“We were making it up as we were going along, and we had a great sense of discovery in the music and in what we were doing,” said guitarist Bernard Sumner about his former band, the Manchester, England-based Joy Division. That quote was taken from This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else (Faber & Faber), a new oral history about the legendary post-punk group by veteran British music writer Jon Savage. Long after Joy Division’s demise following the suicide of their compelling lead singer, Ian Curtis, in May 1980, the group’s brief but memorable career continues to fascinate through numerous retrospective articles, reissues and compilation albums, documentaries, memoirs by the other band members, and two dramatized movies in Michael Winterbottom’s 24-Hour Party People (2002) and Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007). As indicated with Savage’s new book, interest in Joy Division continues unabated.
This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else draws from interviews with the surviving members of Joy Division — Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris — along with the band’s associates and peers, including manager Rob Gretton, Factory Records co-founder Tony Wilson, producer Martin Hannett, and art designer Peter Saville. Additional commentary by Ian Curtis’s widow, Deborah Curtis, and his lover, Annik Honore, provides perspective on the singer’s complicated and tortured personal life. Together, the interviews and perspectives tell a fascinating and poignant story of a group that came of age during the ’70s punk explosion and forged a unique sound and vision with Curtis’ lyrics about the darkness and fragility of the human condition. It also continues to pose the question of how much further Joy Division could’ve gone had Curtis not ended his life at the age of 23. (The surviving members of Joy Division carried on and achieved even greater success as New Order.)
A renowned music journalist who has documented Joy Division from the beginning, Savage wrote one of the seminal books on punk, England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond (St. Martin’s Griffin, revised, 2002) as well as 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded (Faber and Faber, 2016), he also collaborated with Deborah Curtis on So This Is Permanence (Chronicle Books, 2014) a collection of Ian Curtis’ lyrics and notebooks. Savage previously wrote for the British music weeklies Sounds and Melody Maker. In this interview with PopMatters, Savage talks about his experiences covering Joy Division, their magnetic power as a live band, and the tragic circumstances that led to Ian Curtis’ suicide.
This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else is based on interviews that were conducted for Joy Division, the 2007 film documentary, directed by Grant Gee, that you wrote.
When you make a documentary, you only end up using a small proportion of the interviews you record. So I was well aware that there was much more Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris, Peter Saville, Tony Wilson [the band’s roadie], Terry Mason, and Peter Hook — the core people, if you’d like — than was used in the documentary. I have the transcripts of the interviews and I suddenly thought, Why not do a book?
I’ve also done other interviews way back in the day for England’s Dreaming, and then I’ve done a lot of interviews with the group again when I did a big feature for MOJO in [the early ’90s]. I also interviewed Deborah Curtis at that time. I thought, I’ve always wanted to write a book about Joy Division, I’ve always wanted to do an oral history, particularly after I was very obsessed with that book by Jean Stein, Edie, about Edie Sedgwick [Knopf, 1982]. I have to say the [Joy Division] book was a very personal thing. I had no idea when I was doing it that it was going to get the level of interest that it has.
You reported on Joy Division very early on, when they were previously called Warsaw. How did you first hear about them?
I was covering punk [for Sounds]. All the Manchester groups were playing at the Electric Circus, this club on the north of Manchester and it was absolutely in the middle of nowhere. It’s a very degraded environment, lots of dereliction, lots of street gangs. And so I was sent up by Sounds to cover these two nights [at the club] where all the Manchester punk bands played. You had the Fall, Buzzcocks, Magazine’s debut gig. And then they had terrible groups like the Drones, which was a Manchester punk group.
In the middle of all this was this group called Warsaw. All I remember was that there was something about them that snagged my interest and I don’t know what it was. I’ve seen a lot of groups… They had something. I wasn’t sure what it was and I don’t think they were sure what it was. But it was very interesting to me and I wrote favorably about them in the magazine. I got in a couple of lines and they were pretty favorable.
The next year I wrote favorably about Joy Division again in a review. Virgin Records did a LP called Short Circuit: Last Night at the Electric Circus  and Joy Division were on there. They were called Joy Division by then. Soon after that, I got a letter from their then-manager, Rob Gretton, saying, “Saw your piece. Here is a copy of the [EP An Ideal for Living] they just recorded. It’s crap, but I thought you’d like to hear it.” This was my introduction to Mancunian humor. I quite like the idea that somebody was saying, “This is crap,” and still sending it to me. It made me laugh and it got my interest.
So I got involved pretty much [in Joy Division’s inner circle]. It was 1979. I was friendly with Rob Gretton, Martin Hannett, Tony Wilson — I was very close to them all. I wasn’t so close to the band because they were a bit younger. And anyway, bands tend to be a bit hermetic. I didn’t follow the course of being too friendly with them. I’ve been burned with that because I’ve been very friendly with a couple of groups. I figured it was just easier not to become friendly with groups.
Was there a common theme about Joy Division’s music or career running through the different interviews?
It’s reflected in the book’s introduction. One of the key lines in the book is when Tony Wilson says, “I still don’t know where Joy Division came from.” They [Sumner, Hook and Morris] all articulate it very well. It was on instinct. They didn’t talk about what they were doing. It’s fantastic because it’s the spontaneous creativity of people who weren’t privileged.
Although you have written about Joy Division for decades, did you discover anything new about them as you were working on this book?
How candid [the surviving band members] were. You get a sense of the incredible excitement they had as the whole thing was taking off. That was a big deal. Also, it was very interesting to me in describing how they made the music that they did. One of the reasons I kept on writing about Joy Division is that I’m still trying to find the answer to a puzzle: just how powerful the group were live at that point and what actually happened in May 1980. Ian’s death was a terrible event, which I blocked out. So it’s trying to figure that out.
In 1994, I did a big piece about them, and that helped me make sense of Kurt Cobain’s death, because [Nirvana] were the last big rock group I really got emotionally invested in. [“Someone Take These Dreams Away“, MOJO, July 1994] I was very upset about his death, and one of the ways that I dealt with it was to write about Joy Division. And so it took a long time for the story to get unlocked. That was only a start, and then it got unlocked with Deborah’s book [Touching From a Distance, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2 edition, 2014]. But I still didn’t fully realize the circumstances on why Ian committed suicide. I felt at the end of the book that I had laid all that to rest.
Even after 40 years, the band’s debut full-length album Unknown Pleasures [Factory, 1979] — which your book chronicles its recording — still sounds timeless.
You cannot know that at the time. That’s something one would always hope for in any piece of art. … I do a bit of re-listening to music from that period, because one’s opinion changes. To me Buzzcocks still sound great. Magazine don’t. Joy Division sound great, and Gang of Four don’t. It’s very interesting what lasts and what doesn’t, and how different periods highlight different records from the past. Joy Division did go to other places and other worlds [in their music]. To me, one of the key Joy Division tracks that I remember being very affected by when they played it live, was “Dead Souls”. [Ian is] actually saying, “I’ve been there, I’ve had these visions,” and the idea of somebody singing about visions in that way is extraordinary, because you’re actually stepping out of time.
When you saw them live, the problem for Ian was that he had no stagecraft. I remember when I was doing the Joy Division piece in the ’90s, I went to see David Bowie and he was fantastic. He knew exactly what to give and what to withhold. He gave enough but he didn’t give too much. That’s what performers do: they always pull back [and] leave something. They have something of themselves that they don’t give to the audience. Ian came out and he gave everything at every show. Now that’s not sustainable, but it also makes for a fantastic exciting show, because you have that element of living in the moment and also of uncertainty, which is what’s going to happen.
How do you compare Closer [Factory, 1980], the band’s second and final studio album, to Unknown Pleasures?
I never listened to Closer at the time because it was released after Ian’s death and I just couldn’t cope with it. So I’ve gone back to it during the last few years. I think it’s incredible. I now think it’s a better record than Unknown Pleasures because I like synthesizers and I like that particular analog synthesizer tone as well. So I really do like Closer. I’m almost over-familiar with Unknown Pleasure because I played the hell out of it. Closer is still a bit of a mystery, so I play that more. I think [the music writer] Paul Morley says it very well in the book is that Unknown Pleasures is, “Maybe I can become an artist,” and Closer is, “I am that artist.” I think he’s right. Closer is a fantastic piece of work all the way through. It’s not just Ian, it’s the three members of the group as well.
The different perspectives from the interviewees offers a cohesive portrait of the band, and especially how complex and tragic Ian’s life became, leading up to his death.
One of the things that’s very interesting is that I didn’t realize quite how ill he was [with his epilepsy]. And also the fact that he wasn’t going to get better, and how devastating that must’ve been. I think the prime motor in all of this is the illness.
The treatment of epilepsy then was very crude, so he was on very strong tranquilizers. So the illness was doubled up. I think that’s a really important part of it. And then he got into this situation where the marriage with Deborah wasn’t working out. I haven’t gone into detail [about Ian’s personality] in the book. The book starts with the group. I didn’t go into a lot of the family relationships of the members. There are hints of that, but that’s really a story for them. And that’s why the book sits with the autobiographies by Bernard, Peter and the forthcoming [one] by Stephen Morris.
And that’s why the book sits with the autobiographies by Bernard, Peter and the forthcoming [one] by Stephen Morris [Record Play Pause: Confessions of a Post-Punk Percussionist: Volume 1, Constable, May 2019]. There are aspects of the story that I can’t and don’t want to tell. That’s for them to talk about, their upbringing in detail.
What do you hope readers will take away from This Searing Light, The Sun and Everything Else?
Obviously I hope they listen to the music. I hope they get the idea that suicide is not glamorous, it’s devastating. I’m very happy for Ian in particular to have his story told, because he really deserved it. I’m happy for the group to have their story told, to be honest. I know it sounds trite, but it’s true: it all starts with the music. It always does.
On a personal level, it’s me trying to just work out how I felt when I saw them and how powerful they were. The more that time goes on, they’re probably the most powerful rock group I ever saw. Part of me is absolutely amazed at how big a group Joy Division have become. I really am surprised about this.