Eternal’, I think – and I fell out with him because the bass was too quiet. I had a row with him, and he told me to F-off. I had to go back to Manchester for some reason, but I told Bernard and Steve to make sure the bass was loud enough – but the bastards stiffed me! Which became the story for my career…”

“They weren’t friends outside of the studio,” says Susanne O’Hara about the relationship between Joy Division and Hannett, her boyfriend at the time. “They never met up.

Ian had a very intense relationship with Martin. I know there was a feeling between him and Ian; sometimes they were the only two who understood each other.”

The rest of the band, however, were becoming a little more distanced from Curtis, as, in Hook’s assessment, “His illness was getting worse and his girlfriend, Annik, was getting more demanding.” But though Curtis would record his vocals separately, he would sometimes listen in on the instrumental sessions. “He would encourage us to go down certain routes,” continues Hook. “He wasn’t musical, but he started playing quite a lot of guitar by the time we got to Closer. He was very amateurish, but it really had a nice charm to it.

“The most difficult person in all the bands I’ve been in has been Barney. If he didn’t like a track, he wouldn’t play on it – he was a cunt for that. He was generally the most unhelpful person, whereas Ian was so eager to please. The majority of the time it was me, Steve, Barney and Rob in the pub, nursing our one warm pint, on our £1.50 a day, while Ian got on with the vocal takes with Martin.

“Then, because he was with Annik, they would disappear off. She was there when he wrote. He definitely relied on her a lot more than us. We didn’t get involved in the lyrics, because he was always so good at it. Fucking hell, I can’t even remember him asking. Ian did guide vocals on all the songs, mumbling the ones he didn’t have lyrics for.”

“Ian changed when he was with her. He became a bit more lofty; he wasn’t one of the lads,” agrees Sumner. “He also became vegetarian when he was with her, which didn’t go down too well. Once in Germany, we went out to a restaurant and there’s this thing in Germany called schweinhacksen, which is basically pig’s leg with sauerkraut. I don’t know whose idea it was, but we went to a restaurant that specialised only in schweinhacksen, so Ian and Annik were sat at the opposite table eating dry bread, because that’s all they could get. There was a lot of rubbing Ian up the wrong way when he was with Annik, which I thought was a bit uncalled for.”

Morris: “We had to hide all evidence of meat. We were living on lamb kebabs from the kebab shop round the corner. Ian memorably decided he was a vegetarian, then he had to have some of ours when she wasn’t looking.”

Sumner: “Ian got so pissed off with us taking the piss out of him and Annik that he was like, ‘Fuck it, they’re a bunch of bastards. I’m going to leave.’ But it was just reacting against the way he was being treated by the band. For a while, he wouldn’t hang out with us. He started hanging out with this weird Dutch guy, this weird sycophant guy who wore T-shirts with strange slogans on. Which was daft.”

“One night we all went for a meal,” recalls Peter Saville. “Ian and Annik sat on another table, and every time I glanced over at them, Ian was crying. We all have relationships in our twenties and they can be pretty superficial, but it was quite plain to me that was not Ian’s feeling towards her.”

The crying may also have been caused by the barbiturates Curtis had been prescribed for his epilepsy, which appeared to be worsening. “The problem with barbiturates is you lose your grip on reality when you have a lot of them,” explains The Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly, a good friend of Curtis, “and they were giving him high doses. He’d be sat at a table and he had a line of these pills that he had to take. They left him finding it difficult to keep a grasp on things, and hold things together.”

One night, Curtis went missing from the Britannia Row studio. After about an hour, Hook went looking for him and found him in the toilets. “He’d had a fit, fallen and banged his head on the basin. Ian was always his own worst enemy, because he always told you what you wanted to hear. He immediately said he was all right, didn’t want to go to hospital, and he was up bouncing around like fucking Tigger. Like nothing had happened. He really was fighting it tooth and nail.”


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