A Brief History of the Changing Names of Joy Division

25th January 2020

Renowned as the first word in the post-punk movement, Joy Division’s journey from obscurity to success, to tragedy is one of reinvention. The band chopped and changed names several times in their history, ushering in a new era of their development with each change.

Their story was one of controversy, misunderstanding, love and obsession. It was a human story of tragedy and shame. They changed the music landscape and for that, we all know their name.

Stiff Kittens, Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks

The story of Joy Division’s name and formation is one more folklore than verifiable fact. The Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4th June 1976 was a watershed moment in British music, inspiring those who were there to pick up instruments and art and those who weren’t to lie about attending forever after.

Among those at the gig were 20-year-old Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner and Terry Mason. The legend goes: the trio were so inspired by the thrashing energy of the night that the next day Sumner dug out a guitar, Hook borrowed £35 to buy a bass and Mason found himself as the drummer.

Also in attendance that night was Ian Curtis and his wife Deborah. Curtis, from Macclesfield but living in Greater Manchester, already knew Hook, Sumner and Mason from previous gigs in the city and responded to their advert for a vocalist in a record shop window.

Soon afterwards the fledgling punk band found themselves with a gig to promote but still no name. Out of need rather than approval, the name Stiff Kittens – suggested by either Buzzcocks manager Richard Boon or frontman Pete Shelley, depending on whose story you believe – was settled on for promotional purposes.

Warsaw and the rotating door of drummers

Never popular with the band, the Stiff Kittens name was quickly dropped and the band began going by Warsaw, inspired by the track Warszawa from David Bowie’s Low album.

The band picked up a new drummer in the form of Tony Tabac and began playing more gigs around Manchester. Among them was one at Manchester’s Electric Circus where they garnered mixed attention from the national music magazines and another prompting their first meeting with future manager Rob Gretton at Rafters Club.

The early material was crude and has largely been lost to time. As the band replaced Tabac with Steve Brotherdale and then eventual permanent member Stephen Morris, their sound drifted away from mainstream rock in the direction of cult favourites Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop.

Joy Division and An Ideal for Living

Another name change was prompted when London band Warsaw Pakt released their debut album. Concerned about the confusion between the two bands, Warsaw became Joy Division.

December of 1977 also saw Joy Division’s first release, the EP An Ideal for Living. The EP caused a stir due to the apparent Nazi imagery used as its artwork. The cover featured a child in a Hitler Youth uniform banging a drum while the inner cover featured the infamous image of Jews surrendering after the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising. The first track, Warsaw, also retold the life of Nazi leader Rudolf Hess.

Questions swirled about the band’s political leanings, exacerbated by skinheads attending their gigs and the band’s new choice of name. The name Joy Division was taken from a brothel containing Jewish women forced into sexual labour by Nazi concentration camp officers in House of Dolls by Ka-Tzetnik 135633. Though the novel, written by a holocaust survivor was distinctly not favourable toward Nazism.

Still billed as Warsaw in all the promotional materials, Joy Division played their first gig under the name they’d become famous for at Pip’s Disco in Manchester on 25th January 1978.

New Order from the ashes

Joy Division’s rise and short span at the top is etched deeply into Manchester’s cultural history. Not a corner can be turned in the city without seeing the iconic Unknown Pleasures cover art on a tattoo or T-shirt, while single Love Will Tear Us Apart and sophomore album Closer were hits upon release.

Sadly, Ian Curtis never saw the success of 1980’s Closer or Love Will Tear Us Apart. Plagued by a failing marriage, depression and epileptic fits, Curtis took his own life at 23 on the eve of the band’s debut US/Canadian tour.

In a 1980 interview, drummer Stephen Morris told NME of a pact agreeing that should any member leave, they would change the band name.

After a brief stint going by The No Names, the band reformed as New Order – doing little to dispel accusations of Nazi fascination. Released in 1981, their first single, Ceremony, was a composition of two of the final songs written with Curtis.

The band initially struggled to move away from the legend of Joy Division, but in time their blending of electronic and dance beats with their post-punk origins built commercial success going far beyond anything of Joy Division.

You can learn all about Joy Division’s history as well as the rich musical history of Manchester on our Manchester Music Stories tour.