It’s quite startling to think just how ahead-of-the-curve joy Division were when they burst onto the scene in the late 1970s. Formed from members of the small audience that attended Sex Pistols seminal performance at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1976, Joy Division succeeded in pulling the nihilistic minimalism of punk and weaving it with a hitherto unseen literary melancholia. With all manner of new wave groups springing up around them, Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner, and Stephen Morris managed to stand head and shoulders above their contemporaries – always staying one step ahead.
At the height of Joy Divison’s fame, Ian Curtis took part in a fascinating interview on Radio Blackburn, during which he voiced his concerns about the fading relevance of new wave and described his relationship with the Manchester music scene. From his comments, it seems that Curtis was beginning to tire of the new wave scene: “I think it’s, a lot of it tends to have lost its edge really,” he began hesitantly.
Adding: “There’s quite a few new groups that I’ve heard.. odd records. Record or have seen maybe such as, eh, I like, I think it’s mostly old Factory groups really. I like the groups on Factory; A Certain Ratio and Section 25. When I’m listening to records, I don’t listen to much new wave stuff, I tend to listen to the stuff I used to listen to a few years back, but sort of odd singles.”
As a signee of the Machester record label, it’s no wonder Curtis had an attachment to the sound embodied by Factory. Every post-punk fan knows that Tony Wilson, who founded Factory in 1978, was also in the audience the night The Sex Pistols performed at Manchester Free Trade Hall. The bands that emerged in the wake of that performance – many of whom were signed to Factory – were thus bound to one another by a common strain of musical DNA. That’s not to say that Curtis’ taste was completely insular, however. Naming some of his favourite records at the time, Curtis went on to say: “I know somebody who works in a record shop where I live and I’ll go in there and he’ll play me ‘have you heard this single?’ Singles by a group called The Tights, so an obscure thing … and a group called, I think, er Bauhaus, a London group, that’s one single.” Bauhaus were from Northampton, as it happens.
Ian Curtis would later make a point of attending one of Bauhuas’ concerts down south. Recalling the goth group’s London residency in Who Killed Mr. Moonlight? Bauhaus, Black Magick and Benediction, bassist David J. Haskins writes: “On one of those rainy Soho nights, we were visited by an icon of this as-yet-unnamed melancholic subculture when Ian Curtis appeared at the end of a set during which a wild and abandoned Murphy had laid waste to a wall of mirrors. We had always felt that there was a sympathetic resonance between Joy Division and us.”
Haskins Adds: “The tall, gangly singer told us that he had come with Factory Records boss Tony Wilson, who had apparently left after the first number as he strongly objected to bands that wore makeup. ‘It were ’is fooking loss, man,’ he told us. ‘He really missed out tonight. Fook him. He’s a cunt, anyway!’ Ian said he thought the gig was great, that both our singles were excellent, and that he had been hoping that Joy Division’s recent recording sessions (for Closer) would coincide with one of our live shows.”
While he was clearly interested in the subcultures cropping up in the capital, Curtis was also eager to nurture Manchester’s increasingly fragmented live scene. “We tend to be pretty isolated now really…apart from the Factory groups,” Curtis continued. “We have a lot to do with the other groups on Factory. We tend to play a lot of gigs with them. And there’s other things, like the Durutti Column LP – the sandpaper sleeve – we stuck that on. So everyone’s there, with each other, and groups they got booked with, groups like the Buzzcocks, that we knew when we started really. You know, when we sort of see them, we talk to them, but it’s not very often. We’d like to, you know, see a lot more of other Manchester groups.”
Over the next few years, the music industry’s focus would shift away from Manchester and towards the nation’s capital, enraptured by the theatrical zeal of goth. But all the while, Manchester continued to act as an incubator for some of the UK’s most exciting young acts, with the likes of The Smiths, Happy Mondays, and, The Stone Roses, cementing the city’s musical dominance throughout the 1980s.