There is no doubt that Joy Division quickly asserted themselves as the grown-up older brother of punk. Though the post-punk movement was already underway before punk had really exhausted itself, the Manchester band, led by Ian Curtis and accompanied by Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris, showed themselves to not only have all the fearsome ferocity of punk rock but also possessed a degree of curated and cultivated thinking too.
Not only was this present in their songs but also in their styling, their sonic aesthetic and pretty much everything they did. Joy Division, it was clear, wasn’t like anybody else. And, in a perfect reflection of their idiosyncrasies, one of their more underrated songs was directly inspired by the esteemed novelist, Franz Kafka.
Ian Curtis’ short time on this planet was divided between two real loves: music and literature. The Joy Division singer, who sadly took his own life in 1980, was an avid reader and made it a point to include literary references throughout his work with the band. It means, searching through their canon, you will find references to J.G. Ballard, Nikolai Gogol and the great Franz Kafka.
The latter is represented in this track from the band’s final album Closer, released in 1980 and now forever entwined with Curtis’ tragic suicide. Titled ‘Colony’, the song is a direct reference to Kafka’s 1914 short story named In The Penal Colony. The song is naturally dark and filled with menace, something both Kafka and Curtis could pull from their souls at a moment’s notice.
The truth is, literature was as much entwined with Curtis’ life as music was. He was as equally enamoured with the writers of the darkest corners of the world as he was replicating David Bowie and Iggy Pop on the stage. “Words meant such a lot to Ian,” says Deborah Curtis to The Guardian, the singer’s widow. “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.”
Curtis was only 23 when he took his own life, something which many people have attributed to his impending fame, his affinity for infinity and his struggles in coming to terms with his epilepsy. It’s a sadness that can be heard throughout Closer.
When Deborah Curtis heard the album for the first time she found it “shocking. Because the lyrics were so dark. So very dark. You just think, ‘How come he couldn’t talk to somebody about it?’”
“Ian didn’t have an unhappy childhood,” says Deborah when reconciling his tragedy. “Nothing horrible happened. He didn’t have a lot to draw on. I think that’s why he read so much.” It’s a process that many of us have been through but one Curtis used to express himself in the only way he knew how —through music and lyrics.
Within those books, though he may have found inspiration for melancholy, he brought joy, and continues to bring joy, to millions with the work he created. One such song, the brilliant ‘Colony’, can be heard below.