Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis died 40 years ago today, but his legacy lives on

Commemorating a man who helped shaped the future of Manchester music.
Remko Hoving/Flickr

Peeling back the pages of Manchester’s musical history, many questions remain unanswered.

How did The Hacienda manage to become legendary and laughable all-at-once? Was The Stone Roses’ Spike Island gig captured on camera in full? Will the Gallagher brothers ever find a way to reconcile?

Still, amid the wrangle, one indisputable fact remains: Manchester music would not be the same if it wasn’t for Ian Curtis.

A rockstar with the soul of a poet, Curtis quickly became the face of all-male post-punk band Joy Division in the 1970s.

His baritone vocals and expressive lyrics propelled the group from the local pub circuit to international attention during the second-half of the decade, turning them into breakout stars on Tony Wilson’s Factory Records label (releasing the critically-acclaimed Unknown Pleasures album in 1979).

Curtis’ distinctive stage persona – from the heavy eyelids to the loose-limbed, marching dance style – gave Joy Division an unmistakable identity. But their thrilling ascent was tragically cut short in May 1980.

Just hours before the band were due to begin their first tour of America, Curtis hanged himself in his Macclesfield home, aged 23.

Joy Division also died that day.

Band members Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris agreed the group could not continue without their hypnotic lead singer and opted to start afresh under the name ‘New Order’, embracing an alternative style that fused electronica into their post-punk approach.

Maia Valenzuela/Flickr

They’ve both been gone for 40 years, but Ian Curtis and Joy Division left behind a legacy still celebrated to this day.

He was barely out of adolescence when he passed away, but Curtis is widely regarded as a seminal figure who helped to put Manchester music on the map.

His short life has been chronicled in the films “Closer” and “24 Hour Party People”, and hindsight has revealed many of the musician’s’ anxieties and fears were seemingly apparent in his songwriting.

Emotional trauma, romantic complications, and concerns about seizures (he was epileptic) appeared to inspire and plague Curtis in equal measure; shaping the sentences on haunting hit tracks like “Love Will Tear Us Apart” whilst playing havoc with his mental health.

Despite his demons, Curtis believed in Joy Division – and he repeatedly urged his bandmates to break new boundaries.

“Even at the height of his illness, he was so passionate and enthusiastic about the group,” JD bassist Peter Hook said in an interview with The Live Guide.

“He was our champion.

“If you ever started to falter or wane interest-wise, he was always the one who picked you up, put you back on the straight and narrow and go: ‘Come on – we can do it.’”

Headstock/United We Stream

The 40th anniversary of Curtis’ death coincides with Mental Health Awareness Week in 2020 – and local festival Headstock is reuniting some of the singer’s old bandmates to host a special event in his honour this evening (Monday 18 May).

Broadcast via United We Stream from 8pm, ‘Moving Through The Silence‘ will feature conversation and music to remember the life and legacy of one of Manchester’s greatest talents.

Some of the funds raised will be going towards mental health charity Manchester Mind – with Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris, Brandon Flowers (The Killers), Elbow, Craig Parkinson and Maxine Peake all appearing on the stream before its conclusion at 10.30pm.

Watch the event unfold live at:

Donations can be made online or via text message. Details are available on the United We Stream GM homepage.

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