IAN CURTIS – Torn Apart

This is the first of two extracts from Torn Apart: The Life Of Ian Curtis by Mick Middles & Lindsay Reade, first published by Omnibus Press in 2006. The authors of this biography were uniquely qualified to write about the extraordinary events surrounding the life and death of Ian Curtis. Manchester-based Middles was the first journalist to interview Joy Division for the music press and formed a close association with the band. Reade was a co-founder of Factory Records along with her then-husband Tony Wilson. Together they revisited the legend of Ian Curtis and produced the first full-length account of this troubled man’s life, work and relationships in the midst of the unique explosion of pop energy that hit Manchester in the late Seventies.
         Somewhat controversially, their book benefited from the co-operation of Annik Honoré, the Belgian girl with whom Ian formed a close relationship during the last eight months of his life, and the book featured extracts from their correspondence together. [Annik passed away in July of this year.]
         In this extract we pick up a troubled Joy Division in April, 1980, six weeks before Ian would take his own life. The group has been acclaimed by the music press and appear to be on the verge of a major breakthrough, but all is not well with their charismatic singer who is, quite literally, being torn apart by epilepsy and his responsibilities to the group, to their fans and to his wife and newly born daughter.

Unable to return to Manchester to rest following the recording of their second album, Joy Division remained in London to fulfil their various obligations, the first of which was the three night stint at the Moonlight Club. ‘Factory by Moonlight’ might have sounded like a romantic proposition but, as is often the case, the fantasy and the reality were poles apart. A showcase for struggling Factory acts was all very well but Joy Division’s revered status as darlings of the music press meant that in reality the success of the three nights rested fairly and squarely on their shoulders. [Joy Division manager] Rob Gretton, now a partner in Factory Records, no doubt felt compelled to offer the services of his band to help raise the profile of the company in the relatively uncharted territory of the capital.    
         It is less easy to understand the reasoning behind Joy Division’s appearance at the Rainbow Theatre on Good Friday, April 4, supporting The Stranglers, especially since this conflicted with the Friday night finale at the Moonlight, thus necessitating a race across town to fulfil both engagements. Certainly, an appearance at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park, a venue that held almost 3,000, carried some cachet, as did appearing with a ‘name’ act like The Stranglers. The show was originally promoted as one in a series of nine that were sponsored by Levi Strauss, the jeans manufacturer, to celebrate the venue’s 50th birthday. Other nights would see performances by heavy metallers Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Whitesnake and soul stirrers the Average White Band, hardly appropriate company for the cutting edge disturbance of Joy Division.
         The Stranglers had already committed themselves to playing two of the nine evenings when their singer/guitarist Hugh Cornwell was sent to Pentonville Prison for two months after losing an appeal against a conviction for drug possession. As such the gig changed shape and became a benefit gig in support of Cornwell, with a variety of singers waiting in the wings to take his place on lead vocals. They included Toyah Wilcox, Hazel O’Connor, Billy Idol, Phil Daniels, Nicky Tesco, Ian Dury, Richard Jobson, Peter Hammill, Robert Smith, Robert Fripp and many more. The Rainbow was sold out that night.
         “Groups were turning up just to do it,” says Larry Cassidy of Section 25. “They didn’t have all that much time to play. We were supposed to go on and Rob came up to me and said JD had another gig on the other side of London and if they do the spot before The Stranglers they wouldn’t be able to make it so did we want to do it? So I said yes. They went on before us.”
         Because most of their gear was at The Moonlight, Joy Division performed with a minimum of equipment on stage which was far from ideal for a venue as big as the Rainbow. Far more worrying was that Rob’s request to the lighting technicians that they refrain from using strobes wasn’t heeded. 
         Many of Joy Division’s London based friends made it to the Rainbow to witness a fractured set of varying intensity. It was undeniably more captivating than the recent Moonlight shows, beginning with a ferocious ‘Dead Souls’, followed by ‘Wilderness’, ‘Shadowplay’ and ‘Decades’. By all accounts, including reviews in the music press, Ian’s dancing appeared less rhythmic than usual, less effective perhaps; jagged, trance-like and unsettling. At the conclusion of ‘She’s Lost Control’, the whole spectacle suddenly darkened: Ian was clearly having a fit as he staggered backwards into Steve Morris’s drum kit.
         “Some pillock turned the fucking strobe light on,” says [Section 25 singer] Larry Cassidy. “Rob always used to make sure that the lighting guy knew not to turn the strobe lights on because it sets off epileptic fits. This guy turned them on and not long after Ian ended up in the fucking drum kit. So he gets carted off stage – up all the corridors at the back to the dressing room and that was the fucking end of that.  And then we had to go on.”
         Joy Division remained locked in the dressing room until Ian’s seizure passed. Then they drove across town to West Hampstead for the final show at the Moonlight. “Ian was not in great shape but he believed that the show must go on,” says Terry [Mason, Joy Division’s tour manager].
         Back at the Moonlight Tony Wilson was unaware that Ian had had a fit at the Rainbow. “I wasn’t there,” he says. “I was at the Moonlight. I remember them arriving. He seemed all right. He was fine.”
         So Joy Division took the stage for the second time that night, only for disaster to happen a second time. It was about two thirds of the way through the Moonlight set – 25 minutes in – when Ian’s dancing started to lose its rhythmic sense and change into something else entirely. With the band flashing nervous glances at each other, with Terry hovering by the side, the theatre that was a Joy Division performance turned into something verging on the grotesque. Ian was engulfed by another fit and the show collapsed to a halt. Some members of the audience believed it was all part of the act, but those aware of the situation knew all too well that this was the most violent attack that Ian Curtis had ever suffered.
         Paul Morley had travelled across London that night, following the band from Finsbury Park to West Hampstead, and he remembers how the effort needed to make this journey in a short time was somewhat exhausting in itself, even without having to twice perform on stage. “Even for a healthy person it was very unlikely that they would do two shows of such intensity on the same night,” he says. “You felt that it couldn’t be helping that Ian was driving himself to such a peak of response to his own performance. And the fact it was happening more and more on stage toward the end seemed to suggest it was not the best way to try and treat that condition. It was just accelerating. In hindsight we could say it was accelerating to the suicide but there is a world where it didn’t necessarily have to, it could have accelerated into a kind of weird peace where it all calmed down.”
         Terry Mason believes that the principal reason for doing a series of gigs in London was to try to put aside money to help fund the forthcoming American tour,   but he finds it difficult to understand the events of this night. “I was wondering what we were doing there at all,” he says. “We didn’t have that much to do with The Stranglers that we needed to be at their benefit. The money at the Moonlight was split equally between the bands so it was not of much material benefit. We were just propping up Factory. It wasn’t even important. Ian has just done two gigs that meant fuck all to him. It was a massive attack at the Moonlight and, afterwards, Ian looked crushed.”
         Tony Wilson concedes that this was an unusual night but doesn’t feel the band’s schedule was unusually stressful, as they were used to working hard. “I think in hindsight that was kind of normal for bands of that era,” he says. “For bands in that position, on the way up the ladder, it was quite normal to play three gigs a week. I think the Moonlight period was peculiar. The Moonlight was a wacky idea… I think that was a bit extreme.”
         Ian and Annik [Honoré] were together for the duration of these London gigs and she left for Belgium on either Saturday April 5 or the day after. Terry thinks that Ian returned to London to stay with her after the Malvern gig on the Saturday but is probably mistaken as Annik certainly purchased her overland ticket to Brussels that day. She still has the receipt, purchased from a travel agency in Buckingham Palace Road and priced £11.70. On it she wrote: “I left Ian Saturday morning, he was still asleep, very tired after the concert at the Rainbow (fit) and the Moonlight Club – after many tears, embraces, kisses, depressions, breakdown till almost daybreak.”
         Later Annik wrote to Carole: “Obviously he was very tired and depressed after what happened at the Rainbow when he had a fit on stage in front of 3,000 people.”

Tomorrow, the Bury gig that ended in a riot. 


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