| 12°C Dublin

Forty years after its release, Love Will Tear Us Apart remains a stunning testament to the genius of Ian Curtis and Joy Division


Torn apart: Joy Division in Manchester, from left,
bassist Peter Hook, singer Ian Curtis, drummer
Stephen Morris and guitarist Bernard Sumner

Torn apart: Joy Division in Manchester, from left, bassist Peter Hook, singer Ian Curtis, drummer Stephen Morris and guitarist Bernard Sumner


Torn apart: Joy Division in Manchester, from left, bassist Peter Hook, singer Ian Curtis, drummer Stephen Morris and guitarist Bernard Sumner

There was no shortage of saccharine hits in the mid-1970s, but 'Love Will Keep Us Together' from US husband and wife duo Captain & Tennille came heaped with sugar. Originally released by Neil Sedaka in 1973, it was inescapable when Captain - aka Daryl Dragon - and Toni Tennille brought out their version two years later.

The song was presumably floating around Ian Curtis's head when he started writing the lyrics for what would become his most emblematic and personal song. He married Deborah Woodruff in August 1975 - when he was just 19 - and their union was, largely, an unhappy one.

By the time his band, Joy Division, had released their groundbreaking debut album, Unknown Pleasures, in June 1979, his marriage was as good as over. Deborah was pushing for a divorce, especially when she learned that he had been having an affair with Annik Honoré, a Belgian journalist he had met during a tour of the continent. Curtis felt as though his life was spiralling out of control, not least because he was struggling to cope with the acclaim his band had been garlanded with from the start.

It was despair that fuelled 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' - a veritable cry from the heart - that would come to define the Manchester-born, Cheshire-raised singer for all those that came after. It took on added poignancy when he took his own life on May 18, 1980 just days before the band's maiden US tour - with his words seemingly signalling the depths of depression to which he had sunk.

And what lyrics they are: "Why is the bedroom so cold? Turned away on your side/ Is my timing that flawed? Our respect run so dry?" As a snapshot of a failing marriage, Curtis's words are chillingly authentic - the sense of abject loneliness, even while sharing a bed with someone, is startlingly conveyed in just a few short lines.

The song - which has a comparatively upbeat arrangement - was composed shortly after the release of Unknown Pleasures and debuted on the road at a show in the Netherlands.

Some years ago, bassist Peter Hook told Classic Rock magazine about its genesis. "I was just playing around with a riff and Ian spotted the melody. He jumped on it and goes: 'That's good, that's good… Now Steve [Morris], put some drums on.' It was the way we always wrote. Ian didn't write the music but he could spot it. We'd jam, he'd sit there and pick out the bits he thought were good.

"Strange as it may seem, there weren't tape recorders in those days so everything was in your head. That was one of the wonderful things about Joy Division: we didn't have tapes of us rehearsing the songs, they only existed when you put the four people together."

Recording began in January 1980 at a studio in Oldham, near Manchester, but both Curtis and producer Martin Hannett disliked the results. They regrouped in Strawberry Studios, Stockport, in March and worked on it through the night. At one point drummer Morris went home - shattered from the day's work - only to receive a call from Hannett at 4am asking him to come straight in to re-record the snare drum.

"So every time I hear 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'," he later recalled, "I grit my teeth and remember myself shouting down the phone, 'You bastard!' I can feel the anger in it even now. It's a great song and it's a great production, but I do get anguished every time I hear it."

Love Will Tear Us Apart lives on - a testament to Curtis's distinct genius and the fruits of his work with a gifted band and outstanding producer.

Morris is not wrong about the production. Hannett was one of the smartest producers of his era, a figure who know how to coax something special from the bands he worked with while also ensuring that their distinct sound remained intact. He had worked wonders on Unknown Pleasures - especially on songs such as 'She's Lost Control' and 'Shadowplay' - and scores of fledgling bands were keen to work with him.

One of those groups was U2. They had been seduced by the stark, monochrome beauty of Unknown Pleasures and Bono was in the studio in Stockport on the very day that Joy Division were recording 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. Hannett would go on to produce U2's second single, '11 O'Clock, Tick Tock', but it was a stressful affair for all and they opted for Steve Lillywhite when it came to production work on their debut album Boy, released later in 1980.

Bono also met Curtis during his meeting with Hannett. "Talking to Ian Curtis is, or was, a strange experience because he's very warm," the U2 frontman said later. "It was like two people inside of him - he talked very light, and he talked very well-mannered, and very polite. But when he got behind the microphone he really surged forth; there was another energy. It seemed like he was just two people and, you know, 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'... it was like [when] that record was released... it was like, as if, there were the personalities, separate; there they were, torn apart."

U2 would go on to play 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' throughout their live career - often including a snippet at the end of 'One'. Inhaler - fronted by Bono's son Eli Hewson - also made the song something of a live staple, years later.

Curtis wasn't to live long enough to see the impact the song would have. It was released a month to the day after he hanged himself in his Macclesfield home. It was immediately hailed as a masterpiece - and went to number 13 in the singles chart. It topped the NME's list of best songs of 1980 that year while in 2002, the magazine declared it the best single of all time.

According to Pitchfork, which placed 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' at number seven of its list of the best 200 songs of the 1980s, its "most startling quality is not the withering fatalism of Curtis's lyrics - which address his failing marriage to his wife, Deborah, in discomfiting detail - but the calm, almost contented clarity with which he delivers them".

And, the taste-making online magazine says, "even after decades of ubiquity, 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' retains an uncanny allure. It stands as both Joy Division's most musically expansive yet lyrically intimate statement."

It wasn't included on the second album, the uncompromisingly bleak Closer, which came out in July. From the ashes of tragedy, the three remaining members regrouped and formed New Order. Remarkably, Sumner, Hook and Morris - and Morris's girlfriend Gillian Gilbert, recruited in the summer of 1980 - would go on to leave an even more significant cultural footprint than their old band.

'Love Will Tear Us Apart' lives on - a testament to Curtis's distinct genius and the fruits of his work with a gifted band and outstanding producer. Last July - in one of the great outdoor shows of the summer festival season at Trinity College Dublin - New Order finished a blistering set with 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'.

Peter Hook and New Order have been divorced for some time - most recently, he appeared as a guest on one of 2020's great singles, 'Aires' by Gorillaz - but he also includes 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' in every set. It's a work of art that will endure.

The personal fall out from Curtis's suicide left an indelible mark. Some years ago, in an interview with Sumner, he told me he had never "got over" his friend's death, just two months shy of his 24th birthday.

Hook, writing in his memoir Unknown Pleasures, captured both the loss of a mate and the death of what might have been for Joy Division. "I stayed numb for days… as though my brain was frozen. We had so much going for us then. The word was getting out that we were a great group to see live. We had 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' up our sleeve. We were on the way up."

Indo Review