I bought Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures when it came out in 1979, from Horizon Records in Greenville, SC, back when they were above the Manor.
I want to try to talk about why I love Joy Division so much, and this LP is the entry point. There is much mystique around the band that obviously dealt with singer and lyricist Ian Curtis’ suicide before the release of their second LP Closer. Let’s face it, there is nothing bigger to create a mystique than a rock and roll suicide, and Curtis’ story is a whopper.
The fashionable pop-culture legend of Joy Division and the late trendy co-opting of the cover art to emblazon everything from strip mall tee shirts to socks and throws endangers the musical legacy of a genuinely important band. But that is not for this discussion.
I’d like to try and get away from the mystique and talk about the band and the music they made that I love so much. It was just a few days ago that I went to Horizon Records (still in Greenville, but now on the corner of Main and Stone ) and bought the 40th anniversary vinyl edition of Unknown Pleasures. This is a cool reissue, on red vinyl, with the ‘original’ Peter Saville pulsar rendering artwork in white, not in black. It’s on Warners UK now, Factory Records being long gone, but it’s a beautiful record.
This is another important part of Joy Division, the care they took with their artwork. The images on all the Factory Releases, done by Peter Saville, are real artwork.The packaging was always first rate and a little mysterious. A Joy Division record would always be a serious thing, beginning with the artwork.
Let’s talk about the sound of the band on Unknown Pleasures. It’s a cold, icy, post punk. Curtis’ dour vocals set to Stephen Morris’ incredibly tight, metronomic drumming, Bernard Sumner’s guitar from another planet, and the all-encompassing ‘lead bass’ of Peter Hook. The antecedents involve a lot of Iggy Pop, especially his Berlin/Bowie records Lust For Life and The Idiot (I know, The Idiot is what Ian had on his turntable the night he hung himself) but also earlier Stooges are an influence, and certainly a good bit of the Velvet Underground. The band they are often compared to is The Doors, but that is a lazy correlation, mostly made due to Ian’s low voice. There are few traditional keyboards and little of the sixties in Ian’s lyrics. The otherworldly production is by the amazing, departed Martin Hannett, who was such a perfectionist he made Morris record his drums individually, played alone, to get more control over the sound in the studio: first the kick, then the snare, then hi-hat, etc. Most producers want a great ‘room’ sound for the drums. Hannett removed the room sound. He is the one that made the sound that made Joy Division.
Side A of Unknown Pleasures opens with ‘Disorder,’ all bass and drums and space age guitar. Hannett provides synth swoops, sonar blips, and sonic what-not, while Hook and Morris tightly move it along. Curtis’ lyrics are reminiscent of William Burroughs - he is looking for a guide in this confused world. ’Day Of The Lords’ has a slowed down Stooges feel to it, augmented with a weird string synth sound. It’s a gripping tune and one of their best, with Ian repeating “where will it end?” until he ends up screaming at the end. ‘Candidate’ is a bit of a meandering tune, full of echoey effects and gives the impression of Ian being lot in the wilderness. It’s simple, with very little guitar, but will stick with you. The fade up of ‘Insight’ leads to one of those classic Hook bass riffs that carry the song. Curtis sings some ominous lyrics:
Guess your dreams always end / They don't rise up just descend / But I don't care anymore / I've lost the will to want more / I'm not afraid not at all / I watch them all as they fall / But I remember when we were young.
Side A ends with ‘New Dawn Fades,’ fed by a powerful, ascending guitar riff from Sumner. Ian’s vocal sounds a bit like Lou Reed on this one.The song slowly builds as Ian sings “"Me, seeing me this time, hoping for something else" and ends with a guitar solo. It’s a majestic tune.
Side B of Unknown Pleasures opens with a true masterpiece, ‘She’s Lost Control,’ with a very-high up the neck bass riff, weirdly treated-sounding-like Kraftwerk drums, and another guitar riff sounding as if beamed in from Venus. The lyrics are about a woman Curtis met who had (and died from) epileptic seizures.This has a very Berlin era David Bowie feel to it, and it’s not surprising it was covered by Grace Jones. ‘Shadowplay’ is another amazing track, more rocking and guitar oriented, with real guitar soloing, Curtis again revealing his Naked Lunch inspirations. Next up, ‘Wilderness’ - even with a propulsive bass line - this is one of the weaker tracks. It’s quickly forgotten by the Iggy-isms of ‘Interzone,’ (Burroughs again) a truly rocking cut, influenced by Northern Soul cut ‘Keep On Keeping On’ by N.F. Porter. It’s joyful Joy Division.The dark, gloomy ‘I Remember Nothing’ ends the LP, Ian is looking at himself again, and he doesn’t like what he sees.
This is an amazing disc that has withstood the test of time, mystique or not. The true conceit of Joy Division is that the music is intensely personal. It’s stellar post punk made by regular punks that had the right team (the manager, the producer, the label, the artwork) in place to further their vision. I loved this music before Ian passed, and I still love it. It means a lot to me. If you have not listened to Unknown Pleasures don’t let the misdirection of the current shallow faddish faux fandom prevent you from discovering the pleasures you will most certainly know, spin after spin.
Some interesting links: