Album Reviews

Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures: One of the best Debut Albums of All Time

It is rare for a debut record to define music for decades, but Joy Division did just that. Like all great inventions in the modern world, Joy Division’s breakthrough record Unknown Pleasures was largely an accident. From the album cover to Martin Hannett’s production, the entire record was a series of unintended genius. Much like other great works, members of Joy Division spoke about Unknown Pleasures in a mundane matter of fact tone that underplays the record’s brilliance. Sumner and Hook talk about recording the album in an abandoned warehouse as if it was another Sunday afternoon. In interviews, they said that they recorded all the songs they had and just “played music” until they had enough for a full LP. Defining Curtis’, Hook’s, Sumner’s and Morris’ work as “just playing music” is like saying Starry Night is just Vincent van Gogh putting some paint on a canvas. On one hand it’s true, but on the other hand it’s grossly inadequate.

Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, the band’s debut record released in June of 1979, is the ultimate example of a team effort. First off, Curtis’ lyrics and haunting vocal provided a depth and style unlike anything in punk music at the time. Ian Curtis will use this record as a springboard into punk rock legend similar to his idol David Bowie. Curtis becomes the tormented artist whose suicide creates a mystery we are still exploring to this day. He becomes the subject of punk folklore that casts a shadow over the rest of the band. However, the iconic Joy Division sound is largely due to Sumner, Hook and Morris. Eerie guitar riffs, driving bass and powerful drums are excellent foils to Curtis’ harrowing vocal performance. Their arrangements were just enough to keep you from Curtis’ emotional brink within each track. You felt like you were staring into the abyss of both despair and the fantastic. In my opinion, the music created the spine which gave Curtis the freedom to explore dark spaces, which set the band on a path to punk icon status.

Even though we will mainly focus on Joy Division’s ability to come together as a punk force, we can’t underestimate the importance of Hannett’s production. He was dabbling in music production at the time he met Joy Division at Factory Records, but he was already known for his unconventional style. Hannett was obsessed with sonic technology and using it to create meaning. He took Joy Division’s recordings and gave them the tinny sound we know today. His experimentation gave the record a terrifying beauty that set it apart from other records of its time. Bono would later describe it as entering another world, which he tried to replicate in U2’s early records. Interestingly, Hook and Sumner hated the sound and wanted something that mirrored the punk power they had playing live. In the end, they trusted Hennett and the record was an instant critical and audience hit.

It is difficult to talk about this record without going through each track meticulously. However, we will focus on three of the key tracks that highlight different aspects of this record. The first track we will look at is the first track on the record, Disorder. For a bit of context, before the record even came out, the band released Transmission as a single. This track never made the record, but served as a signpost as to what the band would become. The infectious bass line, guitar riffs and expansive synth marked new wave punk, which the band builds upon in Disorder. In a lot of ways, the two tracks together define the Joy Division sound that will take the UK over in the late 70s and early 80s. Disorder’s tight drums, raw guitar and frantic bass are contrasted by expansive synth flourishes and Curtis’ deep raw emotive vocal nerve. Curtis sings about disillusion as the outsider within the “no – man’s land” of modern society. However, even he succumbs to the track’s musical energy and frantically howls about having the spirit as the track reaches its climax. In one song the band lays out the formula of raw musical energy mixed with slick synth landscapes, which are in stark contrast to Curtis’ dark vocals / lyrics. This formula not only comes up again on this record, but makes Joy Division irresistible.

The next track She’s Lost Control showcases the band’s raw punk aesthetic. The drums, base line and guitar echo throughout the emptiness of their warehouse studio. Most importantly, the slick synth found on Disorder is non – existent on this track. However, you feel the same sense of otherworldliness as you did on previous syth influenced tracks on the record. The tinny echoing in the production gives you the feeling that you are walking on Mars or some far off hostile planet. It is interesting that Curtis is singing about losing control in society, because he so often is at the brink of disorder himself. In a lot of ways, this song hits on the themes of control, losing touch with reality and otherness that will ultimately play into Curtis’ suicide years later.

Above all else, Joy Division was inspired by punk and bands like the Sex Pistols and The Stooges. The song Interzone pays respect to those foundational punk influences. The track itself has notes of The Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog in how the raw guitar lights the song on fire and Curtis’s staccato vocal peppers the back of the mix. However, they put their own new wave spin on the track by layering in Curtis’ dark and foreboding vocal over the top of the mix as he is in a duet with himself. This track is closest to their other track Warsaw, which is straight up 1970s punk rock. Even tough Joy Division was assuredly moving to a more synth based new wave / post – punk sound, Interzone reminds you that they can still bring punk power to the table.

This is an amazing debut record. Unknown Pleasures puts Joy Division on the map and has inspired countless bands from U2 to Blur. The music, lyrics and production shows how the the band can move from straight punk to a new wave / punk fusion with skill and style. Most importantly, you witness a band finding their sound and defining a new path in music. Moreover, tracks like Disorder you could release now and it would have as much relevance and importance as it did in 1979. Too often Joy Division is seen as Ian Curtis’ band, to the point where one becomes synonymous with the other. Unknown Pleasures highlights how Joy Division is more than one person and their greatness lies in how Sumner, Morris, Hook and Curtis compliment each other. This is a confident band that knows what it wants to say and bravely says it without hesitation.

Listen to Unknown Pleasures

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