“I Still Don’t Know Where Joy Division Came From”

An Oral History of an Iconic Band

The following is from an oral history of Joy Division, compiled from interviews with the surviving band members and those closest to them.

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Bernard Sumner: I felt that even though we were expecting this music to come out of thin air, we never, any of us, were interested in the money it might make us. We just wanted to make something that was beautiful to listen to and stirred our emotions. We weren’t interested in a career, or any of that. We never planned one single day.

Peter Hook: [Ian Curtis, the late lead singer of Joy Division] was the instigator. We used to call him the Spotter. Ian would be sat there, and he’d say, “That sounds good, let’s get some guitar to go with that.” You couldn’t tell what sounded good, but he could, because he was just listening. That made it much quicker, writing songs. Someone was always listening. I can’t explain it, it was pure luck. There’s no rhyme or reason for it. We never honestly considered it, it just came out.

Stephen Morris: He was pretty private about what he wrote. I think he talked to Bernard a bit about some of the songs. He was totally different to how he appeared onstage. He was timid, until he’d had two or three Breakers, malt liquor. He’d liven up a bit. The first time I saw Ian being Ian onstage, I couldn’t believe it. The transformation to this frantic windmill.

Deborah Curtis: He was so ambitious. He wanted to write a novel, he wanted to write songs. It all seemed to come very easily to him. With Joy Division it all just came together for him.

Tony Wilson: I still don’t know where Joy Division came from.

Mark Reeder: I met Ian when he was working at Rare Records. They were very elitist in that shop: all beards and long hair, tweed jackets, and they all thought they were something else. I always thought if I ever worked in a record shop, I’d never want to be like them. Totally unhelpful, ignorant of the people coming into the shop. If you made a mistake in the pronunciation of a track, you’d be ridiculed to death.

Ian wasn’t like that. He was always trying to sell me reggae records. This was about 1974. Ian was totally into reggae music. Dub. He wasn’t there very long—about a year—and he was the youngest one in the shop, and he was the only one you could talk to. We talked about all kinds of stuff, and usually the topics would cross over from music to history and the war. He was fascinated by the war.

I started working at Virgin Records when I was about 14. Just part-time initially, and I got paid in records. They needed someone to stock up the records on weekends, while they were all in the shop. Just helping out, and then I ended up working there. It was back in the 70s. Real hippie days: lots of long hair and ’staches and stuff.

There was this seating arrangement, because people kept stealing headphones. They’d either break or they’d be nicked. So somebody came up with this idea where they’d have this seating arrangement at the back, covered in this vomit-green bri-nylon carpet covering, and the loudspeakers were put in the headrests. And people would sit, obviously, next to each other, and it was impossible to hear anything. You could move these speakers, put them next to your ears in the hope that you could not hear the person next to you.

But Virgin was a place where people just liked to hang out really. That’s why it stank of incense in there as well, to disguise the smell of marijuana. It was more rock music than disco then. In 1973, they’d just had this massive success with Tubular Bells, and then came Tangerine Dream, and they were the kind of records that put Virgin on the map and made the Virgin shop in Manchester special. All the other record shops were a bit elitist.

He’d come in, and it would be all, “Darling!”—and that’s how I got to know him.

I was captivated by the idea of electronic music. I remember in 1968 when you had to have a stereo. We’d seen some bloke offering them in the paper, so one Saturday afternoon we went round to this bloke’s house to look at this stereo. It was this massive thing stuck in the middle of the room, like a cabinet, a sideboard with loud-speakers at each end and a drinks bit in the middle, and to demonstrate this stereo he put on Switched on Bach by Walter Carlos, and I was like, “What is that?”

Before that, my only exposure to electronic music had been Doctor Who. And “Telstar.” Then, for years and years, I didn’t hear anything synthetic at all, until I came to this bloke’s house and he put on Switched on Bach. Which was like the Brandenburg Concerto played on a synthesizer. I’d been exposed to classical music cos I played violin at school, but this was something completely different, and it was in stereo. From that moment I was captivated by the idea of electronic music.

In the Court of the Crimson King came out when I was about ten, and I was just overawed. It was avant-garde, ambient, and I’d sit in total silence, listening to this record. Looking at the cover, absorbing it all. And that was my background to working in Virgin. When they started releasing the early Tangerine Dream records, German music didn’t sound like British music at all. And the weirder it was, the more fascinated I was. The first Kraftwerk albums were like jazz rock, with flutes and stuff, totally unlistenable to for all my mates.

I knew Tony Wilson from very early on. He’d come in at weekends, just before closing time. I was the person designated to unpack the boxes in the morning and then write up all the records and put them into stock. So I knew every single record that was coming into the shop, even more than the people who actually worked there. I’d have to tell them what had come in—they had no idea. They’d just look at the list, and they had no idea if things that they’d ordered had actually come in or not.

Tony would ask me to put a record aside for him so he could have a listen, then I could put it back in stock on the Monday if he didn’t want it. He’d come in, and it would be all, “Darling!”—and that’s how I got to know him. I got to know Rob Gretton because he used to come into the shop all the time and just hang around. It’s what I would do as well—go into record shops and just hang around there all day, talking about records and about music.

Ian would come into Virgin when he started working in Manchester and just hang around, complaining about things. He said, “You can smell the drugs in Virgin.” I told him that’s why we burn incense to disguise it, but he thought that was the smell of the drugs. He was always joking, very funny, playing tricks and stuff.

Paul Morley: We had head shops like Eight Miles High, the Manchester Free Press and the Mole Express, and the lefty end of things. That was your great salvation at the time—music and the lefty press and weird bookshops where alternative culture seemed to be thriving. Down in London obviously there was Compendium, and we had weird little versions of that where you might find some sanity and discover things. Everything was not easily available; you had to search it out and find it.

I worked in this bookshop in Stockport, and the shop sold all the great Pelican blue books, which were my education. I didn’t get educated at school, I got educated in this bookshop, and they had a science-fiction section—Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions, all the J. G. Ballard novels—they would have really weird magazines, underground magazines, and weird folk singers from the backwoods of Derbyshire would come in to get their weekly fix of odd alternative culture.

Surprisingly enough the science fiction had little appeal for the vast majority of the clientele, who were going over to the naked-lady corner.

But we made money in the bookshop out of the soft porn and the Mills & Boon, so you had a weird kind of strange thing where old ladies would totter in every month to get their ten Mills & Boon, and men would come in to get their soft porn, which we had to order off a van that came in every week. Then I would be selling second-hand records. I would go into Manchester, buy bootlegs for £2, bring them back to my bookshop and sell them for £2.50.

You’d get the people coming in to buy war books, all those Sven Hassels. Of course, if you were going to open that kind of independent bookshop in the northwest at that period, you would have lefty tendencies, so you’d be pushing that, but to make your money you would have to sell Whitehouse and Mayfair, and the dreadful thing is you could bring them back to exchange, so these grubby copies of this soft porn would come back glistening with some suspect substance.

But what was interesting were the creatures that would come in to check out the weird combination of books, which sounds fairly standard now but at the time was unformed and raw: Ballard and Philip K. Dick and Burroughs. William Burroughs was definitely part of it. They were prophets of something that we were about to enter, this weird commercial entertainment landscape that would become where we are now sat, but at the time it was very odd, and it was a beautiful attachment to your love for weird music. There was no doubt that it was connected. There didn’t seem to be any difference between reading Ballard and Dick and Burroughs and listening to Faust and Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges: you were constantly curious to find out strange things that might explain your situation, even though it didn’t directly have anything to do with where you were.

And there were characters. There was a guy that used to come into the bookshop called Paul, and he did the first fanzine I’d ever come across. It was called Penetration and it was basically obsessed with Hawkwind. He used to come in and he always used to wear all black. He had the whitest skin I’d ever seen, and his girlfriend would always wear white lace, and they used to float in bringing ten copies of Penetration every so often. In fact, that’s where I first wrote. I wrote a piece about Lenny Bruce for Penetration, which Paul pasted up in the wrong order, incidentally. I think it’s influenced my writing ever since, because I quite liked it being in the wrong order.

But there were lots of characters like that floating around and, obviously, Ian Curtis. I get the sense wherever he was at the same time—’74, ’75—he was coming across similar sorts of routes, similar source material out of which he could piece together his vision.

Stephen Morris: I’d get the train and go in to Savoy Books—before it was Savoy Books it was called The House on the Borderlands—and we used to have a right laugh at the old blokes looking at the porn. There was science fiction, weird books, and over in a corner there’d be naked ladies, and surprisingly enough the science fiction had little appeal for the vast majority of the clientele, who were going over to the naked-lady corner. I’d just be trying to negotiate some sort of discount on a large, expensive book: “Yeah, have you got Michael Moorcock’s new book?”

Ian had The Atrocity Exhibition by Ballard, Naked Lunch, William Burroughs, and also a collection of Jim Morrison’s poems. I seem to remember that you could go to W. H. Smith’s and they had a lot of Burroughs and a lot of Ballard, and it was just mixed in with the rest of the stuff.

I remember I liked Alice Cooper until everybody else started liking Alice Cooper, then I decided I didn’t really like Alice Cooper that much.

Michael Butterworth: Bookchain was opened in 1977. It was alternative and youth-culture stuff, both second-hand and new. I must clarify, though, that this was the most famous of our shops and the one everyone remembers, but it is not the shop Ian Curtis first came to. There were two Savoy shops before this one, and David Britton’s most vivid memories of Ian are of him coming into the first shop.

All three shops were modeled on two London bookshops of the period: Bram Stokes’s shop in Berwick Street, Soho, called Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed—which sold comics, sci-fi, drug- related stuff, posters, etc.—and a chain called Popular Books. David Britton used to visit a branch of the latter in Camden Town when he was living in London in the late 60s. They sold everything from Private Eye, girlie books, pin-up stuff and Penthouse to film stills, posters and any sort of media ephemera.

These two bookshops inspired David (with his then partner, Charles Partington) to open a bookshop on Port Street, off Newton Street, in Manchester centre. The shop they opened was called The House on the Borderland (after the William Hope Hodgson novel), and they had all this kind of stuff in the window. There was a strong emphasis on alternative culture and American imports. The window looked very exotic, and this is what probably attracted Ian and Steve Morris inside, once they had followed the yellow-brick-road poster trail leading to the shop. The attitude radiating from the shop was, “Fuck everybody in authority,” and that’s what they responded to. The shop played loud rock’n’roll over the speakers, which sounded out into the street years before other shops were doing the same kind of thing. And I mean loud.

They were disparate, alienated young men attracted to like-minded souls. They wanted something offbeat and off the beaten track, and the shop supplied this. They probably saw the shop as being a beacon in the rather bleak Manchester of the early 70s. Ian was interested in counter-culture and science fiction. David remembers them being enthusiasts about Michael Moorcock, whose hard-edged fantasy writing and lifestyle were a great influence, very rock’n’roll.

Ian bought second-hand copies of New Worlds, the great 60s literary magazine edited by Moorcock, which was doing something very different, promoting Burroughs and Ballard, and it’s possible Ian picked up his interest in these writers from these magazines. In exchange for their help in the shop they were allowed to take whatever books took their fancy. They came in every couple of weeks, sometimes more often. Steve was the most frequent. This close contact came to an end gradually, as Ian and Steve’s interest in a band was getting more serious.

Stephen Morris: Once I started going out, my first concert was Hawkwind and Status Quo. I was into psychedelic music really. Apart from Hawkwind, the first two groups that I got into were Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and the week after that it was the Velvet Underground, and that was it. I liked collecting groups and I remember I liked Alice Cooper until everybody else started liking Alice Cooper, then I decided I didn’t really like Alice Cooper that much. That’s a bit pretentious really, but that’s the way it was.

We were going to form this avant-garde jazz combo called the Sunshine Valley Dance Band.

After that glam happened. Actually, after saying that Macclesfield was a cultural desert, once a year there was a discotheque—there were two discotheques, one at the rugby club, where you could go and dance to the Faces and Jeff Beck and get in a fight, or you could go to Boddington Civic, which was later on, where there was a big glam-rock following and you had the Sweet and Bowie and Roxy Music, and so we went from psychedelic to glam rock—again, till everybody started liking it.

I discovered Krautrock about that time, and Can—I was into Tago Mago. I should say we were forming a band, me and this other guy from school—Mac, he was called. We were going to form this avant-garde jazz combo called the Sunshine Valley Dance Band. Everyone thinks it was just going to be like a dance band, and Hooky thinks it was jazz, but no, we were going to be avant-garde, and people would book us on the strength of the name and we would shock them with our appalling performances.

It never got off the ground, but through Mac’s elder brother I got into Can and then, after Can, Amon Düül and Neu!. I was into the punk rock before punk rock, which was the MC5 and the first Stooges album, which I bought from Kendals in Manchester. Anything that wasn’t disco. I later came to regret that opinion, but at the time disco was shit, and so it was anything that was a little bit long-haired but not like the boys in the year above me, who would wear RAF greatcoats and walk about with copies of Disraeli Gears or The Best of Cream. I wasn’t too mad on anything bluesy; it was just anything a bit unusual that was not Eric Clapton.

Paul Morley: You were looking round to see if there was anybody like you. There was nobody like me at school. Eventually we all found each other at a particular show, but for two or three years before that happened we didn’t really know where each other was. If you went to a Pink Floyd or David Bowie concert at the Free Trade Hall, you didn’t really find anybody else. They were probably there somewhere, but you didn’t find them because there was a bigger disguise going on.

At that point—’74, ’75—music fundamentally came to Manchester. We used to think of the local bands as not being right. Even bands that were local, like 10cc or Sad Café, didn’t seem to be Manchester. They seemed to be more LA, they were already in Las Vegas. There were a couple of kind of strange heavy metal clubs in Manchester where local bands would play, but you wouldn’t take them seriously at all because they just seemed like bands you’d see at school. There was just no way that that music would ever come from Manchester.

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Excerpted from This searing light, the sun, and everything else: Joy Division: An Oral History by Jon Savage. Published with permission from Faber & Faber. Copyright © 2019 by Jon Savage.

Jon Savage
Jon Savage
Jon Savage is the author of England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock and Teenage: The Creation of Youth, 1875-1945. He has written sleevenotes for Wire, St. Etienne and the Pet Shop Boys, among others, and his compilations include: Meridian 1970; Queer Noises: From the Closest to the Charts 1961-1976; and Dreams Come True: Classic Electro 1982-87.





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