The formation of Joy Division has been covered in more detail than possibly any other group in history. Famously, it all began with a Sex Pistols show at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1976, and for Bernard Sumner, there was one simple reason why he was desperate to join a band.
Ever since an early age, Sumner always mustered aims atypical of what was expected for someone from Salford. He saw the lives that people around him were leading, clocking in and out of factory work, making enough money to simply survive, and it frightened him. While financial gains were never his primary incentive, Sumner was a dreamer who went against the grain.
He needed something else in his life to provide him with a sense of purpose. Even if it royally failed, he could say that at least he tried. If Sumner never experimented with music, then he’d have had a cloud of regret following him for the rest of his days, but, thankfully, things worked out wilder than he could ever have pictured.
When he and his school friend Peter Hook watched the Sex Pistols, they suddenly felt that being in a band was attainable after all. He later said the concert “destroyed the myth of being a pop star, of a musician being some kind of god that you had to worship”.
Sumner was 20 when he attended the Lesser Free Trade Hall, and soon after, Warsaw (soon to be Joy Division) was born. There was no grand plan for domination, and all Sumner craved was an escape from the grey, monotonous life that he felt at risk of swallowing him up if he didn’t do something drastic about it.
“In the early days we were just happy to make music because we hated work and normality,” Sumner recalled to The Irish Times. “Doing a nine-to-five put the fear of God in you. I never envisaged doing that, but I tried it for a bit. I left school and I had to get a job because we didn’t have any money. I somehow got a job at Salford City Treasury at the town hall sending rates demands out and stuffing envelopes.
“I was 17 and worked in a general office sending these out, thinking, ‘Jesus, to quote a Peggy Lee song, is this all there is?’ Some of the people who were in there for a couple of years were great, but some of them were like the living dead.”
Sumner then stumbled into animation while the band were in their infancy and worked at Stop Frame. One thing was clear, however, and that was the fire inside of him to use his creativity on a day-to-day basis rather than settling for what he perceived to be an ordinary job.
“It was like conveyor belt art, so I wanted to do something else,” Sumner added. “Then, the band just came together from going to gigs and meeting like-minded people. By some incredible miracle, it worked, and it is still working. Thank goodness, because I don’t need a plan B now”.
While the story of Joy Divison will be permanently entrenched in tragedy due to the heartbreaking way it ended, there is a tremendous amount of inspiration to be found in Sumner’s story and his noble quest to be somebody.