(Joy Division * Punk)
University of Texas at Arlington
Citation: Richardson, Tim. “Ian Curtis.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 23, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/023.r07
Abstract: Tim Richardson’s work considers some of the influences and material interventions – books, records, rooms, paint - that supported Ian Curtis’s breakthrough contributions to post-punk music as well as the cassette tapes that allowed high school kids in West Texas to find and love him afterward. Tim suggests that these material affordances are personal encounters that continue to register emotionally.
Keywords: Post-punk, Ian Curtis, Joy Division, Suicide, Transmission.
[Joy Division’s song “Disorder” fades in, then becomes quieter]
The evening I first heard Ian Curtis sing was also the evening I learned that he had been dead for four years.
[the volume of the song increases the following line as the speaker recites over the music]
I’ve been waiting for a guide to come / and take me by the hand are the first lines of Joy Division’s first album, Unknown Pleasures. Hearing those lines and that news at pretty much the same time evoked the kind of negative capability that sensitive 15-year-olds are probably perfectly made for.
[the song fades out]
I remember sitting at my friend Mike’s house. He’d just gotten the only two albums—copied to a blank cassette, one on each side—by the band that New Order used to be. Before digital ubiquity, cassettes made it easy to copy and disseminate music. The coincidence of a large air force base near our West Texas town meant an influx of kids from all over the country. They brought their music with them and were happy to share, as long as we sprung for blank Maxells.
This is important because I think that my relationship with Ian Curtis has always been through a mediation that drew attention to itself. There’s the obvious distance that recording allows, so that someone who’s dead can sing four years later.
[ Joy Division’s song “Transmission” slowly begins to fade in]
The tape hiss of copies of copies of cassettes made listening feel underground and vaguely illicit. The sound engineering of Martin Hannett meant that a live Joy Division was very different, which we all found out years later as gig recordings surfaced and were eventually released, sometimes even officially. And Curtis did very few interviews and never talked about his process, so reading books by people who knew him—his wife and band mates—or by critics who listened closely was the only way in.
The band’s first single, “Transmission,” was a song I heard later, only after digesting those two albums. It sums up the dissonance of time and mediation this way:
[the speaker recites these lines with the singer]
Staying in the same place, just staying out the time / Touching from a distance, further all the time.
[the music becomes quieter]
I’ve never finished reading a book or watching a film about Ian Curtis, have always stopped well short of his death. Ian Curtis killed himself when he was 23 years old. At that age, he had a wife and a daughter and band that was just about to start an American tour. Years after first hearing him, I found out that he had suffered from epilepsy as well as depression, and had often been in a great deal of pain. When I first heard him sing, though, I only knew that he had died. And that he was also here, right now.
Ian Curtis Opening Statement
[Joy Division’s “Day of the Lords” fades in, then becomes quieter for voice over]
This is the room, the start of it all
You need space to work, room to write.
My last room was long enough to pace my thoughts and small enough to heat. My wife and I painted the walls sky blue to go with the blue carpet and the blue sofa, and we moved in my books and my records and then I shut the door.
[the music fades out]
Concentration and dedication and frustration. Writing is trying to make sense of the world you've received. Out of everything, time and a space to work in are essential to trying to work it out. Work isn't something you can share.
Writing is work and it isn’t ever finished. Alone, with cigarettes and scraps of paper from your job that isn’t your work. Write everything on everything you can. Keep the pages you make in a plastic carrier bag and carry them with you. Everywhere.
[“Interzone” slowly fades in]
Apply the words to the melodies you're given.
Reading is also work that’s never finished. Read alone, since it's work. Reading is a way to open yourself for influences and so it's important to choose your influences. You're
[the speaker recites the following with the singer, then the music fades out]
trying to find a clue, trying to find a way to get out of yourself and into everything else.
David Bowie was friends with William Burroughs and used cut-ups, which makes it okay. I read Burroughs, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Friedrich Nietzsche, T.S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, Antonin Artaud, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hermann Hesse, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard and stacked the books on the floor beside my drafts. The work was moving words from one stack to another.
[“Decades” slowly fades in]
Most of my books came after I quit school and instead went to bookshops to find new books that few people read and to talk with the few who read them.
[the speaker recites the following with the singer, then the music slowly fades out]
Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders, while the old men were interested in the pornography in the corner. A Ballard book was 50p, while an album was six times that. I could afford to read more than I could listen.
I listened to David Bowie and The Doors and Iggy Pop and Velvet Underground and Neu! and Can…. The machine music of Kraftwerk motivated me. The coldness that some of the work Bowie made with Brian Eno sounded like the future and I was interested in the future. I leaned these records against my blue walls.
But music can be for another space, not just your room. A space packed with people.
[the crowd noise, then the music from “Dead Souls” slowly fades in]
The Sex Pistols showed us that we could all perform, for and with each other. Just like the words of a song aren't your own as much as words you've been given to describe the world you've been given, a performance is only just you in a vulgar way. Mostly, performing is making a band and generating a crowd that you can be with. Often, we began a show with the song “Dead Souls.” Its two-minute introduction gave me time to walk the stage, read the audience, find their mood, and find my way into it.
Performing isn't sharing, it's joining.
[the music swells for a while, then fades out]
- “Disorder.” Unknown Pleasures Collector's Edition. Rhino/London Records, October 30, 2007.
- “Transmission.” Heart and Soul disk 1. Rhino, August 28, 2001.
- “Day of the Lords.” Unknown Pleasures. Factory Records, June 15, 1979.
- Deborah Curtis, in Curtis, Ian. So This Is Permanence: Joy Division Lyrics and Notebooks. Faber & Faber, 2015, (viii).
- “Interzone.” Unknown Pleasures. Factory Records, June 15, 1979.
- “Interzone.” Unknown Pleasures. Factory Records, June 15, 1979.
- “Dead Souls.” Atmosphere b-side. Sordide Sentimental, March 18, 1980.
- “Colony.” Closer. Factory Records, July 18, 1980.
- “Atrocity Exhibition.” Closer. Factory Records, July 18, 1980.
- “Decades.” Closer. Factory Records, July 18, 1980.
- Jon Savage, in Curtis, Ian. So This Is Permanence: Joy Division Lyrics and Notebooks. Faber & Faber, 2015, (xxiii); “Dead Souls.” Unknown Pleasures Collector's Edition. Rhino/London Records, October 30, 2007. Recorded live at The Factory, Manchester, April 11, 1980.