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Warsaw: The maligned band before Joy Division

Joy Division are one of the most widely revered bands of all time. Post-punk ice at its finest, without their pioneering steps, music itself would look very different. A band of mythical proportions, they can count The Cure, Bloc Party and even Danny Brown amongst their fans. The quartet captured the bleak essence of late 1970s Britain and imbued their music with it. They captured a time and place, something that not many bands have been able to do with such ease.

The band weren’t always so well respected, though. The journey to becoming Joy Division was started on one fateful evening, June 4th, 1976. That night, friends Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook separately attended the now-iconic Sex Pistols show at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall. The pair were galvanised by the show, and later, Sumner recalled that the Sex Pistols “destroyed the myth of being a pop star, of a musician being some kind of god that you had to worship”. After that night, anyone could be a rockstar. 

Punk was here to stay, and it was to engulf everyone it came across, including Sumner and Hook, who by the end of the decade would be hailed as heroes of British music. The day after the show, driven by the energy that the Pistols show had awoken in him, Hook borrowed £35 from his mother and purchased a bass guitar. Sumner followed suit and acquired a guitar for himself. The aspiring duo were ready. The pair formed a band with friend Terry Mason, who’d also been at the gig. Equally inspired, Mason bought along a drum kit.

From there, the trio invited school friend Martin Gresty to join as vocalist, but he declined after securing a job at a local factory. Subsequently, they placed an advertisement in the local musical hub, the Virgin Records store in Manchester. Acquaintance Ian Curtis, who they knew from attending shows, responded and was hired immediately, without audition. Of Curtis, Sumner explained that they “knew he was alright to get on with and that’s what we based the whole group on. If we liked someone, they were in”. 

Now that the lineup was finalised, all they needed was a name. After rejecting names such as ‘Stiff Kittens’, they eventually settled on ‘Warsaw’ as a nod to David Bowie’s track ‘Warszawa’. The band made their live debut on May 29th, 1977, supporting Buzzcocks, Penetration and John Cooper Clarke. Interestingly, Mason’s tenure didn’t last long, and he never played the gig. He was replaced by Tony Tabac, who joined the band only two days prior to the show. 

Paul Morley, who reviewed the band in NME, gave the newcomers the exposure they were after. This wasn’t to say that they were well-liked, though. The band found themselves hated on the scene, something which has always remained a mystery, even to those who were there. When discussing Warsaw, John Cooper Clarke made an honest assertion about Joy Division’s early form. He said: “Right back when I knew them as Warsaw, I’d seen something in them. Or should I say, I didn’t see anything different from the rest of the punk bands on the scene.”

Adding: “Warsaw were no worse or better than anybody else, so why they attracted so much animosity was a mystery to me. I mean, none of them could play very much, but as I’ve said, limited technical proficiency was one of punk rock’s strengths, and a large part of its charm.”

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Either way, the end was nigh for Warsaw. Tabac was replaced in June by Steve Brotherdale of punk outfit The Panik. Brotherdale even attempted to goad Curtis into joining The Panik by inviting him to an audition, something that didn’t stand him in good stead with the rest of the band. This iteration of Warsaw recorded five demo tracks at Pennine Sound Studios in Oldham; however, the rest of the band were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Brotherdale’s overly aggressive personality, and tensions soon boiled over. 

One day, the band had enough. Driving home from the studio, they pulled over and asked the drummer to check on a flat tyre, but when he got out of the car, they sped off. This was the start of the transition into Joy Division. 

In August, the band found themselves placing more advertisements, only this time it was seeking a drummer. Stephen Morris, who went to school with Curtis, was the only respondent. Remembering Morris’ appointment, Deborah, the widow of Ian Curtis, said that he fitted “perfectly” into the fold, and that afterwards, Warsaw became a “complete ‘family'”.

Apart from being maligned on the Manchester scene, the band were constantly battling confusion with the name of celebrated London punk band Warsaw Pakt, so they renamed themselves Joy Division in early 1978.

Taken from the name of a sexual slavery wing of a Nazi concentration camp, the bleak name set a precedent for the band moving forward. Furthermore, the name change was well due as, at the time, they started to move away from straight-up punk and expanded their sound, driven by Hook’s guitar-like basslines and synthesisers. Warsaw was finally dead. 

In December ’77, the band recorded their debut EP, An Ideal for Living, and played their first show as Joy Division on January 25th, 1978. They were about to take the world by storm and change the trajectory of music forevermore. This chapter of their career wasn’t to be without its own dose of great hardship, but that’s a story for another day.

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