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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Nevertheless, the sessions were progressing well, even though the band had barely discussed what they were doing. “We never talked about music ever,” admits Hook. “The only thing we would talk about was, ‘Oh we need another fast, dancey one.’ To me that was one of the beauties of the group.”

They began with the songs they were most familiar with: “Colony”, “Twenty Four Hours”, “Passover” and “A Means To An End”. “We did ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ quite early on,” remembers Morris. “We did it with all kinds of layers. We’d do a guide track and then a lot of overdubbing and funny little noises over the top. There were a lot more tracks other than these that ended up on [1981 album of live tracks and rarities] Still. I think ‘The Sound Of Music’, ‘The Only Mistake’, as well as the flexidisc stuff [‘Komakino’, released April 1980]. We hadn’t learned how to fuck about yet.”

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“Decades”, however, proved more complicated, not least because, in Sumner’s words, “We had all these new synthesisers. Perhaps six months earlier, I’d built one, but I didn’t really know what I was building, some sort of weird electronic machine that made sounds. I found it fascinating.”

“‘Decades’ took a long time to sort out. It just didn’t seem to be going anywhere,” says Morris. “Then it suddenly turned into that Martini advert. It was kind of James Bondish. That was the first thing we agonised over. I think we might have been on the point of putting it on the flexidisc, then it just kind of happened.”

Sumner also recalls “some ghostly whistling” that kept being picked up on the PA system on either “Decades” or “The Eternal”, “like somebody was whistling along”. “Psychic vibes,” claims Morris. “Syd Barrett came in, sat down, walked out again.”

Then there was “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, which the band seemed incapable of leaving alone. Michael Johnson suggests the vocal was re-recorded at Britannia Row. Sumner, meanwhile, remembers, “When we insisted that the song was done again, Martin sulked. We did all the music, recorded it, and Steve went home to bed, across the other side of London. I was staying there doing the Beach Boys bit at the end on my crap 12-string guitar. It was three o’clock in the morning, everyone was happy with it, and Martin says, ‘I’m not happy with it. I want Steve to double-track the snare drum, and he’s not here, is he?’ So he got him out of bed, dragged him all across London. I think his attitude was, ‘You’ve made me do it twice, so I’ll make you do it twice.’”

_____________________

March 29, 1980. As the Closer sessions came to an end, Joy Division’s wives and girlfriends – with the significant exception of Deborah Curtis – were invited down from Manchester for a visit. Morris was dispatched to pick them up.

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“That was just a fucking bad idea,” he recalls. “I got the times wrong, left them waiting for two hours at Euston. It didn’t get off to a good start, and then went downhill.”

“It was disastrous,” says Hook. “I don’t think Ian’s wife came, and everybody else’s wife was as miserable as fuck. We’d been home for Unknown Pleasures and it literally took five days to record the album. Then when we went away for three weeks, it was a period of adjustment for us, and also our other halves were adjusting to the fact that we were away, which was at Martin Hannett’s insistence. There was no communication in those days – nobody had phones and nobody had money. It was a struggle.”

Another night, Michael Johnson went to answer the doorbell at the studio and found “these four little bedraggled Irishmen stood there saying, ‘Is Martin Hannett here?’ This was U2. They’d obviously walked from the bus stop, four little urchins, soaking wet. I can’t recall how long they spent there, but they were talking to Martin about working with him.

“I walked in and saw these really skinny little young kids staring open-mouthed at Martin,” says Hook. “I think I went and got the others, saying, ‘Come and have a look at these turkeys, they’re terrified.’ Because we were 23 then, they were just kids. We were the daddies. Martin was having a meeting with them and they were practically bloody shaking. At the time, it appealed to my warped sense of humour.”

Sumner: “They seemed like pretty nice chaps. I think they were Joy Division fans. I have said some bitchy things about Bono since then, but the truth is, if I’m honest, I’m a little bit jealous of them. They were our peers, but things seemed to go so smoothly for them, whereas things seemed to go disastrously wrong for us at every turn. We seemed to be ill-fated…”

By early April, Closer was being mixed, and Factory booked the band three shows as part of a label showcase at the Moonlight in West Hampstead – “A folly of Factory-sized proportions,” says Terry Mason. “Our major preoccupation was keeping an eye on Ian to look for the signs of a seizure taking hold.”

On the last night, April 4, Joy Division played twice: a headline slot at the Moonlight, and earlier at a Stranglers benefit (Hugh Cornwell had just been busted for heroin), at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park. During both, Curtis suffered grand mal seizures. “I hauled Ian offstage and forced my way to the dressing rooms,” continues Mason. “This time it was different. In the past, Ian would just lock up, but on the way downstairs he seemed to lose every bone in his body and was like a rag doll.”

Two days later, on Easter Sunday and back at home in Macclesfield, Curtis took an overdose of barbiturates. Tony Wilson, Gretton and Lindsay Reade, Wilson’s wife, were driving over to see him, playing Closer in the car.

“I just remember thinking, ‘Bloody hell, this is really amazing,’” says Reade. Remarkably, the band’s next show – in Bury, on April 8 – was not postponed. Instead, Curtis sang two songs from Closer, “The Eternal” and “Decades”, while Alan Hempsall of Crispy Ambulance and Simon Topping of A Certain Ratio filled in for him on the other songs. “Hooky told me of Ian’s suicide attempt and neither of us could understand why it was going ahead,” says Mason. “It brought a new realisation of Ian’s condition. After Bury, the obvious thing would have been to just shut up shop for a while, but yet again there was still the need for bringing money in to help fund the forthcoming US tour.”

“It was quite handy to have the softer, quieter songs for the simple reason that Ian didn’t get as wound up during the sets,” adds Hook. “On the faster, rockier ones he would go off like a rocket. He sang a couple of the quiet ones in Bury, but we shouldn’t have done Bury. That was a really bad mistake.”

“Ian was his own worst enemy,” says Hempsall. “If he’d turned around even once and gone, ‘Actually guys, I’m not up for this, I can’t do it,’ that would have been understandable. But he didn’t, because he wanted the band to be a success. That was all just a by-product of people sweeping things under the carpet and pretending everything was OK.”

“Rob [Gretton] said to me he thought it was a cry for help,” remembers Vini Reilly. “I actually told Rob I didn’t think it was a cry for help, I thought it was genuine. The fact that he told Debbie when she arrived that he’d taken an overdose was neither here nor there. He was serious – he really wanted out because he couldn’t bear it any more. He was in a very dark place in his mind, but because he had the social skills and was so good at just being one of the lads and having a laugh, it was very hard to spot.”

Susanne O’Hara recalls a time in early May when she was loading a film projector into the back of her Volvo. “I bent over to push it into the back seat and Ian smacked my bum,” she says. “He made some remark about a nice bum. He was cheerful.”

Sumner: “You never had a heart to heart with Ian. But he did say to me late one night that he felt like he was in a whirlpool, and it was dragging him down, and he couldn’t get out of it. He also said all his lyrics seemed to be coming to very quick conclusions, like they seemed to be writing themselves.

“As far as his relationships go, his marriage [to Deborah] and being with Annik, I regarded that as his territory. There was group business, and what he wanted to do with his private life was his own business. Ian had a certain unpredictable quality as well, and his way of dealing with problems was very extreme and explosive. He wanted our music to be like that.”

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