On 20 July 1976, childhood friends Sumner and Hook separately attended a
Sex Pistols show at the
Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall. The following day Hook borrowed £35 from his mother to buy his first bass guitar.
 Sumner later said that he felt that the Pistols "destroyed the myth of being a pop star, of a musician being some kind of god that you had to worship".
 Inspired by the performance, Sumner and Hook formed a band with their friend Terry Mason, who had also attended the show. Sumner bought a guitar, and Mason a drum kit. They invited schoolfriend Martin Gresty to join as vocalist, but he turned them down after getting a job at a local factory. An advertisement was placed in the
Virgin Records shop in Manchester for a vocalist. Ian Curtis, who knew them from earlier gigs, responded and was hired without audition.
 Sumner said that he "knew he was all right to get on with and that's what we based the whole group on. If we liked someone, they were in".
Richard Boon and frontman
Pete Shelley have both been credited with suggesting the band name "Stiff Kittens", but settled on "Warsaw" shortly before their first gig, referencing
David Bowie's song "
Warszawa". Warsaw debuted on 29 May 1977 at the Electric Circus, supporting the Buzzcocks,
John Cooper Clarke. They received immediate national exposure due to reviews of the gig in the
Paul Morley and in
Sounds by Ian Wood. Tony Tabac played drums that night after joining the band two days earlier. Mason was soon made the band's manager and Tabac was replaced on drums in June 1977 by Steve Brotherdale, who also played in the punk band Panik. During his tenure with Warsaw, Brotherdale tried to get Curtis to leave the band and join Panik and even got Curtis to audition for the band. In July 1977, Warsaw recorded a set of five demo tracks at Pennine Sound Studios,
Oldham. Uneasy with Brotherdale's aggressive personality, the band fired him soon after the demo sessions. Driving home from the studio, they pulled over and asked Brotherdale to check on a flat tyre; when he got out of the car, they sped off.
In August 1977, the band placed an advertisement in a music shop window seeking a replacement drummer. Stephen Morris, who had attended the same school as Curtis, was the sole respondent. Deborah Curtis, Ian's wife, stated that Morris "fitted perfectly" with the other men, and that with his addition Warsaw became a "complete 'family'". To avoid confusion with the London punk band
Warsaw Pakt, the band renamed themselves Joy Division in early 1978, borrowing their new name from the sex slavery wing of a Nazi concentration camp mentioned in the 1955 novel
House of Dolls. In December, the group recorded what became their debut
An Ideal for Living, at Pennine Sound Studio and played their final gig as Warsaw on New Year's Eve at The Swinging Apple in Liverpool. Billed as Warsaw to ensure an audience, the band played their first gig as Joy Division on 25 January 1978 at Pip's Disco in Manchester.
Joy Division were approached by
RCA Records to record a cover of
Nolan "N.F." Porter's "Keep on Keepin' On" and were afforded recording time at a professional Manchester studio in return. Joy Division spent late March and April 1978 writing and rehearsing material. During the Stiff/Chiswick Challenge concert at Manchester's
Rafters Club on 14 April, the group caught the attention of
Tony Wilson and
Rob Gretton. Curtis berated Wilson for not putting the group on his
Granada Television show
So It Goes; Wilson responded that Joy Division would be the next band he would showcase on TV. Gretton, the venue's resident DJ, was so impressed by the band's performance that he convinced them to take him on as their manager.
 Gretton, whose "dogged determination" would later be credited for much of the band's public success, contributed the business skills that Joy Division lacked to provide them with a better foundation for creativity. Joy Division spent the first week of May 1978 recording at Manchester's Arrow Studios. The band were unhappy with the Grapevine Records head John Anderson's insistence on adding synthesiser into the mix to soften the sound, and asked to be dropped from the contract that they had recently signed with RCA.
Joy Division made their recorded debut in June 1978 when the band self-released
An Ideal for Living, and two weeks later a track of theirs, "At a Later Date", was featured on the compilation album
Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus (which had been recorded live in October 1977). In the
Melody Maker review of the EP, Chris Brazier said that it "has the familiar rough-hewn nature of home-produced records, but they're no mere drone-vendors—there are a lot of good ideas here, and they could be a very interesting band by now, seven months on".
 The packaging of An Ideal for Living—which featured a drawing of a
Hitler Youth member on the cover—coupled with the nature of the band's name, fuelled speculation about their political affiliations. While Hook and Sumner later admitted to being intrigued by fascism at the time, Morris insisted that the group's obsession with Nazi imagery came from a desire to keep memories of the sacrifices of their parents and grandparents during
World War II alive. He argued that accusations of
neo-Nazi sympathies merely provoked the band "to keep on doing it, because that's the kind of people we are".
In September 1978, Joy Division made their television debut performing "
Shadowplay" on So It Goes, with an introduction by Wilson in which he misidentified Sumner, and not Hook, as being from Salford. In October,
 Joy Division contributed two tracks recorded with producer
Martin Hannett to the compilation double-7" EP
A Factory Sample, the first release by Tony Wilson's record label,
Factory Records. In the NME review of the EP, Paul Morley hailed the band as "the missing link between
Elvis Presley and
[Siouxsie and] the Banshees".
 Joy Division joined Factory's roster, after buying themselves out of the deal with RCA.
 Rob Gretton was made a partner of the label so as to represent the interests of the band.
 On 27 December, Ian Curtis had his first recognisable epileptic episode. During the ride home after a show at the
Hope and Anchor pub in London, Curtis experienced an
epileptic seizure and was taken to a hospital. In spite of his illness, Joy Division's career progressed. He appeared on the cover of 13 January 1979 issue of the NME following the persistence of music journalist Paul Morley. That month the band recorded their first session for
BBC Radio 1 DJ
John Peel. According to Deborah Curtis, "Sandwiched in between these two important landmarks was the realization that Ian's illness was something we would have to learn to accommodate".
The band recorded their debut album,
Unknown Pleasures in April 1979 at
 Producer Martin Hannett significantly altered their live sound, a fact that greatly displeased the band at the time. Hook said in 2006 that the album "definitely didn't turn out sounding the way I wanted it [...] But now I can see that Martin did a good job on it [...] There's no two ways about it, Martin Hannett created the Joy Division sound".
 The album cover was designed by
Peter Saville, who would go on to provide artwork for future Joy Division releases.
 Unknown Pleasures was released in June and sold through its initial pressing of 10,000 copies. Tony Wilson said that the relative success of the album turned the indie label into a true business and a "revolutionary force" that operated outside of the major record label system.
 Reviewing the album for Melody Maker, writer
Jon Savage described the album as an "opaque manifesto" and declared "[l]eaving the twentieth century is difficult; most people prefer to go back and nostalgise. Oh boy. Joy Division at least set a course in the present with contrails for the future—perhaps you can't ask for much more. Indeed, Unknown Pleasures may very well be one of the best, white, English, debut LPs of the year".
Joy Division performed on Granada TV again in July 1979, and made their only nationwide TV appearance in September on
Something Else. They supported the Buzzcocks in a 24-venue UK tour that began that October, which allowed the band to quit their regular jobs.
 The non-album single "
Transmission" was released in November. Joy Division's burgeoning success drew a devoted following who were stereotyped as "intense young men dressed in grey overcoats".
In January 1980, Joy Division set out on a European tour. While the tour schedule was difficult, Curtis experienced only two
grand mal seizures in the tour's final two months. With Martin Hannett again producing, the band recorded their second album,
Closer, that March at London's
Britannia Row Studios.
 March also saw the release of the "
Licht und Blindheit" single (featuring the songs "Atmosphere" (A side) and "Dead Souls" (B side)) on the small French label
A lack of sleep and long hours committed to the bands' activities destabilised Curtis's epilepsy, and resultingly, his seizures became almost uncontrollable. Curtis would often have seizures during shows, which left him feeling ashamed and depressed. As the band worried about their singer, some audience members thought his seizures and behaviour were simply part of the show. On 7 April, Curtis attempted suicide by overdosing on his anti-seizure medication;
 The following evening, Joy Division were scheduled to play a gig at the
Derby Hall in
 With Curtis recovering, and at Rob Gretton's insistence, it was decided that the band would play a combined set with Alan Hempsall of
Crispy Ambulance and Simon Topping of
A Certain Ratio filling in on vocals for the first few songs. Curtis came onstage to perform for part of the set. When Topping came back out to finish the set for Curtis, some in the audience began throwing bottles at the stage. Gretton leapt into the crowd and a riot ensued.
 Several April gigs were cancelled due to the continuing ill health of Curtis. The band played what would be their final show at the
University of Birmingham's High Hall on 2 May; the show included Joy Division's first and only performance of "
Ceremony", which would later be recorded by
New Order and released as their first single.
Radio Lancashire interview, 1979.
"Basically, we want to play and enjoy what we like playing. I think that when we stop doing that, I think, well, that will be time to pack it in. That will be the end."
Curtis' suicide and aftermath
Joy Division were due to begin their first American tour in May 1980. While Curtis had expressed a desire to take time off to visit a few acquaintances, he feigned excitement about the tour around the band because he did not want to disappoint either his bandmates or Factory Records. At the time, Curtis's relationship with his wife, Deborah (the couple had married in 1975 as teenagers), was strained. Contributing factors were his ill health, his excluding her from band activities, and his affair with a young Belgian woman named
Annik Honoré whom he had met on a 1979 European tour. The evening before Joy Division were to fly out for their first American tour, Curtis returned to his home in Macclesfield to talk to his by then estranged wife. He asked her to drop the divorce suit she had filed; later, he told her to leave him alone in the house until he caught a train to Manchester the following morning. Early on 18 May 1980, having spent the night watching the
Werner Herzog film
Stroszek, Curtis hanged himself in his kitchen. Deborah discovered his body later that day when she returned to their home. It came as a shock both to the band members and their management. In 2005, Wilson recollected: "I think all of us made the mistake of not thinking his suicide was going to happen [...] We all completely underestimated the danger. We didn't take it seriously. That's how stupid we were".
Simon Reynolds said Curtis's suicide "made for instant myth". Jon Savage's obituary said that "now no one will remember what his work with Joy Division was like when he was alive; it will be perceived as tragic rather than courageous."
 In June 1980, the posthumous single "
Love Will Tear Us Apart" was released, which hit number thirteen on the
UK Singles Chart. In July 1980, Closer was released; subsequently peaking at number six on the
UK Albums Chart.
 NME reviewer
Charles Shaar Murray wrote, "Closer is as magnificent a memorial (for 'Joy Division' as much as for Ian Curtis) as any post-
Presley popular musician could have."
Stephen Morris has said that even without Curtis's suicide, it was unlikely that Joy Division would have endured as they were.
 The members of Joy Division had made a pact long before Curtis's death that, should any member leave, the remaining members would change the name of the group.
 Eventually renaming themselves New Order, the band was reborn as a three-piece with Sumner assuming vocal duties; the group later recruited Morris's girlfriend
Gillian Gilbert to round out the line-up as keyboardist and second guitarist. Starting as a member of punk group The Inadequates, Gilbert had become friends with the band's members and had played guitar at a Joy Division performance when Curtis had been unable to play.
New Order's debut single, 1981's "Ceremony", was formed from the last two songs written with Curtis. While the group struggled in its early years to escape the shadow of Joy Division, New Order went on to achieve far greater commercial success than their predecessor band with a very different, more upbeat and dance-orientated sound.
A number of outtakes and live material have been released since the band's demise.
Still, featuring live tracks and rare recordings was issued in 1981. Factory issued the
Substance compilation in 1988, including several out-of-print singles.
Permanent was released in 1995 by
London Records, which had acquired the Joy Division catalogue after Factory's 1992 bankruptcy. A comprehensive box set,
Heart and Soul, appeared in 1997.