5 Intriguing Aspects of “Unknown Pleasures” by Joy Division
5 Intriguing Aspects of “Unknown Pleasures” by Joy Division

5 Intriguing Aspects of “Unknown Pleasures” by Joy Division

History and Development

“Unknown Pleasures” emerged at a time when punk was on the decline and a new, post-punk era was on the horizon. Joy Division, a band formed in Manchester, UK, in 1976, positioned themselves at the forefront of this seismic shift in music.

Before adopting the name Joy Division, they initially went by the moniker ‘Warsaw,’ inspired by the David Bowie track “Warszawa.” They soon changed their name, inspired by the grim 1955 novella “House of Dolls.” It was under this new identity that they began work on what would become one of the most iconic debut albums in rock history.

Recording took place in April 1979 at Strawberry Studios in Stockport, with the renowned producer Martin Hannett. His innovative production techniques gave the album its distinct, atmospheric sound. Hannett employed unconventional methods, like recording the band’s instruments separately and using unique sound effects, which was unconventional at the time.

Joy Division’s Development

In the late 1970s, during the time of “Unknown Pleasures” and its subsequent release, Joy Division was on the cusp of defining a new era of music. Here’s a look into Joy Division at that pivotal juncture.

Formation and Early Days

Joy Division formed in 1976 in Salford, Greater Manchester. The founding members were Bernard Sumner (then using the name Bernard Albrecht) on guitar and keyboards, Peter Hook on bass, and Terry Mason on drums. Ian Curtis joined as the lead singer after responding to an advertisement. Stephen Morris later replaced Mason as the drummer.

Initially, they were influenced by the burgeoning punk movement and bands like the Sex Pistols, which they saw live, prompting them to form a band.

Transition to a Unique Sound

Although the punk movement was the initial inspiration for their formation, Joy Division swiftly began to carve a niche for themselves, moving away from the raw energy of punk to a more atmospheric and post-punk sound. This sound was characterized by Curtis’ emotive and distinctive baritone voice, Hook’s high bass melodies, and the band’s use of synthesizers.

“Unknown Pleasures” Era

By 1979, when “Unknown Pleasures” was recorded and released, Joy Division was already gaining traction in the underground music scene, thanks to their distinctive sound and their performances in the Manchester area. Their live performances were intense, with Curtis’ passionate and at times unpredictable stage presence capturing audiences.

Recording “Unknown Pleasures” was a significant step for the band. Their collaboration with producer Martin Hannett played a vital role in shaping the album’s distinctive sound. Hannett’s experimental techniques, like using drum sounds from the roof of the studio, gave the album its haunting ambiance.

Ian Curtis’ Personal Struggles

Behind the music, the band, especially Ian Curtis, was grappling with significant challenges. Curtis was diagnosed with epilepsy and often had seizures during performances. He also struggled with depression and the pressures of fame, marriage, and an extramarital relationship. These personal struggles heavily influenced the themes and lyrics of the band’s songs.

Growing Popularity and Challenges

Following the release of “Unknown Pleasures,” Joy Division’s popularity skyrocketed in the post-punk scene. They received critical acclaim and were setting themselves up for international stardom with a planned North American tour.

However, the band’s future was tragically cut short. On the eve of their North American tour in May 1980, Ian Curtis took his own life, leaving the music world in shock.

Cover art

“Unknown Pleasures” by Joy Division is renowned not just for its music but also for its iconic cover art. Designed by Peter Saville, the cover features a series of white pulses arranged in lines against a stark black background.

The design represents the radio waves from pulsar CP 1919, as found in ‘The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy’. It’s a visual depiction of a pulsar, which is a rotating neutron star emitting beams of electromagnetic radiation out of its magnetic poles. This radiation is only detectable when the beam of emission is pointing towards Earth, and this is how pulsars were observed.

Saville’s choice to use this image was apt given the atmospheric and space-like feel of the album. The cover’s design, with its minimalist aesthetic and scientific backdrop, contrasts sharply with the typical rock album covers of the time, which often featured images of the band or other illustrative artwork.

Over the years, this cover has become emblematic of the post-punk era and is often cited as one of the greatest album covers of all time. Its influence can be seen in various forms of media and merchandise, making it as integral to the album’s identity as the music itself.

Track Listing

“Unknown Pleasures” boasts a line-up of tracks that resonate with raw emotion, atmospheric production, and introspective lyrics.

Here’s a glance at its legendary track list:

  • Disorder – A rousing opener, this track encapsulates the band’s energetic sound and introduces listeners to Ian Curtis’s haunting vocals.
  • Day of the Lords – Dark and brooding, this track has a weighty feel that sets the mood for the album.
  • Candidate – A more minimalist track, “Candidate” captivates with its eerie whisperings and subdued instrumentation.
  • Insight – This song stands out for its electronic elements and Curtis’s poignant lyrics.
  • New Dawn Fades – A fan favorite, this track is a slow burn, slowly building up to a powerful climax.
  • She’s Lost Control – Centered on a pulsating rhythm, this track touches upon themes of lost agency and despair.
  • Shadowplay – This song carries an undeniable energy, combining relentless percussion with mesmerizing guitar work.
  • Wilderness – An evocative track that’s both reflective and invigorating.
  • Interzone – A vibrant number that showcases the band’s punk roots.
  • I Remember Nothing – A fitting end to the album, this track’s slow tempo and haunting ambiance leave a lasting impression.

Significant Reviews

Upon its release, “Unknown Pleasures” quickly gained traction among critics and music enthusiasts alike. The album was hailed not just for its fresh sound but also for the depth and complexity of its lyrics.

Melody Maker declared the album a “masterpiece,” praising its unique ambiance. The reviewer commented, “It’s as if they’ve tunneled into the very psyche of their generation and reflected it back in music.”

NME, another influential music magazine, lauded the album’s depth. The review read, “Joy Division’s debut isn’t just about music; it’s a journey into the mind, the soul, and the fears of a generation.”

Key Themes

At the core of “Unknown Pleasures” are themes that range from introspection and existential despair to observations of the world around them. The album is a reflection of the bleak industrial landscape of Manchester in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

  1. Desolation and Isolation: Tracks like “Day of the Lords” paint a bleak picture of a desolate world, evoking feelings of isolation and hopelessness.
  2. Existential Dread: “New Dawn Fades” and “Shadowplay” touch upon the inevitable existential crises, emphasizing the transient nature of life.
  3. Loss of Control: The iconic “She’s Lost Control” delves into the theme of losing one’s grip, both metaphorically and literally. Inspired by a woman Ian Curtis knew who suffered from epilepsy (as did Curtis himself), the song is a poignant reflection of losing physical and mental control.
  4. Urban Decay: Several tracks, including “Interzone,” offer a perspective on the decaying urban environment, hinting at the societal changes of the time.

Version/Release History

The original release of “Unknown Pleasures” on 15 June 1979 by Factory Records was an immediate success, demanding multiple repressings due to its popularity.

The cover, designed by Peter Saville, featuring a black and white pulsar data stack plot, became emblematic of the band and the post-punk era. Its minimalistic and abstract design was a testament to the album’s introspective nature.

Subsequent re-releases of the album have taken place over the years, each marking a significant event:

  • 1993: Q Magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest British Albums Ever” saw the album re-released on CD with bonus tracks.
  • 2007: A remastered version was released to commemorate the album’s 28th anniversary.
  • 2019: The album’s 40th anniversary saw another remastered edition, this time with previously unreleased live recordings from the era.

Similar Albums

The influence of “Unknown Pleasures” can be seen in numerous albums that followed. Here are some that drew inspiration from Joy Division’s masterpiece:

  • The Cure – “Seventeen Seconds” (1980): This album, with its gloomy and atmospheric sound, clearly took cues from “Unknown Pleasures.”
  • Siouxsie and the Banshees – “Juju” (1981): Another post-punk classic, “Juju” carries the same haunting aura, especially in tracks like “Spellbound.”
  • Interpol – “Turn on the Bright Lights” (2002): Released over two decades later, Interpol’s debut bears a significant resemblance in its brooding melodies and introspective lyrics.
  • Editors – “The Back Room” (2005): The shadow of “Unknown Pleasures” looms large over this album, with its rich, atmospheric sound and poignant lyrics.

“Unknown Pleasures” remains an iconic album that has transcended its generation. Its raw emotion, combined with its distinctive sound, ensures that it remains as captivating today as it was upon its release.