First album by Joy Division (Factory, June 1979)

Ian Curtis, vocals
Bernard Sumner, guitars
Peter Hook, bass
Stephen Morris, drums

  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
All tracks lyrics by Curtis, music uncredited. Produced by the late Martin Hannett.
Recorded at Strawberry Studios, Stockport

The album

So there was this small punk-ish band from Manchester called Warsaw. They morphed into Joy Division, cut the odd single and EP and played a few gigs. None of them were brilliant musicians but they had ideas. Story of many lifetimes. But this is a band and an album that hinges on one short, troubled lifetime and the extraordinary way in which it expressed itself. The abysmal genius of Ian Curtis manifests itself in every song and finds an outlet in the recording studio. Years before the Manchester scene became fashionable, Joy Division led the way with this unique work, paid for with the savings of Factory's boss Anthony Wilkins. "Seminal" is a gross understatement for Unknown Pleasures. Curtis's personality and the way it comes across was defining to the 1980s in the sense that Jim Morrison's was to the 1970s and Kurt Cobain's would leave an indelible mark on the 1990s.

As far as I'm concerned they couldn't play jack. They were marginally adequate musicians with the right ideas and they did what they were technically capable of--playing simple music their own way. So they end up with this stark combination of inverted disco beat and punk riffs that often sounds flat and nihilistic, and combine it with the words of a man grappling with disease and depression. The result is a mind-shattering insight into the net result of living in England in the 1970s... of living in the 1970s... of living. In the end it disassociates itself from its time and place and becomes an existential dirge of universal, timeless meaning. There is power, there's a statement of despair, there is still a shred of hope at the beginning of Curtis's descent into his personal version of hell the conclusion of which would be reflected in Closer the following year. Unknown Pleasures is a peerless album whose dark shadow hangs over a generation, and another, and another...

Unlike many of the dark and gothic albums that would follow and emulate it over the next 20 years, Unknown Pleasures is neither purely personal nor is it exclusively introspective. Curtis the songwriter was a communicator and expected his audience to discover a meaning of their own in his work. I don't think he searched his words for meaning or analysed them. He gave us a lyrical kaleidoscope and everyone who picks it up will see a different pattern. This is probably why its appeal has been constant across several musical generations and its influence can be heard in more than its own genre. No singles were cut from this album, though She's Lost Control was released as a 12" in the US a year later.

Some of the tracks, notably Candidate and I Remember Nothing, sound like they're played in a void, detached from everything. This is a liability more than an asset since the rawness of their live playing had basically been edited out. However, while they're missing their natural guitar-rock edge, Hannett's work is what gave this album the unique sound that made it a classic The gothic (by many accounts this was the first album to be thus labelled) "Joy Division sound" was at least as much his making as it was the band's and the band didn't necessarily agree with him on all counts.

In 1977 a bunch of punk-rockers from London postulated the nonexistence of a future. Two years later Joy Division supplied compelling evidence to support said postulate.

The sleeve

The original cover shows a graph in white on black. The inside is white with only a door that's about to open. While it's not a secret, the cover design has been the subject of guesses and speculation ever since the album was released. It's not an EEG, has nothing to do with brain functions and does not allude to the epilepsy with which Curtis had been diagnosed a few months earlier. It was designed by Peter Saville, though the image was discovered by Sumner. It comes from the field of radio astronomy and is entitled "100 consecutive pulses from the pulsar CP 1919." Neither the lyrics nor the band's names are printed on the sleeve.

"The lyrics have one meaning for me but don't necessarily have the same meaning for somebody else. If you only hear the lyrics it's more up to your own imagination". --I.C.

The tracks

I think the personal way in which each track speaks to each listener may make my impression and interpretation of individual songs irrelevant, inappropriate even. Normally I'd go over them one at a time but I'll skip it this time. Everyone has their own favourites, depending on where they find some personal truth. And some, well... I don't pretend to understand them in a way that I could express. Some I don't pretend to understand in depth at all. This part is highly subjective.

Musically, the album isn't particularly strong, though the innovations on it make that hardly an issue. I find Shadowplay very much to my liking, though I find the live performance on Still even better. Day of the Lords is also powerful and Interzone is an interesting piece and more classic punk-rock like. The studio recording allows the band's shortcomings to be somewhat masked, although I think Hook was the only one who had half a clue and Morris was beyond redemption, and lets the composition and the arrangement, Hannett's signature work, stand up and speak for itself.

"I've been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand.
Could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal man?"

These are the opening lines of the album. This is about YOU everytime you've wondered what makes you different and uninterested in what everyone else is doing. Conform or reject. This is about YOU feeling powerless to take your life into your hands and put square holes in a world full of round ones, where you're the square peg. This is about the sick YOU depending on drugs to get through every endless, painful day. Shake the kaleidoscope and find another YOU.

It carries on into the violent Day of the Lords where a lifetime is examined and sickness and death appear as powerful but neutral forces that do no one's bidding and heed no one's wishes or begging.

"I guess you were right when we talked in the heat, there's no room for the weak."

Throughout the album there's a theme of control that manifests itself most clearly in She's Lost Control and New Dawn Fades. Losing it, finding it, controlling and being controlled. Total control and the illusion of control. Taking control and having it wrested from you. What influences us and the impact we have on things and people. But throughout the album there's an ominous undercurrent of helplessness and that niggling voice saying you can't do a damned thing about it.

I suppose the track that speaks to me the loudest and clearest is Insight. I see my reflection as time passes and the times surrounding me follow their cycles, everything drawing toward its inevitable end. "I'm not afraid anymore." New Dawn Fades which follows it continues on the same theme of change but the narrator is an active participant. "Directionless, so plain to see, a loaded gun won't set you free." A truth which doesn't apply to all. A line which evokes different feelings in different people and challenges interpretation because it's so subjective in the way that's characteristic of this album.

Should I buy it?

No, you should already have it. If you've as much as dipped your toe into the murky waters of the gothic it's more than a mere must-have. If you think you're goth and can't name a song from Unknown Pleasures, let alone know the words, well, I say you're probably a poser and just have a pallor fetish. Kids, if you think you can do angst and faux depression, think again. This is the real manic-depressive thing. You're listening to a 21-year old who has an appointment with death at its most merciless but isn't sure of it yet.

Even if you don't particularly like the album, it's one of those albums that have defined generations and should be studied. Don't expect to understand it at the first try. I confess I'd owned it for three years before its meaning made an impact but then it was an epiphany. Buy it, copy it, steal it... just get it.

"Guess the dreams always end. They don't rise up, just descend..."

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