The Story Behind The Song: Joy Division’s anthem ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, Ian Curtis’ final message
Today we celebrate the life and times of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis who sadly committed suicide on this day in 1980. The words ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ were chosen as his epitaph and they make a fitting image of a transcendent musical icon.
At the time of his death, Curtis was taking Joy Division to the top of the pile and were arguably the biggest band in the country. His death is still felt to this day, some 40 years on, largely because as a person the singer gave himself so intently to his art and his band. You could see it in his eyes, you could feel it in his performances and you could certainly hear it in his music.
Ian Curtis and Joy Division carved out their own niche following the greyscale end to the technicolour dream of the seventies punk scene. As Manchester began to sag with snotty-three chord acts, Curtis and the band moved in a whole new direction and took all of Manchester along with them. After catching the attention of Tony Wilson and Rob Gretton, the group soon had an unstoppable, if not comical, team behind them and delivered a series of powerful singles and their seminal album Unknown Pleasures by the time of recording ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ in 1980.
Few songs of Joy Division’s catalogue sound like ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, likely because the single — one of the band’s most successful — was written as a bridge from the unbridled success of Unknown Pleasures to the promised land of a brand new sound. But it wouldn’t be done with much ease.
After the group’s first attempts of recording the new song expert producer Martin Hannett, Curtis decided they weren’t keen and instead enlisted the group for another recording, something that means JD drummer Stephen Morris has trouble enjoying the song to this: “Martin Hannett played one of his mind games when we were recording it – it sounds like he was a tyrant, but he wasn’t, he was nice. We had this one battle where it was nearly midnight and I said, ‘Is it all right if I go home, Martin – it’s been a long day?’ And he said [whispers], ‘OK … you go home’.”
Adding: “So I went back to the flat. Just got to sleep and the phone rings. ‘Martin wants you to come back and do the snare drum’. At four in the morning! I said, ‘What’s wrong with the snare drum!?’ So every time I hear ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, I grit my teeth and remember myself shouting down the phone, ‘YOU BASTARD!’ … I can feel the anger in it even now. It’s a great song and it’s a great production, but I do get anguished every time I hear it.” But Hannett had a vision and he, along with the band, were determined to continue their sonic evolution.
‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ wasn’t the only single that filled the void between albums, as well as the standout track was ‘Transmission’ another typically frantic affair that offered a light and dark refrain from ‘LWTA’. “Martin sensed it was a song that was going to last forever and wanted to make it really special. We recorded a lot of versions of the song, because back then nothing was too much trouble,” bassist Peter Hook told Louder Sound.
“I think ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is a very poppy, very ‘commercial’ I suppose you’d say riff – it’s very memorable,” Peter Hook told Gigwise, “The thing is that allied to the very dark lyrics in the song, I suppose it makes it very bitter-sweet, it lasts longer than it would have done if it was just a ‘normal’ pop song.
“It’s quite a frightening song lyrically. It’s completely at odds with the music. I think that’s very Joy Division actually – it sort of lulls you into a false sense of bonhomie and then rips your heart out.” Another joy of the single is Curtis’ sumptuous baritone which, according to legend, was born out of Tony Wilson lending him a range of Frank Sinatra albums prior to recording for an extra added croon.
Bittersweet honesty was a move that Curtis and Joy Division had been pulling for some years and one that seemed to come all too naturally to them. Sadly, looking back now, knowing what we know, the lyrics of some of JD’s songs can act as tragic foreshadowing to the group’s untimely end. Sadly, it was not something his bandmates ever noticed, Hooky told LouderSound: “We never talked about our music, we just got on with it, we didn’t analyse it. It’s only when you read his lyrics you realise… If anyone had done that they would have steamed in straight away.”
He continued: “But we didn’t, we just used to go by what Ian told us, and he always told us he was fine.” ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is another one of those songs in which Curtis lays his heart on the line and allows the audience to know him more intimately than, well, his wife.
The track largely centres on the deterioration of Curtis and his wife, Deborah’s relationship, how the impact of the band had changed their good intentions and, perhaps most pertinently, a glimpse into the singer’s mind frame before his death. The song’s light and dark, bittersweet moments offered up a vision of Curtis trying to manage his own struggles.
Clearly, with a top band and some of the widest critical acclaims around, Curtis and Joy Division were on the path to success. Their US tour was only a day away when Curtis killed himself, but there was a darkness inside that the singer was keen to share. Bono of U2 happened to be courting Martin Hannett to produce their album Boy around this time and he reflected on the song’s power and Curtis’ life: “Talking to Ian Curtis is … or was a strange experience because he’s very warm… he talked—it was like two people inside of him—he talked very light, and he talked very well-mannered and very polite.”
“But when he got behind the microphone he really surged forth; there was another energy. It seemed like he was just two people and, you know, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, it was like [when] that record was released … it was like, as if, there were the personalities, separate; there they were, torn apart.”
It’s been 40 years since Ian Curtis sadly died and the singer’s music with Joy Division is still as widely adored now as it was then. The singer may have become an icon for the wrong reasons but he will remain one for all the right ones.