The tragic death of Ian Curtis sent ripples all across the world of music. The Joy Division frontman had seemingly just begun on his adventure when it ended so abruptly. Curtis took his own life following the insufferable epileptic seizures which had started to dominate his every moment. It saw the singer commit suicide in 1980 and end the hopes of Joy Division along with it. His bandmates were mourning the loss of a dear friend and felt unable to carry on with Joy Division without Curtis but determined to keep their dream going, alas, New Order was born.
Their style dramatically changed without Curtis steering the ship, with Peter Hook’s thunderous basslines being one of the few similarities between Joy Division and New Order. Dealing with Curtis’ loss was difficult for all the New Order members, and it would take them until 1985 to pay homage to their fallen leader in musical form. Titled ‘Elegia’, the Greek word for ‘elegy’ — a poem of reflection in honour of the dead — the song works as a tribute to the band members former leader.
On the 40th Anniversary of Curtis’ death, Joy Division bassist Hook said to The Independent: “Ian was very, very likeable. He was very easy-going until he got drunk. He was a real nice man. Very easy to, if you like, fall in love with and then when he started singing – and don’t forget, our equipment was absolutely shite – we couldn’t hear what he was doing, but you could see what he was doing, which was putting in the same amount of passion, enthusiasm and anger.”
Meanwhile, Joy Division drummer Stephen Morris said of the dearly departed singer: “Ian was very, very passionate about the band. He was the most belligerent about our lack of success in the early days. The one thing that really upsets me about the general perception of Joy Division and Ian particularly is that he always comes across as a morose, depressed individual, a tortured artist, where he was anything but. We joined a band to have fun and that was what we were doing. He was always having a laugh.”
The sentiment of Curtis being a joy to be around is quite the contrary from the public perception of the singer, instead, being painted as a rather more dour character. The instrumental ‘Elegia’ is one of the most potent musical pieces that New Order have created. It is a fitting tribute to the man who not just played a pivotal role in the infancy of their careers but more importantly, was a dear friend.
Knowing that ‘Elegia’ is a tribute to Curtis, the song hits differently. The fact that New Order deliberately opted against adding vocals to the track only opens up the wound left by Curtis’ passing. It makes his departure all the more difficult and highlights the weight of his loss. The loss of Curtis hurt the band to such a degree that it was impossible to use words to describe their pain. However, on ‘Elegia’ they manage to convey these shared emotions they felt from losing Curtis, which sounds like the crashing down of an empire that seemed to have only just got started.
It’s one of the most delicate pieces of music from New Order’s vast repertoire, and it takes a remarkable level of skill to create such a poignant sense of grief without the cheat code of vocals. Ian Curtis’ story remains one of the most tragic in music, and if epilepsy didn’t change his life, who knows the kind of magic, he would have created.
Thankfully, his bandmates have kept his spirit alive and kicking through New Order, even if the sonic landscape they primarily exist in is a world away from their origins with Joy Division.
Grab yourself a drink and listen to the full 17-minute version of ‘Elegia’, below.