Curtis was a very troubled individual who suffered from depression and epilepsy which led to a generally unhappy marriage with his wife Deborah. As the band grew in popularity, his various problems led to him having difficulties performing live, particularly his epilepsy which led to him suffering from seizures on stage. No longer able to cope with all of the pressure, which included an affair he was having with another woman, he took his own life aged 23 in May 1980, the night before the band were due to embark on their first American tour. Their second album, Closer was released posthumously, two months later, as was their most successful single “Love will tear us apart” a month before that.
After the band’s tragic demise the rest of the members formed New Order. They went on to have much commercial success throughout the 1980’s and are still active to this day, although Hook left in 2007.
The first track off the first album introduces the cold sound that the band pioneered. Beginning with Morris’s drums and quickly followed by Sumner’s minimalist guitar sound, the song has a chilling atmosphere and Curtis’s lyrics about feeling lost sound so eerily real which just makes for an even more intense listening experience.
A study of the lyrics would suggest that his epilepsy played a large part in helping form his own artistic experience with talk of “things getting out of hand” and falling “into no mans land”. All in all, sadness was something that was prevalent in the band’s work, and this song is no exception. Arguably no other artist ever was a by-product of such despair until Kurt Cobain a decade later.
9. Dead Souls
The b-side the “Atmosphere” released in 1980 and later covered by Nine Inch Nails, here Curtis seems like he is trapped in another world as he declares “They keep calling me!”. He also sounds like he is in a trance, with the guitars creating a wall of noise behind him. You could almost say that this is one of the band’s scariest songs, as it definitely paints a nightmarish picture.
8. A Means To And End
From Closer, this track has a rhythmic vocal and bass to it with the percussion sprinkled over the top. Curtis’s voice sounds particularly hypnotic, and the lyrics he is singing are very eerie indeed.
7. No Love Lost
A song from their debut ep An Ideal for Living and from their punk influenced days when they were called Warsaw. When you listen to much of the material recorded from this period, it is actually quite hard to see that they would eventually become Joy Division. However, “No Love Lost” is an exception as it shows the first signs of the band maturing into their established sound. With a slow building guitar introduction, it sounds raw but nevertheless is a classic early track that has benefited from subsequent remastering.
6. She’s Lost Control
A very tragic and personal song courtesy of Curtis from Unknown Pleasures , the “she” in question is a girl who was a client of his when he worked at an occupational rehabilitation centre who, like him was an epileptic and died from a fit. Accompanied by an immortal bassline from Hook, Curtis’s vocals are calm sounding on record but this was a track when performed live, he figuratively speaking “lost control”. Cold, dark and ultimately brilliant.
5. Love Will Tear Us Apart
This was the band’s only chart hit despite not being on either of their albums. Although by far the most melodic and commercial sounding song they ever recorded, it still contains that element of sadness that ultimately was a key factor to the band’s output. The lyrical content here is fairly obvious, clearly being about Curtis’s ailing relationship with his wife and his infidelity. It is a song that shows the potential that Joy Division could have had and in hindsight indicated at what they would go on to do as New Order. With that said, it signifies their tragic end.
Released in 1979 in between both of their albums, this track is one of their finest non-album moments, being a doomy dystopian nightmare featuring a riff that very much suits it. Although Joy Division could often be seen as super-serious and generally humour-free band, this song actually has an element of satire in order to get across it’s depressing message, using the idea of radio (hence the title) to try and wake people up from an Orwell-style state of mental slavery with the classic line “Dance to the radio!” which has no doubt got people shouting along on the dance floor at many indie disco’s over the years.
3. New Dawn Fades
Featuring a riff rather reminiscent of the middle section of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”, the utter despair in this song from Unknown Pleasures truly makes for one of the definitive Joy Division listening experiences. With it’s black metal style guitar sound, it is when Curtis starts to deliver his vocal performance you truly feel the pain, this was particularly evident whenever the song was performed live, of which a particularly immense version can be found on the compilation album Still.
Originally released in 1980 as a French-only single, it was re-released widely after Curtis’s death two months later. It is one of the band’s most famous tracks along with “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and like that track shows a different side to the band which deviates from their standard formula. A slow and almost anthemic sounding track, the band never quite made it work live. Also very emotional, it is another song which could be seen as something of a farewell song for Curtis.
From Unknown Pleasures, this track shows a side to the band that would lead to them being labelled by some as gothic rock. Indeed, the riff here is reminiscent of the kind of thing that bands such as Sisters of Mercy would go on to do, particularly the deep bassline and industrial-sounding drums. All in all the song could be looked at as something of a transitional song, moving away from the punk roots of the first album and into the more atmospheric direction of the second.