In 1975 American duo Captain and Tennille reached number 32 in the UK charts with the Neil Sedaka composition Love Will Keep Us Together – a purer slice of cheesy pop you’d be hard pressed to hear.  In June 1980 British post punk band Joy Division set off for the number 13 spot with that song’s angst riddled antithesis, Love Will Tear Us Apart – just a month after its lyricist and doomed frontman Ian Curtis had committed suicide. He was 23.

Almost 40 years after his death the pictures of Curtis – gaunt and haunted, clutching a microphone as though it was a lifebelt from a sinking ship is still one of rock music’s most tragically iconic images.

Love Will Tear Us Apart was written in August and September of 1979 and was first aired when Joy Division supported The Buzzcocks on their September and October tour, and it is one of the few songs on which Ian Curtis played guitar (albeit somewhat minimally – his fellow band members taught him how to strum a D major chord for the occasion).

Deliberately countering the positivity of the Sedaka song, its lyrics reflect the problems in Ian Curtis’ marriage to Deborah Curtis, as well as his general frame of mind (he suffered increasingly from epilepsy and depression) in the time leading up to his suicide. Deborah had the phrase Love Will Tear Us Apart inscribed on Ian Curtis’ memorial stone (even after the first one was stolen).

The song was released in April 1980 and, after Curtis’ suicide that May, became the band’s first chart hit, reaching number 13 in the UK. It also debuted at number one in New Zealand in June 1981.

But Joy Division’s days were numbered. The band broke up after Curtis’s death and reformed as New Order.

Clearly not from the Salford School of Optimism the lyrics of Love Will Tear Us Apart reflect the problems in Curtis’s marriage, as well as his general frame of mind in the time leading up to his suicide.

Curtis was unfaithful to his wife while touring with Joy Division. While Debbie remained at home with their child, Ian had an affair with a Belgian journalist and music promoter, Annik Honoré, which weighed heavily on him.
In retrospect the lyrics are, in fact, an epitaph to both his marriage and life he was about to leave: “When routine bites hard and ambitions are low

And resentment rides high, but emotions won’t grow
And we’re changing our ways, taking different roads
Then love, love will tear us apart again
Love, love will tear us apart again.”
Debbie wouldn’t have needed a divorce solicitor to interpret: “Why is the bedroom so cold? You’ve turned away on your side
Is my timing that flawed? Our respect runs so dry
Yet there’s still this appeal that we’ve kept through our lives
But love, love will tear us apart again
Love, love will tear us apart again

You cry out in your sleep, all my failings exposed
And there’s a taste in my mouth as desperation takes hold
Just that something so good, just can’t function no more
Then love, love will tear us apart again
Love, love will tear us apart again.”

The sheer intensity of the song meant it was no surprise when Love Will Tear Us Apart was named NME Single of the Year in 1980 and was even listed as the best single of all time by the NME in 2002.

In 2004, the song was listed by Rolling Stone magazine at number 179 in its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. In 2011, the song registered at number 181. In May 2007, NME placed it at number 19 in its list of the 50 Greatest Indie Anthems Ever, one place ahead of another Joy Division song, Transmission. The song is also listed as being one of the 5 best indie songs of all time in the All Time Indie Top 50.

When interviewed for New Order Story, Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys said it was his favourite pop song of all time.
in 2012, in celebration of the NME’s 60th anniversary, a list of the 100 Greatest Songs of NME’s Lifetime was compiled and Love Will Tear Us Apart topped the list.

That same sheer intensity meant despite numerous cover versions and revivals (including 10000 Maniacs, Fall Out Boy, Paul Young, PJ Proby (!!!), Simple Minds, Swans, The Cure and U2) no one has come a country mile close to Curtis’s delivery.

As for the suicide, the evening before the band were due to depart for America, Curtis returned to his Macclesfield home to talk to Deborah. He asked her to drop an impending divorce suit and to leave him alone in the house until he caught a train to Manchester the following morning. Early on 18 May 1980 Curtis hanged himself in his kitchen. Deborah discovered his body later that day when she returned home.

Joy Division formed in Salford in 1976. The group consisted of vocalist Ian Curtis, guitarist/keyboardist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris. Sumner and Hook formed the band after attending a Sex Pistols concert.

While Joy Division’s first recordings were heavily influenced by early punk, they soon developed a sound and style that made them one of the pioneers of the post-punk movement.

Joy Division’s final live performance was held at the University of Birmingham’s High Hall on 2 May, and included their only performance of Ceremony, one of the last songs written by Curtis.

Despite their short career, Joy Division have exerted a wide-reaching influence on many bands including their contemporaries U2 and the Cure to later acts such as Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, Neurosis, Interpol, Bloc Party, Editors and even. In 2005, both New Order and Joy Division were inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame.

The band has been dramatised in two biopics. 24 Hour Party People (2002) – a fictionalised account of Factory Records in which members of the band appear as supporting characters, and the 2007 film Control, directed by Anton Corbijn, a biography of Ian Curtis (portrayed by Sam Riley) that uses Deborah Curtis’s biography of her late husband, Touching from a Distance (1995), as its basis.

The final words are probably best left to Curtis himself who, in a 1979 Radio Lancashire interview said: “Basically, we want to play and enjoy what we like playing. I think that when we stop doing that, I think, well, that will be time to pack it in. That will be the end.”

WRITERS: Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, Bernard Sumner
PRODUCER: Martin Hannett
GENRE: Post Punk, Synth -pop
ARTIST: Joy Division
LABEL Factory
RELEASED June 1980
COVERS Paul Young, Jose Gonzalez