Retrospective | 40 Years of Unknown Pleasures
“Reality is only a dream, based on values and well worn principles, whereas the dream goes on forever.” – Ian Curtis
In June 1979, Joy Division made a monumental declaration of post-punk beauty. It came in the form of their first LP, and the only one released in their lifetime, Unknown Pleasures. Powerfully poignant and wrapped in a shroud of darkness, the album was born of working class musicians and the fractured mind of a genius. In truth, Joy Division were not the right band at the right time. They were the band that created a time, a movement. This is why Unknown Pleasures has gone on to attract a cult following over the past 40 years.
At its heart is the sound of Gothic soul, delivered in the immediately recognisable voice of Ian Curtis. Curtis is backed by the thundering bass of Peter Hook, the drums of Stephen Morris and the guitar jangles of Bernard Sumner. Like most cult albums, Unknown Pleasures did not chart highly. However, critics and a small number of fans from the band’s hometown of Manchester latched onto it. From there it grew by word of mouth. Most artists release singles as a form of promotion, but this album had none. It was not until the following October that the band finally released one. They chose a non-album track, the dramatic and direct anthem – ‘Transmission’.
After signing to the infamous Manchester-based Factory Records, the pairing of madcap producer Martin Hannet and Joy Division became an exceptional piece in the sound-puzzle that was to be cultivated. Hannet, renowned for his off-the-wall approach to recording techniques, changed the sound of the band substantially from their live shows. This was at odds with the spirit of punk, in which the point of a studio recording was to capture that live, raw sound of unadulterated angst. This resulted in some dissatisfaction from the band, who argued that it was not their own sound. Nevertheless, the music stands on its own merit.
To the sound of colour which ran through popular music in the late seventies with ABBA, disco and synth pop, Unknown Pleasures is the negative.
Hannett may have changed the sound to try and capture the atmosphere, but it was the material that mattered. He was innovative in his approach, recording the sounds of glass breaking and the voice of Curtis through a phone line (‘Insight’). With this, Hannett sacrificed some of the overall dramatic assault of the band for a thick, atmospheric sound.
Throughout, the songwriting is reflective of life and the passionate misery it dictates. Songs like ‘She’s Lost Control’ come from Curtis’s own experiences. That track is, supposedly, inspired by a girl he witnessed having an epileptic seizure similar to one of his own. This girl would later die from a more extreme seizure. Taking the observer perspective allowed Curtis to express his own views of how a seizure makes him “lose control”.
Even the album’s artwork, like the music contained within, is instantly recognisable. Graphic artist Peter Saville designed the cover and continued working on future records for both Joy Division and New Order. The enigmatic symbol on the black cover is representative of the frequency from a pulsar signal, layered to give more depth.
Unknown Pleasures is an album of tragedy. Within a year of its release, on May 18th, 1980, just before Joy Division were about to embark on their first North American tour, Ian Curtis took his own life. The pressures of impending fame, along with deteriorating health due to his epilepsy, weighed heavy on Curtis. This, along with his fear of how American audiences might view his condition, became too much. A month after his death the group released their best known track, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Joy Division released their second album in July 1980, the aptly titled Closer. By October the remaining band members became New Order, though the spectre of Curtis persists in their music.