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He Lost Control: On Ian Curtis, Control and Unknown Pleasures

March 20, 2013

How can two people give such starkly different first-hand accounts of the same story? This question has been gnawing at me ever since I completed two retellings of the history of Joy Division, each with a primary focus on late lead singer Ian Curtis – Peter Hook’s new book, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division[1], and Anton Corbijn’s 2007 documentary film Control, based on the book Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis & Joy Division by Ian’s widow, Deborah.

Which version of the truth is real? Is Curtis’ story the one told by his spurned wife, ignored during marriage and left alone to raise a baby with little money or prospects? Or is it the one told by his admiring bandmate and friend, of a misunderstood genius who lived solely to please others and was tormented by his desire to never let anyone, including Debbie, down?

There are certain facts upon which we can all agree, regardless of which story you believe:  Ian Curtis was a brilliant lyricist.[2]  He was a tireless worker.  The band greatly relied upon him – he was an irreplaceable piece of Joy Division – and he refused to let them down, notwithstanding the fact that he was also an epileptic who, despite taking a large quantity of medication (over 20 pills per day), saw the frequency of his seizures increase with every passing day.  He was loyal to the band; he was not loyal to his wife.  Yet at the peak of Joy Division’s success – one night before they were to embark on their first U.S. tour – Curtis committed suicide in his marital home in Macclesfield, England.  In that fateful moment, he let down his bandmates at what was the most inopportune of times, apparently because he could no longer deal with how he had let down his wife.

What comes through in Hook’s rendering, but ironically is not conveyed in the film, is that Curtis took his life because he had lost control, both in the immediate present and more generally.  On his last night alive, Curtis got very drunk – alone – and then had an unexpected altercation with Debbie which – depending on which version of events you believe – led either to a huge fight with her after which she stormed out the house, or a heart-felt reconciliation with her after which she left to gather her things from her parents house (where she’d temporarily been staying).  Either way, in an emotionally heightened state, Curtis continued drinking heavily and listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot (described by one reviewer as “a dark, dense and desolate display of an artist confronting his demons head-on”) and watching Stroszek, a 1977 movie by Werner Herzog about a man from Berlin who is released from prison and goes to America in the hope of finding a new life, before committing suicide.  Curtis could not control his mood-swings, his temper, his alcohol, his home situation, his illness, or his mind.  In that moment, he’d completely lost control and he knew it.

More broadly, Curtis was in another relationship with a woman (Annik Honoré)[3] over which he also felt he had little control, seeing as he was often on the brink of ending things with her … before giving in to his desires and seeing her again.  He had difficulties making ends meet financially despite being a successful artist because of the deal Joy Division had cut with their label.[4]  His indispensability to the band meant that he could not rest for a moment, could not take a single gig or recording session off, even though rest was the one thing he needed to help reduce his epileptic episodes.  There is some question as to how Curtis felt about the prospect of touring America (Hook says, in a poor choice of words, that “as far as [the band members] were concerned [Ian] was dead excited about going to America, really looking forward to it”[5]), but there can be no question that given his health and mental state he was in no position to take on such a huge load just then. Curtis effectively had no say in the matter though; he had no control.  Band manager Rob Gretton, described by Hook as “domineering, almost intimidating,”[6] made all decisions about record labels, recording, and touring.  Curtis didn’t even control his own art – producer Martin Hannett had overwhelming influence and final say on the Joy Division sound.  Here was a man who at the tender age of 23 had a wife, a child, a girlfriend, three bandmates, a record label, roadies, a manager and a producer all relying upon him, a sensitive, broke, ill man-child.  He didn’t have it in him to tell any one of them no, and so he had lost all control over his own life. Until, on May 18, 1980, he took it all back in an instant.

At the time of the release of the film, Corbijn told the Guardian that Control takes its title from two elements: the Joy Division song “She’s Lost Control” and from Curtis being “something of a control freak, although the one element in his life that he couldn’t control was the epilepsy.”  It is shocking that Corbijn could nail the title and yet miss the point so spectacularly, though if your only point of reference was Corbijn’s film you’d probably agree with him.  Curtis is portrayed in the film as, for lack of a better word, a jerk.  His treatment of Debbie is callous, and we see no attempt whatsoever to connect with his baby daughter Natalie (the film also goes out of its way to make the point that it was Curtis who suggested both the marriage and the baby to Debbie, adding fuel to the anger the viewer would ultimately feel towards him for abandoning them).  We are to surmise that Curtis wanted to end things with Annik, though his internal struggle with this decision is never on display.  Even among his bandmates, who appear to be his only friends, the film shows no camaraderie, instead stressing the striking difference in personality between the sensitive Curtis and the rougher Hook and serious Bernard Sumner.  (Drummer Stephen Morris isn’t given much to do in the movie except drum.)  In fact, the film deliberately creates a theme – Ian Curtis as selfish jerk – right from the start.   It begins with Ian and Debbie first meeting at age 17, while Debbie was dating Ian’s close friend, the implication being that Ian stole Debbie from his mate – a violation of the “bro code” in any time and place.  The first time we see Ian and Debbie hold hands, it happens literally behind his best friend’s back.  Less than five minutes into the film and any pity you may have had for Curtis (after all, you are likely familiar with the fact of his illness and premature death) is put into question by his being cast as the villain.  In Corbijn’s (and Debbie’s) view, the only control Ian lacked was self-control.

This characterization of Curtis makes sense when you consider that the film is based on the book written by his jilted widow.  The publisher’s description states that Touching from a Distance “tells how, with a wife, child and impending international fame, he was seduced by the glory of an early grave.”  From Debbie’s perspective, Ian viewed death as a path to glory.  But does this make sense? Curtis was at the brink of reaching international fame. He had appeared on television, on the cover of magazines, and his band’s debut album had achieved widespread critical acclaim.  As Hook explains it when expressing his disbelief some 30-plus years after Curtis’ suicide, “I mean, we had so much going on for us then.   The word was getting out that we were a great group to see live.  We had [the recently-recorded] ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ up our sleeve. We were on the way up.”[7]  If it was glory Ian sought, America was where he would find it.  He didn’t need death for that.

Debbie’s perception of her husband was so clearly wrong, but how can it be possible that anyone knew the real Ian better than his wife, his teenage sweetheart?  Hook doesn’t go so far as to suggest that Debbie didn’t know Ian, though when you read between the lines you can tell that he thinks she didn’t understand him.  “He had three personas he was trying to juggle: he had his married-man persona, at home with the wife; the laddish side; and the cerebral, literary side.  By the end he was juggling home life and band life, and had two women on the go.  There were just too many Ians to cope with.”[8] Debbie saw only the married-man persona of course, and this was one that she was in love with, even after she began to see the cracks in Ian’s armor.  It seemed as if she would never give up on him, no matter how many times he seemed to fail her.  So long as he maintained the appearance of loving her, she loved him right back, because his apparent love for her was believable.  You might reasonably ask, how could his love have been believable with all of his indiscretions?  The answer is, because it was genuine.  Yes he was torn, and yes he loved Annik, and yes he resented being responsible for a wife and child, but at no time did he ever stop loving Debbie.  Unfortunately, Ian could not be himself around Debbie.  He needed the band to show off his childlike whimsical side, and Annik and her friends for his cerebral, literary side.  Ian didn’t want anyone – not Debbie, not Annik, not his mates – to see a side of him other than what he thought they wanted to see.  His nature as a people-pleaser made Ian a chameleon, or as Hook says, a “mirror”, and no one has less control over his actions than a mirror.

This is where Control fails.  Nothing in the movie is false, as far as I can tell, but overall it is dishonest.  The film omits so much in showing only one side of Ian that it creates a narrative that is a lie.  It’s the worst kind of lie too – when no one specific item can be pointed to as false, how can one accuse the film of being false overall?  How would one even know?  If your instinct is to buy into the myth of the great Ian Curtis despite all evidence to the contrary, I suppose you could just assume that Debbie’s perspective is lacking, even though her words are all technically true.  One reviewer of Touching from a Distance expressed that very sentiment over three years ago, before there was much direct evidence to support her supposition. “This [book] is a wonderful peek into the Iconic Ian Curtis’ private life; however I suggest that you keep in mind who is telling the story. My suggestion would be to read The Life of Ian Curtis – Torn Apart by Mick Middles and Lindsay Reade either while reading this book or directly after reading it. This may help to buffer some of the incriminations Deborah Curtis brings forward against her long deceased husband. My problem with Deborah Curtis and this book is that she is generous with details on accounts from Ian’s life provided that they are negative or horrific in nature. Or at least that is how it seems to me. Deborah will relay a detailed account of some horrific incident between her and Ian after which she will blandly give a two or three sentence account of a good deed Ian performed then makes some blasé comment about how “Ian was always doing nice things.” Is this supposed to balance out the two page account of Ian Curtis’ monster manifesto? I can’t help but feel that Deborah still hasn’t forgiven her husband for either his infidelity or his abandonment of their little family.”  Yes, she can’t help but feel it, but how can she know for sure where the truth actually lies?  Mick Middles and Lindsay Reade are helpful but are not insiders the way Debbie Curtis was.

This is why Unknown Pleasures is critical, filling in those all-important gaps which allow us to discover the truth.  Consider the many things about Ian that Control doesn’t say but strongly implies – to the point of making them unassailable truths – which Hook debunks or clarifies.  Control acknowledges Ian’s struggle with epilepsy by showing him have the occasional seizure, including one during a gig.  In fact, Ian’s health had deteriorated far more rapidly and significantly than depicted in the film.  He was having fits all the time, during just about every gig towards the end, and even more at home according to Hook.  There is also Hook’s support for Annik’s contention that she and Ian were never actually lovers; in a 2010 interview (translated from French), Annik declares, “It was a completely pure and platonic relationship, very childish, very chaste … I did not have a sexual relationship with Ian, he was on medication, which rendered it a non-physical relationship.”  While the movie doesn’t explicitly say otherwise about the Ian-Annik affair, it surely implies it.[9]  There is a scene in Control meant to elicit pity for Debbie, where Ian and Debbie are in bed and Ian is unable to perform for his wife.  At that point in the movie, after all the love lost between the couple, it would be fair for the viewer to assume that Ian could not perform because he did not love Debbie anymore.  In fact, it would difficult to consider any other possible reason for his impotence, if not for the statement by Annik that is again supported by Hook, that because of his medication Ian was simply incapable of getting a hard-on – with Debbie, with Annik, with anyone.  Sure, that didn’t stop him from cavorting with women, but those extra-marital activities were merely something he did as part of his togetherness with the band.  “He was poetic and romantic and soulful – of course he was – but he was still a guy in a band and he liked to do what guys in bands do.”  Maybe Hook is right; or maybe that is exactly what Curtis wanted his bandmates to believe. There is a chapter in Unknown Pleasures called “He Was One of Us.” Unlike everything you see in the movie, this is what Hook stresses the most – Joy Division was a group of carefree, practical-joke playing, punk-music making lads, and Ian was one of the boys.  Or at least, he knew how to play one and he felt compelled to do so for the sake of the band.

While Unknown Pleasures shows the fallacy both of the deification of Ian and the demonization of him, it doesn’t stand alone in that regard.  Hook’s characterization of Curtis is supported by other sources as well, including other first-hand accounts.  In an interview, Sumner says that Ian “felt extremely guilty about his daughter Natalie because his relationship with Debbie was deteriorating. I remember him telling me he couldn’t pick Natalie up in case he had a fit and dropped her. That really disturbed him. At that age, no matter how mature you feel, that’s a bloody lot to have on your plate.”  So while we never see Ian pick up his baby daughter in Control (and instead we see a man who leaves the delivery room for a smoke break in apparent revulsion of the idea of being a father), the reason why he never picks her up is left to the viewer’s imagination.  Unfortunately, by that point in the film, one can only think the worst – there is no room for an explanation like Sumner’s.  Meanwhile, when talking about the film, Sumner speaks in a complimentary manner, but you can see he recognizes its shortcomings: “I really like the look of it. That’s pretty much how it was, really. Maybe the band’s characters have been suppressed a little. We were more youthfully idiotic than that. But we had a serious side. We stamped our personalities on the music of Joy Division and it sounded heavy. But we weren’t really heavy people … looking back, we were flippant and playful. It’s just that, when we got in the rehearsal room, that’s the music that came out of us. Overall, these aspects of the band are captured very accurately in Control. …  Ian had a very explosive side that only comes out once in the film; his way of dealing with problems was to explode. But human beings are complicated creatures. It’s impossible to capture every single facet of someone’s personality in a film.” Impossible, especially when one fails to recognize those facets, as Corbijn and, more importantly, Debbie Curtis did.

It wouldn’t be fair to blame Debbie for her perspective on things.  Anyone who listens to a Joy Division album can have a perspective on “Ian Curtis”; only she was married to the man.  The couple was married at an extremely young age, fought frequently, and had financial and other struggles that would be unbearable for anyone.  Nor was Ian an ideal husband – his schedule meant that he often wasn’t home, his health issues added stress and reduced his income, and he was unfaithful.  Hook calls Ian “edgy and intense”; Sumner called him “explosive.”  These characteristics may have made him the legendary band leader that he was, may have helped build his dark and disturbed rock star image, but could not have made for a great person to live with.

If anyone would be upset about Ian’s portrayal in Control, you’d expect it to be his friends, those who knew him differently and were fond of him.  But Hook is the first one to respect Debbie for her feelings: “I’ve no doubt he was different with us from how he was with Debbie and Annik, because that was the people pleaser in him.  The Ian who was with Debbie is the one she talks about in her book; he’s the one in Control, and you see the Annik-Ian in there too.  But what you don’t see – and what’s never really come out – is the Ian we saw in the band. … I think in that sense we definitely had the best of him and you have to spare a thought for Debbie. We’d deliver Ian home and he’d be fucked.  That’s what you do as a group: you pick them up, take them away, drop them back off, and let someone else pick up the pieces.  With Ian being married, an epileptic, and a new father, that wasn’t easy. … I really do feel sorry for Debbie, having to put up with all that.  Especially when we got the nice bloke, the good-lad Ian, who was coming on leaps and bounds, his confidence growing all the time, the adulation building, and she got the exhausted, coming-down Ian, who probably wanted nothing to do with nappies and bills and all of that.  Who just wanted to be back on the road with his group, playing music and soaking up all the worship.”[10]

Hook is right about what Ian really wanted – he was a rock star at heart and wanted to be one in reality – changing “nappies” didn’t quite fit in.  Of course, the opportunity to have everything he ever wanted was right there waiting for him.  All Ian needed to do was get on that plane to the U.S. on the morning of May 18.  Many rock stars and other celebrities live the lifestyle that Hook describes – leave baby and mom behind, go on the road and live it up without a care in the world.  And if Debbie left him, so what? He had Annik.  And if Annik left too there’d be more women where she came from.  Ian may have felt the pressure coming from all corners, but there was nothing actually holding him back.  You could see where someone like Corbijn could claim that the only element in Ian’s life that he couldn’t control was the epilepsy – on paper Ian had it all.  But Ian’s life didn’t play out on paper, or even in reality.  It played out in his mind, where he had lost all control.

After everything I’ve seen and read, it’s my strong belief that Curtis suffered from an acute case of learned helplessness.  Learned helplessness is a mental state in which someone forced to bear aversive stimuli becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are escapable, presumably because he or she (or it – the condition was initially discovered in dogs) has learned that it cannot control the situation.  Even when opportunities to escape are presented, learned helplessness will prevent any action.  The theory of learned helplessness was conceptualized and developed by American psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1960s and ’70s and has since become a basic principle of behavioral theory, demonstrating that prior learning can result in a drastic change in behavior and seeking to explain why individuals may accept and remain passive in negative situations despite their clear ability to change them.  In his book Helplessness, Seligman argued that, as a result of these negative expectations, other consequences may accompany the inability or unwillingness to act, including low self-esteem, chronic failure, sadness, and physical illness. The theory of learned helplessness also has been applied to many conditions and behaviors, including, notably, clinical depression.

The main takeaway here is that when people feel that they have no control over their situation, they may behave in a helpless manner. This inaction can lead people to overlook opportunities for relief or change.  It can lead to sadness, physical illness and clinical depression.  I am not a psychologist, but I don’t think it requires an advanced degree to identify Ian Curtis in this description.  Curtis was a man who knew what he wanted.  He dreamed as a lad of being a rock star, like Jim Morrison. But as driven as he was to accomplish this goal, he was more driven in his everyday life to ensure that he never let anyone down.  He was, often despite his own best interests, a people pleaser.  Which led to him being a chameleon, a mirror.  There was no one he wasn’t willing to give in to, no matter how much it impacted his own life, infringed on his desires.  Curtis just wanted to be loved, by everyone.  Yet no matter how hard he tried, he always felt that he was letting someone down.  Of course, it had to be that way.  No one man could be all things to all people.  Curtis thought that he should be able to, and when he couldn’t, he felt helpless.  Learned helplessness.  The man who could have controlled the world genuinely believed that he couldn’t even control his own life situation.  This conditioned belief may have made him ill; it certainly made him depressed.  Depressed to the point where he had to take control the only way that he still knew how.

There is much to be learned from the tragic story of Ian Curtis.  The effects of over-medication, chronic depression, alcohol and stress can be deadly.  Too much success too soon can be a bad thing.  If you’re in a band, you might want to read the lead singer’s lyrics – they might be a call for help.  Each of these is a somewhat obvious lesson.  A more nuanced lesson that I learned from Ian’s story – through Control, Unknown Pleasures, and the years of mythology that has been built on Ian’s legacy – is that the truth can be a difficult story to tell.  Curtis was a complex figure, so much so that no one – Debbie, Annik, Hook, Sumner, Corbijn, Gretton – knew him in his entirety.  Each knew only their version of Ian, and over the years another version grew – that is the “Ian Curtis” that fans know today, mythological lead singer.  Everyone has their motivations for telling the stories that they did.  In most cases, it is simply a desire to have the world know the man that the story-teller knew.  Over 30 years removed from last having seen Ian, Hook was not resigned to that narrative.  He was ready and uniquely suited to put the pieces together and tell the world the truth.  “I’ve realized all this in the years since, of course.  At the time I just thought he was a great guy. And a great front man.”  Thus, Hook had a specific motivation as well – Ian was his friend.  Showing the world the truth – demystifying while un-demonizing – was the best thing he could do to preserve his friend’s legacy.  Amazingly, with a personality as complicated as Ian’s, it took over 30 years for Hook to be in a position to accomplish his goal.  Over 30 years to deconstruct Ian Curtis and discover the truth.


[1] I wrote previously about hearing Peter Hook speak at Powerhouse Arena bookstore upon the release of his book.

[2] This point isn’t emphasized nearly enough in Corbijn’s film, but it may be because that is something that is difficult to convey on screen and which the filmmaker expects the audience to take for granted. It’s unlikely that anyone who chooses to watch Control isn’t familiar with the general idea that Curtis is one of the all-time great lyricists.

[3] “Not that they were ever lovers” says Hook, in obvious conflict with the implication put forth in Control.

[4] The band actually signed a very good deal with Tony Wilson of Factory Records that would have benefited them in the long term, but it required the foursome to make short-term sacrifices.

[5] Unknown Pleasures, pg. 124.

[6] Unknown Pleasures, pg. 333.

[7] Unknown Pleasures, pg. 333.

[8] Unknown Pleasures, pg. 54.

[9]  Annik herself says, “This is not Annik Honoré appearing in the film, but Ian’s girlfriend, it is a fiction.”

[10] Unknown Pleasures, pg. 217-218.

7 Comments
  1. Kyle permalink

    Ian Curtis’ gravestone looks so cold-hearted, it’s too simple and only has the date of his death, it lacks anything emotional. Seeing as Debbie organised this gravestone, it does look like she did not like him much. Do you think Debbie Curtis and Sumner had an affair?

    • Lola Twinkle permalink

      I doubt it. I don’t envy her but I can’t warm to her either. What happened that night only she knows and she won’t tell. The fact is that if it wasn’t for the baby Ian probably would have left her. He tried to make his northern lass into his perfect woman and then found her already made in Annik….he couldn’t please everyone and reall thought it would all be better without him….I can’t imagine suffering that illness as he did. The lesson is don’t marry too young if you want to rock and roll. Sad about the headstone.

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