On the evening of May 18, 1980, Ian Curtis, lead singer and lyricist of the British group Joy Division, hangs himself in his Manchester kitchen. He was only 23 years old.
Joy Division was one of four hugely important British post-punk bands that could trace its origins to a now-legendary performance by the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester in June 1976. Along with founding members of the Buzzcocks, the Smiths and the Fall, Mancunians Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook decided in the immediate aftermath of that show to form a band. And while the DIY ethos of the Sex Pistols gave them the courage to call themselves a band when they could barely play their newly purchased instruments, the band they ended up becoming was among the first punk-inspired groups to leave the punk-rock sound behind. The critical step in that direction was the selection of Ian Curtis from among the respondents to the “Singer Wanted” listing they posted in a local record store. Curtis was less an aspiring rock star than he was an aspiring poet, and his moody, expressive lyrics would gradually guide the group’s sound away from the thrash and anger of punk and toward something far more spare and melancholy.
The sound that Joy Division developed over the course of 1977-79 included the addition of the synthesizer—an absolute violation of the lo-fi punk esthetic, but a choice that marked the beginning of what would eventually be called the New Wave. The 1979 album Unknown Pleasures, its follow-up Closer and the single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” made Joy Division into cult heroes in the UK, and Ian Curtis’s mesmerizing stage demeanor turned him into a post-punk icon.
Though he concealed his condition from his bandmates until he suffered a major seizure in their tour van following a gig in London in December 1978, Curtis was an epileptic. Some have speculated that depression over his medical condition or the side effects of the medications he took to control it led to Curtis’s suicide. There are many other factors that may have played a role, however, from Curtis’s drug use to the strain on his marriage brought about by his affair with a Belgian journalist. Whatever his reasons, Ian Curtis took his own life just two days prior to Joy Division’s planned departure on a potentially career-changing tour of the United States. Two months after Curtis died by suicide on this day in 1980, the surviving members of Joy Division fulfilled a promise they’d made to one another by retiring their group’s name and continuing on through the 1980s under the name New Order.