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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In Bury, Curtis told Lindsay Reade that “he saw it going on without him. He felt very removed from it. With the epilepsy, he just knew he couldn’t carry on with the performances. He’d sort of hit a pinnacle with Closer, and he knew he couldn’t go on.” Afterwards, Wilson and Reade invited Curtis to recuperate at their cottage in Charlesworth near Glossop, in rural Derbyshire. There, he wrote love letters to Honoré and, during a long phone conversation with Vini Reilly, insisted his suicide attempt was serious.

“I think he was able to tell me because I was considered loopy, anyway,” says Reilly. “I was on all kinds of anti-depressants; they were messing about with medication to try and get me functioning. I think he realised that I would be a bit more simpático and understand that state of mind, where you are capable of ending your own life.”


Wilson was busy with Factory and his day jobs – television work for Granada Reports  and World In Action. “I don’t think he read the signs at all, but then again the signs weren’t visibly there,” says Reade. “Ian was with me for a week, and he was obviously very depressed. It was just me and Ian, driving each other around the twist. I’ve always been very empathetic, so I ended up really depressed, too. And we didn’t have a single visitor.

“Tony’s father was gay, and his partner, Tony Connolly, was a very good friend of mine. He said to me he thought Ian was very depressed and would commit suicide. But the only person who saw it was Annik, as far as I’m aware. She actually warned Tony about it. She said, ‘He means what he’s saying.’

“None of us had really listened to the words before; they just sounded like good lyrics to us. We just didn’t think he was going to go.”

“I honestly thought Ian’s lyrics were really brilliant, but that he was writing about somebody else,” says Morris. “That’s how naive I was. I thought it was brilliant how he could get in the mind of somebody else. Even after he attempted to commit suicide, it didn’t seem that he was that hellbent on destruction.”

“There was never a moment when I was with Ian when he acted anything but normal,” says Peter Hook. “He never, ever led me to believe for one moment that he was depressed. He never let you know what he was feeling, really. Whether that was bravado or foolishness, the thing you most wanted to hear in the world was that he was OK.”



On Monday May 19, Joy Division were scheduled to fly out for their debut US tour.  About midday on Sunday 18, Kevin Cummins, a photographer working for Factory who was booked on the same flight, got a call from Gretton. “‘That silly cunt’s killed himself.’ That’s all he said,” remembers Cummins, “and I knew immediately who he meant. We knew Ian was a bit down about going to America, but there was no hint he was going to kill himself. Rob would’ve had a 24-hour guard on Ian if he thought something was going to happen.”

The news was announced by John Peel on his Monday-night radio show, followed by “Atmosphere”. Curtis had hanged himself in his Macclesfield kitchen the previous day, discovered soon after by his wife, Deborah. The incident merited, according to Cummins, “a two-paragraph story on page 8 of the Manchester Evening News, or something. They weren’t known, they were just a local band.”

In Grant Lee and Tom Atencio’s documentary, Joy Division (2007), an epilepsy specialist analysed Curtis’ prescription from the time and concluded that it was guaranteed to kill him. “They didn’t know much about the condition back then,” says Hook. “That made you feel a little better, because you realised you couldn’t have done anything about it anyway.”

“After he died, we did listen to his words and thought, ‘Well actually, this is someone who sounds like they’re in a lot of trouble emotionally,’” says Sumner. “But the person you had in the room wasn’t like that. And Ian wasn’t in trouble emotionally until perhaps a month before he died. Then we tried everything under the sun to try and help him, but obviously he wasn’t interested.”

“It was a shame Annik wasn’t with him, because she understood him,” says Reade. “But you do blame yourself, and I did. It was horrific, the guilt I had. I also blamed Factory – Factory became very dark for me after that. They shouldn’t have been doing those gigs. They should have given him some downtime.”

Hook: “I can’t really remember anything. The only thing I do remember was sitting in my car one morning. I went to tax my car at a place in Stretford; I drove there in my old Jag that cost £135. Just as I got there, I was listening to the Top 20 on the radio, and they went: ‘New in, No 13, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ by Joy Division…’ It broke my heart. It was things like that which brought home to us what we’d lost. It was awful.”

The release of Closer was postponed until July, when it became Factory’s first Top 10 album. “You’ve just done an album, you’ve put a lot of work into it, what do you do?” asks Morris. “Do you just bin it? We had made the decision we were going to carry on, but it still wasn’t easy.”

In fact, Sumner, Hook and Morris had resolved to continue as a band on the night of Curtis’ death. By June, they had gone so far as to try out another Factory artist, Kevin Hewick, as their new frontman.

“I thought they were just doing a session as my backing band,” Hewick remembers, after Tony Wilson had offered the band to him the night before a shift at Graveyard Studios in Prestwich. “We did two of my songs, no rehearsal. Martin Hannett came in and, very droll, said it sounded like something by Fairport Convention, then lay down and fell asleep under the mixing desk. As the day wore on, I found Bernard a little edgy. At one point, he threw his guitar on the floor and stormed out. But Peter said to me, ‘Bernard’s taken Ian’s death the worst, and he’s finding it really hard, because you’re standing where Ian would have stood.’

“I overheard Peter Hook tell the recording engineer that they’d decided on the New Order name the night before. When I helpfully chipped in that Ron Asheton of The Stooges had already used that name for his band, Hooky just said witheringly that only somebody like me would know that.”

Now, Hook says that New Order actually began for him on the Monday after Ian Curtis was cremated (on May 23, 1980). “I really didn’t care about Joy Division until years later, when we started playing the songs again as New Order. His lyrics, when you look back, say it all. We just chose not to listen. We were too inexperienced in the ways of the world. We were too young, and none of us handled it well.”

Hook plays Closer “quite a lot” these days. “In a strange way, it seems somehow divorced from me.” Morris thinks it’s brilliant, and treats it similarly: “The only way you can listen to it is when you can put it on and pretend you had absolutely nothing to do with it.”

Sumner, on the other hand, doesn’t listen to an album that he prefers to Unknown Pleasures, but which he calls “very claustrophobic. It’s been so long since I played it. Once the past is past, that’s it.”

“It was only the second bloody album we made,” says Sumner. “He hung himself a bit prematurely. You shouldn’t joke about these things, but…”

The July 2018 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – with Public Image Ltd on the cover in the UK and Johnny Cash overseas. Elsewhere in the issue, you’ll find exclusive new interviews with Ray Davies, Father John Misty, Pink Floyd, Mazzy Star, Sleaford Mods, Neko Case and many more. Our free CD showcases 15 tracks of this month’s best new music, including Father John Misty, Neko Case, Natalie Prass, Melody’s Echo Chamber, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever and Jon Hassell.




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