On 20 July 1976, childhood friends Sumner and Hook separately attended a Sex Pistols show at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall. Both were was inspired by the Pistols' performance. The following day Hook borrowed £35 from his mother to buy a bass guitar. Sumner said that he felt that they "destroyed the myth of being a pop star, of a musician being some kind of god that you had to worship". They formed a band with Terry Mason, who had also attended the gig. Sumner bought a guitar, and Mason a drum kit. They invited schoolfriend Martin Gresty to join as vocalist, but he turned them down after getting a job at a local factory. An advertisement was placed in the Virgin Records shop in Manchester for a vocalist. Ian Curtis, who knew them from earlier gigs, responded and was hired without audition. Sumner said that he "knew he was all right to get on with and that's what we based the whole group on. If we liked someone, they were in".
Buzzcocks manager Richard Boon and frontman Pete Shelley have both been credited with suggesting the band name "Stiff Kittens", but settled on "Warsaw" shortly before their first gig, referencing David Bowie's song "Warszawa". Warsaw debuted on 29 May 1977 at the Electric Circus, supporting the Buzzcocks, Penetration and John Cooper Clarke. They received immediate national exposure due to reviews of the gig in the NME by Paul Morley and in Sounds by Ian Wood. Tony Tabac played drums that night after joining the band two days earlier. Mason was soon made the band's manager and Tabac was replaced on drums in June 1977 by Steve Brotherdale, who also played in the punk band Panik. During his tenure with Warsaw, Brotherdale tried to get Curtis to leave the band and join Panik and even got Curtis to audition for the band. In July 1977, Warsaw recorded a set of five demo tracks at Pennine Sound Studios, Oldham. Uneasy with Brotherdale's aggressive personality, the band fired him soon after the demo sessions. Driving home from the studio, they pulled over and asked Brotherdale to check on a flat tyre; when he got out of the car, they sped off.
In August 1977, the band placed an advertisement in a music shop window seeking a replacement drummer. Stephen Morris, who had attended the same school as Curtis, was the sole respondent. Deborah Curtis, Ian's wife, stated that Morris "fitted perfectly" with the other men, and that with his addition Warsaw became a "complete 'family'". To avoid confusion with the London punk band Warsaw Pakt, the band renamed themselves Joy Division in early 1978, borrowing their new name from the sexual slavery wing of a Nazi concentration camp mentioned in the 1955 novel House of Dolls. In December, the group recorded what became their debut EP, An Ideal for Living, at Pennine Sound Studio and played their final gig as Warsaw on New Year's Eve at The Swinging Apple in Liverpool. Billed as Warsaw to ensure an audience, the band played their first gig as Joy Division on 25 January 1978 at Pip's Disco in Manchester.
Joy Division were approached by RCA Records to record a cover of Nolan "N.F." Porter's "Keep on Keepin' On" at a Manchester recording studio. The band spent late March and April 1978 writing and rehearsing material. During the Stiff/Chiswick Challenge concert at Manchester's Rafters Club on 14 April, they caught the attention of Tony Wilson and Rob Gretton. Curtis berated Wilson for not putting the group on his Granada Television show So It Goes; Wilson responded that Joy Division would be the next band he would showcase on TV. Gretton, the venue's resident DJ, was so impressed by the band's performance that he convinced them to take him on as their manager. Gretton, whose "dogged determination" would later be credited for much of the band's public success, contributed the business skills that Joy Division lacked to provide them with a better foundation for creativity. Joy Division spent the first week of May 1978 recording at Manchester's Arrow Studios. The band were unhappy with the Grapevine Records head John Anderson's insistence on adding synthesiser into the mix to soften the sound, and asked to be dropped from the contract that they had recently signed with RCA.
Joy Division made their recorded debut in June 1978 when the band self-released An Ideal for Living, and two weeks later a track of theirs, "At a Later Date", was featured on the compilation album Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus (which had been recorded live in October 1977). In the Melody Maker review of the EP, Chris Brazier said that it "has the familiar rough-hewn nature of home-produced records, but they're no mere drone-vendors—there are a lot of good ideas here, and they could be a very interesting band by now, seven months on". The packaging of An Ideal for Living—which featured a drawing of a Hitler Youth member on the cover—coupled with the nature of the band's name, fuelled speculation about their political affiliations. While Hook and Sumner later admitted to being intrigued by fascism at the time, Morris believed that the group's dalliance with Nazi imagery came from a desire to keep memories of the sacrifices of their parents and grandparents during World War II alive. He argued that accusations of neo-Nazi sympathies merely provoked the band "to keep on doing it, because that's the kind of people we are".
In September 1978, Joy Division made their television debut performing "Shadowplay" on So It Goes, with an introduction by Wilson. In October, Joy Division contributed two tracks recorded with producer Martin Hannett to the compilation double-7" EP A Factory Sample, the first release by Tony Wilson's record label, Factory Records. In the NME review of the EP, Paul Morley hailed the band as "the missing link between Elvis Presley and [Siouxsie and] the Banshees". Joy Division joined Factory's roster, after buying themselves out of the deal with RCA. Rob Gretton was made a partner of the label so as to represent the interests of the band. On 27 December, Ian Curtis had his first recognisable epileptic episode. During the drive home from gig at the Hope and Anchor in London, Curtis suffered a severe epileptic seizure which required him to be hospitalised. Meanwhile, Joy Division's career progressed. He appeared on the 13 January 1979 cover of NME. That month the band recorded their session for BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel. According to Deborah Curtis, "Sandwiched in between these two important landmarks was the realization that Ian's illness was something we would have to learn to accommodate".
The band recorded their debut album, Unknown Pleasures at Strawberry Studios, Stockport, in April 1979. Producer Martin Hannett significantly altered their live sound, a fact that greatly displeased the band at the time. Hook said in 2006 that the album "definitely didn't turn out sounding the way I wanted it [...] But now I can see that Martin did a good job on it [...] There's no two ways about it, Martin Hannett created the Joy Division sound". The album cover was designed by Peter Saville, who would go on to provide artwork for future Joy Division releases. Unknown Pleasures was released in June and sold through its initial pressing of 10,000 copies. Tony Wilson said that the relative success of the album turned the indie label into a true business and a "revolutionary force" that operated outside of the major record label system. Reviewing the album for Melody Maker, writer Jon Savage described the album as an "opaque manifesto" and declared "[l]eaving the twentieth century is difficult; most people prefer to go back and nostalgise. Oh boy. Joy Division at least set a course in the present with contrails for the future—perhaps you can't ask for much more. Indeed, Unknown Pleasures may very well be one of the best, white, English, debut LPs of the year".
Joy Division performed on Granada TV again in July 1979, and made their only nationwide TV appearance in September on BBC2's Something Else. They supported the Buzzcocks in a 24-venue UK tour that began that October, which allowed the band to quit their regular jobs. The non-album single "Transmission" was released in November. Joy Division's burgeoning success drew a devoted following who were stereotyped as "intense young men dressed in grey overcoats".
Joy Division toured Continental Europe in January 1980. Although the schedule was difficult and demanding, Curtis experienced only two grand mal seizures, both in the final two months of the tour. That March, the band recorded their second album, Closer with Hannett again producing at London's Britannia Row Studios. That month they released the "Licht und Blindheit" single, with "Atmosphere" as the A side and "Dead Souls" as the B side, on the French independent label Sordide Sentimental.
A lack of sleep and long hours committed to the bands' activities destabilised Curtis's epilepsy, and resultingly, his seizures became almost uncontrollable. Curtis would often experience seizures during live performances, which would leave him feeling both ashamed and depressed. As the band became increasingly worried about Curtis's medical condition, some of their audience members thought his seizures and behaviour were simply part of the live show. On 7 April, Curtis attempted suicide by overdosing on his anti-seizure medication; phenobarbitone. The following evening, Joy Division were scheduled to play a gig at the Derby Hall in Bury. Curtis was too ill to perform, so at Rob Gretton's insistence, the band played a combined set with Alan Hempsall of Crispy Ambulance and Simon Topping of A Certain Ratio singing on the first few songs, with Curtis singing for part of the set. When Topping came back towards the end of the set, some audience members threw bottles at the stage. Curtis's ill health lead to the cancellation of several other gigs that April. 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 and later recorded by New Order as their first single.
"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."
Ian Curtis, Radio Lancashire interview, 1979.
Hannett's production has been widely praised. However, as with Unknown Pleasures, both Hook and Sumner were unhappy with the production. Hook said that when he heard the final mix of "Atrocity Exhibition" he was disappointed that the abrasiveness had been toned down. He wrote; "I was like, head in hands, 'Oh fucking hell, it's happening again. Unknown Pleasures number two...Martin [Hannett] had fucking melted the guitar with his Marshall Time Waster. Made it sound like someone strangling a cat and, to my mind, absolutely killed the song. I was so annoyed with him and went in and gave him a piece of my mind but he just turned round and told me to fuck off".
Curtis' suicide and aftermath
Joy Division were scheduled to commence their first American tour in May 1980. Curtis had expressed enthusiasm about the tour, but his relationship with his wife, Deborah, was at the time strained, largely due to his on-going affair with a Belgian journalist and music promoter named Annik Honoré, whom he had met on a 1979 European tour. This strain was further heightened by his health issues, the exclusion of his wife from the band's inner circle (most members of the band treated their wives or girlfriends in this manner), and Curtis's concerns as to how American audiences would react to his epilepsy. The evening before the band were due to depart for America, Curtis returned to his Macclesfield home to talk to his estranged wife. In this conversation, he asked her to drop an impending divorce suit; later, he asked her to leave him alone in the house until he caught a train to Manchester the following morning. Early on 18 May 1980, having spent the night watching the Werner Herzog film Stroszek, Curtis hanged himself in his kitchen. Deborah discovered his body later that day when she returned to their home. It came as a shock both to the band members and their management. In 2005, Wilson recollected: "I think all of us made the mistake of not thinking his suicide was going to happen [...] We all completely underestimated the danger. We didn't take it seriously. That's how stupid we were".
Music critic Simon Reynolds said Curtis's suicide "made for instant myth". Jon Savage's obituary said that "now no one will remember what his work with Joy Division was like when he was alive; it will be perceived as tragic rather than courageous." In June 1980, the posthumous single "Love Will Tear Us Apart" was released, which hit number thirteen on the UK Singles Chart. In July 1980, Closer was released; subsequently peaking at number six on the UK Albums Chart. NME reviewer Charles Shaar Murray wrote, "Closer is as magnificent a memorial (for 'Joy Division' as much as for Ian Curtis) as any post-Presley popular musician could have."
Stephen Morris has said that even without Curtis's suicide, it was unlikely that Joy Division would have endured as they were. The members of Joy Division had made a pact long before Curtis's death that, should any member leave, the remaining members would change the name of the group. Eventually renaming themselves New Order, the band was reborn as a three-piece with Sumner assuming vocal duties; the group later recruited Morris's girlfriend Gillian Gilbert to round out the line-up as keyboardist and second guitarist. Starting as a member of punk group The Inadequates, Gilbert had become friends with the band's members and had played guitar at a Joy Division performance when Curtis had been unable to play.
New Order's debut single, 1981's "Ceremony", was formed from the last two songs written with Curtis. While the group struggled in its early years to escape the shadow of Joy Division, New Order went on to achieve far greater commercial success than their predecessor band with a very different, more upbeat and dance-orientated sound.
A number of outtakes and live material have been released since the band's demise. Still, featuring live tracks and rare recordings was issued in 1981. Factory issued the Substance compilation in 1988, including several out-of-print singles. Permanent was released in 1995 by London Records, which had acquired the Joy Division catalogue after Factory's 1992 bankruptcy. A comprehensive box set, Heart and Soul, appeared in 1997.