The Transmission Of Ian Curtis

A little Pop trivia: Ian Curtis died by his own intent with Iggy Pop's The Idiot left on his record player. Elvis Presley died (on the toilet full of drugs and cheeseburgers)1 with Monty Python's 'The Holy Grail' in his VCR. What does this prove? I'm not entirely sure ... Perhaps this is where the phrase "From the sublime to the ridiculous" comes from, or at least can be applied in earnest?

More to the point, the above shows just how much anecdotal factualism tends to accumulate around the death of pop artists high in the public eye - fuelling the mythological ammunition of fans and haters alike. Both instances add a sense of 'glamour' (either positive or negative) to events that in truth are simply nothing but tragic. Perhaps a dangerous thing.

The legacy of Curtis and the Joy Division I think suffers more than most from such legends. Think back recently to the alleged (almost grail-like?) discovery by Jamie Oliver of forgotten mastertapes in his restaurant's basement - and the subsequent hoax with a 'lost' track fooling a number of commentators. Prior to this of course there's the two films, 2007's Control, which to give it credit is true to Deborah Curtis' biography of her husband, but also 2002's 24 Hour Party People, of which Tony Wilson said;

"It's all true, it's all not true. It's not a fucking documentary. Whenever possible during the production of the film, [we] favoured the 'myth' over the truth."

The band themselves seem also to add to the dramatic narrative of creating their own myth, Peter Hook currently taking his version of the Joy Division on the road and being snubbed from the New Order tour. But perhaps there's one final example where Joy Division's legacy tips over into the surreal, check the header image of this post - that's Disney Corp's 're-imagining' of the band's iconic Unknown Pleasures album cover - now available as a nice Mickey Mouse T-Shirt logo. Now I'm no hardcore obsessive Joy Division zealot, but that leaves me with my jaw dropped and a serious "WTF?".

The crux of the matter (and the reason for my rant) is that of course, none of this truly matters. We've been turning 'celebrities' into legends for thousands of years, from Gilgamesh to GaGa, generating stories and myths about them for whatever reason. But nowadays we know what they really did in life. In the case of Ian Curtis - he made a stamp on music that was completely genuine.

In as much as anything that dark can be said to shine, his lyrical and emotional honesty was there for all to see and hear. He took his torment to the conclusion of his own personal catastrophe. There's nothing admirable in that of course, but there is in what came before - having the courage to stand up and expose his own 'truth', free of fakery and in the process create some of the greatest songs of the last 50 years.

Curtis was no hero, or if he was, he was a flawed one. But as a part of Joy Division he managed to 'out-punk' Punk (if the 'Punk attitude' is/was truly about tearing down phoniness and pretention) and for that he remains someone we ought not to forget - even now, 32 years on from his death.

Conversely, Elvis was a hero to most2, and the weird details surrounding his state at the time of his death are possibly parroted out simply as a humorous narrative that ultimately is harmless. But perhaps the lesson here is "Don't believe the hype"3 and to remain suspicious of such old chestnuts, as (without being over-paranoid) such mythologising is often created simply to make a good story or in the worst cases to try and sell something, be it either a product or a 'Legend'.

Dead Rock/Pop-stars can't stand up and refute the bullshit. So maybe stick as far as is possible to the music - as that's what really matters. That's not to say there's no place for taking things with a little pinch of salt. Reverence is all well and good where deserved, but even then a little added humour never killed anyone. Probably quite the opposite.

  • 1. Extra Brownie points for knowing where that direct quote comes from.
  • 2. More points available here.
  • 3. An easy one. (see footnote 2)