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

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When Tony Wilson, as a good manager, in 1980 gave Ian Curtis a collection of Frank Sinatra records, he probably had no great expectations about the result, and he certainly knew that neither Ian nor the other band members would understand. Both Wilson and the producer Martin Hannett were of the opinion that Ian could get a nice inspiration from Sinatra, but they were also aware of the situation: Joy Division were something like the brightest rising star in the English post-punk scene, their first album Unknown Pleasures was a huge success, their dark and depressed mood got its way to the hearts of the teenagers and, 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, the passion for Frank Sinatra doesn’t come at that stage. You need to get older.

Ian Curtis was not even the kind of artist who prepared the way in the studio with hours of work and a very precise direction in mind. What he usually did was to write the lyrics whenever he was inspired, filling his notebooks with thoughts and sentences as they popped up in his mind. In Joy Division, Ian Curtis wasn’t the responsible of 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, helping them to evolve the intuition and turn it into something bigger. When the melody was mature enough, he reached his diaries, grumbling about this or that phrase, he selected a couple of suitable lyrics and adapted them to the song. A minute later the song was over. And it wasn’t even recorded on tape: it was only in Joy Division’s head.

That was how it happened also 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, giving the right ideas for drums and guitars and then adding the lyrics. When the song came out in a more or less advanced 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, and now here it is, they came up with their “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

Of course, the lyrics were anything but sunny. The love that would tear us apart was probably inspired by Ian Curtis’ problematic marriage and by his way of conceiving relationships, which irremediably end up losing the passion and increasing their rate of resentment, accusations, tears and detachment. And for a sensitive spirit this easily leads to despair: the one that bites with sharp teeth, the one that grabs you and leaves you with that ugly taste in your throat. The taste of guilt, of the awareness that, if things didn’t work, it’s also 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

That strange pop song might not fully convince Joy Division, but it sent Martin Hannett at fever pitch. At the time of recording, in March 1980, Hannett entered a whirlwind of unprecedented perfectionism. He saw in that song a huge potential, and he had every intention of getting the best out of it. The refinement work lasted until late night, to the point where the band members themselves, exhausted, began to leave the studio and go to sleep. With no success: Martin 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 back to that night again, with his blood boiling with rage, remembering him screaming to Hannett at 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, with that romantic passion between him and the microphone and that melody able to elevate you to a new dimension. Just like Frank Sinatra. And that unusual pop song ended up to please also Joy Division, who one afternoon 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 colors turn to brown, but it seemed almost something intentional, a dark halo that hovered around the Joy Division always and in any case, even in their most charts-oriented song. Those shootings became the official video of the single and the song actually did its duty: the single finished first in the UK Indie Chart and earned respectable positions in the rest of the world. The road to preparation for the new album had just begun and you could already smells another success. They needed only another video and the plan for the perfect album would be completed.

There won’t be any other videos. Ian Curtis took his own life three weeks after those shots of Love Will Tear Us Apart, when neither the single, nor the video, nor the album were 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 recognized as his spiritual testament, the album where Curtis abandoned himself to the pain of living and describes his feelings in the most raw 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 will describe 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

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