“I used to work in a factory and I was really happy because I could daydream all day.” — Ian Curtis
There’s palpable and visceral poetry to Joy Division’s lyrics. Only spread across a comparatively small canon, considering the band’s huge impact, lead singer Ian Curtis delivered an array of themes and motifs that not only reflected a world slowly trudging its way into cold and lifeless modernity but the intense and intrinsic sadness of Curtis’ personal life. Following the singer’s tragic suicide in 1980, those lyrics that had once felt so charged and evocative now came with an extra dose of realism that had been largely unwanted.
Curtis is rightly revered as one of the foremost leaders of the post-punk movement. He may only have been at the helm for a few short years, but Curtis entire performance, demeanour and lifestyle made him the genre’s unanointed king. While Joy Divison’s sound helped to fuel this fire, the feeling of disenfranchisement that the band purveyed largely stemmed from Curtis’ lyrics. Below, we’re picking out ten of our favourite lines from the impeccable mind of Ian Curtis and Joy Division.
There’s no doubt that Joy Division exists outside of Curtis’ lyrics. Whether it was Peter Hook’s bone-shaking basslines, Bernard Sumner’s unique guitar playing or Stephen Morris’ metronomic rhythm, or indeed, Martin Hannett’s idiosyncratic production, the group found favour with a sub-section of society that had grown tired of punk’s flashy behaviour. The intensity of that movement died out only a few months after it was born, and now the world needed something new. Enter Joy Divison.
As Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins once said of the band: “When they finally write the real book on rock and roll, when all the dust settles, and the truth is finally told and they get it right. One of the bands at the top of the mountain along with the David Bowies and The Rolling Stones will be Joy Division because they are easily as great as any band that has ever existed.” Now, that’s certainly because of the whole package mentioned above, but there’s equally no doubt that Curtis’ lyrics played a pivotal role.
In his autobiography, Record Play Pause, Stephen Morris wrote, “We were very lucky in having someone [like Curtis] who not only wanted to be the singer, but also had the intelligence to write meaningful words.”
His wife, Deborah Curtis, made a similar claim when speaking to The Observer in 2014, saying, “Words meant such a lot to Ian – if he put a record on, we’d have to listen to absolutely everything. He used to talk about what the lyrics meant and the story behind them. He didn’t like songs that didn’t mean anything.”
The singer used his own expression most sincerely, peddling personal struggles to finally give punk some much-needed grounding. Of course, some songs were embellishments and others complete fabrications, but what Curtis brought to the party was an unflinching honesty. It was what defined him as a performer and especially a lyricist.
Below, we’re picking out ten of our favourite lyrics from Ian Curtis and Joy Division.
Joy Division and Ian Curtis’ best lyrics:
‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’
“Why is the bedroom so cold turned away on your side?
Is my timing that flawed, our respect run so dry?
Yet there’s still this appeal that we’ve kept through our lives
Love, love will tear us apart again
Love, love will tear us apart again”
Not many songs have been as ruthlessly pawed over as Joy Division’s seminal number ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart‘. The song is such a signature, not just of the band but the entire decade, that to champion it once more within our list feels a little frivolous. However, to ignore its beauty and power, over four decades since its release, is to ignore a huge part of why the band were so loved in the first place.
For many, the song reflects Curtis beginning to come to terms with the end of his marriage. Effortlessly depicting the difficulties within such a scenario, Curtis does that most [poetic of things and allows his audience to feel both affected by the song but also allow enough space for it to be applauded.
Curtis always operated in the Venn diagram of real-life and really great storytelling so, as Deborah Curtis said of the song, “I don’t know how much is fiction and how much is reality.”
“Mother I tried please believe me,
I’m doing the best that I can.
I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through,
I’m ashamed of the person I am.”
One of Joy Division’s most beloved songs, ‘Isolation’ suddenly feels more relatable than it ever has done. But while we can all now understand the feeling of isolation on a physical level, Curtis was adept at sharing his alienation with the masses.
Perhaps more self-imposed than Curtis would have admitted, the isolation he experienced was put down on paper alongside his darkest fear and worries. While that is all par for the course, Curtis also highlights a yearning for the beautiful side of life to be recognised, especially as he sings: “But if you could just see the beauty, these things I could never describe.”
It’s a breathtaking piece.
“I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand
Could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal man?”
‘Disorder’ is one song that will always capture the hearts and minds of fans. A song that is simply brimming with the potential of the group’s success also pays homage to its ultimate downfall. Largely seen as a song from Curtis about his epilepsy, most notably explored on ‘She’s Lost Control’, the actual root of the song perhaps hangs on the line “I’ve got the spirit, losing feeling,” which suggests Curtis was already detaching himself from the world.
“Who is right, who can tell and who gives a damn right now,” sings Curtis with fervent energy that suggests it could well be him. However, throughout the song, the artist is becoming more and more unhinged and disconnected from his life. Joy Divison were beginning to take off, and this could be a song referring to this affliction of fame rather than epilepsy.
Whichever way you cut it, the song is simply dripping with visceral imagery and an unbridled pulsing that shakes like a train. Curtis is telling us that the artist is being trodden down by the act of making art.
“Someone take these dreams away,
That point me to another day,
A duel of personalities,
That stretch all true realities”
Sometimes Curtis brought a little bit of light as well as the dark. While ‘Dead Souls’ may not be the most cheery of song titles, the track does contain some of the singer’s more uplifting moments, such as the one above, if you can call it that. In truth, it catches Curtis in the middle of a tug of war.
Clearly, Curtis was struggling to align his personal and professional life on this track. While he suggests that one is purer than the other, ‘Dead Souls’ allows the multitude of different personalities to flourish as the imagery of lost souls all vying for attention rises to the fore.
“People like you find it easy, Naked to see, Walking on air”
The flipside to the aforementioned song, ‘Atmosphere’ is widely regarded as one of Joy Division’s best songs. Previously released as a French-only import, the song almost never reached British shores. What a shame that would have been. Sonically, the song is full of arresting glacial moments but lyrically is where it lands most succinctly of all.
The music’s delicacy is mirrored in Curtis’ words as he opens up his rich and ready vocal cords to add some heavy cream to the song’s recipe. A series of lines are sung with the confidence of a seasoned poet, and, by this time, of course, that’s exactly what Curtis was.
John Peel selected the song as the tribute track after announcing Curtis’ death and the effort will remain a part of the band’s iconography forever.
‘A Means to an End’
“We fought for good, stood side by side
Our friendship never died
On stranger waves, the lows and highs
Our vision touched the sky
Immortalists with points to prove
I put my trust in you”
Not all of the band’s songs and lyrics were entirely drenched in the morbid, and the first few verses of ‘Means to an End’ from the 1980 album Closer is some of their brightest work.
The track may feel like a brief moment of reprieve when considered within their larger canon, but underneath the message of hope was the sense of resignation that ultimately contributed to Curtis’ death. If you needed further proof that the lines above were delivered with a sense of dread, then listen out for the dry-heave wailing Curtis provides later on in the effort.
‘She’s Lost Control’
“Confusion in her eyes that says it all
She’s lost control
And she’s clinging to the nearest passer-by
She’s lost control”
Without question, Joy Divison’s ‘She’s Lost Control’ is one of the most difficult songs to listen to. Written before his diagnosis, the song looks back to when Curtis witnessed his colleague suffering from an epileptic seizure.
Before Curtis became the frontman of Joy Division and found fame with the band, he worked for the council. In his menial position, very little happened except one moment when he witnessed a lady endure an epileptic seizure and, in the immediate time that followed, Curtis later found out that she had passed away that day. It was a chastening experience for Curtis, who caught a glimpse of the fragility of life.
Lyrically, the song, once understanding its conception, is stark and cold. It handles the arresting fear of witnessing such a thing with clinical brutalism. It would sadly offer a shocking vision of Curtis’ future. Written before Curtis’ first epileptic seizure, the song is a hard reminder of the singer’s illness.
“Oh, I’ll break them down, no mercy shown
Heaven knows, it’s got to be this time
Watching her, these things she said
The times she cried
Too frail to wake this time”
Though written and recorded by Joy Division before Curtis’ death, the song was released by New Order in 1980 as the group’s debut single. However, it was reimagined and re-recorded for this purpose as the band swore not to use any Joy Division song.
It may also have something to do with the fact that the band needed some space for new singer Bernard Sumner to find his feet. Nasturally, the material Curtis had written wasn’t the best example of doing so. But this song still reeks of everything that made Curtis such a compelling writer.
Clearly sharing this one with a view on the charts, the song is still smattered by Curtis’ searing intelligence.
“Listen to the silence, let it ring on
Eyes, dark grey lenses frightened of the sun
We would have a fine time living in the night
Left to blind destruction, waiting for our sight”
Hearing Ian Curtis scream out “Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio” is still a sincere pleasure. The way the singer yelps and squirms is all part of what made him such an attractive proposition as a frontman. Finally, we had a performer and a singer who was shy like us, who was afraid of unadulterated fame like us and who could be sad and ashamed like us. The opening lines of ‘Transmission’ said that right away.
The song was a wake-up call to those who blindly followed mainstream media and a reminder to those that didn’t follow, that there was a new voice to be listened to. As modernity seemed to promote obedience and subservience, Curtis was trying to sound the alarm bells.
“Asylums with doors open wide
Where people had paid to see inside
For entertainment they watch his body twist
Behind his eyes he says ‘I still exist.’”
Joy Divison can give you chills. As well as their albums being masterpieces of performance they were equally gifted piece sof production too. That’s where ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ perhaps excels best of all. The stark spaces left behind by Marti Hannett provide nooks and crannies for us to get lost in. But within this track, Curtis showcases why he was such a potent lyricist.
Inspired by JG Ballard’s novel of the same name — a writer who Ian Curtis adored — the song relies on the constant run of heinous human behaviour as its backbone. It’s easily one of Curtis’ rawest examples of his life in lyrics as he noted the push and pull of living two lives. It’s a theme explored heavily on Closer but on ‘Atrocity Exhibition’, he provides a tangible moment of despair.