Until singer Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980, Joy Division was one of Britain's most promising postpunk bands. While the remaining members went on to huge success with the synth-pop band New Order, Joy Division's legend continued to grow and the band are possibly more popular now than ever before.
The band's Velvet Underground-derived drone and Curtis' matter-of-fact, gloomy lyrics scored significant club hits with "She's Lost Control," "Transmission," and "Love Will Tear Us Apart," a British hit single (Number 13 U.K., 1980). Formed by Hook and Sumner after seeing the Sex Pistols play in Manchester on June 4, 1976, the group took shape when Curtis responded to a "seeking singer" ad posted by the two at the local Virgin record store. Morris joined on drums the following year. The band, naming itself Joy Division after Nazi military prostitute compounds, released a four-song EP, Ideal for Living, by year's end.
In April 1978 the band generated a buzz when they performed at a Stiff Records battle of the bands. After turning down deals with Britain's RCA and Radar labels, the group recorded their first album, Unknown Pleasures, with producer Martin Hannent. They chose Manchester independent Factory Records to release the album, which was an immediate success in the U.K.
The next year the band's acclaim grew as they toured England and Europe. In March they returned to the studio to record their second album, Closer. Curtis, who was responsible for much of the group's dark vision, suffered from epileptic grand mal seizures - occasionally while performing onstage. Having attempted suicide in the past, Curtis hanged himself on May 18, 1980, just prior to the release of Closer (Joy Division's most commercially successful album) and the group's first U.S. tour. A collection of demos, outtakes, and live performances, Still, was released in 1981.
The remaining members regrouped as New Order and added Morris' girlfriend Gillian Gilbert on keyboards. Like Joy Division, it has eschewed publicity, with no band photos on album covers, and playing low-key, unemotional concerts. The group's sound — a brighter but still moody version of Joy Division, with Sumner's monotonal yet plaintive vocals at the center — gained it club hits with "Everything's Gone Green" (1981) and "Temptation" (1982).
"Blue Monday" (1983) was New Order's breakthrough. Released only as a 12-inch single, it matched the band's usual emotional chill to a propulsive dance track and reached Number Five on the Billboard dance chart, selling over 3 million copies worldwide. Sessions with dance producer Arthur Baker followed, producing "Confusion" (1983), another dance-floor favorite, which hit Number 71 R&B.
The band left Factory Records in 1985, signing with Quincy Jones' new Qwest label. Although Low-life (#94, 1985) and Brotherhood (#117, 1986) were their first American chart albums, sales were disappointing. Substance (#36, 1987), Technique (#32, 1989), and the hit single "True Faith" (#32, 1987) turned things around, but the band members turned their backs on stardom, releasing only the British World Cup Soccer theme "World in Motion..." (Number One U.K., 1990) before unofficially parting ways to pursue solo projects.
Sumner had the greatest success, teaming with ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant on "Getting Away With It" (Number 38, 1990), featured on Electronic (Number 109, 1991). Bassist Peter Hook's solo project, Revenge, released One True Passion (#190, 1990), while Morris and Gilbert wrote British TV themes, eventually releasing an album as the Other Two.
New Order re-formed in 1993, releasing Republic (#11), followed by a successful tour of the U.S. But the band members went their own ways after the tour, Sumner continuing with Electronic, Hook exiling himself in Monaco, and Gilbert and Morris (now husband and wife) remaining the Other Two.
Joy Division remained an influence on modern rock, as shown by the continuing interest in their scant output, reissued in Permanent, a "greatest hits" collection with several rare and unreleased tracks, and Heart & Soul, a four-CD box set that collected their every extant recording. In 1995 Curtis's wife Deborah published her autobiography, Touching from a Distance, which documented in unsparing detail the turmoil of their married life and revealed that Curtis had been unfaithful to Deborah during the waning months of their marriage. That same year, a tribute album entitled A Means to an End was released, which featured covers of Joy Divison songs by artists including Girls Against Boys, Moby, Low and Tortoise.
New Order continued to release albums sporadically, but the late 1990s saw an uptick in the number of Joy Division-related releases. 1999 saw the release of Preston 28 February 1980, a performance given just months before the proper release of Closer. It was followed by Les Bains Douches 18 December, an even earlier performance that features incendiary versions of songs from Unknown Pleasures. Both albums met with positive reviews as sterling live documents of Joy Division's brief run.
Joy Division's influence seemed even more prevalent at the start of the new decade, with bands like Interpol, the Rakes, Editors and Stellastar all borrowing elements of the band's dark, brooding sound. Their resurgence was only bolstered by the 2002 release of the film 24 Hour Party People, a black comedy that documented the life of Factory Records founder Tony Wilson. The film's first half focused heavily on Joy Division, and the actor Sean Harris received raves for his eerily spot-on depiction of Ian Curits.
New Order, after years of sporadic releases, also seemed energized. In 2001 they released the nervy rock record Get Ready, which featured guest appearances by Billy Corgan and Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie. The album was hailed for its return to Joy Division's guitar-based roots, a decisive shift away from the electronic music on which New Order had built their sound. That shift continued with 2005's Waiting for the Siren's Call, another guitar-based record that contained some of the group's most vibrant and vital work. The album was noteworthy for another reason: the subsequent tour marked the first time the surviving members of New Order had played Joy Division songs in concert. Most shows on the Siren's tour found them performing "She's Lost Control," "Love Will Tear Us Apart," "Shadowplay", "These Days," "Transmission" and "Atmosphere" to rapturous response.
In 2007, Anton Corbjin — who had photographed the band and had shot the video for the Joy Division single "Atmosphere" — directed the Ian Curtis biopic Control, which starred Sam Reilly in the role of Curtis. Based heavily on Touching From a Distance, the film portrayed Curtis as deeply conflicted and self-loathing while refusing to gloss over his personal shortcomings. It received generally positive reviews, and the members of the group also were impressed with the results.
It was around this time, however, that New Order started coming undone. In an interview with XFM to promote his work with Perry Farrell's Satellite Party, Peter Hook casually mentioned that New Order had split up. He later confirmed the statement with a post to his MySpace blog. This resulted in Hook and Sumner trading barbs online, with the latter insisting New Order would carry on, with or without Hook. The squabble continued until August of 2009, when Bernard Sumner announced the formation of a new band called Bad Lieutenant. A full-length album by the band was released that September. Hook's post-New Order band, Freebass, with fellow bassists Andy Rourke of the Smiths and Mani of the Stone Roses, was said to be forthcoming.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). J. Edward Keyes contributed to this article.