The Beginning of a New Dawn
ALBUM COVER: Peter Saville
Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures at Forty
THERE are a few albums…
IN THIS PHOTO: Joy Division/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
that are celebrating big anniversaries this year but, when it comes to impactful albums, there are few that hit as hard as Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. The album was released on 15th June, 1979 and it was recorded/mixed over three successive weekends at Stockport’s Strawberry Studios in April 1979. Produced by Martin Hannett, it was a record that made a big impression upon release and is considered one of the most influential albums ever released. Guided by Hannett’s production techniques and with that iconic cover from Peter Saville, it is amazing to see how many people are discovering Unknown Pleasures to this day. The album is the only one released during Ian Curtis’ lifetime and many fans considering Unknown Pleasures to be the greatest achievement from the band. Joy Division formed back in 1976 and they came together during Punk’s first wave. Inspired by the speed, simplicity and effectiveness of bands such as the Sex Pistols at that time, it planted the seeds for Joy Division. Terry Mason on drums, Bernard Summer on guitar and Peter Hook on bass – Ian Curtis was the last addition to the ranks. The band made some changes and, when Stephen Morris joined by August 1977, the set was complete. Many have tried to encapsulate the sound of Unknown Pleasures and what it represents.
At a time when Punk was coming through and grabbing people – it would not last too long – this great alternative was around. True, Joy Division encapsulated some of Punk’s spirit but one cannot directly link the likes of Sex Pistols with Joy Division. Instead, the northern band’s music was more sophisticated; maybe a bit gloomier but it seemed more real and nuanced. Hannett’s production emphasised space and opened up new possibilities. Bands had not worked in this way before and the revelations that came out on Unknown Pleasures rocked the world. Some members of Joy Division wanted something more intense and guitar-based but, when you listen to Unknown Pleasures and the emotions that it evokes, the production is perfect. Unknown Pleasures initially started with a run of 10,000 copies and half of the copies were sold within the first two weeks of release. Things started slow and, boosted by the non-album single, Transmission, Unknown Pleasures caught on and ignited a new flame. There is guilt and claustrophobia in the album; a sense of looking at the future with feet very much in the present; a huge debut and emphatic statement that resonates and echoes to this very day. Whether you gravitate towards the classic interplay and connection within the band or Ian Curtis’ grave-yet-incredible vocals, Unknown Pleasures was unlike anything else in 1979 – it still sounds amazing and otherworldly forty years down the line.
Reviews in 1979 were positive and praise-filled and, when it comes to retrospective acclaim, there is plenty to choose from. AllMusic, in this review, beautifully articulated the qualities and threads of Unknown Pleasures:
“Songs fade in behind furtive noises of motion and activity, glass breaks with the force and clarity of doom, and minimal keyboard lines add to an air of looming disaster -- something, somehow, seems to wait or lurk beyond the edge of hearing. But even though this is Hannett's album as much as anyone's, the songs and performances are the true key. Bernard Sumner redefined heavy metal sludge as chilling feedback fear and explosive energy, Peter Hook's instantly recognizable bass work was at once warm and forbidding, and Stephen Morris' drumming smacked through the speakers above all else. Ian Curtis synthesizes and purifies every last impulse, his voice shot through with the desire first and foremost to connect, only connect -- as "Candidate" plaintively states, "I tried to get to you/You treat me like this." Pick any song: the nervous death dance of "She's Lost Control"; the harrowing call for release "New Dawn Fades," all four members in perfect sync; the romance in hell of "Shadowplay"; "Insight" and its nervous drive toward some sort of apocalypse. All visceral, all emotional, all theatrical, all perfect -- one of the best albums ever”.
Pitchfork, in an effusive piece, talked about the relevance and beauty of Unknown Pleasures:
“And then there's the music, a conflation of tribal primitivism and sophisticated art-rock that set the template for those twin poles of post-punk. A lot of credit goes to eccentric producer Martin Hannett, and it's the production-- not Curtis's well-parsed words or the band's suddenly ubiquitous biopic cachet-- that benefits most extensively from cleaned-up deluxe reissues of the band's two utterly essential albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Simply put, the group's debut full-length Unknown Pleasures, released in 1979, sounds like little that came before it. At its most familiar, it vaguely approximates the cold claustrophobia of Iggy's The Idiot or David Bowie's Low, but from the first notes of "Disorder" on, the music is almost as alien as its iconic cover art.
It's one of the most perfect pairings of artist and producer in rock history, but that shouldn't undersell the band's input. Joy Division, like many of their Manchester peers, were inspired by the DIY anti-ethos of the Sex Pistols; they just didn't know what to do with it at first. So, shaped and prodded by notorious provocateur Hannett (who would turn the heat in the studio down low enough for everyone to see their breath), the group embraced space, ambience, and an imposing austerity. It's noteworthy how many songs on Unknown Pleasures fade in like something emerging from the shadows. It's also worth noting how heavy songs such as "Day of the Lords", "New Dawn Fades", "Shadowplay", and "Interzone" are, while sinewy anthem "Disorder" and the discordant anti-funk of "She's Lost Control" are glorious anomalies in both their precision and concision”.
I do love all of Joy Division’s work but there is nothing that rivals Unknown Pleasures. It was almost as if the band knew they had created a masterpiece and were onto something special. Maybe it was because Punk was raging (in 1979) or there was this transition period. All genius and iconic albums fulfill a need or kick-start something that needed to exist. Some say Unknown Pleasures is the sound of an industrial estate and machinery; others feel it is the emotional bleeding of Ian Curtis whereas others struggle to put their feelings into words.
There are a lot of tributes and features running today that try to drill to the core of Unknown Pleasures. The Independent compliment the playing throughout the album and the way Hannett added fresh dynamics, possibilities and techniques:
“Drummer Stephen Morris’s percussive instinct gives it the feel of a muscled beast poised to spring, and the battle for its melodic soul has been won, right from the start of the opening track, “Disorder”, by Hook’s bass, with notes played high up on the neck of the instrument. Sumner’s guitar comes in like an alarm, ringing with anxiety. There are no places to settle, no comfort zones, anywhere on Unknown Pleasures.
Aside from the electronic effects on “She’s Lost Control”, Hannett used techniques that created a sense of the music existing in a real, if empty, echoing space; the closing doors and smashing glass on “I Remember Nothing” create an atmosphere of creeping unease and violence. That same sense of fear pervades “Insight”, on which Curtis’s vocal was famously recorded down a telephone line. “I’m not afraid any more,” he sings… “I keep my eyes on the door”, he adds, suggesting otherwise.
Unknown Pleasures in some ways is still a bridge between the band they were – “New Dawn Fades” is surely the apogee of Joy Division as a rock band – and the more ambitious sound of Closer, but it remains utterly unlike anything else before or since”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Joy Division in 1979/PHOTO CREDIT: Pierre Rene-Worms
NME spoke with members of Joy Division to celebrate forty years of Unknown Pleasures. Peter Hook was asked about Ian Curtis’ lyrics and whether, indeed, the late frontman ever revealed his inspirations:
“Did Ian ever talk about what his lyrics were about?
Hook: “No. In fact, the ‘Unknown Pleasures’ session was the first time I’d actually heard Ian’s lyrics. You could never hear them live and we just couldn’t listen to the demo version we did for RCA because it was so horrible. So when I heard what Ian was singing, I was just really proud. It was a wonderful feeling of power and contentment to know that you had that in the band’s arsenal. I think people were very touched by Ian — his lyrics, his personality, and unfortunately his untimely demise. It struck a chord with a lot of lonely, depressed people who felt they didn’t quite fit in life. That connection started with ‘Unknown Pleasures’. It was me that used to handle the fan mail. And as time went by there’d be some horrific letters that got sent to us. After he died, we even got some that were written in blood.”
Did you expect the reaction to ‘Unknown Pleasures’ to be so positive?
Morris: “A lot of times when we did an interview, the journalist would say things like, ‘Oh well, there obviously is a deep symbiosis between the music you produce and the bleakness of your environment,’ and we’d look at each other and think, ‘What did he say? Symbiosis? What’s he on about?’ I think a lot of people had got into their heads that this album had come from the heart of darkness. We did try and contradict that idea but it didn’t do too much good, really. We’d rush out and buy NME because it was great that people were writing about us, but quite often we could only understand every 10th word! Sometimes, Rob would say to us, ‘We’ve got an interview, right, so here’s my idea: just let Ian do the talking.’ It was so people wouldn’t realise we were basically a bunch of idiots”.
I wonder how long the majesty and magic of Unknown Pleasures will last and how much of an impact it will make on future generations. It is clear that there are bands out there who take guidance from Joy Division; there are other albums that take their lead from Unknown Pleasures and have the same combination of sounds. In many ways, nobody has been able to match the immediacy, sense of surprise and brilliance of Unknown Pleasures. If you are new to the album then make sure you discover it now; if you are already aware and in love with it them use today as a good excuse to get the album back out and revel in all its triumphs. It is a marvellous album and one that has no equals or direct comparisons. There is not a lot else to say about it but, if you are curious still, look online because there are a lot of articles around and pieces that mark Unknown Pleasures’ fortieth. It has aged well and, as I said, it sounds as fresh now as it did back in 1979. Everyone will have their favourite tracks from the album but (Unknown Pleasures) is about the whole; the experience that is unveiled and how it makes you feel. I reckon Unknown Pleasure influence a whole new wave of artists and we will be talking about it in another forty years. There are not many albums that can boast that kind of acclaim and importance but, as I mentioned, I think Joy Division knew they had something special under their belts. Unknown Pleasures’ title suggests something mysterious and isolated but, forty years from its release, it remains adored and…
A big part of music’s history.