Joy Division rapidly evolved from their initial punk rock influences, to develop a sound and style that pioneered the post-punk movement of the late 1970s. According to music critic Jon Savage, the band "were not punk but were directly inspired by its energy. Their self-released 1978 debut EP, An Ideal for Living, caught the attention of the Manchester television personality Tony Wilson. Joy Division's debut album, Unknown Pleasures, was released in 1979 on Wilson's independent record label Factory Records, and drew critical acclaim from the British press. Despite the band's growing success, vocalist Ian Curtis was beset with depression and personal difficulties, including a dissolving marriage and his diagnosis with epilepsy. Curtis found it increasingly difficult to perform at live concerts, and often had seizures during performances.
In May 1980, on the eve of the band's first American tour, Curtis, overwhelmed with depression, committed suicide. Joy Division's posthumously released second album, Closer (1980), and the single "Love Will Tear Us Apart" became the band's highest charting releases. After the death of Curtis, the remaining members reformed as New Order, achieving critical and commercial success.
While Buzzcocks manager Richard Boon suggested the band call themselves the Stiff Kittens, the band instead chose the name Warsaw, in reference to the song "Warszawa" by David Bowie. Warsaw played their first gig on 29 May 1977, supporting the Buzzcocks and Penetration at the Electric Circus. Tony Tabac played drums that night. Mason was soon made the band's manager and was replaced on drums by Steve Brotherdale, who also played in the punk band Panik. During his tenure with Warsaw, Brotherdale tried to get Curtis to leave the band and join Panik but Curtis declined. During July 1977, Warsaw recorded a set of demos at Oldham. Uneasy with Brotherdale's aggressive personality, the band fired him soon after the demo sessions. Driving home from the studio one night, they pulled over and asked Brotherdale to check on a flat tyre; when he got out of the car, they sped off.
In August 1977, the band placed an advertisement in a music shop window seeking a replacement drummer. Stephen Morris, who had attended the same school as Curtis, was the sole respondent. Deborah Curtis, Ian's wife, stated that Morris "fitted perfectly" with the other men, and that with his addition Warsaw became a "complete 'family'". In order to avoid confusion with the London punk band Warsaw Pakt, the band renamed themselves Joy Division in late 1977, borrowing their new name from the prostitution wing of a Nazi concentration camp mentioned in the 1955 novel The House of Dolls. The group played their first gig as Joy Division on 25 January 1978.
Joy Division made their recorded debut in June 1978 when a track of theirs, "At a Later Date", was featured on the compilation album Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus, which had been recorded live on 2 October 1977. That same month, Joy Division self-released their debut EP, An Ideal for Living. In the Melody Maker review of the EP, Chris Brazier said that it "has the familiar rough-hewn nature of home-produced records but they're no mere drone-vendors—there are a lot of good ideas here, and they could be a very interesting band by now, seven months on. The packaging—which featured a drawing of a Hitler Youth member on the cover—coupled with the nature of the band's name, fueled speculation about their political affiliations. While Hook and Sumner later admitted to being intrigued by fascism at the time, Morris insisted that the group's obsession with Nazi imagery came from a desire to keep memories of the sacrifices of their parents and grandparents during World War II alive. He argued that accusations of neo-Nazi sympathies merely provoked the band "to keep on doing it, because that's the kind of people we are."
In September 1978, Joy Division made their television performance debut on the local news show Granada Reports, hosted by Tony Wilson. Later in the month, Joy Division contributed two tracks recorded with producer Martin Hannett to the compilation double-7" EP A Factory Sample, the first release by Tony Wilson's record label, Factory Records. Joy Division soon joined Factory's roster. Rob Gretton was made a partner in the label to represent the interests of the band. On 27 December, Ian Curtis suffered his first recognisable epileptic episode. During the ride home after a show, Curtis had a seizure and was taken to a hospital. In spite of his illness, Joy Division's career continued to progress. Curtis appeared on the front cover of the 13 January 1979, issue of the NME due to the persistence of music journalist Paul Morley; that same month the band recorded their first radio session for BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel. According to Deborah Curtis, "Sandwiched in between these two important landmarks was the realization that Ian's illness was something we would have to learn to accommodate.
Joy Division performed on Granada TV again in July 1979, and made their only nationwide TV appearance in September on BBC2. They supported the Buzzcocks in a 24-venue UK tour that began that October, which allowed the band to quit their regular jobs. The non-album single "Transmission" was released in November. Joy Division's burgeoning success drew a devoted following nicknamed the "Cult With No Name", who were stereotyped as "intense young men dressed in gray overcoats."
Lack of sleep and long hours destabilised Curtis's epilepsy and his seizures became almost uncontrollable. Curtis would often have seizures during shows, which left him feeling ashamed and depressed. While the band was concerned about their singer, audience members on occasion thought his behaviour was part of the show. On 7 April, Curtis attempted suicide by overdosing on phenobarbitone. The next evening, Joy Division was set to play a gig at the Derby Hall in Bury. With Curtis recovering, it was decided that the band would play a combined set with Alan Hempstall of Crispy Ambulance and Simon Topping of A Certain Ratio filling in on vocals for the first few songs. Curtis came onstage to perform for part of the set. When Topping came back out to finish the set for Curtis, some in the audience started throwing bottles at the stage. Gretton leapt into the crowd and a riot ensued. Several April gigs were cancelled due to the continuing ill health of Curtis. The band played what would be their final show at the University of Birmingham's High Hall on 2 May.
Joy Division were due to begin their first American tour in May 1980. While Curtis had expressed a desire to take time off to a few acquaintances, he feigned excitement about the tour around the band because he did not want to disappoint his band mates or Factory Records. At the time, Curtis's relationship with his wife, Deborah Curtis (the couple married in 1975 as teenagers), was collapsing. Contributing factors were his ill health, her being mostly excluded from his life with the band, and his relationship with a young Belgian woman named Annik Honoré whom he had met on European tour. The evening before Joy Division were to embark on the American tour, Curtis returned to his home in Macclesfield in order to talk to his estranged wife. He asked her to drop the divorce suit she had filed; later, he told her to leave him alone in the house until he caught his train to Manchester the next morning. Early on the morning of 18 May 1980, Curtis hanged himself in his kitchen; Deborah Curtis discovered his body when she returned around midday. Tony Wilson said in 2005, "I think all of us made the mistake of not thinking his suicide was going to happen.... We all completely underestimated the danger. We didn't take it seriously. That's how stupid we were."
The members of Joy Division had made a pact long before Curtis's death that, should any member leave, the remaining members would change the name of the group. Eventually renaming themselves New Order, the band was reborn as a three-piece with Sumner assuming vocal duties; the group later recruited Morris's girlfriend Gillian Gilbert to round out the lineup as keyboardist and second guitarist. New Order's first single, the 1981 release "Ceremony", featured the last two songs written with Ian Curtis. While the group struggled in its early years to escape the shadow of Joy Division, New Order eventually went on to much greater commercial success than their predecessor band.
Further Joy Division material has been released since the band's demise. Still, a compilation of live tracks and rare recordings, was issued in 1981. Factory put out the Substance compilation in 1988, which included several out-of-print singles. Another compilation, Permanent, was released in 1995 by London Records, which had acquired the Joy Division catalogue after Factory Records went bankrupt in 1992. A comprehensive box set, Heart and Soul, came out in 1997.
Sumner acted as the unofficial musical director of the band, a role that he carried over into New Order. While Sumner was the group's primary guitarist, Curtis played the instrument on a few recorded songs and during a few shows. Curtis hated playing guitar, but the band insisted he do so. Sumner said, "He played in quite a bizarre way and that to us was interesting, because no one else would play like Ian. During the recording sessions for Closer, Sumner began using self-built synthesizers and Hook used a six-string bass for more melody.
Producer Martin Hannett "dedicated himself to capturing and intensifying Joy Division's eerie spatiality". Hannett believed punk rock was sonically conservative because of its refusal to utilise studio technology to create sonic space. The producer instead aimed to create a more expansive sound on the group's records. Hannett said, "[Joy Division] were a gift to a producer, because they didn't have a clue. They didn't argue." Hannett demanded clean and clear "sound separation" not only for individual instruments, but even for individual pieces of Morris's drumkit. Morris recalled, "Typically on tracks he considered to be potential singles, he'd get me to play each drum on its own to avoid any bleed-through of sound.
The band refused to explain their lyrics to the press or print the words on lyrics sheets. Curtis told the fanzine Printed Noise, "We haven't got a message really; the lyrics are open to interpretation. They're multidimensional. You can read into them what you like. The other band members later admitted they paid little attention to what Curtis was writing. Deborah Curtis recalled that only with the release of Closer did many who were close to the singer realise "[h]is intentions and feelings were all there within the lyrics. The surviving members of the band in retrospect regret not seeing warning signs in Curtis's lyrics. "This sounds awful but it was only after Ian died that we sat down and listened to the lyrics," Morris said in 2007. "You'd find yourself thinking, 'Oh my God, I missed this one.' Because I'd look at Ian's lyrics and think how clever he was putting himself in the position of someone else. I never believed he was writing about himself. Looking back, how could I have been so bleedin' stupid? Of course he was writing about himself. But I didn't go in and grab him and ask, 'What's up?' I have to live with that."
The band's dark and gloomy sound, which Martin Hannett described in 1979 as "dancing music with Gothic overtones", presaged the gothic rock genre. While the term "gothic" originally described a "doomy atmosphere" in music of the late 1970s, the term was soon applied to specific bands like Bauhaus that followed in Joy Division's wake. Standard musical fixtures of early gothic rock bands included "high-pitched post-Joy Division basslines usurp[ing] the melodic role" and "vocals that were either near operatic and Teutonic or deep, droning alloys of Jim Morrison and Ian Curtis. Joy Division has influenced bands ranging from contemporaries U2 and The Cure to post-punk revival artists such as Interpol, Bloc Party and Editors. U2 frontman Bono stated that his group "worshipped" Joy Division. The singer said in the band's 2006 autobiography U2 by U2, "It would be harder to find a darker place in music than Joy Division. Their name, their lyrics and their singer were as big a black cloud as you could find in the sky. And yet I sensed the pursuit of God, or light, or reason...a reason to be. With Joy Division, you felt from this singer, beauty was truth and truth was beauty, and theirs was a search for both. Artists including electronica performer Moby and Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante have described their appreciation for Joy Division's music and the influence it has had on their own material. In 2005, Joy Division were inducted along with New Order into the UK Music Hall of Fame.
Two biopics have been released that dramatise Joy Division on film. 24 Hour Party People (2002) presented a somewhat fictionalised account of the rise and fall of Factory Records, in which the members of Joy Division served as supporting characters. Tony Wilson said of the film, "It's all true, it's all not true. It's not a fucking documentary", insisting that whenever possible during the production of the film, he favoured the "myth" over the truth. The 2007 film Control, directed by Anton Corbijn, is a biography of Ian Curtis (portrayed by Sam Riley) that uses Deborah Curtis's biography of her late husband, Touching from a Distance (1995), as its basis; others consulted for the picture included Tony Wilson and New Order, who scored the film. Control had its international premiere on the opening night of Director's Fortnight at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, where it was critically well-received. The same year Grant Gee directed a documentary about the band, simply entitled Joy Division.