This month marks the 40th anniversary of Joy Division’s ground-breaking debut studio album Unknown Pleasures. My own personal exposure to Joy Division came much later than 1979, initially through New Order’s Substance 1987 compilation, just before I was about to hit my teens. Mesmerized by the likes of Blue Monday, Bizarre Love Triangle and True Faith from this double-album, I started to dig a little deeper. This led me into Joy Division’s Substance 1977-80 compilation, which was originally released just 12 months after the New Order album release in 1988.
Upon listening, there was no doubt that the sound of Joy Division had some similarities to New Order with the same core rhythm section (Peter Hook, bass; Stephen Morris, drums), however Ian Curtis’s vocals & lyrics brought a much heavier and serious tone than the vocals of Bernard (Barney) Sumner. New Order’s songs uplift and energises. Joy Division and the unique voice of Ian Curtis can just simply stop you in your tracks.
Unknown Pleasures was recorded at Strawberry Studios in Stockport (a short drive south-east of Manchester) during seven days in April 1979. Martin Hannett produced the album, using a range of unconventional techniques (mainly involving drummer Stephen Morris, who was only 17 years old when he played on the album) that still raise an eyebrow to this day. It was released just eight weeks later on 15th June on Factory Records with an initial print-run of 10,000 copies. The mood of the country was edgy, disillusioned and tense. Times were turbulent in this post-punk era. Margaret Thatcher had become Prime Minister of the UK, only a month previous to Unknown Pleasures arrival.
Just to put into context where Joy Division was as a band in terms of audience reach outside their home in north-west England; only six months before Unknown Pleasures was released, they played their first gig in London at the Hope & Anchor pub in Islington in front of barely 30 people on 27th December 1978. The gig sadly also coincided with Ian Curtis's first epileptic fit and he was officially diagnosed with the condition a few weeks later.
Before getting into the core of the album, it is impossible to discuss the music of Unknown Pleasures without some reference to the sleeve artwork by Peter Saville of Factory Records. In fact, what he created is inseparable from the music inside it - they are as one. The iconic image was discovered by the band in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy. It was officially known in star-gazing circles as ‘CP1919’ - the first image of a radio wave emitted by a neutron star. A fitting snapshot of the unknown depths of space, setting the scene for a piece of music that would take the listener to the very undiscovered recesses of themselves.
Speaking recently on BBC Radio 6 with Mary-Anne Hobbs, Saville described the image and sleeve as having "minimal ambiguity with a scientific charisma". The band originally wanted the artwork with a black image on a white background but he thought it was "too marginal...not sophisticated enough" and candidly admitted he just thought it would make more of a statement in black. Although, for the 40th anniversary, a special white sleeve has been designed with red vinyl, finally giving the band the look that they originally desired.
Disorder is an up-tempo opening number. Morris’s drum beat, a killer bass line then Sumner’s shrill guitar lead. Disorder begins to prepare the ground for what is to come on the album. Curtis’s lyric "..new sensations barely interest me for another day" have an air of resignation about it with a first potential reference to his epilepsy. Curtis only really starting to show emotion in his voice in the final few lines of the song ending with "....feeling, feeling, feeling" and the crash of Morris’s cymbals.
A marching beat, piercing guitar intro and an immediate shift into a slower pace & more serious tone on Day of the Lords. His repeating lyrics of "where will it end, where will it end?", mixed in with Sumner’s guitar and keyboards are far-reaching. There is a reference to some disturbing scenes involving blood, a car crash, death, but without being overly explicit, letting our imagination create the visual. The disturbing screams of Curtis towards the end of the track leaves the listener in no doubt as to the gravity of this album’s intentions.
Candidate is one of the more stripped-down tracks on the album, and dare I say it, potentially one of the weaker and less hard-hitting songs on Unknown Pleasures. Morris’s drumbeat is monotonous and unrelenting, and in some circles, it has been quoted that it could be reflecting the difficulties that Curtis was already facing in his young marriage.
Martin Hannett’s production is all over the next track, Insight; from the mechanical & industrial sounds of the lift mechanism in the recording studio to the frenetic laser blast effects in the middle of the song. Curtis expresses an air of regret and fearlessness in this song with the lyrics, "I'm not afraid, not at all...I remember when we were young…I'm not afraid anymore". Curtis’s voice cracks continually as the track develops with Sumner's final few notes on the guitar bringing the song to a close.
New Dawn Fades is a standout for me, even amongst such a fine piece of collective work. Its sense of foreboding, dread and hopelessness that Curtis clearly felt at the time is dripping from this track, unnerving and unapologetic in its darkness. An opening drum & bass followed by Sumner's guitar solo is an anthemic introduction before even a note is sung by Curtis. This song delivers the brutal and cynical lyric, "A lonely gun won't set you free, so they say....". Sumner's guitar solo in the middle of the track is heartbreaking, gathering momentum like thunder clouds thickening as the sky blackens. Morris produces the final beats of the song leaving you completely shell-shocked in its brilliance.
She's Lost Control opens the second half of Unknown Pleasures, and what a joy it is to experience. The snap of Morris’s drum beat provides the backbone to this brilliant tune. Written by Curtis supposedly about a female work colleague with epilepsy, the song highlights his caring, compassionate personality that struggled to see others around him suffer. The lyric actually switches to "I've lost control.." at one point, again potentially Curtis pointing towards his own struggles. Hook's humming bass line could almost be mistaken for a lead guitar with Sumner's slashing, yet subtle sliding guitar providing the accompaniment.
Shadowplay conjures up driving through the city at night. You can almost see the lights on the slick, puddle-filled Mancunian roads. It is fast-paced and more of a traditional rock song feel. Sumner is at his best here with a beautiful guitar solo at the end of the first verse. The song also contains some of Curtis’s best and most yearning lyrics, "..To the depths of the ocean where all hopes sank searching for you...", culminating in a seemingly violent end to the track. Along with New Dawn Fades, Shadowplay is, in my opinion, one of the strongest tracks on the album. It was also covered brilliantly by The Killers for the closing titles in Anton Corbijn's fantastic 2007 Ian Curtis biopic, Control.
Menacing, jarring and disjointed, Wilderness takes the listener into suffering through other's suffering ("Blood on their skin....tears in their eyes"). This leads into Interzone, one of the fastest tracks on the album, more out and out punk than post-punk.
The closing track on Unknown Pleasures, I Remember Nothing is also the longest track in terms of duration. It is characterised by a slow beat, distant guitar and echoes of broken glass. The lyrics "We were strangers...." obviously refers to a strained relationship in trouble, potentially describing Curtis’s own fragile scenario. The clanging and crashing of metal & seemingly industrial wastelands brings an unforgettable experience to an end.
So, what exactly is so appealing about Unknown Pleasures? I find that a difficult question to provide a definitive answer for. There is no doubt that the album’s collective brilliance as a total piece is an attraction. However, the music contained on the album often raises more questions than answers, dark questions that look into our very soul, questions some of us prefer to avoid. I feel that Unknown Pleasures challenges us & provides a bridge to that personal, inner mystery and yearning; often painful, sometimes ecstatic, yet always something intangible, expressionless and undefinable; the Unknown within.
As we all know, at the age of 23, in May 1980, Ian Curtis, tragically took his own life, less than one year after the release of Unknown Pleasures. Would the album still hold the same kudos if Ian Curtis was still alive today? I’m sure I’m not the first person to ask that question. Personally, I think it would. Its influence has been far-reaching, with so many refreshing and terrific bands that have been inspired by Unknown Pleasures and carry the DNA of this album into their own material. It’s just mind-blowing, albeit terribly sad, thinking about how much more inspiring work that Ian Curtis could have written and performed as an artist.
And what would he make of all this continuing adoration for his work? I think this line from Persian poet Hafiz (which I coincidentally read only a few days before writing this review), possibly describes what Ian Curtis (& any genuinely creative person) wants to ‘achieve’ with their work:
“...the artist also becomes aware of inner spheres and mingles within them, and then puts those experiences into what they most care about for the world to see and touch if the world wants…”
New Order plays live at The Trinity Series in Dublin on 7th July.