An instant classic, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division appears on numerous top 80s songs lists, and I’d probably put this one pretty close to the top if I were to rank these favorites, as have various critics. The song was Joy Division’s first UK chart hit, released on the Factory Records label ahead of their second album, Closer. In 2012, the British music magazine NME ranked it as the best single released since the magazine’s genesis in 1952. Yet in 2014, the song was ranked as number 2 in NME’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, behind Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as number 1. On my side of the pond, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it at number 181 on its “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list in 2011.
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” is immediately recognizable, with the searing melody of Bernard Sumner’s keyboard contrasting with Peter Hook’s bass riff. The two sounds bring to my mind the highs and lows of romantic love, and although the song is dark, lyrically and in Curtis’ vocal, delivery which is a bit low in the mix (per producer Martin Hannett), the keyboard part reminds me not to just think of Ian Curtis in terms of his death. But.
The song was released in June, 1980, about a month after his suicide on May 18. Joy Division was an amazing band, and the rest of the group’s recordings (two studio albums, with additional singles and remixes and outtakes released later on) hold up almost forty years later. But if anyone knows just one of the band’s songs, it’s this one. Of course, Curtis’ lyrics touch on the universal theme of a failing relationship, and because his troubled marriage and his inner turmoil about having fallen for another woman were contributing factors to his suicide, the song is doubly tragic and poignant. Or triply, as it was released so soon after his death. Curtis’ epilepsy was sometimes manifesting onstage, and Bernard Sumner, in his autobiography, Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me, notes that he was taking some heavy duty medication that changed his behavior and that the seizures also contributed to Curtis’ increasing discomfort with being in the limelight.
When I was thinking about what I would write about this song, I felt myself resisting rehashing Curtis’ suicide, but the fact is, the song came from that troubled mind and heart, so it has to be mentioned. I think, however, that if I were in Curtis’ shoes, I wouldn’t want the world to always associate my work with my death, but those two things can’t be separated in Curtis’ case, or probably in the case of any musician who died too young (and there are far too many examples). I’ve been reading Sumner’s autobiography and was pleased to see Sumner describe Ian what was really like: “Most of the time Ian was a really polite, pleasant person, a pleasure to be around: funny, interesting and great company. . . . But it could be a delicate emotional balancing act with Ian.” Lindsay Reade, who was married to Factory co-founder Tony Wilson, mentions her initial impressions of Ian: “I can remember seeing Ian perform and recognising something really extraordinary and compelling about him. And yet, offstage, he just seemed like a nice, ordinary, rather shy young man” (in her memoir, Mr. Manchester and the Factory Girl). She also writes at length about the time leading up to his suicide, as he stayed with Lindsay and Tony after his first attempt in April, 1980.
On the flip side, Simon Reynolds, in Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, dwells on Curtis’ dark nature, emphasizing his fascination with fascism and Nazis, as well as mental illness, stating that “Curtis enjoyed contemplating humanity’s bottomless capacity for inhumanity.” Reynolds further asserts that “As Curtis always intended, he joined the pantheon of those who lived too intensely and felt too deeply to make it long for this world of half measures and settling for less.” I’m not sure I’m convinced that was Curtis’ intention, but maybe everyone is right about him. He was dark, troubled, fascinated by suffering, etc., for the most part, but that’s a two-dimensional view. Maybe I’m the one with the problem because I want to see the joy, too, even if there was very little there.
Well, look at that. I’ve written a lot about the Cult of Ian Curtis. I can say this, however: I heard the song and loved it before I knew the full story of Joy Division and Ian Curtis. It’s beautiful and haunting both lyrically and aurally, an incredible track even separated from the backstory. No matter where it gets placed on various critics’ and fans’ lists, it’s one that will continue to resonate with music lovers.
The video for the song was filmed on April 28, 1980: