In the 1970s and 1980s, journalists and TV producers looking to capture the full extent of Britain’s industrial and manufacturing decline would go to Manchester in search of empty warehouses, derelict workshops and canals clogged with debris. During the same period of post-industrial ruin, several influential bands formed in the city – The Fall and Joy Division in the late 1970s, The Smiths a few years later – and although they differed greatly in their sound and their ways of seeing the world, in each case it seemed as if the bleakness of the failed landscape around them was seeping into their music.
A local photographer, Kevin Cummins, was commissioned by the NME in January 1979 to take a series of portraits of Joy Division inside the grotty warehouse where the band rehearsed; most striking are those showing the band’s singer, Ian Curtis, pale and brooding, lit by dusty light. Cummins also photographed the band standing in the snow down by the cathedral, and on a bridge overlooking Hulme, a huge 1960s housing estate. The four band members looked like refugees.
Morrissey of The Smiths would later write songs about these places, about ‘Rusholme ruffians’ and a ‘rented room in Whalley Range’, about iron bridges and ‘a river the colour of lead’. In May 1983, Paul Slattery – who had photographed Joy Division in 1979, too, beside an industrial estate in Stockport – took some shots for Sounds of The Smiths standing in the ruins of Central Station, once the pride of the Midland Railway Company but by then a rackety and pockmarked car park.
These bands didn’t seem all that interested in commercial success, but they were innovative and intriguing, and attracted small, very devoted followings. I once met two students from Nijmegen who had come on a pilgrimage to Manchester because they loved The Fall. They flicked through my record collection and asked me about the band’s frontman, Mark E. Smith, and his lyrics. ‘What is “mithering”?’ they wanted to know. ‘And what is “cash and carry”?’
Smith, Curtis and Morrissey created a version of Manchester that journalists and photographers began to define and refine. ‘Joy Division’s themes are a perfect reflection of Manchester’s dark places,’ Jon Savage wrote in Melody Maker in July 1979, and in the NME Paul Morley championed the band’s ‘blurred depictions of desperation and desolation’. Cummins, who often worked alongside Morley, writes in his introduction to Juvenes, a collection of his Joy Division photographs, that ‘on the rare occasion that I captured the hint of a smile, I cursed my bad luck at wasting a frame.’
I assume that the Dutch boys, like many others, discovered The Fall by listening to John Peel. There was no MySpace or MTV then, and Peel was a key part of the network through which word spread about these bands. The mainstream media rarely acknowledged Joy Division or The Fall, and with the exception of Mark Radcliffe’s Piccadilly Radio show, this was true even, or especially, in Manchester. But other musicians were listening. Back in 1979 and 1980, these included the likes of The Cure and U2, but Joy Division’s sound echoes even more loudly in music today.
The growing interest in the band possibly springs from a shift in the way music fans pursue their interest. The web makes it easier to track down obscure tracks and long-lost film footage, and the recent flurry of CD reissues and boxed sets also reflects a move towards exploring and curating. But there is also the allure of their bleak vision. Joy Division’s guitarist, Bernard Sumner, recalls teenage years blighted by the simpering commerciality of the pop charts: he told me recently, with a wince, that one of the reasons he’d wanted to form a band was hearing the song ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’. Not enough attention has been paid to how depressing light entertainment can be: it’s no surprise that young people should be seeking out the challenging music of the post-punk years now, at a time when the public face of the industry is Simon Cowell. Similarly, the teenagers who formed Joy Division found their role models in bands from a previous era that had ‘lifted the lid on things’, as Sumner puts it: the Doors, the Stooges, Can and The Velvet Underground. Like other post-punk bands, Joy Division believed that music could be a medium for unsettling ideas. They also believed in the DIY aesthetic (putting out records on their own label, or a small independent label), and rejected punk and all the sloganeering that had gone with it. Tony Wilson, a hugely influential figure who ran Joy Division’s record label, Factory, explained the shift: ‘Punk enabled you to say “Fuck you,” but somehow it couldn’t go any further. Sooner or later someone was going to want to say “I’m fucked,” and that was Joy Division.’
Sumner grew up in Salford. Slum clearances meant that his family had to be relocated to a tower block on the other side of the River Irwell; all that was left of the old neighbourhood was a chemical factory. One of his mates at school was Peter Hook, who ended up playing bass in the band; Hook likes to describe himself as an ‘oik’. Curtis was more bookish, and isolated. Joy Division’s music was bleak, full of frustration, fear and guilt. They were produced by Martin Hannett, whose studio experience, though limited, had included work with another influential Manchester band, the Buzzcocks. His working practices often perplexed musicians, but were effective in this case: he slowed Joy Division’s music down, and created its iciness and Gothic grandeur. On Joy Division’s debut album, Unknown Pleasures, you can hear the space in the music, dragging the listener in.
Joy Division didn’t last long. They made two studio albums, played 120 gigs and came to an abrupt end on Sunday, 18 May 1980, when Ian Curtis killed himself. He’d been up all night, alone in his house in Macclesfield after a row with his wife about a possible divorce. He’d watched Herzog’s Stroszek on television and listened to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. He wrote a note, rearranged the family photographs on the mantelpiece and hanged himself.
Curtis’s death was inevitably seen as authenticating his dark lyrics, though at the time the content of the lyrics hadn’t been clear even to those close to the band. In 1978, Morley wrote that he had given up trying to make out the words (he blamed ‘the perils of fast communicative music performed with poor equipment in dire venues’). The surviving band members claim their equipment was so bad they couldn’t hear what Curtis was saying, though the drummer, Stephen Morris, still wonders how they missed the desperation. When they recorded Unknown Pleasures in the studio in April 1979, the band must have been able to hear the lyrics more clearly, but they preferred not to think about what lay behind them. Sumner says it would have been like reading someone’s diary.
After Curtis’s death, the surviving members of Joy Division renamed themselves New Order. They embraced computer technology and recruited Gillian Gilbert to play keyboards, the guitarist became the singer, and they went on to make a string of commercially and critically successful records, including ‘Blue Monday’ (the biggest selling 12-inch single of all time). New Order’s profits were used by Factory Records to pay for the ruinously expensive Hacienda club, which by 1990 had become a focus of the new rave culture in what became known as ‘Madchester’. The city was much written about and its regeneration began. This might well not have happened without Joy Division; the story of modern Manchester begins with them and with Factory Records. The reaction to Wilson’s death this summer made clear how significant his influence and that of the bands he championed is perceived to be.
Today the council, the local media and the culture industry endlessly celebrate Manchester’s premiership status as a music city. Urbis is showing a massive exhibition of flyers, photographs, film footage and posters from the Hacienda; there are music heritage tours, and the council’s tourism website boasts a podcast by Peter Hook talking about Manchester’s musical history and his favourite parts of the city. The Hacienda itself closed in 1997, as Factory ran out of money to pay the security costs needed to keep drug dealers and guns out of the club, and it has since been demolished and replaced by yet another apartment block. Guides take tourists to the corner of Whitworth Street West and point out how far along the road and round the corner the queues outside the Hacienda used to stretch; they go on to relate how Johnny Marr met Morrissey in May 1982 on the day the pope arrived at Heaton Park; or describe Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays pulling a gun at the Dry Bar. Central Station, where The Smiths were photographed, was the venue for Blair’s last Party Conference.
Recently I made a pilgrimage of my own to Macclesfield, where Ian Curtis lived and died. Macclesfield isn’t far from Alderley Edge, home to footballers, footballers’ wives and millionaire Cheshire businessmen, but it is hemmed in, an old mill town short of opportunities. Curtis married young, at 19; his wife, Deborah, was 18. In 1979 they had a daughter, Natalie. Anton Corbijn’s movie about Curtis, Control, was filmed at the house they lived in, 77 Barton Street. It’s a well-kept street of neat houses built on a hill, some with plastic flowers in the window and a ceramic plaque on the front door. Opposite Curtis’s house, a horse chestnut tree has grown big enough to block out some of the light to the front bedrooms; around it there’s a hotchpotch of lock-up garages and cramped back yards. You can see across the town to a large mill halfway up the hillside opposite.
Curtis travelled into Manchester to see Bowie as Ziggy Stardust in 1972, and the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976. The wretched economic state of Manchester in the late 1970s might even have helped the music scene: there were rehearsal rooms in old warehouses, recording studios in former mills. Curtis had a job for a while as a sales assistant at Rare Records, a dingy basement store in the city centre. But for most of the time he was in the band, he worked for the civil service, at one point as a disability officer in the Employment Exchange in Macclesfield. Often he was picked up by the rest of the band and taken straight from work to play a gig.
Curtis was a mesmerising performer with a distinctive dance, frantic and unwieldy. In 1979 he was diagnosed with severe epilepsy; he was 23. Stress seemed to trigger seizures, as did strobe lights. He knew through his job how disabling epilepsy could be, an obstacle to normal life, and even more to his rock and roll dreams. There’s also evidence that the drugs he was prescribed to combat his illness affected his mental health. Vini Reilly of Durutti Column – another Factory band – was particularly close to Curtis. ‘The medication destroyed him completely,’ Reilly says. ‘It took away all his powers and all his ability to control his own destiny.’
By the middle of 1979, around the time he wrote the words to Joy Division’s best-known song, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, Curtis and his wife were having problems. Debbie had unwittingly become part of what seemed to be suffocating him: she pushed the pram, washed his underpants and checked he’d taken his tablets. Curtis developed an intense friendship with Annik Honoré, who worked at the Belgian Embassy in London and introduced herself to the band as a fanzine writer. In the film the distinctions between Debbie and Annik are clear; Annik has an un-Macclesfield spirit of intellectual adventure, a love of films and art, and a sense of freedom. It doesn’t come across as a rock star-groupie relationship: Curtis is inept, childlike, a bit desperate.
This relationship is Corbijn’s reason for describing Control as a ‘love story’. It gives the film an appeal to people other than Joy Division fans, but we lose any context, either musical or political: the film is all about interiors – the studio, the house, the hotel rooms, and Curtis’s inner life. When the focus widens it’s only to take in a few people around the band: Wilson, Hannett and the band’s manager, Rob Gretton. Sam Riley gives a perfect impersonation of Curtis, capturing his mannerisms, the onstage flailings and the voice. The original intention was for the actors to mime to the songs, but in the end they performed them themselves. This makes the live scenes feel authentic and underlines how simple and stripped down the Joy Division sound is: compelling, and direct.
Corbijn moved from Holland to England in 1979 and photographed Joy Division within a fortnight of arriving. His work soon began to appear in NME, though it was his pictures of U2 that made his name. He has made nearly a hundred music videos, but Control is his first film. It is shot in black and white because, Corbijn says, those years are black and white in his memory. Peter Saville’s designs for the band’s record sleeves invariably used slabs of jet black and marble white, and the photographs everyone remembers of them were always monochrome – but then nobody published in colour at the time. There are only six colour frames in Cummins’s Joy Division archive, from a gig supporting the Buzzcocks in Liverpool. Control isn’t an example of dirty realism, however: the black and white stock gives the film a polish that the murky, messy, down-at-heel late 1970s did not have. The result is perhaps overstylised, and the camera, by lingering on Riley, fashions Curtis into an icon.
The film reminds us just how young the band were, and like The Velvet Underground, how little success they had at the time. Stephen Morris doesn’t remember many discussions about what their music should sound like, but does remember Curtis encouraging them to play ‘more like The Velvet Underground’. At the band’s last gig they played a version of ‘Sister Ray’ by the Velvets, as they had many times before, because the song could be belted out by the band for ten minutes or more, allowing Curtis, who was often too ill to complete songs, to leave the stage and try to get himself together.
I was at that last gig in Birmingham, halfway between the sound desk and the stage, in the middle of what, by day, was the refectory of a student hall of residence. The crowd wasn’t especially big, three hundred or so. Of course, no one knew it was going to be the final gig; it was just a ramshackle affair in a small, unglamorous venue. There’s very little original film of Joy Division: it says a lot about the status of the band at the time that some of the most significant footage of them playing live is ten minutes of colour Super-8 film with sync sound shot at a youth club outside Altrincham.
Curtis was cremated and there’s a memorial to him in Macclesfield cemetery. The stones there are grouped roughly chronologically, with room for only the barest details, some of them tended, many not. Curtis’s memorial stone is unassuming, easy to miss. There’s no birth date on the stone, though the date of his death is recorded, along with the words ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. There were a few flowers, sprigs of this and that, and a couple of badges. There was also a key, but nothing to unlock, and someone had thoughtfully placed a shoebox-sized Tupperware container close by. In it were thirty or forty cards, notes, photos and letters; some of the cards dated back to July (his birthday), and some to last Easter. Sarah from Manchester had written some words by Blake (‘The Ruins of Time builds Mansions in Eternity’); others thanked Curtis for his inspiration; some promised he’d never be forgotten.
It was quiet, and the clouds shifted; the wind blew fallen leaves across the stones and pathways. The cemetery still feels undiscovered, a shared secret. And perhaps because it’s so unassuming, it has more force than more famous rock-star graves, like Jim Morrison’s at Père Lachaise. Having flicked through some of the messages, I pulled back from looking at the rest. I replaced the lid, and it closed with a double click.