How Joy Division’s only hit was also their singer’s epitaph

At the point in their career when they recorded Love Will Tear Us Apart, Joy Division were arguably poised to become the biggest band in The UK. On their debut album Unknown Pleasures the one-time outsiders of Manchester punk had, through sheer hard work – and a crucial relationship with producer Martin Hannett – defined a compelling and audacious landscape of apocalyptic dread.

The charged and foreboding soundscapes were the work of intensely driven young men inspired by the Sex Pistols to create a new rock music of fearsome power – and meaning – out of post-industrial pre- gentrification Manchester’s urban decay.

In the months that followed Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division had moved on even further. Fronted by charismatic – and epileptic – frontman Curtis they delivered some classic non-album, stand-alone singles: the manically engaged Transmission and its polar opposite, Love Will Tear Us Apart.

Sonically, the latter signalled a major change with Bernard Sumner’s trademark abrasive guitar replaced by svelte electro keyboards, all the better to gild Peter Hook’s haunted, memorable bass melody line.

Hook: “[The song] came from the dirty streets of Salford. It’s a thing that I still wonder about: where does any music come from? The part of your brain when you write music that’s unconscious? It was written on the bass and drums and then Bernard put the keyboard on it.”

Within three decades after the song’s release, Curtis, Joy Division manager Rob Gretton, Factory label owner Tony Wilson and producer Martin Hannett were all dead, and Hook describes the breakdown of his relationship with his New Order/Joy Division colleague Sumner as irreparable.

Curtis’s lyrics may have been inspired by his disintegrating marriage; his fateful decision to take his own life on May 18, 1980 gave the song added poignancy. Curtis insisted that his songs were open to interpretation. And Love Will Tear Us Apart fits the bill, foretelling not only his own fate but also that of his associates’ futures too.

“I was just playing around with a riff and Ian spotted the melody,” Hook recalls. “He jumped on it and goes: ‘That’s good, that’s good… Now Steve, put some drums on.’ It was the way we always wrote. Ian didn’t write the music but he could spot it. We’d jam, he’d sit there and pick out the bits he thought were good.” 

The band’s working process was open-ended, primitive and combustible.

“Strange as it may seem, there weren’t tape recorders in those days so everything was in your head. That was one of the wonderful things about Joy Division: we didn’t have tapes of us rehearsing the songs, they only existed when you put the four people together.”

The decisive factor in shaping Love Will Tear Us Apart came from Hannett, who arranged the elements to highlight Curtis’s exacting but resigned baritone. Arranged for mounting effect, with its swooping and soaring, it creates an indelible imprint.

“It was a funny song for us because it was quite poppy, a contrast to the rest of the Joy Division stuff,” Hook says. “We weren’t that struck with it. The ones that were our favourites were ballsy and angsty, like Shadowplay or Transmission, because you could hide behind the song. Love Will Tear Us Apart was fragile and a lot lighter. We knew it was good but not great.”

Tony Wilson gifted Curtis with a set of Frank Sinatra albums shortly before the recording of Love Will Tear Us Apart, and this is generally thought to have encouraged Curtis’s vocal croon.

“Tony and Martin Hannett seemed to think it was a good idea for Ian to sound like Frank Sinatra on the second album. We laughed at the idea. We were young punks full of fire, the last thing we wanted to be was subtle.

“That was Martin Hannett’s doing, something I thought and was hoping would be impossible to do,” Hook continues. “But it’s the subtlety that makes it last. Bernard and I would just have done it balls-out, legs akimbo like Status Quo, and probably would have fucked it up in the process. Martin gave us a depth that I don’t think 20-year-old kids could have got on their own.”

Hannett obviously saw the song as a jewel worth polishing. “I couldn’t understand why he was constantly remixing it – four or five times in different studios. I remember getting phone calls at 3am off Rob Gretton – I had to get down to Strawberry Studios immediately because Martin was remixing Love Will Tear Us Apart again. He was obsessed with it.

“Martin sensed it was a song that was going to last forever and wanted to make it really special. We recorded a lot of versions of the song, because back then nothing was too much trouble.

“By the time we got to the end of New Order and couldn’t stand the sight of each other, everything became too much trouble. If we got a phone call to be somewhere at 3am, we were there right away, but nowadays you’d just say: ‘Fuck off. What are you talking about?’”

The group had seen Curtis have fits on stage; gigs were cancelled, tears were shed in the dressing room. But Curtis kept his feelings guarded, choosing to explore them in the songs.

“And we never talked about our music, we just got on with it, we didn’t analyse it. It’s only when you read his lyrics you realise… If anyone had done that they would have steamed in straight away. But we didn’t, we just used to go by what Ian told us, and he always told us he was fine.”

An emotionally stretched personal life and a debilitating illness contributed to Curtis’s tragic suicide, robbing the world of a remarkable talent. There was arguably never another performer as driven nor as mesmerising as Ian Curtis, forever on the edge, with a uncanny knack for getting beneath the surface of life.

Combining honesty and timeless songwriting, Love Will Tear Us Apart is a formidable epitaph and became legend. The title is inscribed on Ian’s gravestone.

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