Glum drone pleasures: The psychology of Ian Curtis and Joy Division
“Now there’s a really good book…[by French economist] Jacques Attali wrote in the late [1970s] called ‘Noise: The Political Economy of Music’…and the main tenet of that book is that…music is the best form of prophecy that we have…so that working with music or sound is our best way of divining a future, and being able to show to ourselves what’s round the corner in that psychological, or even psychic sense” (writer and graphic designer Jon Wozencroft being interviewed for the 2007 film Joy Division)
As a poverty stricken teenager in the early 1980s, all of my minimal disposable income was spent on buying records, cassettes, and music magazines (and to be honest, 35 years later nothing much has changed except I now buy far too many CDs instead of cassettes). Unlike most of my friends at the time I refused to be pigeon holed as a new romantic, a punk, a mod, or a goth because I liked music from all those genres. In the early 1980s was as equally as likely to buy a record by Adam and the Ants and Bauhaus as I was to buy records by Secret Affair and The Clash. I was also into city music scenes with my favourites being the ‘Liverpool scene’ (Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, Wah! etc.), the ‘Sheffield scene’ (Human League, Heaven 17, Cabaret Voltaire, etc.), and the ‘Manchester scene’ (Magazine, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Smiths, The Passage, etc.).
The Manchester music scene was incredibly buoyant although often portrayed by the music press at the time as psychologically and emotionally ‘miserablist’. My parents could never understand what I saw in the “depressing and alienating music” (as they saw it) of bands like Joy Division and The Smiths. But it was through these bands that I developed an interest in psychology and what could be described as ‘psychgeography of post-punk’. In the case of Joy Division, their geographical location in Manchester and its surrounding area (Salford, Macclesfield) was integral to their music. In fact, a number of commentators (such as Liz Naylor, the co-editor of City Fun fanzine) have asserted that Joy Division “relayed the aura of Manchester” in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
All of my information about Joy Division came from reading the NME, listening to the John Peel Show on Radio 1, and listening to their two studio LPs (Unknown Pleasures and Closer) and assorted singles (that I mainly taped off the radio as most of them were not widely available). I was too young to go to gigs and they rarely appeared on television. Of the four members of Joy Division – Ian Curtis (vocals), Peter Hook (bass guitar), Bernard ‘Barney’ Sumner (guitar), and Stephen Morris (drums) – it was Curtis that captivated my adolescent attention. It was through Curtis’ documented medical conditions that helped develop my interest in psychology. Curtis suffered from epilepsy (like one of musical heroes Jim Morrison of The Doors) and clinical depression. It has also been alleged that he suffered from bipolar disorder (i.e., what used to be called ‘manic depression’) although this was never formally diagnosed (and many of those close to Curtis claim that such a claim is speculative at best).
Descriptions of Curtis’ behaviour on first sight look like bipolar disorder given the reports by his wife and others of his severe mood swings (where on one day he could have feelings of happiness and elation but on the next day could have feelings of intense depression and despair). However, other members of the band claimed that the mood swings were caused by the epilepsy medication Curtis was taking. However, bipolar disorder is not uncommon among musicians given many other high profile rock and pop stars have suffered from it including Brian Wilson (Beach Boys), Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Ray Davies (The Kinks), Sinéad O’Connor, Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex), and Adam Ant (to name just a few). Curtis was never afraid to write about psychological and medical conditions and the song ‘She’s Lost Control’ is arguably the most insightful song ever written about epilepsy (based not on his own experiences, but his observations of a female epileptic client who died while he was an Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer based at the Job Centre in Macclesfield).
As any Joy Division fan knows, as a result of his severe depression, Curtis committed suicide by hanging himself on May 18, 1980 (a date I always remember because it was my favourite gran’s birthday), just two days before Joy Division were due to go on their first US tour. Even as a 14-year old teenager, I remember going to my local library in Loughborough not long after his death to learn more about depression, epilepsy, suicide, and attempted suicide (as he had two previous attempts to commit suicide earlier that year). I’m not saying that this alone was responsible for my career choice but it certainly facilitated my growing interest in psychology and mental health issues.
It was also through Joy Division that I started to read history books (and still do) on various psychological and non-psychological aspects of Nazism (and is evidenced by my previous blogs on the personality of Adolf Hitler and Nazi fetishism). Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Joy Division were often accused of having Nazi tendencies. It didn’t help that their name came from the 1955 novella House of Dolls by Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor Yehiel De-Nu (writing under his pen name Ka-tzetnik 135633). The ‘Joy Division’ was the name given to a group of Jewish women in World War II concentration camps whose only purpose was to provide sexual pleasure to Nazi soldiers. I have to admit I’ve never read any of De-Nu’s books. According to an online article by David Mikies (‘Holocaust Pulp Fiction’), De-Nu’s writings were “often lurid novel-memoirs, works that shock the reader with grotesque scenes of torture, perverse sexuality, and cannibalism“. In the 2006 book Joy Division and the Making of Unknown Pleasures, Jake Kennedy asserted that “Curtis’ fascination with extremes would hint to anyone willing to look beyond the headlines that the choice of name was probably an old fashioned punk exercise, matter of old habits dying hard”.
One of the bands earliest songs ‘Warsaw’ (which was also their band name prior to becoming Joy Division) is arguably a lyrical biography of Hitler’s deputy Führer Rudolf Hess. The song even begins with the lyric “3 5 0 1 2 5 Go!” (Hess’ prisoner of war serial number after he was captured after flying to the UK in 1941). Another of their early songs ‘No Love Lost’ features a spoken word section with a complete paragraph from The House of Dolls. A 2008 article by music writer Jon Savage in The Guardian newspaper noted that Curtis’ songs “such as ‘Novelty’, ‘Leaders of Men’ and ‘Warsaw’ were barely digested regurgitations of their sources: lumpy screeds of frustration, failure, and anger with militaristic and totalitarian overtones”.
Deborah Curtis (Ian’s wife) also remembered that her husband had a book by John Heartfield that included photomontages of the Nazi Period and that graphically documented the spread of Hitler’s ideals. The cover artwork of the band’s first record, the ‘An Ideal For Living’ EP, also featured a boy member the Hitler Youth drawn by guitarist Barney Sumner banging on a drum. Much of the flirtation with Nazi symbolism was arguably juvenile fascination and playful naivety. It’s also been noted that Joy Division’s early music concentrated on the nihilistic provocations of industrial music’s pioneers Throbbing Gristle (whose music I also examined at length in a previous blog). An interesting 2010 article by Mateo on the A View From The Annex website defended Joy Division’s use of Nazi imagery and lyrics:
“The Labour government´s betrayal of the working class during the 1970s and the rise of Thatcherism at the end of the 1970s heralded a future of mass unemployment, government repression and decaying industry. The perspective taken by Ian Curtis, the band´s sole lyricist, towards this growing authoritarianism and despair is crucial to understand if one is to place the references to fascism found in the band´s album art in the context intended by the artist, that is, a despairing anti-Nazism…Punk at that time was a unique music scene in which battles between anti-racists and neo-nazis were being thrashed out at concerts as the skinheads tried to appropriate the punk aesthetic and hijack the following of alienated, disillusioned working class youth who gravitated towards such a sub-culture in places like Manchester at the beginning of the 1980s…The lyrics of Ian Curtis made it clear that this was a presence suffered and feared as opposed to tolerated or toyed with by the band…Joy Division feared fascism, they did not flirt with it and the artwork and lyrics in ‘An Ideal for Living’ serves as a warning of growing fascistic tendencies in British society…For this, Curtis and his bandmates should be lauded for tackling such a controversial issue and expressing such a well-grounded fear and hostility towards such a veritable enemy of the working class during a swift turn to the right in Britain”.
By all accounts, Curtis was a voracious reader and read books by William Burroughs, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche, Nikolai Gogol, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hermann Hesse and J.G. Ballard, many of which made their way into various Joy Division songs (an obvious example being their song ‘Interzone’ taken directly from a collection of short stories by William Burroughs). As Jon Savage noted:
“Curtis’s great lyrical achievement was to capture the underlying reality of a society in turmoil, and to make it both universal and personal. Distilled emotion is the essence of pop music and, just as Joy Division are perfectly poised between white light and dark despair, so Curtis’s lyrics oscillate between hopelessness and the possibility, if not need, for human connection. At bottom is the fear of losing the ability to feel”.
J.G. Ballard was a particular inspiration to Curtis (particularly the books High Rise and Crash, the latter of which was about the suffering of car accident victims and sexual arousal, and which I wrote about in a previous blog on symphorophilia). One of Joy Division’s best known songs (the opening ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ from their second LP Closer) took its’ name from Ballard’s collection of ‘condensed novels’ (and given its focus on mental asylums is of great psychological interest). So distinct is Ballard’s work that it gave rise to a new adjective (‘Ballardian’) and defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J.G. Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments”. Given this definition, many of Joy Division’s songs are clearly Ballardian as they examine the emotional and psychological effects of everything around them (including personal relationships on songs such as their most well known and most covered song, and only British hit ‘Love Will tear Us Apart’).
The overriding psychology and underlying philosophy of both Ian Curtis and Joy Division are both contradictory and complex but ultimately the band members were a product of the environment they were brought up in and the sum of their musical and literary influences. At the age of 24 years, Curtis’ suicide was undoubtedly tragic and like many other literary and musical ‘artists’, his death has been somewhat romanticized by the mass media. Although he didn’t quite make it into the infamous ‘27 Club’ of ‘rock martyr’ musicians that died when they were 27 years (e.g., Dave Alexander [The Stooges], Chris Bell [Big Star], Kurt Cobain [Nirvana], Richey Edwards [Manic Street Preachers], Pete Ham [Badfinger], Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson, Brian Jones [Rolling Sones], Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison [The Doors], Amy Winehouse) he is surely a candidate for being a prime honorary member (along with Jeff Buckley). Retrospectively looking at his lyrics (“In the shadowplay, acting out your own death, knowing no more” from ‘Shadowplay’, you can’t help but wonder (given that many of them were autobiographical) whether Curtis’ death could have been prevented by those closest to him.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Curtis, D. (1995). Touching From A Distance. London: Faber and Faber.
Curtis, I., Savage, J. & Curtis, D. (2015). So This Is Permanence: Joy Division Lyrics and Notebooks. London: Faber and Faber.
Gleason. P. (2015). This Is the Way: “So This Is Permanence” by Ian Curtis. Located at: http://stereoembersmagazine.com/way-permanence-ian-curtis/
Hook, P. (2013). Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division. London: Simon and Schuster.
Kennedy, J. (2006). Joy Division and the Making of Unknown Pleasures. London: Omnibus.
Mikies, D. (2012). Holocaust pulp fiction. The Tablet, April 19. Located at: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/97160/ka-tzetnik?all=1
Morley, P. (2007). Joy Division: Piece by Piece: Writing About Joy Division 1977-2007. London: Plexus Publishing.
Reynolds, S. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk, 1978–1984. New York: Penguin.
Savage, J. (2008). Controlled chaos. The Guardian, May 10. Located at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/may/10/popandrock.joydivision
Insect asides: The psychology of Adam Ant
As regular readers of my blog will know, I have had a longstanding professional interest in the psychology of sexually paraphilic behaviour. My interest in the topic first began when I was a 14-year old teenager listening to Adam and the Ants B-sides (all of which were about different types of extreme and/or unusual sexual behaviours. In one of my previous blogs, I argued that Adam Ant’s music has covered more atypical sexual behaviours than any other recording artist that I can think of (e.g. sadism, masochism, bondage, fetishism, transvestism, voyeurism, etc.). There is little doubt that Adam’s music had a great influence on my career, but what were Adam’s influences that made him the person he became?
In addition to the sexual content of his lyrics, Adam’s earliest stage personas were also very sexual. Adam bought his clothes from ‘SEX’, the shop run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood which was also infamous for selling rubber and leather fetish wear. (McLaren later briefly became The Ants manager and even tried to get Adam and his band to star in a pornographic film with female punk band The Slits). The first t-shirt he ever bought there was provocative and controversial (featuring the ‘Cambridge Rapist‘). One of McLaren’s best-selling t-shirts (‘Vive Le Rock‘) later became the title of Adam’s 1985 single and album. Adam’s interest in sex was all-consuming and spilled over into most areas of his and The Ants lives. It was common at early gigs for Adam to be dressed in bondage gear.
One infamous incident happened at their debut gig at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (10th May 1977). To get the gig, Adam said his band were a country and western band. He then got on stage dressed in bondage trousers and a leather head mask, and performed the future S&M classic Beat My Guest (later to be a B-side of their first No. 1 hit Stand and Deliver). Predictably, they were ‘asked to leave’ after that opening number.
Early gigs (1977-1979) were known as places to buy lots of eye-catching merchandise (t-shirts, badges, posters etc.) featuring sadomasochistic and bondage sex-themes designed by Adam. Advertisements for the 1979 tour were the first to use the slogan ‘Antmusic for Sexpeople’. To Adam, ‘sexpeople’ were people who got off on sexual phenomena, who liked sexual imagery and enjoyed being sexual. In a Melody Maker interview he said ‘What weʼre basically dealing with here with is taboos, and a lot of my work as a kind of music therapy‘. Adam’s first major interview as cover star in (the now defunct) Sounds was where he was described as ‘the face that launched a thousand whips’. His breakthrough album Kings of the Wild Frontier (1980) may have surprised his new young fan base as it came with a free booklet full of sexual imagery.
Although Adam clearly has musical influences, most of those he talks about or name checks in his songs appear to have more to do with image than music or his overriding interest in sex. Early influences like Johnny Kidd and the Pirates may have inspired some of his later images. The first record he bought was Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles, but rarely makes reference to them as any kind of musical influence. The early 1970s appear to have thrown up more influences where music and sexuality was talked about in relation to the person if not their songs (Jim Morrison, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, New York Dolls, Lou Reed, Roxy Music). For instance, he loved the New York Dolls ‘because they looked like drag queens‘. His inspiration for forming Adam & the Ants was seeing the Sex Pistols very first gig when they supported the first band he was in (a short-lived band called Bazooka Joe). It was after this that a plethora of sexual punky songs were written for the Ants.
In an interview with Derek Hardman (Inside Out magazine, 1979), Adam described the lyrical content of his songs as dealing with ‘subjects of interest, mystery and imagination‘ and that they came from ‘living my life, reading, films, events and history‘. This quote also carries the implicit assumption that musical influences paid little (if any) part in his lyrical obsessions. The only thing that really connects sex with music is the perception that being a ‘popstar’ will bring more sexual opportunities. For instance in the Antbox book, Adam says:
“I remember being in a room with four girls watching [Marc] Bolan on ‘Top of the Pops’ and it was the first time I had actually watched four girls just absolutely dripping, climaxing , looking at a guy… Whatever it is, I want some!”
Very few of his musical heroes wrote explicit songs about sex and it is clear that the (sometimes) extreme sexuality of his lyrics originate elsewhere. By digging a little deeper it becomes abundantly clear that his interest in art lay the foundations of his sexual interests. By looking at the individuals who Adam held in high esteem, it becomes very clear that Adam’s predisposition towards sex comes not from musical influences but from figures in the 20th century art world. Adam originally wanted a career in Art after seeing an exhibition of Pop Art at the Tate Gallery in London (1971). He ended up studying Graphic Design at Hornsey College of Art (now part of Middlesex University) in North London. His favourite class was the ‘Erotic Arts’ course taught by art historian Peter Webb. This concentrated on Indian, Chinese, and Japanese traditions of erotic painting, drawing, and sculpture. Adam was also interested by women’s role in society and he was the only male at his college to take the class in ‘Women In Society’.
Adam was inspired by the iconographic images of Andy Warhol, the autoerotic paintings of Allen Jones, the neo-sadomasochistic fantasies of Hans Bellmer, and ‘sexpop’ travellers like Eduardo Paolozzi, Francis Bacon and Stanley Spencer. All these people clearly influenced his music. In 1977, Adam said:
“The S&M thing stems from [when] I was at College Art School, with John Ellis (of the Vibrators), and all the time I was at Art College I was very influenced by Allen Jones the artist. All my college work is pretty much like this, this is just a musical equivalent of what I was visually doing at college. Iʼm not personally into S&M, I mean I never smacked the arse of anybody. It’s the power and the imagery. There’s a certain imagery involved with that which I find magnetic. It’s not done viciously, if you read S&M mags and spank mags or anything like that, it’s done with an essence of humour…war dress and stuff, that just appeals to my imagination.
While at Art College, Adam did a thesis on sexual perversion:
I read lots of books and discovered much to my surprise that it wasn’t just a kick, it was a deadly serious subject. A very sort of medical thing and I found I got a source of material for my songs. I wrote a song called ‘Rubber People’ which is a serious look at rubber fetishism. And I also wrote one about transvestism. Theyʼre not serious, none of my songs are serious, I mean fucking hell. Theyʼre serious to me. But the thing is that with, say, ‘Transvestism’ people just laugh at people. If somebody’s wearing a pair of rubber underpants under a pin-stripe suits it’s funny, y’know. But I don’t think itʼs funny. I don’t think it’s any more strange than watching fucking ‘Crossroads‘ every night”
It was perhaps Adam’s art heroes that most influenced him. By looking very briefly at each of Adam’s artistic heroes, it is easy to see where the inspiration for many of his early lyrics came from. The most important influences were Allen Jones, Stanley Spencer, Eduardo Paolozzi, Hans Bellmer, Francis Bacon (name checked in the song ‘Piccadilly‘), and Andy Warhol. These brief sketches show that his early music is a direct musical equivalent of his heroes’ artwork (particularly Jones, Bellmer and Paolozzi). The influence of Warhol, Bacon and Spencer is more subtle. These three individuals all produced controversial work (which Adam found inspiring).
It might also be argued that all three had a somewhat troubled or tortured sexuality. This again, may have been of interest to Adam. The only other artists that Adam has singled out are Pablo Picasso and the Italian futurists. Adam was impressed by Picasso’s “genius, energy and sexuality” and was the subject of one of Adam’s best album tracks ‘Picasso Visits The Planet of the Apes‘. A whole song (‘Animals and Men‘) is devoted to the Italian futurists on the debut album (Dirk Wears White Sox). In this song he writes about the influence of Filippo Marinetti (1876-1944), Giacomo Balla (1871-1958), Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) and Carlo Carra (1881-1966). The Futurists were a 20th century avant garde movement in Italian art, sculpture, literature, music, cinema and photography. Their manifesto broke with the past and celebrated modern technology, dynamism and power. The combination of different art media was appealing to Adam although there was nothing overtly sexual in the work of its exponents.
Film – like art – was also important to Adam, and as a teenage usher at the Muswell Hill Odeon he saw lots of films in his formative years. Adam has gone on record many times to say that his film hero is Dirk Bogarde. The Ants first album (the aforementioned Dirk Wears White Sox) was named after him and some of his films provided inspiration for his songs. Many of his most notorious films (The Servant, Death In Venice, The Night Porter) dealt with taboo areas with which Adam identified and/or had a fascination with. All these films feature taboo sexual subjects (or at least taboo at the time the film was made) and probably appealed to Adam because of their taboo nature. These were all a direct influence on Adam’s early songwriting.
Outside of Dirk Bogarde and his films, Adam cites his film heroes as Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Mongomery Clift and Charles Bronson. Adam makes few references to films or film stars in his song writing, although there are name checks for Michael Caine, John Wayne, Terence Stamp, and Charles Hawtrey in ‘Friends‘, Clint Eastwood in ‘Los Rancheros‘, Steve McQueen in ‘Steve McQueen‘, Robert de Niro in ‘Christian Dior‘, and Bruce Lee in ‘Bruce Lee‘. He also dedicated one song that he wrote about the film Psycho (‘Norman‘) to its star Anthony Perkins. Again, these film stars and their films (bar Bogarde) have had little influence on his sexually themed songs.
There are very few references to literary heroes in Adam’s work and even less that is sex-related. The gay playwright Joe Orton (1933-1967) is one influence who has impacted on Adam’s life. Adam wrote one song about Orton’s homosexual relationship with his lover Kenneth Halliwell (‘Prick Up Your Ears’ on the Redux LP). However, the lyrics didn’t fit the pirate theme of the second album (Kings of the Wild Frontier) and were changed. This song eventually became ‘The Magnificent Five‘. In 1985, as part of his acting career, Adam performed in Joe Orton’s play Entertaining Mr. Sloane on stage at the Manchester Royal Exchange. Adam claimed that the ‘idea of playing a psychotic bisexual thug was good’. Ortonʼs comedies (Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Loot, and What The Butler Saw) are all black, stylish, and violent. Furthermore, they all have an emphasis on corruption and sexual perversion. With such content it is easy to see why Adam enjoyed these. However, it is not known when Adam was first aware of Orton’s work. The likelihood is that his appreciation of Orton was after many of his initial songs were written.
The German philosopher and poet Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was also one of Adamʼs literary inspirations and the subject of early live favourite ‘Nietzsche Baby‘. Nietzsche is most well known for his rejection of Christian morality (which no doubt appealed to Adam) and the ‘revision of all values’. Despite the influence, there was little in his writings that would have inspired Adam’s sex- related writings. Passing reference to both the US ‘beat generation’ writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) and the French novelist and playwright Albert Camus (1913-1960; a protagonist of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd‘ movement) make an appearance on his 1985 song ‘Anger Inc..‘ Again, these influences appear to be post-musical success and would have had little impact on his early sexual songwriting.
As a psychologist myself, I couldnʼt help make reference to Adam’s ‘psychological’ influences. The only time he has made reference specifically to a psychologist is a name check of Erich Fromm in his song ‘Friends’. It is obvious that Adam has read some of Fromm’s work as there are Frommian influences in his work. The ‘dog eat dog’ personality type (consciously or unconsciously) inspired his first big hit single (‘Dog Eat Dog‘). The ‘masochistic’ personality type permeates many of his early songs. The ‘marketing’ subtypes who concern themselves with image and style (and who feel inadequate if they are not admired) could be argued to be Adam himself. Alternatively he may have seen himself as the ‘productive’ type because of his creativity and ability to change himself.
By just scratching a little deeper at the surface of Adam’s influences, we see the roots of his lyrical sexuality. As time has gone on, less and less of Adamʼs songs have concerned sex. Furthermore, more love songs have made an appearance ( the LP Wonderful being a prime example). Maybe this is just an overt sign of the maturation process. Whatever it is, there is little to take away Adam’s crown as the king of sexual diversity.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Ant, A. (2007). Stand and Deliver: The Autobiography. London: Pan.
Griffiths, M.D (1999). Adam Ant: Sex and perversion for teenyboppers. Headpress: The Journal of Sex, Death and Religion, 19, 116-119.
Wikipedia (2013). Adam and the Ants. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_and_the_Ants
Wikipedia (2013). Adam Ant. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Ant