Joy Division was the best band in the world in 1980—hand’s down, no questions asked, send all the other competitors home. There, we said it. Without doubt, the band encapsulated the punk spirit that came before them but with the intelligence and fresh forward-thinking that would see them transcend the grotty clubs of northern England.
Much of that was down to their enigmatic frontman Ian Curtis. What Curtis may have lacked in traditional vocal power he made up for in mood, expression and sentiment, both lyrically and in his vocal.
The singer was a mainstay of the Manchester music scene in the late seventies, watching bands like the Buzzcocks and Sex Pistols and idolising David Bowie, he was desperate to find fame with a band of his own. And he did.
Joy Division quite quickly became one of the most highly rated bands around the burning post-punk scene and their album, Unknown Pleasures, undoubtedly still ranks as one of the greatest in rock history.
In May 1980, 40 years ago, with a US tour booked for his band Joy Division, Ian Curtis could not reconcile his externally perceived success with his internal sadness and sadly took his own life at his marital home. The rock world was left in total shock. Though Curtis had struggled with epilepsy, a growing problem for his musical life touring, and his marriage was seemingly falling apart—nobody could have expected this.
Shocked and saddened, the remaining members of the band; Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris pledged to make good on Curtis’ dream and continue on as a new band, New Order. But before that could journey begin they had to deal with the loss of their friend and singer the only way they knew how.
One way of dealing with that was to release one of the greatest rock songs ever written. A song built on the intensity of language and the harkening emotion of sound. A song built on the fragility of a relationship and the suffocation of the mind it entrapped. ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ was released in June 1980.
It’s a song that not only allowed Curtis to play the guitar (droning a D throughout) even though he didn’t like to, but allowed him to ditch his mild-mannered and polite demeanour for the surging power he mustered when behind the mic. While the song remains a triumph, it is in his isolated vocal which you can hear the haunting sadness of Curtis’ later life.
With the benefit, or sadness in this case, of hindsight, we can add a little extra layer of emotion on this already highly-charged song. But it is hard not to when listening to Curtis vocals which as well as offering some kind of painful foreshadowing, are achingly beautiful.
Below is the striking isolated vocal of Ian Curtis on Joy Division’s iconic anthem ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’