Joy Division: Forty years on from 'Closer'

This month marks four decades since the release of the classic record that would also be Ian Curtis’s final album with Joy Division. Ed Power chats to a number of Cork music fans about what it meant to them
Joy Division: Forty years on from 'Closer'
Ian Curtis, second from left, and the rest of Joy Division. 

This month marks four decades since the release of the classic record that would also be Ian Curtis’s final album with Joy Division. Ed Power chats to a number of Cork music fans about what it meant to them

At some point in the final year of his life Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis sat down in the living room of his home in Macclesfield, 16 miles south of Manchester, and put on a Frank Sinatra record. Curtis was at the time working on material for the band’s much-anticipated second album. Joy Division’s disembodied 1979 debut, Unknown Pleasures, had been acclaimed as a leap forward for post-punk.

But now the new songs weren’t flowing as quickly as he would have liked, with Curtis struggling to process through his lyrics his increasingly complicated and unhappy personal life.

So Tony Wilson, the boss of Joy Division’s label, Factory Records, had arranged what he hoped would be an inspiring gift for the earnest 23-year old. A bundle of Sinatra LPs in which to become lost and, so Wilson hoped, find himself.

“I don’t know whether it was half in jest, but Tony suggested Ian listen to Frank Sinatra,” Joy Division bassist Peter Hook would later recall. “And then [Joy Division’s manager] Rob Gretton went out and bought him some Sinatra records and Ian did get into listening to Sinatra, which was quite funny. Quite nice, actually.” 

Sinatra is not the first influence that comes to mind listening to Closer, Joy Division’s second long-player which marks its 40th anniversary on July 18. Closer, which Joy Division recorded in the months immediately preceding Curtis’s suicide that May, is a long, dark plunge into a wintry psychosphere. 

“Heart and soul, ” Curtis observes on the opening track. “One will burn.” 

 With hindsight it would become horribly obvious to Curtis’ bandmates that the singer truly was burning up inside. On May 18, 1980, shortly before Joy Division were to leave for their first American tour, Curtis hanged himself at the house he shared with his wife, Deborah, and their 13-month old baby daughter (mother and child were away at the time).

Joy Division had been due to play Cork City Hall the previous October, supporting Buzzcocks. Alas, the gig was cancelled. Also scrubbed were dates at the Ulster Hall in Belfast and the Olympia Theatre in Dublin. It would have been the rare opportunity for Irish audiences to see one of the most influential post-punk groups ever, and to hear their future single 'Love Will Tear Us Apart', which came too late for the album. 

“I started frequenting record shops in Cork in 1979/80 and I was just that bit too young to get into Joy Division at the time,” recalls Morty McCarthy, later the drummer with Sultans of Ping. “I remember seeing the Peter Saville designed sleeve of Closer on display in Rainbow Records [at 120 Patrick’s Street] and being very intimidated by the tomb on the cover. Another strong memory from back then is the number of music fans walking around the city wearing trench coats in an obvious nod to Ian Curtis.

“I got myself a second-hand drum kit for Christmas in 1983 and learned to play by playing along to Joy Division’s songs in my nan’s house,” he continues. “I loved the repetitive drum patterns and the amount of toms used in the beats.

“I couldn’t tell what bands had influenced Joy Division. It sounded like they had come from another planet. Closer was a very claustrophobic intense record to listen to and I loved the production on it by Martin Hannett. My favourite songs on the album were Atrocity Exhibition and Colony and I spent hours trying to learn the tom parts. When I started playing with the Sultans of Ping years later the toms became an essential part in our songs.”

 Curtis was struggling with epilepsy through these later tours. The condition necessitated heavy medication and required Joy Division to use still lighting, as strobes could trigger fits in the singer. He was also having an affair with a Belgian fan, Annik Honore, which left him wracked with guilt. Clearly he was under tremendous pressure.

And yet, with Closer he left us with a masterpiece. Today Unknown Pleasures, tends to overshadow the later album. The reasons are partly aesthetic. Unknown Pleasure’s “dying star” zig-zag cover looks instantly iconic, especially blown up onto a t-shirt.

But for many Joy Division fans there is no question but that Closer is superior. With producer Hannett giving the material a dystopian sheen, it is a chillingly atomised listen.

“Performing lyrics from Closer was always harder for our vocalists,” says Colum Brady, guitarist with Cork-based Joy Division tribute band Digital. “Our first singer who performed with us for three years before stepping back found delving into some of the lyrics from Closer quite difficult. There is an honesty to the lyrics that require a certain … vulnerability when being delivered. Nowhere better than here is the contrast of Joy Division laid so bare - the band is blasting out at 160 bpm but the lyrics are forcing you to look deep inside into dark corners.”

 Joy Division at the time were rather atomised too. Hook and guitarist Bernard Sumner were from Salford near central Manchester, Curtis and drummer Stephen Morris the more distant suburb of Macclesfield. They were all in it together– but not exactly friends for life and there’s a cold ache to Closer that could not have come from an LP made by a gang of mates.

“We’d all do our own thing,” Sumner would tell Uncut of the Closer recording sessions at Britannia Row Studios at Islington in London (where, shortly beforehand, Pink Floyd had assembled The Wall).

“We didn’t really jam, we didn’t talk to each other about it. It was a pleasurable time, but with a certain uncertainty about Ian, because of his health. We’d finally got where we were aiming for, and America was beckoning. We were on the cusp, we were fantastic live. But on the other hand, we worried about Ian’s fits.”

Cork actor Conor Lovett was also a huge fan of the album. 

“Joy Division’s sound for the time, and for the punk kid I was, seemed a lot more musically experimental and I was attracted to the darkness of the singing.

“Closer had much in common with The Birthday Party’s Junkyard and early Nick Cave albums, like From Her To Eternity, sort of primeval New Wave it seemed to me. I wasn't especially aware of the personalities behind the band back then but I was fascinated when they became New Order after Closer. It was like a Kid A moment. There was an energy and a danger in their sound.” 

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  The Best of 1980 

Joy Division’s Closer wasn’t the only masterpiece released in 1980. It was a remarkable year for music. Here are some of the other high-points.

1: Talking Heads, Remain In Light

 Talking Heads’ dark funk masterpiece was a companion piece to Joy Division as the New Yorkers, working with Brian Eno, pushed post-punk into feverish new directions.

2: David Bowie, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) 

Bowie’s last great album until his late Nineties comeback.

David Bowie's Scary Monsters was also released in 1980. 
David Bowie's Scary Monsters was also released in 1980. 

3: U2, Boy 

 The Dubliners came charging out of the blocks on a debut record where they were already sloughing off their early debt to Joy Division. 

4 The Cure, Seventeen Seconds 

Robert Smith’s smiling squad delivered their first classic album, including iconic single 'A Forest'.

5: AC/DC, Back In Black

 Heavy rock took a great leap forward with this rollicking opus.

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