Joy Division formed in Manchester, England, in January 1977 originally as The Stiff Kittens, then Warsaw.
The name they finally settled on came from House of Dolls, a novel about prostitution in a Nazi concentration camp.
Their brilliant first single, Love Will Tear Us Apart, with Ian Curtis’ detached, fragile vocals, was a huge indie hit, and their excellent debut album, Unknown Pleasures (1979), won them a large cult following and critical acclaim.
Recorded in a week at Stockport’s Strawberry Studios, sonic visionary Martin Hannett took the sheet metal guitar of Bernard Dickin (aka Sumner), Peter Hook’s unique bass melodies and Stephen Morris’ innovative combination of acoustic and electronic drums and created a muted, unnerving ambience through pioneering use of digital effects, muffled screams, and crashing glass.
Lyricist Ian Curtis (pictured above right) documented his experiences as an epileptic in the mutant disco of She’s Lost Control, whilst the sodium-lit Shadowplay conjured images of the urban decay and paranoia of late 1970s Manchester.
Unknown Pleasures was a commercial and critical success, but on 18 May 1980, on the eve of the band’s first US tour, frontman Ian Curtis committed suicide. He was 23.
The pressure of following up the band’s initial success, coupled with epilepsy and depression, were cited as the reasons Curtis hanged himself. His body was found with Iggy Pop‘s The Idiot spinning on the turntable and Werner Herzog’s melancholic film Stroszek on his video machine.
Released only weeks later, there was an almost unbearable poignancy and uncomfortable sense of voyeurism surrounding the lyrics of Joy Division’s second album, Closer.
Powering the singer’s bleak visions of mass murder and mental illness, Hannett’s production was at the bleeding edge of early 80s alternative music – sheets of guitar noise, synthesized drums and proto-digital electronics.
Much imitated at the time (particularly by the likes of Echo & The Bunnymen) Closer painted a grey, post-punk landscape that was soon to explode into colour with the arrival of the New Romantics and the surviving Joy Division members’ rebirth as New Order.