The sad story behind Joy Division's She's Lost Control
26 November 2020, 20:11
Peter Hook has recently said this song has one of Ian Curtis's favourite basslines - but what was the heart-breaking tale behind the lyrics?
Joy Division were part of the first wave of young punks to come out of Manchester. They were inspired to start a band by the arrival of the Sex Pistols in the city in the summer of 1976 and their first recordings were primitive, angry, three-chord thrashes.
But JD were a remarkable band and soon grew out of their punk roots, while their lead singer Ian Curtis was a mesmerising frontman. His wild dancing and manic stage presence owed a lot to pre-punk hero Iggy Pop, but there were darker influences, too.
Curtis worked at the Job Centre in his hometown of Macclesfield, Cheshire, finding positions for people with special needs. One of his clients was a girl with epilepsy. At one point in 1978, Curtis noticed that the girl had stopped coming into the department. He later discovered she’d had a fit in her sleep and had tragically died. The incident inspired Curtis to write a new song about the girl: She's Lost Control.
"Confusion in her eyes that says it all / She's lost control / And she's clinging to the nearest passer by / She's lost control."
This was distressing enough, but what made things worse was that Curtis himself had developed the symptoms of epilepsy himself.
Joy Division made the long trip to London on 27 December 1978 for their first gig in the capital, but the show was poorly attended. Feeling negative about the situation, Curtis lashed out at the other members of the band on the drive back to Manchester - literally. As it transpired, he was having what appeared to be an epileptic fit.
The other members of Joy Division - guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris - took their bandmate to a nearby hospital, where Curtis recovered. He was told to go and see his doctor when he returned home.
On 23 January 1979, at an appointment at Macclesfield Hospital, it was confirmed: Ian Curtis had epilepsy. The news was devastating and meant that Ian had to change his lifestyle and take medication to control the fits. His new life as a rock star was put in doubt as late nights and alcohol didn’t mix with the meds.
A week later, at the BBC’s studios in London, Joy Division recorded She’s Lost Control for their first John Peel radio session. The band opened with the song when they supported The Cure at London’s Marquee club on Sunday 4 March.
Listening back to the album Unknown Pleasures for one of Tim Burgess's Twitter Listening Parties, Peter Hook recalled that his bassline was one of Ian's favourites.
SHE’S LOST CONTROL— Peter Hook (@peterhook) May 22, 2020
One of our most iconic songs. Steve used a ring modulated snare sound here along with a spray can of furniture polish to make that drum riff.
Another one of Ian’s favourite high bass riffs - I’m using the droning technique again.#TimsTwitterListeningParty
She’s Lost Control became one of Joy Division’s key tracks: it opened the second side of the band’s debut album Unknown Pleasures in June 1979, its menacing synth drum adding a queasy layer to the sounds of distress and panic. When Curtis performed the song, his wild dancing now took on the appearance of a man literally out of control.
As Joy Division became more successful, the pressures on the band increased. There were more gigs, more recording sessions and even the birth of Ian’s daughter Natalie that Spring. As 1979 turned into 1980, he found himself in a relationship with a Belgian woman, Annik Honoré. The pressure of keeping this from his wife Deborah all added to the stress.
Joy Division played She’s Lost Control at their penultimate show at Derby’s Ajanta Theatre on 19 April 1980, but it was missing from their final set in Birmingham on 2 May. By now, Curtis was very ill - Joy Division gigs would routinely climax with his frantic dancing turning into a full epileptic episode.
On 18 May 1980, one day before Joy Division were due to fly to the US, Ian Curtis committed suicide at his home in Macclesfield. He was 23 years old.
Bernard Sumner later claimed that he thought the medication Curtis was taking contributed to his depression, while Peter Hook told WNYC in 2013: “The guy was in a complete maelstrom compounded by the illness. I think because of the work and the enthusiasm he put in before he got ill, while the illness was degenerating, he didn’t want to let you down. I think he just looked at you and wanted to say, I’m alright. Don’t worry about me."
A couple of months later, a radically-reworked version of She’s Lost Control was issued as a 12” single, backed with the emotional and beautiful ballad Atmosphere.
The track remains one of Joy Division’s best-known songs and gave the 2007 Ian Curtis biopic its title: Control.