Hard to believe, but I’ve never had a post dedicated to Love Will Tear Us Apart. Plenty of Joy Division stuff, including an ICA in which the song was featured, but never any sort of in-depth look or attempt at discussion.
Let’s get some of the basic facts out-of-the-way.
The song was written around August 1979 and was quickly included in the band’s live sets. It was recorded on 26 November 1979 for a session for the John Peel Show on BBC Radio 1 which was broadcast on 10 December 2017. The producer was Tony Wilson…..but not the bloke who ran Factory Records….this particular Tony Wilson was almost part of the furniture at the BBC, heavily involved in all sorts of radio sessions and live events from the 60s to the 90s.
The band would make its first effort to record the song on 8 January 1980, with the location being Pennine Studios, in Oldham, a town some 7 miles north-east of Manchester, with a view to it being a stand-alone single. Indeed, the intended b-side, These Days, was also recorded that same day.
Martin Hannett was on production duties that day, and while the recording was in the vein of how the band had been performing the song in the live sets, the perfectionist in him meant he was far from satisfied with the outcome. As it turned out, Ian Curtis too was unhappy with the recording and was quick to agree that everyone should reconvene and try again.
This time, in March 1980, they booked into one of Hannett’s favoured locations, the increasingly popular and sophisticated Strawberry Studios in Stockport, a place into which successful chart act 10cc had heavily invested in the hope and with the aim of providing a top studio in the Greater Manchester area so that they, and other local bands, wouldn’t have to head to London to work. It was a long and trying session as evidenced by drummer Stephen Morris being awakened by a 4am telephone call to his home with Hannett on the other end of the line demanding he drive back to Stockport as a fresh input on the snare drum was required.
Everyone declared themselves happy with this version and plans were put in place for it to be released in June 1980 in advance of the release of the band’s second album. Peter Savile was again engaged to come up with appropriate artwork, with his brief in keeping with previous Joy Division 45s to have different sleeves for the 7” and 12” versions, although the contents on vinyl would be the same, with the two tracks recorded at Pennine to be the b-side and the Strawberry version being the a-side. The 12” version would not be differently mixed or extended in any shape or form.
Tony Wilson (yes, THAT one and not the bloke from the Beeb) loved what he was hearing and felt the band had come up with a song that was capable of crossing over into daytime radio and persuaded them that a first ever promo video should be made. Filming took place on 25 April 1980 at the TJ Davidson studio in Manchester, an old haunt of the band from the pre-Factory days.
It’s worth mentioning that while the video has Ian Curtis playing guitar, and indeed while he did strum some chords when it was aired live, the part in the studio was played entirely by Bernard Sumner.
Less than a month later, on 18 May 1980, Ian Curtis committed suicide. What no-one outside of those closest to the band knew was that he’d previously attempted to take his life shortly after the Strawberry Studios session and in advance of the shooting of the promo video.
It’s been well documented that none of his band mates or those at Factory at the time equated the mental state of Ian Curtis with the songs he was writing and recording. Nor did they give any consideration to deviating from the timetable agreed for the issuing of the single and subsequent album. Nor did they think that the coincidental art work was in any way controversial or problematic, and to be fair nobody else said much at the time either:-
Love Will Tear Us Apart reached the shops in mid-June, entering into the charts on Sunday 29 June where it enjoyed a 16-week stay. Yes, some of the initial sales might have been driven by the suicide but the fact it climbed all the way to #13 proved that the man in charge of the label had been right all along and that it was a bona-fide radio friendly pop song.
Next year will see the 40th anniversary of the song. Unlike many from the era, it hasn’t dated in the slightest which would indicate that Hannett got the recording spot on. The opening chords have made it instantly recognisable to generation after generation of music fans which would indicate that it is a real earworm of a tune. It has been covered in many different guises over the years, many of the versions being ghastly to the point of unlistenable. It has received the ultimate popular recognition with the tune later being adopted by football fans at Manchester United with a lyric adjustment to pay homage to Ryan Giggs, one of the most famous players in their long and illustrious history.
It constantly appears in polls – NME in 2002 proclaimed it the best single of all time, while two years later Rolling Stone magazine had it as #179 in a list of the ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time’ which is some achievement for a track that wasn’t widely known or available in the USA until many years after its initial release.
Other musicians have lavished praise on it , none more so than Neil Tennant of the Pet Shops Boys – a man who has forgotten more about great pop music than many of the rest of us will ever know – who is on record as saying Love Will Tear Us Apart is his favourite ever pop song.
Me? I bought it immediately on its release, just a few days after my 17th Birthday. Loved it then, but didn’t think it was as good a record as Transmission. Nowadays, I can’t compare the two songs as they are so different sounding despite being released less than nine months apart.
Love Will Tear Us Apart is a song of great mystery, capable of so many interpretations. It sounds like no other Joy Division song. It is an upbeat and danceable number completely at odds with its lyric in which the protagonist is despairing of what life has become. Life with his loved one has gone sour – routine is biting hard, ambitions are running low, the atmosphere in the bedroom is icy cold and the complete breakdown in communication has led to a lack of respect on both sides. It really doesn’t get much more brutal and depressing than that does it?
The subsequent books and films have led to an acceptance that the song was an effort to provide an apology and explanation to Deborah Curtis over Ian’s affair with Annik Honore. But it could just as easily be interpreted as being for Annik as a way of Ian explaining that he was unable to completely give up on his wife and young daughter.
It’s also been held up as the song which drove the singer completely over the edge given its desperate nature. Again, this isn’t the recollection of those who were closest to him at the time and Ian seemed more troubled by his epilepsy than by his complicated love life.
One thing it most certainly can’t be labelled is ‘cult classic’ – it is far too well-known for that to be the case. It’s impossible to say with any certainty whether the subsequent chart success, with Ian Curtis remaining alive, would have led Joy Division to make more pop-orientated records or whether they would have retreated back into a shell to churn out the gothic and doomy anthems which found favour with the overcoat brigade. Love Will Tear Us Apart stands alone in the band’s canon, justifiably capable of being proclaimed as one of the most important and influential songs in musical history.
Who’s with me on this one?