“Joy Division Under Review”: The story of the short-lived but highly-influential post-punk Manchester band

By on April 11, 2016

Joy Division Under Review — available now on our Night Flight Plus channel — places the short-lived but highly-influential post-punk Manchester band within the larger context of the UK’s punk movement, and features interviews with knowledgable critics and writers who give their career an in-depth appraisal, focusing on not just one record, but the entire career of the band and what happened in their wake.

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As with most of the Under Review episodes in the series, the focus in this short, 70-minute documentary is to provide enough mostly-biographical details in order to give you a sense of how the band came to exist — from their origins in their days as Warsaw — to how they thrived as a critically-praised band whose reputation grew throughout Europe and the U.S., and how they came to a sudden tragic end on the eve of their first U.S. tour.

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This episode — directed by Christian Davies — features interviews with Mick Middles (co-author of Torn Apart: The Life Of Ian Curtis); Barney Hoskyns (former NME, MOJO and Melody Maker journalist and the author of many popular rock tomes); Pat Gilbert (Ex-MOJO Magazine editor); John Robb (Manchester punk musician and author); David Stubbs (music journalist and author) and a few others.

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We’re first told how a Sex Pistols concert seen by many Manchester teens had ended up causing many of them to want to form their own band, which is what happened n 1976 in Salford, Greater Manchester, when singer Ian Curtis, guitarist and keyboardist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris did (Morris was the last to join the band, as we mention below).

Actually, only Sumner and Hook had both attended the Sex Pistols gig — on July 20, 1976, at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall — but the next day Hook borrowed £35 from his mother to buy his first bass guitar.

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Sumner and Hook were both inspired by what they seen the Pistols do onstage (Sumner later said that he’d seen that the band had “destroyed the myth of being a pop star, of a musician being some kind of god that you had to worship”), but their initial desire wasn’t to play punk but to move musically beyond it, to something critics would have to create the neologism “post-punk” in order to describe what they were hearing.

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They first formed a band with their friend Terry Mason (he’d also attended the show at the Trade Hall and bought a drum kit, while Sumner focused on playing guitar), and invited school pal Martin Gresty to join as vocalist, but he soon thereafter got a good paying job at a local factory and had to leave the group before they had developed much momentum.

Sumner and Hook assumed leadership and decided they needed a new singer, placing an ad at the Virgin Records store in Manchester which said they were looking for a singer for their newly-formed band. Ian Curtis saw that ad and when he showed up at the band’s rehearsal space, he was hired without even auditioning for them.

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They discarded several band names — Stiff Kittens being one that was recommended to them by another Manchester band, the Buzzcocks (both their managers Richard Boon and guitarist/vocalist Pete Shelley have both taken credit for that one) before choosing the name Warsaw, which was inspired by David Bowie’s then recently-released album track “Warsawa,” a moody instrumental found on the b-side of Bowie’s new Low album (as we told you about in our post about David Bowie’s The Berlin Trilogy, also part of the Under Review series).

They would play their first show on May 29, 1977, at the Electric Circus, on the bill with the Buzzcocks, Penetration and John Cooper Clarke, a gig that was reviewed in both NME (by Paul Morley) and in Sounds (by Ian Wood).

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Warsaw would record their first five-song demo recordings in July 1977, and Hook, Sumner and Curtis were unhappy with their drummer Steve Brotherdale’s too-aggressive sound and fired him that night. In fact, driving home from the studio that night, they were traveling back to their homes and decided to that car they were in had a problem with a tire going flat — and when Brotherdale got out to check on the tire, the rest of the band drove off and left him on the side of road.

(Incidentally, it’s these early ’77 recordings that were technically the band’s first release, as the EP An Ideal for Living, on the band’s own Enigma label, in June 1978.)

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The next month (we’re back to August ’77 now), the band were still looking for a new drummer, and placed an ad in the window of a local Manchester musical instrument shop, which was responded to by exactly one person only, drummer Stephen Morris, who had gone to school with Curtis, and fit with their sound and was summarily hired, completing the band’s new and final lineup.

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This lineup gigged regularly in the UK for the rest of the year, and by the beginning of 1978, decided a name change was in order, having learned of the existence of a British group called Warsaw Pakt.

They decided on Joy Division as their new moniker, which was the nickname of the prostitution wing of a Nazi concentration camp mentioned in the 1955 novel House of Dolls.

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Joy Division continued throughout the rest of 1978, gigging infrequently before they were spied by RCA record exec Derek Branwood, who managed to secure a recording session for them in May 1978, for what would have been Joy Division’s self-titled debut LP, but we learn that a studio engineer — likely someone who didn’t think their jagged sound, with Hooky’s droning bass lines, sounded complete — added synthesizers to several of the tracks in order to broaden their appeal, an addition that did not sit well with the members of Joy Division.

(These recordings were later released as a 1982 vinyl bootleg under the band’s original Warsaw name, and then given much wider release later, many years after the band’s demise).

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The band continued to gain momentum and status, and in early 1979, appeared on John Peel’s BBC radio show, which of course were later released as Joy Division’s Peel Sessions (along with additional Peel Sessions recorded on November 26th, 1979).

That same year — in July 1979, if you’re keeping up with our chronological band trajectory and history — they signed with their Manchester friend Tony Wilson’s Factory label and released their first proper full-length album, Unknown Pleasures, which enjoyed immense critical acclaim and charted on the U.K.’s independent charts.

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Its success brought considerable interest in the band, including from across the pond, where the U.S.-based Warner Bros. label offered a large distribution deal in order to release Factory’s Joy Division recordings, but the band dismissed their interest, and focused on playing UK gigs and honing their sound, which was changing considerably with their proficiency on their instruments stepping everything up to a new level.

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We learn in the documentary that much of the interest in Joy Division’s live shows, however, had more to do with Ian Curtis’s manic onstage appearance, his herky-jerky movements and his thousand yard stare, which only added to their mystique. What many did not actually know was that Curtis suffered from epilepsy, and was prone to having seizures onstage, a condition that worsened the more live shows they did and they more pressure that was put upon them to increase their audience.

1980 would bring even more pressure, including a European tour in January, but many of the shows were cancelled at the last moment because Curtis was simply too ill to perform.

They began focusing on their sophomore album release — released posthumously as Closer — and in April, as a stop-gap measure prior to the release of their next full album, issued a single of what would turn out to be their biggest song to date, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which somewhat surprisingly failed to chart.

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In May 1980, the band were on a two-week break, resting up just prior to the launch of their first U.S. tour, but tragedy befell the band when two days before their scheduled flights to the states Ian Curtis was found dead after he’d hanged himself, in the wee hours of May 18th, in the kitchen of his home, located at 77 Barton Street, Macclesfield, England. He was just 23.

Apparently, just before taking his own life, he’d watched Werner Herzog‘s film Stroszek, and had listened to Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot.

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Joy Division Under Review delves deep into the psychological makeup of the band’s membership, focusing as you might expect on Ian Curtis, who was troubled and during his time with the band spent much of his time off-stage dealing with epilepsy, an extra-marital affair and depression, all of which contributed to his eventual suicide.

Joy Division Under Review also features a handful of the band’s rare musical performances, as well as obscure footage from music videos, live performances, TV appearances, and rarely seen photographs.

One of the highlights surely has to be seeing the band New Order — formed from the ashes of Joy Division — performing a bit of “Blue Monday” on the UK’s “Top of the Pops” TV show in 1983 (unfortunately, most of the band’s live performances aren’t seen in their entirety here, just snippets, and one of the interviews is an audio interview with Ian Curtis — the “Complete Ian Curtis interview,” recorded at the Northern Lights Castle Pub, Manchester, in 1979 — is extremely hard to hear but there are subtitles to help you follow it).

There are also various short clips showing the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Clash, Adolf Hitler, The Doors, Can, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, The Ronettes and Frank Sinatra.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.