Love Will Tear Us Apart: story and meanings of Joy Division’s song

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This story is part of the book:

Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

When Tony Wilson gave Ian Curtis a collection of Frank Sinatra records in 1980, he probably had no great expectations about the result, and he certainly felt that neither Ian nor the other band members would understand. Both Wilson and the producer Martin Hannett were of the opinion that Ian could draw inspiration from Sinatra, but they were also aware of the situation: Joy Division were one of the brightest rising stars in the English post-punk scene, their first album Unknown Pleasures having been a huge success, and their dark and depressed mood finding its way into the hearts of a generation of teenagers. Within the band, nobody in their right mind was thinking of writing Frank Sinatra-like songs. For the record, Ian Curtis was just 23 and, as the bassist Peter Hook explained more recently, a passion for Frank Sinatra doesn’t come at that stage in life. You need to get older first.

Ian Curtis was not the kind of artist who prepared in the studio with hours of work and a very precise direction in mind. What he usually did was write the lyrics whenever he felt inspired, filling his notebooks with thoughts and sentences as they popped into his mind. In Joy Division, Ian Curtis wasn’t responsible for writing the songs: he was the one that perceived music before the others, while the band members tried this or that tune, approaching them as soon as he felt that something good was coming out, then helping them to evolve this intuition into something bigger. When the melody was mature enough, he would reach for his diaries, grumbling about this or that phrase, selecting a couple of suitable lyrics and adapting them to fit the song. A minute later, the song would be over. And it wouldn’t even have been recorded; it would still exist only in Joy Division’s heads. That was how it happened for Love Will Tear Us Apart: the first melodic intuition came from Peter Hook, Ian Curtis heard it and immediately started to lead the others, suggesting ideas for drums and guitars and then adding the lyrics. When the song came out in a more or less coherent form, Joy Division were a bit perplexed. The material was good, no doubt, but … where did that pop-like mood come from, with that growing chorus and that melody with clear nuances of optimism? Joy Division were the apotheosis of dark wave, but now here it was, a “pop” song…

Why is the bedroom so cold
Turned away on your side?
Is my timing that flawed,
Our respect run so dry?
Yet there’s still this appeal
That we’ve kept through our lives
Love, love will tear us apart
Again

Of course, the lyrics were anything but sunny. The love that would tear them apart was probably inspired by Ian Curtis’ problematic marriage and his way of conceiving relationships, which irremediably ended up losing passion and devolving into resentment, accusations, tears and detachment. And, for a sensitive spirit, this easily led to despair: the kind that bites with sharp teeth, the kind that grabs you and leaves you with that ugly taste in your mouth. It is a taste of guilt, of an awareness that, if things didn’t work, it’s perhaps because you’re not trying hard enough. Perhaps because you are unable to. Or perhaps because you don’t care anymore.

Do you cry out in your sleep
All my failings expose?
Get a taste in my mouth
As desperation takes hold
Is it something so good
Just can’t function no more?
When love, love will tear us apart
Again

That strange pop song might not fully convince Joy Division, but it sent Martin Hannett into a frenzy. At the time of recording, in March 1980, Hannett entered a whirlwind of unprecedented perfectionism. He saw in that song huge potential, and he had every intention of getting the best out of it. The refinement work lasted until late at night, to the point where the band members themselves, exhausted, began to leave the studio and go to sleep. But it wasn’t done: Hannett called the drummer, Stephen Morris, at 4 am, because the beat needed to be reworked. For a long time, whenever Morris heard Love Will Tear Us Apart, he found himself wrenched back to that night again, his blood boiling with rage, remembering screaming at Hannett down the phone.

Eventually, Love Will Tear Us Apart came out as Hannett wanted it, with those tasty highs and lows in the voice of Ian Curtis, that romantic passion between him and the microphone and the melody which is capable of elevating you to a new dimension. Just like Frank Sinatra. And their unusual pop song also ended up pleasing Joy Division themselves, as they decided to shoot an amateur video clip that showed them during a practice session, at the T.J. Davidson Studios. At one point in that video, the images fade and the colours turn brown, but it seems intentional, a dark halo that hovers around Joy Division, even in their most charts-oriented song. These shots became the official video of the single and the song actually did its duty: it reached number one on the UK Indie Chart and earned respectable positions across the rest of the world. The road to preparation for the new album had just begun and they could smell another success. All they needed was another video and the plan for the perfect album would be completed.

But there wouldn’t be any other videos. Ian Curtis took his own life three weeks after the shots of Love Will Tear Us Apart, when the single, the video, and the album hadn’t even been officially released. The album, Closer, was released on July 18th, 1980, exactly two months after the death of the Joy Division leader, and it’s universally recognised as his spiritual testament, the album where he abandoned himself to the pain of living. It describes his feelings in the rawest way possible, without limiting the effects.

On the day Joy Division were recording Love Will Tear Us Apart, U2 were present in the studio in order to meet Martin Hannett for the production of their first album. Bono later described that day in this way:

Talking to Ian Curtis was a strange experience. It was like two people inside of him. He’s very warm, he talked very light and very well-mannered, very polite. But when he got behind the microphone he really surged forth; there was another energy. And Love Will Tear Us Apart was like him. As if there were two personalities, separate; there they were, torn apart.

When the routine bites hard
And emotions won’t grow
And were changing our ways
Taking different roads
Then love, love will tear us apart
Again

This story is part of the book:

Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

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