It is 1976. 4th of June. On Peter Street, in the Lesser Free Trade Hall, there’s a gig going on. It’s not exactly well attended, its roughly two thirds empty, but this one gig becomes so famous that the attendance figures rise and rise over the years of retelling. If you believed every soul that claimed they were there that night then you’d need about three Old Trafford’s or four Maine Road’s just to accommodate them. After the warm-up band Solstice, on came the main event. In any normal sense, the headline act is the main event, and in this case, it’s the Sex Pistols. They should absolutely be the focus of this article and all the other mentions this gig has ever had.
This time its the audience. As paltry as it was at the time, they were a powder keg of Manchester music, and the spark of that Sex Pistols performance started a fire that would change Manchester for the next thirty years. There has been a lot of speculation over who was actually there that night but these are the definitives. Morrissey was there, two lads from Lower Broughton (Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner) who went on to form Joy Division, Mark E Smith who started the Fall, Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks arranged the gig. Was Tony Wilson there? Mick Hucknall? Martin Hannett? Who knows for sure. Tony Wilson certainly saw the Sex Pistols there at some point but was it on the night that Joy Division had that first seed of a start, or was it a later gig? Frankly, who cares? This was the spark that started it all, one of those strange moments that you can’t believe happened and couldn’t imagine what music would look like if it hadn’t. It took a while for the band we know as Joy Division to coalesce into being, almost 18 months old, but this was the night that started it all. From the beginning to the end.
Ian Curtis responded to an ad for a lead singer and having known the band from some earlier gigs he got the job. Sumner said that he “knew he was all-right to get on with and that’s what we based the whole group on If we liked someone, they were in”. As a frontman, he seemed to fit the band like a glove. The naturally discordant sound that Joy Division was looking to create matched perfectly with the forthright dour drone of Curtis. With a workaholic manager in Rob Gretton and the exposure brought about through Tony Wilson, the clearly talented band had the blueprint to succeed. Curtis famously gave Wilson both barrels for not including them on his show “So It Goes” but he rectified that situation and by January 1979 Curtis was on the cover of NME magazine.
Unknown Pleasures came out in June 1797, with Martin Hannett’s production making major changes to their live sound. This needled Hook and Sumner who felt he’d dumbed down the stark, industrial dystopia of the sound or something a bit more palatable. As time wore on the band realized he’d managed to corner the sound that made Joy Division. Hook said later on “Most people have just heard Joy Division on record. And Joy Division on record was completely different than it was live”, which reinforces the difference if not fully admitting he did them a favor.
Unknown Pleasures fell victim to a common curse. It didn’t sell especially well, though it was critically well-received and didn’t get the true recognition it deserved until much later. Part of the reason for the band signing with Factory was Rob Gretton so he “wouldn’t have to get on a train to London every week and talk to nuggets”. The contempt he had for cockneys notwithstanding, the Factory label gave the band the freedom to make a record as they wanted. Well, as much as they wanted in line with Martin Hannett and his interpretation of the vision.
Joy Division toured Europe in 1980 then came home to record Closer, their second album. The tour had taken its toll on Curtis and his epilepsy, with the lack of sleep and long hours on the road. It seemed to take a greater hold on him and led to a feeling of embarrassment and a sense he was letting the band down. Closer being in the can wasn’t quite the momentous occasion a completed album should be. As with Unknown Pleasures, neither Hook or Sumner was happy with the Hannett production. Hook said that when he heard the final mix of “Atrocity Exhibition” he had that feeling of deja vu from the final mix of Unknown Pleasures. He wrote “I was like, head in hands, Oh fucking hell, it is happening again … Martin had fucking melted the guitar with his Marshall Time Waster. Made it sound like someone strangling a cat and, to my mind, absolutely killed the song. I was so annoyed with him and went in and gave him a piece of my mind but he just turned around and told me to fuck off”.
With a tour of the USA due to kick off in May you imagine that the band had plenty to keep themselves occupied with other than having a fight with Martin Hannett. Sadly Ian Curtis had a lot on his mind too. He’d shown excitement for the tour to the states but the ever-present epileptic fits would surely have only got worse with the greater distances and longer travel. Furthermore, he was set to divorce from wife Deborah, by her choice it would seem as he had asked her to drop it. The night before the band was due to depart for the US he asked to be left on his own in the house after a discussion of the divorce had taken place. He would never leave it. Deborah returned the next day to find he’d hung himself.
Ian Curtis was gone. The man sang as if he was passing on knowledge from another world, who held the mic like there was a current passing through it, who’s sound was so in tune with the music the band had made, live or recorded. He was part of the scene that gave the world Joy Division, The Smiths, The Happy Mondays, and New Order. It lit the fire from which the Stone Roses and then Oasis would follow. The term seminal record gets bandied about with glee full abandon but Unknown Pleasures truly was one. His band continued in all but name as New Order and financed the Hacienda, Factory Records and by extension the bands under the label as well. They created a platform for three decades of music that not only dominated a city, or a country but made waves around the world. “Fucking Hell” would have likely been the man’s response had he seen all that was to follow but it was not to be. On the 18th of May take the time to grab a copy of Unknown Pleasures (hopefully you have one to hand), and open a beer as Disorder’s opening bars burst forth from your speakers or headphones. He’d probably not have wanted the attention but that’ll make it all the better.
Article by James Clinch