Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (1979)

This is the great thing about reviewing groundbreaking albums a musical generation or two later – you can always tell when an album is merely great, when it inspires and is the ultimate representation of its style (Zep IV, Master of Puppets, OK Computer etc) but how can you tell whether an album has truly broken new ground? Ok, it might not sound like anything else around at the time, but the kids thought that about white rock and roll, until they noticed that actually, yet again, black music had been appropriated mercilessly (that’s a whole new rant).

When it comes to the late 70’s and early 80’s, with the punk and post punk movements, rock did make a lot of twists and turns. One of these major twists was “Unknown Pleasures”. From its very cover, almost complete lack of sleeve information and totally bleak packaging, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was dark. It’s actually, oddly, one of the most uplifting records I possess.

Opener Disorder has a fast, pounding, dancey beat, with the rumbling, rolling, intricate bass playing of Peter Hook driving forward the insistency of the song, providing Bernard Sumner the opportunity to unleash his razor wire guitars, which don’t sound as depressing as the antecedents of Goth ought to sound. While I could never say Curtis was a happy chap lyrically, this isn’t too bad – “I was waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand”.

It gets depressing with the second track, though: Day of the Lords is a funereal dirge, with ringing guitar, slow drums and lots of echo on that deep, dark bass; it’s Hook’s bass work that really drives the album, providing a lot of the melody on many tracks, as Sumner’s guitar is more about effect (which, I think, along with Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine and the Fall, draw heavily from Lou Reed and John Cale, and who, subsequently, turned guitar inside out for British Music – see Radiohead [The Bends onward]).

Candidate’s slow fade in, once again highlighting the taut power of the rhythm section, with odd noises, doesn’t even have a guitar until the second half of the verse. Even then, it’s quite low in the mix, well behind Curtis’s slurred, processed vocals. This really marks the true intent of the album. It’s just so Joy Division: really, really dark, bass driven, depressed lyrics, with odd noises and weird guitars. Of course, you can never boil a band down to a bare description of a sound, but with such a small recorded legacy, you can’t help but occasionally pigeonhole the band, especially as New Order went off and progressed a lot from the template.

What Candidate does is never deviate from the plan – there is no peak or trough, and it leads quietly into Insight, with another long, soft introduction, building to one of the more ‘upbeat’ numbers on the album. A reasonably nippy backbeat, a guitar riff (wow, I spotted one!) and some lyrics with ambiguously happy themes (“I’m not afraid any more … I remember, when we were young”). It also has the weirdest mid section so far, with lots of crazy squeaks and bleeps emerging from the ether – all very synthy, all very Kraftwerk, all very bold.

New Dawn Fades is one of my favourites, along with Disorder; the guitar line is nearly conventional (and possibly an influence on Airbag, by Radiohead, it has just occurred to me), the beat quite indie-disco jerk danceable. Soft vocals are unusually mixed, weaving in and out of the guitar, producing an unsettling effect, which fits with the creepy melody, and the brooding of the bass. When Curtis soared, his voice could hold it with the best, maybe not in terms of range, but with emotional resonance that surpasses many and is up there with the greatest (whilst not in any way like his, Thom Yorke’s voice, along with Paul Rodgers’, Billie Holliday’s, Chuck Berry’s, and both Lennon and McCartney’s, to name a few, are similar in the convincing emotions they portray when singing).

The second half of the album is ushered in with the classic She’s Lost Control. Apparently about his epilepsy, Curtis here paints a powerful portrait of a fellow sufferer, and both musically and thematically, this was a strong influence on Bloc Party’s She’s Hearing Voices. Shadowplay kicks off with more bass and drums, in what almost sounds like noodling, but eventually leads into a pretty quick, pretty hard post-punk track. With Curtis’s deep voice, and the basic structure of the verses, Shadowplay feels their most normal song, especially with the lyrical guitar lines after the verses. Sumner really shows his standard chops, as well as his experimental side, and as such, it’s a good song to place in this context.

Wilderness has a really biting energy to it, with some eerie vocals and big blasts of echoing guitar to emphasise Hook’s bass, and to thematically echo the snarl Curtis unleashes. Like Shadowplay, Sumner is a little less weird here, and a tad more melodic. One could almost class the two as the ‘rockers’, but that just wouldn’t do the band justice. In the same vein, Interzone has a very fast pace and some punky guitar work, reminiscent of their predecessors, even down to the shared vocals, an odd device to use, with the emotional dominance of Curtis’s voice established through the album to this point.

You’re nearing the end of this dark, depressing, but oddly uplifting album (I think that the songs after She’s Lost Control really lift the mood), but Joy Division had one last downer: I Remember Nothing. 6 minutes long, slow, deep, effects-laden, and utterly, utterly depressing, this is characterised by the opening lines – a wailed “We………………. were strangers” which usher in a traverse through Curtis’s soul, and a harrowing one. On a pair of headphones, with the lights off, this can get scary. Maintaining the same dark pace throughout, only adding the occasional smash of glass and the doubling up of Curtis’s vocals, the track oppresses, and dominates, and makes you submit to the cosmic darkness of the band’s outlook.

Ending in a wash of processed feedback, punk got depressing, dark, dismal, depressed, and lots of other words beginning with d. This album changed the world.

9/10

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One thought on “Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (1979)

  1. Hmmm. Yeah, it used to be my favorite album, though I’d never have called it uplifting. I’ll have to listen to it again though: I was too mired in teenage depression when I first fell in love with the album and band.

    I prefer Closer, to UP, and in fact, in some ways prefer Preston [live] to both. Preston is marred by really bad equipment problems, and Ian is furious (but apologizing to the audience) and it’s all very messed-up. The frustration burns through though, and Ian’s normally emotive vocals become incendiary. The version of “Transmission” on Preston is unbelievable. You know how on the single Ian wails/screams “Dance to the radio…”? At Preston, I swear the final scream “we could dance” embodies all his angst. It’s like a vocal incarnation of the Munch painting.

    But anyway. The real trick to JD is the mix of the band (whose punk energy you hear in their live tracks) and Martin Hannet who produced them in a way that makes them sound modern even today.

    I always wonder how great bands happen, especially the ones that form early, and stay together into greatness. AFAIK joy division, u2, and the beatles all formed in their late teens, after only one or two dead-end bands. dunno about the police or nirvana, but even with them, its not like sting or cobain achieved stardom, and *then* auditioned for a great band to back them.

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