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Joy Division’s Ian Curtis brought goth to limelight

By Daily Bruin Staff

Feb. 13, 2001 9:00 p.m.

  Cyrus McNally Cyrus is a fourth-year
neuroscience student and hears the dead souls that keep calling
him. E-mail him at [email protected].
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John Lennon made it all the way to 40. Kurt Cobain, Jim
Morrisson and Jimi Hendrix were all 27. Tupac was 26. Ian Curtis,
lead singer of prototype goth band Joy Division, was only 23 when
he ended his life, hanging himself with barbed wire while standing
on a block of melting ice in the bathtub of his Macclesfield,
England abode. Unlike his fellow rock visionaries, who traveled
worldwide to perform in front of crazed, screaming audiences,
Curtis rarely left his hometown. Yet two years after his death in
1980, Joy Division’s two completed albums were selling like
nobody’s business; its record label Factory was constantly
running out of whatever supply they currently had. Curtis’
legendary live act, replete with zombified glares into the audience
and ghastly body jerking ““ compounded with real grand-mal
seizures (Curtis suffered from epilepsy as well as severe
depression) ““ became folklore among a generation of
disgruntled youth in England, dissatisfied with the
ever-commercialized punk scene and the downward-spiraling economy.
And even if Curtis isn’t as well known as other bizarre rock
personalities, the music of Joy Division continues to not only
emotionally challenge but influence many: from George Michael, who
names Joy Division’s second album “Closer” as his
favorite album of all time, to the Cure, who actually headlined a
concert with the band in 1979; to Nine Inch Nails, who covered the
alluring “Dead Souls” for the soundtrack to “The
Crow.” The band’s raw, post-punk and dissonantly
experimental sound coalesced perfectly with Curtis’ dark,
gloomy vocals, which were filled with a sense of emotion so genuine
that they were well beyond reproducible. To listen to his words is
to listen to the autobiography of a soul in constant torment, that
many will identify with but few will ever describe so poignantly.
Joy Division actually started out as a punk band; a group of
childhood friends who became inspired after witnessing the lo-fi,
“˜do it yourself’ testimonial of a 1977 Sex Pistols
concert in London. Then known as “Warsaw” (named after
a David Bowie song), the embryonic and singerless group put an ad
in the paper for a lead vocalist, to which Curtis responded. To
avoid confusion with another British punk group named “Warsaw
Pakt,” the quartet renamed themselves after a reference from
Karol Cetinsky’s World War II novel, “The House of
Dolls.” Joy Division is a reference to an all-female Nazi
concentration camp unit whose inmates were forced into prostitution
for German soldiers. With its unique raw sound, fueled by
Curtis’ estranged stage personality and frightening antics,
the band quickly gained the respect of many important music
industry individuals, but turned down offers from several major
record labels in the name of creative control. It finally settled
on the newly-hatched independent Factory Records label. While its
first album, slated to come out in the summer of 1978, would have
been hailed as a punk classic, it was scrapped because of some
poor, last-minute decision making by a studio engineer who thought
it would be a good idea to add some synthesizer to several tracks
(a concept entirely taboo in the world of punk at the time). A year
later, Joy Division put out “Unknown Pleasures” as its
first official release, which was instantly hailed a classic,
staying on the U.K. independent charts for several months. The
album’s shimmering guitar experimentation, droning bass lines
and punk-beat drumming was unlike anything fans had ever heard, the
perfect backdrop for Curtis’ deeply confessional and
disturbing lyricism. The eerily daunting “She’s Lost
Control,” the first single off “Unknown
Pleasures,” along with the maniacal
“Transmission,” became surprise smashes across Europe.
The songs were well-received not only in the dance halls, but in
the quiet bedrooms of England’s youth as well, where a genre
of new wave/punk/post-glam elements, to be known as
“goth,” was rising with the help of social outcasts,
misfits and anyone else who identified with Curtis’ haunting
reverie. After a small European tour and a few shows in its home
country, Joy Division had already established a cult following,
mainly based around the temperamental personality of its undisputed
leader, Curtis. The 22-year-old was already gaining a reputation as
one of the most ingenious and mystifying rock icons of the time.
His violent outbursts, frequent battles with drug addiction and
engrossing bouts of depression could only add to the intrigue of
his character, along with the ever-developing question of how the
person responsible for such disassociative, self-loathing lyrics
could still function as a human being. Could the hideousness he so
vividly expressed in words truly be the way he felt inside? In the
fall of 1979 the band was offered a million dollar deal by the
American Warner Bros. label for distribution in the U.S., but
declined, and did so again a few months later under even more
favorable terms. Curtis’ mood problems never abated even with
the sure promise of success and recognition, and his epileptic fits
seemed to be getting more frequent with the band’s
increasingly-demanding tour schedule. This was to the point where
not even fellow band members could tell the difference between his
usual stage antics and full-blown seizure activity, which now
frequently struck him during performances. It was apparent to
everyone that Curtis’ physical and mental health was rapidly
deteriorating. On the eve of his first American tour, May 18, 1980,
Curtis was found dead at home by his wife ““ the victim of
increasing pressure, demand and neurological illness that made
every day harder to live than the last. Posthumously, the band
released “Closer,” which had already been recorded and
featured an even darker, doomed Curtis and a total abandonment of
the punk aesthetic for a more unearthly, primeval sound. With song
titles like “A Means to End,” “Atrocity
Exhibition” and “Isolation,” Curtis’
well-refined sense of the macabre was nothing less than outright
and up-front. Two years later, the album had sold over 250,000
copies worldwide, and another posthumous single, “Love Will
Tear Us Apart,” sold over 160,000 copies. Even though Curtis
was gone and the remaining band members had risen up out of Joy
Division’s ashes to form another highly-successful and
innovative band (New Order) ““ his spirit remains in the goth
movement ““ and it is quite possible that Joy Division enjoys
more success now than ever before. Even after more than 20 years
following the death of its lead singer.

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