What is Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart about?

20 June 2020, 20:00 | Updated: 20 June 2020, 20:01

Ian Curtis performing live with Joy Division in January 1980
Ian Curtis performing live with Joy Division in January 1980. Picture: Lex van Rossen/MAI/Redferns/Getty Images

40 years after its release, this legendary track sees singer Ian Curtis tell a tragic story.

Cut through with the bewildered feeling that “something so good… just can’t function no more”, Love Will Tear Us Apart was a tribute to dying relationship, a haunted singer and a legendary band.

Joy Division singer Ian Curtis took his own life on 18 May 1980 and the song was released as a single the month after. It was a horribly appropriate tribute to the 23-year-old and the career of the Manchester band, who effectively stopped at that point.

Built around a hypnotic bass line that mirrors a silvery synthesiser riff, the song is full of desperation and deep resentment, sadness and loss.

And it came from the heart: Joy Division singer Ian Curtis had married his girlfriend Deborah Woodruff in the summer of 1975, and the couple had a baby in April 1979, Natalie.

But there were problems on the horizon - Curtis had been diagnosed with epilepsy earlier that year and the stress of holding down a day job and his burgeoning career as a rock singer was overwhelming him.

Written around August 1979, Love Will Tear Us Apart is a harrowing sketch of a relationship in trouble.

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

Ian’s problems only worsened when he met Belgian music promoter Annik Honoré at a Joy Division gig in October. The two began a relationship, which caused more anguish between Curtis and his wife.

Love Will Tear Us Apart first came to the wider public’s attention with a John Peel session recorded in November, but it swiftly became a live favourite, being performed on Joy Division’s support slot with the Buzzcocks when they toured the UK that autumn.

However, for a song that appeared so fully formed, it was something of a struggle to get the thing down on vinyl.

Initial sessions took place at Pennine Sound Studios in Oldham in January of 1980, but the take was thought unsatisfactory by some of the band and their management, and fine by others.

Another take - the one that would become famous as Joy Division’s first posthumous single - was started at Strawberry Studios in Stockport in the March of 1980 and then finished at Pink Floyd’s Britannia Row studios in London later that month.

The “single” version was slower and more graceful than the “Pennine” version - Tony Wilson later claimed that he’d given Curtis a copy of Frank Sinatra’s 20 Golden Greats so the singer could study how to croon.

Discussions went on as to which version was the better take - so Factory Records released both: the Strawberry version on the A-side, the Pennine version on the flip, next to the official B-side These Days.

Joy Division - Love Will Tear Us Apart 12" cover
Joy Division - Love Will Tear Us Apart 12" cover. Picture: Press

Wilson and JD manager Rob Gretton sniffed the makings of a hit, so they did a very UN-Factory Records thing and commissioned a promo video. This was shot on 28 April 1980 at TJ Davidson’s rehearsal rooms in Manchester, where Joy Division had worked up most of their famous songs.

The band performed live over a backing track, causing some horrible sync issues, but the sound was later altered and is one of the few professionally-shot pieces of Joy Division footage.

It was all in vain, though - when the song made Number 13 in the charts in the aftermath of Curtis’s death, chart show Top Of The Pops had been temporarily taken off the air by a strike.

None of this prevented Love Will Tear Us Apart from becoming an indie classic, even surviving a 1983 cover by man of the moment Paul Young: