A deep dive into one of rock music’s most path-breaking bands and cautionary tales.
The story of Joy Division has become post-punk folklore. Launched in 1976 in Manchester, a grimy and declining British industrial city, the quartet masterfully harnessed the Sex Pistols’ energy, Krautrock cool, and Doors-ish pretension. Commercial success and critical acclaim arrived fast, but the band ended with singer Ian Curtis’ suicide in May 1980, on the brink of its first U.S. tour. Veteran U.K. music journalist Savage (1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, 2015, etc.) was on the scene at the time, and this oral history reflects a level of access and attention to detail worthy of the band’s importance, including band members Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner, and Stephen Morris, producer Martin Hannett, record-label impresario Tony Wilson, designer Peter Saville, and more than two dozen scenesters, photographers, and writers. (Curtis’ contributions are mostly taken from newspaper articles; commentary from his estranged wife, Deborah, comes mostly from her own memoir.) Savage’s quote-selection process emphasizes the youthfulness and naiveté of the band, who were holding down day jobs, flirting with fascist imagery, and barely competent as musicians when they began. Their much-imitated innovations—e.g., integrating electronic drums or having bass carry the melody line—emerged as the happy accidents of unschooled 20-somethings. Naiveté cut both ways, though. Everybody involved confesses being at a loss to address Curtis’ worsening epilepsy and depression and paid little mind to his lyrics, which plainly read as cries for help; shamefully, they hastened Curtis to a gig just after he was hospitalized for a suicide attempt. “People admired him for the things that were destroying him,” his widow says, and the agonizing closing pages reveal how tragically blinding that admiration was.
Neither easy hagiography or melancholy Curtis elegy, but a sober and illuminating account of a brilliant band’s too-short career.