Curtis was born on 15 July 1956, at the Memorial Hospital in Stretford, Lancashire, and grew up in a working-class household in Macclesfield, Cheshire. He was the first of two children born to Kevin and Doreen Curtis. From an early age, Curtis was a bookish and intelligent child, displaying a particular flair for poetry. He was awarded a scholarship at the age of 11 at Macclesfield's independent King's School. Here, he developed his interests in philosophy, literature, and eminent poets such as Thom Gunn. While at King's School, he was awarded several scholastic awards in recognition of his abilities—particularly at the ages of 15 and 16. The year after Ian had graduated from King's School, the Curtis family purchased a house from a relative, and moved to New Moston.
As a teenager, Curtis chose to perform social service by visiting the elderly as part of a school programme. While visiting, he and his friends would steal any prescription drugs that they found and later take them together as a group. On one occasion when he was 16, after consuming a large dosage of Largactil he and his friends had stolen, Curtis was discovered unconscious in his bedroom by his father and was taken to hospital to have his stomach pumped. Curtis had held a keen interest in music since the age of 12, and this interest developed greatly in his teenage years, with artists such as Jim Morrison and David Bowie being particular favourites of his, and thus influencing his poetry and art. Curtis could seldom afford to purchase records, leading him to frequently steal them from local shops.[n 1] By his mid-teens, Curtis had also developed a reputation among his peers as a strong-willed individual, with a keen interest in fashion.
Despite gaining nine O-levels at King's School, and briefly studying A-Levels in History and Divinity at St. John's College, Curtis soon became disenchanted with academic life, and abandoned his studies to commit himself to finding employment. Despite abandoning his studies at St. John's College, Curtis continued to focus on the pursuit of art, literature and music, and would gradually draw lyrical and conceptual inspiration from ever more insidious subjects.
Curtis obtained a job at a record shop in Manchester City Centre, before obtaining more stable employment within the civil service. His employment as a civil servant saw Curtis initially deployed to Cheadle Hulme, where he worked for several months with the Ministry of Defence, before he was offered alternate employment within the Manpower Services Commission in a building at Piccadilly Gardens. He later worked as a civil servant in Woodford, Greater Manchester, although at his request, approximately one year later, Curtis was posted to Macclesfield's Employment Exchange, where he worked as an Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer.
On 23 August 1975, Curtis married Deborah Woodruff, to whom he was introduced by a friend, Tony Nuttall. Ian and Deborah initially became friends then began dating in December 1972, when both were 16 years old.[n 2] Their wedding service was conducted at St Thomas' Church in Henbury, Cheshire. Curtis was 19 and Woodruff 18. They had one child, a daughter named Natalie, born on 16 April 1979. Initially, the couple lived with Ian's grandparents, although shortly after their marriage, the couple moved to a working-class neighbourhood in Chadderton, where they paid a mortgage while working in jobs neither enjoyed. Before long, the couple became disillusioned with life in Oldham, and remortgaged their house before briefly returning to live with Ian's grandparents. Shortly thereafter, in May 1977, the couple moved into their own house in Barton Street, Macclesfield, with one of the rooms of the property becoming colloquially known between the couple as Curtis's "song-writing room".