Classic Album: Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures

Remains a mysterious, unknowable object, passed from generation to generation
Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures
For an album based on mystique (right down to its title), ‘Unknown Pleasures’ seems perilously well known. Its once ambiguous and suggestive cover turned into iconic t-shirt fodder, and its echo-driven production the sound of every wannabe indie hipster, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ has been stripped of its reclusive aura and dragged into the mainstream.

Quite why that may be is a mystery. Formed out of the ashes of the initial punk explosion, Joy Division is a wonderful example that great art comes from sticking to your guns, from celebrating your own individuality. At a time when every band - as a rule - sounded different, Joy Division sounded more different than most.
Yet it didn t begin that way. A thrashy garage group in thrall to The Buzzcocks, the progress of Joy Division from cocky punk upstarts to otherworldly icons remains the stuff of high drama. With early EP ‘An Ideal For Living’ behind them, the band began writing and demoing the material that would become ‘Unknown Pleasures’. Fuelled by the sense of dread and decay that seemingly seeped through the walls in late ’70s Manchester, when the group cocooned themselves away from the mainstream they emerged in a short space of time as a curiously strange musical butterfly.

The band’s live show immediately benefited as a result of the intense rehearsals. Becoming almost overnight an incredibly intense young group, Joy Division radiated a mixture of existential dread and rock ‘n’ roll glamour. After infamously berating television presenter Tony Wilson, the band would perform on his show So It Goes, immediately marking themselves out as utterly unique talents. Of course, Wilson was also in the process of putting together the Factory label, with a wickedly maverick producer waiting in the wings.

Martin Hannett’s impact on the music of Joy Division is akin to the hammer that turns a humble vase into a beautiful mosaic. Breaking the group’s sound down into pieces, he was able to help the band realise their already startling potential. Peter Hook’s thick, chugging bass line on opening track ‘Disorder’ is buoyed by the crisp drumming of Stephen Morris and then, swooping from speaker to speaker, the sudden rush of a synthesizer. Where punk ripped the entrails from rock, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ is a surgical operation to remove the cancer of excess. What is left is an extremely strong, versatile structure - with everything in its right place.

Perhaps the peak of the relationship between bright young musicians and the curiously odd producer is the seminal ‘She’s Lost Control’. Stripping away any kind of reverb on the recording, Hannett produces an unsettling atmosphere, remarkable not through what is present but what is missing. Clear, stark and darker than the night sky, ‘She’s Lost Control’ is one of the group’s finest recordings. Disembodied, Ian Curtis’ voice sits uncomfortably in the middle, intoning the lyrics that would come to define his battle with epilepsy.
“I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand” remains a startling opening line for any album. When Curtis wrote it he was emerging from an adolescent worship of decadent rock poets such as Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and David Bowie, yet the line contains none of their bravado. The lead singer of a hot new group admits he doesn’t know all the answers - how much more shocking can you get? Remember, this comes at a time when bands weren’t so much musicians as political movements. Hindsight has robbed Curtis of much of his poetic genius. Whereas now his lyrics are analysed in reference to his suicide, they should really be read in deference to a young man in love with rock ‘n’ roll and suffering from an illness.

One of the group’s finest songs, ‘New Dawn Fades’, is perhaps the summation of the atmosphere of dread that exists on ‘Unknown Pleasures’. Defying description, the album seems to scream against an unknown terror. Half in love with darkness, Joy Division seem terrified of being consumed by it. Driven by a thick bassline from Peter Hook, the mathematical beats of Stephen Morris and the restrained guitar playing of Bernard Sumner, the track takes the dark tones of The Velvet Underground and melts them into thick black tar. When Curtis intones “a loaded gun won’t set you free” he may have had one eye on his own fate, but he was also looking at a country fast falling apart. Terrorist attacks at home and abroad, a government brought to its knee by militants, and Curtis in the middle “hoping for something more”. With only one chord sequence, played over and over, ‘New Dawn Fades’ uses the sheer drudgery and despair of life in late ’70s Britain as a vehicle for personal expression. For something more.

In a climate of cultural pot pourri, when a band’s entire back catalogue can be downloaded in the space of an hour, the work of Joy Division endures. From the cover to the music to the production, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ remains a mysterious, unknowable object, passed from generation to generation. And rightly so.

WORDS BY ROBIN MURRAY

Released: June 15th 1979
Producer: Martin Hannett

TRACKLIST

1. Disorder
2. Day Of The Lords
3. Candidate
4. Insight
5. New Dawn Fades
6. She’s Lost Control
7. Shadowplay
8. Wilderness
9. Interzone
10. I Remember Nothing

MUSICIANS
Ian Curtis: vocals
Peter Hook: bass
Stephen Morris: drums
Bernard Sumner: guitar

1979: IN THE NEWS
• The UK’s first nudist beach opens in Brighton.
• Pete Doherty is born.
• Sid Vicious dies of an overdose.
• Mother Teresa wins the Nobel Peace Prize.

1979: THE ALBUMS
The Buzzcocks ‘A Different Kind Of Tension’
Blondie ‘Eat To The Beat’
Gang Of Four ‘Entertainment!’
AC/DC ‘Highway To Hell’

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