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Music

'Closer' in the words of Joy Division

Prior to frontman Ian Curtis’ death in 1980, Joy Division had become a big name in the British post-punk scene rivalling the likes of The Cure, Wire, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Buzzcocks. To this point, they had only released their debut album, Unknown Pleasures and a scattering of prominent singles, including ‘Transmission’. 

On the weekend of Curtis’ suicide, the band had been gearing up to cross the Atlantic for their first US tour. Sadly, it was never to be, but over the years since, Joy Division’s music has permeated into the States and the world at large thanks to the band’s continuity and prolonged success as New Order.

On July 18th, 1980, two months to the day following Curtis’ death, Joy Division released their second and final album, Closer. While the album lacked some of the catchier and more hard-hitting classics we were blessed with in Unknown Pleasures, it has since frequently been labelled as the stronger of the two. The album shows Curtis’ unique wordsmithery come into full vigour while the rest of the band experimented with more complex texturing to create the gothic and deeply moving soundscapes. 

Despite Closer’s posthumous acclaim, prior to its release, Curtis regarded it as a “disaster”. Shortly after wrapping up the album in the studio, the troubled frontman wrote an elaborately sincere letter to the band’s manager, Rob Gretton. 

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“Rob,” it read. “Judged purely on my own terms, and not to be interpreted as an opinion or reflection of mass media or public taste but a criticism of my own esoteric and elitist mind of which the mysteries of life are very few and beside which the grace of God has deemed to indicate in a vision the true nature of all things, plus the fact that everyone else are a sneaky, japing load of tossers, I decree that this LP is a disaster.” Signing it off, “I K Curtis”.

Likely, Curtis’ dissatisfaction with Closer stemmed from his very personal connection to the dark words that materialised within the poignant music. At the time, he had been in an increasingly unsettled mental state with his ongoing marital issues and the side effects of his epilepsy medicine. “While we were working on Closer, Ian said to me that doing this album felt very strange because he felt that all his words were writing themselves,” guitarist Bernard Sumner told The Independent in 2007. “He also said that he had this terrible claustrophobic feeling that he was in a whirlpool and being pulled down, drowning.”

Unfortunately, Curtis wouldn’t get a chance to step back and warm to the album. Following his death, the remaining band members used New Order as a fresh canvas and generally looked forwards, avoiding the pain of the past. Consequently, as bassist Peter Hook recalled in an interview with Far Out earlier this year, they didn’t pay much attention to Closer at the time and only really caught onto its beauty several years later. 

After beginning New Order with the recruitment of Gillian Gilbert, it seems that the group’s coping mechanism was to ignore the Joy Division days and focus on the present and future. Hook told Far Out: “What struck me was that, as a band, New Order… us lot never celebrated anything to do with Joy Division after Ian’s death. We never celebrated one year after his death, we never celebrated 9, 10, 20 – and it was coming up to 30 years after his death.” 

This moment of reflection came at the time when he and the other members of New Order were going through a period of dispute which ended in Hook’s departure from the band. He now honours the memory of their work with Curtis as Joy Division with his band Peter Hook and The Light. 

Discussing Closer on Yahoo’s Backspin feature, Hook said: “It was a great LP, and one of my greatest regrets, when we finished with Joy Division and moved onto New Order, was that we never got to play Closer. It really was such a beautiful LP. Martin Hannett [producer] did a great job again.” However, at the time of recording the album, it seems Hook wasn’t particularly attracted to the style of the music. He was young and wanted to maintain the punk sound. “I didn’t particularly agree with it,” he continued. “I still was hampering to be the Sex Pistols, but iI did recognise that the material was much deeper and much more artistic, much more adult orientated, as we say in America, than the Sex Pistols or The Clash.”

As Hook brushed upon, Closer was a further deviation from traditional punk into something more erudite and artistic. Discussing the album in a 2020 interview with GQ Magazine, drummer Stephen Morris seemed to agree with this sentiment, “Before the paint was dry on it, we were writing more songs that would become the basis of Closer. Unknown Pleasures was us finding our feet, it ends with ‘I Remember Nothing’ and that was kind of where we were going. The stuff that always influenced us was Berlin-period Bowie. We were getting more experimental. We were writing songs all the time. We always rehearsed. We were getting very professional.”

After Closer, New Order set off on a path toward a more electronic sound thanks to heavier use of the synthesiser – as the 1980s would demand. Vague traces of Joy Division’s post-punk sound lingers in New Order’s first couple of records, especially in Movement’s belting album opener, ‘Dreams Never End’. As they progressed through the 1980s, New Order gained worldwide notoriety for 12-inch dance singles, including ‘Blue Monday’, ‘True Faith’ and ‘Bizzare Love Triangle’. By 1989, Closer was a distant memory as New Order began dabbling in the Ibiza club scene and dipped their toes into some acid-house stylings for Technique.