Today marks the 40th anniversary of Ian Curtis’ passing. The vocalist/lyricist of English post-punk band Joy Division, his charismatic and impassioned stage persona belied a deeper malaise. Curtis was epileptic; his frenetic dance moves were seen to be a reflection of the seizures he experienced. During the band’s performances in 1979 and 1980, Curtis collapsed several times and had to be helped off the stage. This volatile situation was exacerbated by the fact he was also prone to manic depression.
I saw Joy Division support Buzzcocks during the latter’s ‘A Different Kind of Tension’ tour, at the Edinburgh Odeon, on 6 October 1979. Although I was a huge Buzzcocks fan at the time, I couldn’t help but be captivated by Curtis' mesmerising stage presence, complimenting the dark, multi-layered post-punk music his band were conjuring.
Seven months later, just as Joy Division’s seminal second album ‘Closer’ was about to be released, and on the verge of their first North American tour, Curtis took his own life.
Life is full of ‘what ifs,’ and how Joy Division would have developed and evolved beyond May 1980 remains an enthralling example of this hypothetical quandary. But an even greater ‘what if’ is how Curtis’ own life would have progressed if he’d tried reaching out for some kind of resolution to his inner turmoil. In 1980 mental health issues were stigmatised to a far greater extent. People suffering from depression would have felt so much more isolated than their counterparts today (given the prevalence of helplines, social media pages, and websites dedicated to suicide prevention in 2020.) As a 23 year-old male he was also three times as likely to have died this way than a female.
The enduring legacy of Joy Division's short but spellbinding career is to be widely acknowledged as the precursors of a huge swathe of 1980s alternative rock; cited as a key influence by everyone from Radiohead to Interpol, Bloc Party to Nine Inch Nails to name a few.
According to statistics published by the World Health Organisation, the suicide rate is currently at its lowest since 1981. However, it remains the single biggest killer of males under-45 in this country.
You may well have encountered people contemplating this terrible step. Anyone in this fragile position should never feel isolated. Difficult as it may be to broach the subject, they should be made to feel they will receive a sympathetic ear when they share their issues – with friends, family, health professionals; anyone willing to listen.
Samaritans (24-hour telephone helpline: 116 123)
NHS: help for suicidal thoughts
BBC article: why more men than women die by suicide