1) Joy Division is my favorite band of all time.
2) The album I am about to review, Unknown Pleasures, is my favorite record.
There’s a feeling of excitement and apprehension when tackling Joy Division’s timeless 1979 LP Unknown Pleasures. This record was the first of two full-length studio recordings and the birth of Joy Division’s working relationship with enigma/studio genius Martin Hannett. This partnership was crucial to the evolution of the band, and if you have ever heard any live recordings of Joy Division’s music, then it is obvious that it was something entirely different than that which was captured in the studio. Guitarist Bernard Sumner has been quoted as being dissatisfied with the diminutive effect Hannett’s production style had on his playing. Call it trickery or genius; Hannett’s sonic experimentation brings the tracks on Unknown Pleasures to life, or maybe death.
Hannett’s employment of cutting edge studio technology created a sound that was not only ahead of its time, but more than 25 years later, still sounds relevant today. His use of digital delay, coupled with such other effects as panning certain sounds from the left to the right channel, gives Unknown Pleasures a haunted and otherworldly quality that at times makes the songs seem like they comes from another place and age. While the quality of production was more than above average, it could not stand alone. The four musicians that made up Joy Division’s sound each brought unique styles of playing to the band and this record in particular. Their sound, in this writer’s opinion, would come to define, and ultimately surpass, post-punk, and would set them far apart from the other bands that would come out of Manchester.
Stephen Morris’ drumming had a taut and somewhat robotic rhythm that helped to cement the sound of the album. His rhythm was exact, but could sound staccato at times, giving his mechanized banging a surprisingly earthly and tribal feel. Morris’ drumming is reminiscent of a spaceship landing on terra firma in order to deliver the secrets of our ancient civilizations. Peter Hook, or “Hooky” as fans affectionately refer to him, would augment Morris’ work with a signature style of bass playing in which he stays low on the fret board, fiercely and frantically picking out high notes at fast speeds. The way Hooky plays makes his bass at times sound like a guitar, and with Morris, this rhythm section would give Joy Division a sometimes ominous and other times danceable feel. The third part of Joy Division’s unique instrumentation is the often overlooked guitar playing of Bernard Sumner. Sumner’s angular phrasing sounds like a Banshee in a cage, captured but ever longing to explode into the rest of the music. Barney would get a more minimal role in the studio, but his playing on the record would be useful not only in setting Joy Division apart from other punk bands whose guitar playing was at best of times sub-Ramones, but it would help augment Morris’ and Hooky’s playing, further making Joy Division’s dynamic unique.
And then there was Ian.
Trying to describe Ian Curtis’ words as something like a catharsis for a haunted lifestyle is selling the imagery he employed short. I will not attempt to hypothesize what effect, if any, the songs Ian wrote had on his decision to take his life. The thing to remember is that these words must have come from somewhere; they were just too strong and too ominous to have been simply conjured from the human mind without any outside stimulation. Ian Curtis would write songs containing bleak visions of the future and of the past, as if he was a conduit for atrocities that have taken place in other spaces and times.
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 sensations barely interest me for another day
I’ve got the spirit lose the feeling, take the shelf away
The lyrics above are from the first track on the album, “Disorder.” Curtis’ words sear into the listener, making one feel as separate and alien as the songs’ imaginary protagonist feels. The song is classic Joy Division, simple, effective and memorable. “New Dawn Fades” is probably the best song on the album as Curtis’ lyrics depict a person who has come to the realization that he needs to end a situation no mater what the cost.
The fact of the matter is that I could write about Unknown Pleasures all day long. I could probably write three or four books on the subject. But alas, we don’t have that kind of time. There are many remarkable things about this album — the band’s unique stylistic fusion; Ian’s desperate baritone warble that at times sounds like Frank Sinatra on acid; Martin Hannett’s production genius, employingan infinite number of small recording techniques that gave Joy Division a depth that is darker than that of even the most dead of all Death Metal bands. Hannett took a band singular among the pack of reactionary, or “post-punk” bands that were influenced by the Sex Pistols, and made them transcend the trends. To this day I notice some new piece of studio trickery that I never noticed before each time I listen to Unknown Pleasures.
The essential thing to remember about this album, and this band, is that they were different. No one sounded like them before, and yet they still sound contemporary today, especially in light of new wave revival bands like Interpol and the Killers. However, when pondering the importance of Joy Division and Unknown Pleasures, consider this: the sheer originality and influence they had means that labeling their music with a genre term like punk, or post-punk, is really just selling their legacy short.