Ian Curtis was exuberant. His band Joy Division had the wind at their backs and were days away from their first North American tour. On the evening of May 16, 1980, they had a superb rehearsal and crammed into bassist Peter Hook’s car to drop off Curtis at his parents’ house in Failsworth, England. As Hook remembered 32 years later, the boys were on top of the world — especially their legendarily scowly lead singer.
“We were laughing and joking… one of us would go, ‘I can’t believe we’re fucking going to America!’ We were screaming in the car, jumping up and down on the seats, properly shouting, whooping, hollering: ‘Yeah! America!’” Hook wrote in his 2012 memoir Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division. “I drove [Ian] home that Friday night and he was cock-a-hoop, full of it.” Curtis exited the vehicle outside his house a quarter of a mile from Hook’s. It was the last time Hook ever saw his bandmate and friend.
On Saturday morning, things took a despondent turn. As Hook wrote, Curtis received a letter about his impending divorce proceedings from his wife Deborah. Curtis canceled a water-skiing trip with guitarist Bernard Sumner, and that night, Deborah dropped by Ian’s house to find him drinking whiskey and coffee after watching Stroszek, Werner Herzog’s film about a European émigré to America who kills himself rather than choose between two women.
Deborah offered to stay the night, worried that Curtis, an epilepsy sufferer, would have a fit, but he asked her to leave instead. After listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot on repeat, he hanged himself to death on a kitchen clothes rack in the early hours of Sunday morning. He was two months shy of his 24th birthday.
Accounts from those close to Curtis vary on his state of mind in the last few weeks of his life. “The week before, we went and bought all these new clothes; he was really happy,” Factory Records co-owner Touching From a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division. On the other hand, Curtis reportedly told Psychic TV’s Genesis P-Orridge that he’d “rather die” than go on tour. (“Maybe he did say that, but not to us he didn’t,” Hook explained in his book. “No way. With us, Ian was bang into the idea.”)
Whatever the case, the surviving Joy Division members were devastated. “I stayed numb for days… as though my brain was frozen,” Hook wrote in Unknown Pleasures about hearing the news of Curtis’ death. On top of that, “We had so much going for us then. The word was getting out that we were a great group to see live. We had ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ up our sleeve. We were on the way up.”
The Story Of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
“Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which was released 40 years ago today (June 1), features uncharacteristically jangly guitar for Joy Division, not to mention one of their most memorable hooks. It was ironically titled in response to the sunny “Love Will Keep Us Together,” which was written by Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield and made a No. 1 hit by Captain & Tennille in 1975.
Given Curtis’ marital problems and his affair on the road with Belgian journalist Annik Honoré, its lyrics could arguably be read as autobiographical — its references to festering resentment and communication breakdown cut deep. “Understandably, the lyrics were interpreted by the press as being about a love affair gone wrong,” Deborah wrote in Touching From a Distance. “But as the last to know that our love affair had ‘gone wrong,’ I had taken Ian’s infidelity as part of his illness.”
“I certainly wouldn’t like that song to be written about me,” Hook told NME in 2012, adding in retrospect that he was “very, very shocked at how barbed and how vicious” the lyrics were.
Joy Division debuted “Love Will Tear Us Apart” at Plan K in Brussels, Belgium, on a bill featuring Cabaret Voltaire and headliner William Burroughs, depicted in Control. Onstage, Curtis played guitar (while Sumner switched to keyboard) on the song despite knowing only one shape — D major.
“I wonder if that’s why we wrote ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart,’ you could drone a D through it,” Sumner pondered in Pat Graham’s 2011 photobook Instrument. The distinctive 12-string Echo guitar part on the recording is courtesy of Sumner; the band apparently bought the Italian instrument without testing it out. “I think we all just went to a record shop and said, that one looks cool, get that one,” he wrote.
Enter Martin Hannett
After performing the song during a Peel Session in 1979, they attempted to record it in January 1980 at Pennine Studios in Oldham. Unhappy with the results, they reconvened in March at Strawberry Studios in Stockport — the same studio where Sedaka had recorded “Love Will Keep Us Together.” Behind the boards was Martin Hannett, Factory’s unconventional and visionary producer who both helped define the band’s sound and treated them as frenemies.
“He may have been a genius, Martin, but that didn’t stop him from being a right twat sometimes,” Hook wrote. “The night he did ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ the air-conditioning was cranked up as usual. I was freezing while [he] sniggered.” (When it came time to record their second and last album Closer that month, Hammett booked a hotel as far as possible from the band’s rented flats. “He thought we were pricks,” Hook wrote.)
This was all in good fun. “We were brimming with confidence back then,” Hook wrote. “Ian’s illness was the only black spot on the horizon. Otherwise, we were rocking.”
Enter Frank Sinatra
At some point, Factory co-founder Tony Wilson gave Curtis a copy of Frank Sinatra’s 1977 compilation album Portrait of Sinatra — Forty Songs From the Life of a Man for inspiration when re-tracking his vocals. “When the band were unable to decide which vocal should be used, they released both,” Deborah explains in Touching From a Distance. “One on each side of the seven-inch single.”
“Christ, the recording of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ was a marathon,” Hook wrote in Unknown Pleasures. “Martin kept remixing it and must have done it ten to fifteen times; then Tony pulled the plug on him because it was costing so much money. Martin was never happy with it and kept searching, constantly, for the great mix.”
“Funnily enough, I now don’t like the mix he eventually chose for the single,” he admitted. “I like the one that’s got a dead-loud guitar overdub on it, a radio mix.”
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” was released two weeks after Curtis’ death and hit No. 42 on the Billboard Disco Top 100 Chart — thereby nestling a heavy-hearted goth anthem near toe-tapping hits like Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” George Benson’s “Give Me the Night” and Real Love.” (Cuts by David Bowie and Killing Joke also made the chart.) Because of a union dispute, its self-shot promotional video — the only one the band ever made — was excluded from Top of the Pops. Pitchfork later deemed it the seventh greatest song of the 1980s.
Love Will Tear Us Apart… Was Pretty Well How We All Felt
When asked what she wanted to engrave on Curtis’s tombstone, Deborah picked the only five words she deemed appropriate. “There seemed little point in changing it,” she wrote in Touching From a Distance. “It seemed to encapsulate all I wanted to say. ‘Love will tear us apart’ was pretty well how we all felt.”
“I kept the guitar after he died,” Sumner wrote of the 12-string Echo that punctuates “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” “[I] kept it under my bed in a case and then gave it back to [Curtis’s] daughter [Natalie] when she came of age.”
Deborah is of the belief that Curtis’ suicide was planned — his crippling fear of flying and his epilepsy being factors. But despite the pain and heartbreak that went into “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” she looks back on their relationship warmly, as she wrote in Touching From a Distance.
“Ian’s pale blue-green eyes linger on in our daughter,” she reflected. “When those familiar long fingers twine themselves unwittingly into those inherited mannerisms, I remember how warm and loved I felt.”
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” may rightfully be seen as a forlorn goodbye to a too-young singer and a major rock band, but it pulses with just that — love.