Ian Kevin Curtis (15 July 1956 – 18 May 1980) was the vocalist and lyricist, as well as occasional guitarist and keyboardist, of the band Joy Division, which he joined in 1976 after meeting Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook at a Sex Pistols gig.
Years after his death, critics and fans continue to write and discuss at length Curtis's music, as well as possible motivations and inspirations for his work. News of his suicide in 1980 spurred many rumours, further accelerating interest in his work and troubled life.
He was influenced by the writers William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard and Joseph Conrad (the song titles "Interzone", "Atrocity Exhibition", and "Colony" coming from the three authors, respectively), and by the musicians David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Jim Morrison, lead singer with one of his favourite bands, The Doors.
Curtis married his high school girlfriend Deborah Woodruff on 23 August 1975, when he was 19 and she was 18. They remained married until his death; his widow is still alive. They had one child, Natalie, who was born on 16 April 1979.
After starting up Factory Records with Alan Erasmus, Tony Wilson "signed" the band to his label (although no contracts were ever signed, despite the story of Wilson signing a contract in his own blood. This rumor first emerged in 2002 from Wilson himself in the run up to the release of 24 Hour Party People, where the scene is also portrayed.)
While performing for Joy Division, Curtis became known for his quiet and awkward demeanor, as well as a unique dancing style reminiscent of the epileptic seizures he experienced, sometimes even on stage. The resemblance was such that audience members were sometimes uncertain if Curtis was dancing or having a seizure; there were several incidents where he collapsed and had to be helped off stage.
Curtis's writing was filled with imagery of emotional isolation, death, alienation, and urban decay. He once commented in an interview that he wrote about "the different ways different people can cope with certain problems, how they might or might not adapt". He sang in a bass-baritone voice, in contrast to his speaking voice, which was higher pitched. Joy Division had its recording style developed by producer Martin Hannett, with some of their most innovative work being created in Strawberry Studios in Stockport (owned by Manchester act 10cc) and Cargo Recording Studios Rochdale in 1979, a studio which was developed from John Peel investing money into the music business in Rochdale.
Although predominantly a vocalist, Curtis also played guitar on a handful of tracks (usually when Sumner was playing synthesizer; "Incubation" was a rare case where both played guitar). At first Curtis played Sumner's Shergold Masquerader, but in September 1979 he acquired his own guitar, a Vox Phantom Special VI (often described incorrectly as a Teardrop or ordinary Phantom model) which had many built-in effects used both live and in studio. After Curtis' death, Sumner inherited the guitar, and it was used in several early New Order songs, such as "Everything's Gone Green".
In the early hours of 18 May 1980, Curtis hanged himself in his kitchen after having viewed Werner Herzog's film Stroszek and listening to Iggy Pop's The Idiot. At the time of his death, his health was failing as a result of his epilepsy and a hectic touring schedule, and his marriage was falling apart. Wilson later said, "I'd been warned on a train to London two weeks earlier by Annik [Honoré, Curtis' lover]. I asked her, 'What do you think of the new album.' She goes, 'I'm terrified.' I said, 'What are you terrified of?' She replies, 'Don't you understand? He means it.' And I go, 'No, he doesn't mean it - it's art.' And guess what? He fucking meant it.
Curtis's memorial stone, which is inscribed with "Ian Curtis 18 - 5 - 80" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart", was stolen in July 2008 from the Cheshire cemetery where he is buried.
U2 released the song "A Day Without Me", about Curtis's suicide, as the lead single from their 1980 debut album Boy. An oft-repeated anecdote by Tony Wilson is that when U2 visited Factory Records, U2 frontman Bono said when Curtis was alive he was the best frontman in rock and he himself was only number two; Bono pledged to take Curtis's place.
Other musical tributes to Curtis include Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's "Statues" on 1980's Organisation, Psychic TV's single "I.C. Water" from Towards Thee Infinite Beat, Thursday's "Ian Curtis" on the album Waiting, Xiu Xiu's "Ian Curtis Wish List" on the album A Promise (the artists also cover "Ceremony" on their Chapel of the Chimes EP), Robert Smith of The Cure would dedicate his song "Primary" to Curtis, New Order's "Elegia", Alkaline Trio's "Help Me" and Luca Prodan's Divididos por la Felicidad.
Deborah Curtis wrote Touching from a Distance, published in 1995, a biographical account of their marriage, detailing in part his infidelity, particularly with Annik Honoré. Authors Mick Middles and Linsay Reade released the book Torn Apart: The Life of Ian Curtis in 2006. This biography takes a more intimate look at Ian Curtis and includes photographs from personal family albums and excerpts from Curtis's letters to Honoré during his affair with her.
Paul Morley wrote Joy Division, Piece by Piece, writing about Joy Division 1977-2007; it was published in early 2008. The book documents all of his writings and reviews about Joy Division from their forming, up until the death of Tony Wilson. The book also includes his feeling about Joy Division after many years of being very connected to their story.
A wall on Wallace Street in Wellington, New Zealand, had the words "Ian Curtis Lives" written on it shortly after the singer's death. The message is repainted whenever it is painted over, and another wall on the same street now bears the message "Ian Curtis R.I.P. Walk In Silence" along with the dates "1960 - 1981" (sic). Both are referred to as "The Ian Curtis Wall".
In 2007 a British Ian Curtis biopic called Control, based on material from Deborah Curtis's book Touching from a Distance was released. It was directed by rock photographer and music video director Anton Corbijn, who had previously photographed the band and directed the video for "Atmosphere". Deborah Curtis and Tony Wilson were executive producers. Sam Riley (who actually portrayed The Fall frontman Mark E Smith in 24 Hour Party People), the lead singer of band 10,000 Things, portrays Curtis, while Samantha Morton plays his wife, Deborah.
The film had its debut at the Cannes Film Festival on 17 May 2007 to great acclaim, taking three awards at the Director's Fortnight. It portrays Curtis's secondary school romance with Deborah, their marriage at a very young age, his problems balancing his domestic life with his rise to fame, his affair with Annik Honoré, his struggle with poorly medicated epilepsy and depression, and his suicide.
Books: Unknown Pleasures and Run of the Mill Temptations; Touching from A Distance by Deborah Curtis, Faber, Pounds 8.99
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