In 1980, the lead singer of Joy Division, Ian Curtis, was suffering an acute mental health crisis. Few people, not even his bandmates, realised the danger he was in. Ravaged by epilepsy and strained in his relationship with his wife, Curtis reportedly overdosed on the eve of a gig in the Derby Hall in Bury. He survived the attempted suicide and was encouraged to appear on stage the following day.
But Curtis was in no fit state to complete his set. Rather, it was agreed that he would perform two songs before Alan Hempsall of Crispy Ambulance would take over on the mic.
According to Hempsall, 600 fans had packed out the Victorian venue, exceeding its capacity by a third. The Dutch New Wave band, Mini Pops, and the post-punk Section 25 warmed up the swollen crowd for the main event.
By 1980, Joy Division had become a big draw. The previous year, Curtis had appeared on the cover of NME before recording a session for John Peel on Radio 1. The band were on the cusp of embarking on a tour of North America.
So it is perhaps not surprising the throngs of boozed-up fans flew into a rage when Curtis retired from the stage and was replaced after just two songs.
Confusion spread through the crowd, which soon turned to anger – resulting in a pint glass crashing onto the stage. A volley of bottles followed, causing an eruption of violence as fans fought with one another and attempted to storm the stage.
Joy Division’s drummer, Terry Mason, took up the microphone stand to beat back the mob, and Rob Gretton, the band’s manager, is said to have dived off the stage into a gang of angry skinheads.
Sadly, for our posterity, no video of the night has ever surfaced. But the riot was reported on in colourful terms in a review of the gig by the now-defunct City Fun magazine. The reviewer, ‘Mike’, recalled:
“Some stupid bastard threw a glass over the stage as the bands were going off, it shattered a lamp and landed on a large roadie who went berserk and leapt into the crowd after the offender. Chaos broke out and I fucked off.”
Curtis’s stand-in, Hempsall, gave his version of events in an interview with Clint Boon in 2019. He said: “Ian said he wanted to pick two slow songs because that was all he felt up to.
“I came on with Simon Topping from ACR and we did a cover version of Sister Ray by The Velvet Underground at which point we left the stage and it was only then that the trouble kicked off.”
But Hempsall expressed cynicism over that trouble becoming mythologised as a riot. Instead, he characterised it as a ‘punch up’, saying: “It was funny how it got built up into a riot because it was a bit of a dust-up.”
Whatever the truth, perhaps even in spite of it, that flurry of fists would become a seminal moment in punk canon. But it was also portentous. Curtis’s spiral seemed clear – but it went unnoticed. Exactly a month after the Derby Hall Riot, Ian Curtis would die by suicide, resulting in the dissolution of the ascendant band.
Tony Wilson, who signed the band, would later lament, “We didn’t take it seriously. That’s how stupid we were.”