Treble 100: No. 74, Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures

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Joy Division Unknown Pleasures

Unknown Pleasures is everywhere, or at least the mysterious image on its front cover is. It’s on t-shirts and hoodies, beach towels and bedcovers. It’s been fashioned into memeable hybrids like doner kebab and Frasier‘s Seattle cityscape logo. At the peak of its absurdist commercial crossovers, it appeared in the shape of Mickey Mouse. The immediately recognizable, black-and-white Peter Saville-designed cover art for Joy Division‘s debut album—a visual depiction of the radio emissions of a pulsar—has become a ubiquitous cultural icon in the 40-plus years since its release, for better or for worse. There are generations who have grown up seeing its dazzling waves emblazoned on fabric, often without any proper frame of reference. For a while it was surreal, then it just became routine, but in a roundabout sort of way, its ubiquity—divorced from context—feels strangely fitting.

When Joy Division released Unknown Pleasures, Saville’s white-on-black grid of peaks—printed with neither the band’s name or album’s title on the LP sleeve—was emblematic more of the Manchester post-punk group’s mystique than their commercial potential. Flourishing in the shadow of punk rock and remaining quite comfortable within its darkness, Joy Division retained the energy of firecracker Mancunians and onetime tourmates the Buzzcocks while embracing more of an austere, brutalist aesthetic sensibility and emotional bleakness. All of which translated brilliantly into songs that pulsed and droned into the void through motorik rhythmic motifs and Bergman disco. The band became a sensation in what in hindsight feels like an unbelievably accelerated rate in a long-pre-internet age, and they did so through unflinching moments of artful pretense—like, for instance, releasing a black album cover without their name or that of the album on it, five years before Spinal Tap did. At the time it served as a reflection of the group’s own abstract expressionism. As it becomes a faceless and even soundtrack-less staple of sites like RedBubble, it’s now a strange sort of digital wallpaper that even Saville said is “gratuitous and tedious and insincere.”

If Unknown Pleasures has lost any of its mystique, it’s through no fault of the band, the sleek and morose music they made, or the legend they leave in the wake of their brief, tragic saga. Joy Division’s origin story is nearly as familiar as their facsimiled album art—repeated often over the years, and for good reason: it’s simply a good rock ‘n’ roll story. Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner had gone to see the Sex Pistols perform at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June of 1976. In love with the sound of the band’s hypercharged but simple approach to rock music, they vowed to start their own band on the spot. They cycled through three drummers before eventually finding Stephen Morris and hired Ian Curtis as their vocalist without so much as an audition. The fledgling group initially called themselves Warsaw as a nod to “Warszawa,” an instrumental from David Bowie’s Low, and made their live debut in Manchester in May of 1977. They later changed their name to Joy Division after reading the phrase in House of Dolls, a novella by Israeli writer and Auschwitz survivor Yehiel De-Nur, a euphemism for the practice of sexual slavery in concentration camps.

From their debut EP An Ideal For Living, Joy Division still very much sounded like a punk band, songs such as “Warsaw” and “Failures” carrying a jittery menace like The Damned on a particularly ill-tempered night. In just a matter of months, the band had graduated past the simple, power-chord nihilism of punk up to a sound that allowed more room for both dissonance and open space, while tightening up their performances through a year’s worth of live shows. And Curtis, once owner of a bratty nasal sneer, lowered his vocal approach to a distinctive croon that had the strange effect of romanticizing despairing lyrical threads inspired by the likes of J.G. Ballard and Jean-Paul Sartre. Likewise, he’d grown into a charismatic and captivating frontman, a haunted yet animated ringleader with an unexpected sense of humor; “You should hear our version of ‘Louie Louie’,” he jokes after their take on The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” on the compilation Still.

In June 1979, with the Factory Records release of Unknown Pleasures—only two years after their first show as Warsaw—Joy Division were fully formed, a formidable live unit with an aesthetic that was a little bit punk and a lot something else entirely. Recorded with producer Martin Hannett, with whom the group would work again on their second and final album Closer, the band employed the tools of the studio to sometimes oddball effect. Backwards loops, smashing bottles, a toilet, someone munching on potato chips—all of these are present on the album, though you’re unlikely to place them. Instead what stands out is the weird, space-age clang of the snare on “She’s Lost Control,” the creeping doom of “I Remember Nothing” and Peter Hook’s first of many great career basslines in “Disorder.”

Sumner has said that their music was inspired as much by the spaghetti western scores of Ennio Morricone as punk itself, and Unknown Pleasures mostly employs the language of punk in order to communicate something beyond the genre’s impulsive, primitivist limitations. Opener “Disorder” breaks through the ever-present gloom with anthemic drive, an exploration of becoming numb to your own feelings in the interest of trying to escape the depths of depression. It feels both inspirational and desperate, Curtis nearly screaming in its climactic final moments, “I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling!” There’s a slow lurch to the gothic “Day of the Lords,” a chase scene with alienation and isolation through harsher riffs on “Shadowplay,” and a disorienting mist surrounding the cynical narrative of “Candidate.”

It’s in the final two songs of the album where we see the full spectrum of Joy Division’s sound. Its penultimate song, “Interzone,” finds Hook taking over vocal duties in a raucous punk ripper featuring lyrics inspired by William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. By contrast, closer “I Remember Nothing” is a bleak droning dirge that lingers on a single note throughout its six minutes. But it takes a more personal, wounded tone, depicting domesticity in shambles (“Violent, more violent, his hand cracks the chair/Moves on reaction, then slumps in despair“). Though Curtis never spoke about what actually inspired the song, the fissures that spread in his own marriage shortly before his own death draw eerie parallels to its permeating despair.

Though neither Hook nor Sumner were entirely satisfied with Hannett’s production on Unknown Pleasures, it is ultimately responsible for the sound we now recognize as Joy Division’s. It sold out of its initial pressing of 10,000 copies swiftly and earned nearly universal acclaim, influencing bands like U2 during their early post-punk era and, later on, an entirely new generation of bands like Interpol, who resurrected the band’s streamlined doom with a 21st century sheen. It’s rare to hear an underground band anymore that doesn’t have even a little Joy Division in their musical DNA; though their influence has been steady and gradual, its sphere of influence far eclipses the horizon they could have seen during their own brief time together. It’s really no wonder that artwork is plastered all over everything.

Yet it’s the sad fate of the band’s singular vocalist that casts an even darker shade on their already pitch-black songwriting. The band’s tragic end is sensationalized even more than their in-love-with-punk-rock origin story, the band’s abrupt dissolution arriving just over a year after the release of Unknown Pleasures, and only four years after their formation. Curtis, in worsening health as he had been suffering more severe epileptic seizures while on tour and on the verge of a crumbling marriage, died by suicide in July of 1980. The surviving members opted not to continue as Joy Division, instead reforming as New Order with Morris’ girlfriend Gillian Gilbert. Their first single, “Ceremony,” was in fact a Joy Division live staple, though it was never recorded during Curtis’ lifetime. And though they’d come to embrace the dancefloor rhythms of Factory Records’ Hacienda, their debut album Movement is still haunted by the ghost of Curtis, its mournful atmosphere still emanating from a place of grief.

“I was still very shocked, saddened, depressed and because we’d put so much effort into making Joy Division our futures, I was really angry at Ian that he’d bailed out. But at the same time I felt very deeply sorry that he felt the need to take his own life,” Sumner told The Guardian in 2014. “We didn’t play any Joy Division songs for 10 years after the start of New Order, which was a very honourable thing to do even if it meant shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Unknown Pleasures isn’t the first post-punk album, though there still wasn’t a lot of it by then—Wire’s Chairs Missing, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ The Scream, and Magazine’s Real Life all arrived in the months prior to its release. Unknown Pleasures descends from a similar aesthetic stream as those records, but it’s even darker and more steeped in mood and atmosphere than simply being a bright flash of incendiary light. And though the band didn’t harbor the exaggerated theatricality of bands such as Bauhaus and The Virgin Prunes, they created something of a foundational ur-text for gothic rock, steeped in ominous tones and a fascination with eerie grotesqueries. Try as you might to find a photo of the band in color, you’re likely to come up empty, varying shades of gray being the only appropriate palette through which to capture their presence.

I always took for granted that Joy Division were goth, or at least more goth than punk, though one night singing karaoke provided me with a counterpoint. A few years ago in San Diego, a regular local karaoke night held a punk vs. goth battle in which volunteer belters would choose from either goth songs or punk songs, and the one with the largest tally would end up the winner. I was team goth (this isn’t even a question), crooning my way through selections by Nick Cave and Sisters of Mercy. (My wife sang Danzig’s “Mother”; that should have been worth at least five points.) But one of my friends chose “Disorder” and instructed the host to file it under the punk column, which at the time I viewed as an act of aggression. But then again, any band formed via pact at a Sex Pistols show perhaps never truly outgrows the spikes and studs.

Still, in weighing where the band falls in this debate, it’s instructive to return to the album’s seemingly immortal artwork once again, a white illustration on a field of black, a decision that Saville insisted on because “it was just sexier in black.” Largely due to that very decision, Saville and Joy Division have ended up unlikely goth influencers, informing millions to drape themselves in esoteric imagery and shades of black.

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