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On This Day In Music… April 14, 1978: Joy Division Play the Stiff Test/Chiswick Challenge; Twenty Seconds Into Their Set, Tony Wilson Decides to Create Factory Records to Sign Them

Earlier in the evening, singer Ian Curtis had threatened Wilson for failing to feature the band on his TV show.

ian curtis joy division
Source: YouTube / joy division

The meeting of Joy Division and Tony Wilson would change music history.

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On April 14, 1978, four awkward young men took the stage at Rafters nightclub, a basement dive off Manchester’s Oxford Road, to play five songs as part of the Stiff Test/Chiswick Challenge, a sort of touring battle-of-the-bands competition organized by two of London’s leading independent record labels. They introduced themselves as Joy Division – and they were furious.

By the end of their set – despite them coming last on the bill and subsequently playing to a mostly-empty club – the unknown band would secure themselves a manager and a record label boss… and set in place one of music’s most legendary partnerships.

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ian curtis love will tear us apart
Source: YouTube / joy division

By April 1978 the band had been holed up in their rehearsal rooms for months and were desperate for gigs.

Joy Division had been formed in 1976 after friends Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook attended a (now legendary) Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall. After briefly calling themselves Stiff Kittens and then Warsaw, the band settled on a line-up of Sumner, Hook, drummer Stephen Morris and vocalist Ian Curtis. They played their first gig as Joy Division on 25 January 1978 at Pip's Disco in Manchester. And then… nothing.

“After we played our first gig as Joy Division… nothing happened – not for more than two long months,” Hook wrote in his book, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division.

Desperate to be heard, each of the members took it in turn to "manage" the band, slogging around Manchester trying to secure slots at clubs – but it was a tactic that clearly wasn’t working.

“For us, back then, every minute without a gig felt like a week, felt like forever,” wrote Hook. “I was on the phone bugging promoters – even bussing it into town to meet people, but it rarely worked. Feeling down and demoralized is a feeling you have to get used to managing any band, but especially ours at that time.”

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With no actual shows to play, Joy Division instead concentrated on writing and rehearsing, spending long days in a freezing room in a disused mill on Manchester’s Little Peter Street that served as rehearsal space.

They also had to watch with growing resentment as the city’s vibrant post-punk music scene fizzed around them, with many bands appearing on Granada TV’s So It Goes show, hosted by local celebrity and sometime newsreader Tony Wilson. By the spring of ’78, they’d had enough, and when word reached them of the Stiff Test/Chiswick Challenge rolling into town, they were determined to get themselves on the bill.

The problem was, so was every other Mancunian musical wannabe. So great was the demand for places, that the running order eventually sprawled to 17 separate acts… and Joy Division were placed last of the night. By the time they finally took the stage it was past two a.m.

There was another issue. On entering the club, singer Ian Curtis had noticed none other than Tony Wilson himself in the audience. Already on edge, he approached the TV presenter and harangued him for ignoring Joy Division’s requests to appear on his show, even going so far as to call him a “c--t".

“Ian Curtis was many things, but one thing he was not was violent,” wrote drummer Stephen Morris in Record Play Pause: Confessions Of A Post-Punk Percussionist. “But he could very quickly get wound up and he would let frustration spill over into rage.”

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ian curtis mural
Source: mega

Ian Curtis has been immortalized in a mural in Manchester city center.

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Wilson, accompanied by Rafters DJ and local man-not-to-be-messed-with Rob Gretton, took the confrontation – and the insult – with good grace, and promised to stick around to watch the band play. It would be a decision that would come to define not only his and Joy Division’s history, but arguably the history of Manchester music itself.

“We did four or five songs and played our socks off,” Hook wrote in Unknown Pleasures. “Being so angry gave us a bit of an edge – it always did – and so it was probably one of our best performances. Well, we thought so, but we never heard from Mr Stiff, or Mr Chiswick, come to that.”

They did, however, hear from Wilson – and from Gretton.

“Tony Wilson later said it took just twenty seconds of Joy Division’s set at the Stiff Test to convince him the band were worth investing in,” Hook continued. “Also, Rafters’ DJ, Rob Gretton, who had previous experience looking after [local punks] The Panik, decided he’d found a new band to manage.

“From the moment [Gretton] stepped on board, things changed for the better. He was a big guy, he had a biting tongue and he could cut you dead, but in Rob, we had someone who shared our vision and had the same ideals. He was like a more forthright version of us and when he became our manager after the Stiff Test, our relationship with Tony Wilson developed, leading to the creation of Factory Records.”

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Within months, Wilson gave Joy Division the TV debut Curtis had craved, introducing them with the words: “Seeing as how this is the program which previously brought you first television appearances from everything from the Beatles to the Buzzcocks, we do like to keep our hand in and keep you informed of the most interesting new sounds in the North West. This, Joy Division, is the most interesting new sound we’ve come across in the last six months. They’re a Manchester band, with the exception of the guitarist who comes from Salford, very important difference, they’re called Joy Division, and this number is ‘Shadowplay’.”

He also created his own independent record label, Factory Records, famously signing the contract with Joy Division in his own blood. The wording of that contract is now part of music folklore: “The company owns nothing, the musicians own their music and everything they do, and all artists have the freedom to f--k off.”

Joy Division’s debut LP Unknown Pleasures – mostly written during those gig-less months rehearsing in Little Peter Street – was the first album put out by the label. Released in June 1979, it is now recognized by most critics as one of the most important records of all time, with Q ranking it 19th in its 2002 list of the 100 Greatest British Albums.

Ian Curtis would tragically die by suicide on May 18, 1980, one month before the release of second LP Closer, as well as the defining song of Joy Division’s career, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. The remaining members regrouped as New Order, and along with Wilson’s Factory Records, would go on to define the sounds of Manchester – and arguably Britain – for the following decade.


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