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”.
Buzzcocks manager 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, Penetration and John Cooper Clarke. They received immediate national exposure due to reviews of the gig in the NME by 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 sexual slavery wing of a Nazi concentration camp mentioned in the 1955 novel House of Dolls. In December, the group recorded what became their debut EP, 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”.