Unknown Pleasures: Joy Division’s accidental masterpiece at 40

In 1979, four Manchester kids went into a Stockport studio to record a noisy punk record, but came out with something different, darker, utterly astonishing and deathless

Joy Division in 1979: (from left) Stephen Morris, Ian Curtis, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner. Photograph © Paul Slattery/Retna

Joy Division in 1979: (from left) Stephen Morris, Ian Curtis, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner. Photograph © Paul Slattery/Retna

 

Nobody expected Joy Division to change popular music – least of all Joy Division themselves. When the pasty foursome, a blur of student haircuts, slouching posture and melodramatic jackets, gathered at Strawberry Studios in Stockport over three weekends in the spring of 1979, their stated purpose was to knock out a warts-and-everything punk record.

 In that regard they failed utterly. Instead Unknown Pleasures, released 40 years ago this month, was the rock equivalent of one of Kubrick’s monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The album was bleak, unknowable, tuned – so it felt – to alien frequencies.

 Unknown Pleasures seemed to have arrived through a slipstream, from another time and place. And though it could be enjoyed as both a bleak pop revue and an exorcism (ultimately unsuccessful) of singer Ian Curtis’s demons, the LP was above all profoundly mysterious. All these decades later there’s a case that it remains fundamentally inscrutable. You may think you’ve got its measure – but you’re never quite there, never really all the way in.

“Unknown Pleasures once sounded like the future – its genius is that, four decades later, it still sounds like the future,” says John Robb, Manchester musician, rock journalist and author of The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music City 1976–1996.

Melancholy

“It is a remarkable and astonishing record made by a band who had no idea how good they were, with a singer who didn’t live long enough to see how important they would become. Its bass-driven soundscapes utilise space, emotion and melancholy in ways the generations of bands are still trying to unravel.”

Robb cuts to the heart Unknown Pleasures’ dark charm in describing it as the sound of the future glimmering over the horizon. Steeped in the social-realistic science fiction of JG Ballard and raised amid the infinite greys and browns of postwar greater Manchester, Joy Division had transcended punk and gone somewhere sadder and scarier.

They did so in part thanks to the expressive lyrics of Ian Curtis, lines delivered with the lights out, words recited from the heart, during the late-night sessions at Strawberry.

Peter Saville’s iconic cover sleeve for Unknown Pleasures, based on the zig-zag radio frequency of a dying star

“To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you/ To the depths of the ocean where all hopes sank, searching for you,” Curtis sang on Shadowplay, a fever-dream striplit by halogen street-lighting and the flash of passing traffic.  

“I could have lived a little better with the myths and the lies,” continued the narrator on She’s Lost Control. “When the darkness broke in, I just broke down and cried.”

Foreshadowing

She’s Lost Control was about a woman with epilepsy Curtis had met at the Macclesfield job centre where he worked. She died during an epileptic fit and, with Curtis himself diagnosed with the condition, the track is both a requiem and also a foreshadowing of his own future (he died by suicide in May 1980). But it chills even outside of that context, as a mediation on how ill-prepared we all are when life throws its worst at us.

Curtis’s unflinching lyrics were counterpointed by Bernard Sumner’s minimalist guitars and by the funereal stomp of bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris. To this was added Peter Saville’s instantly iconic cover sleeve, based on the zig-zag radio frequency of a dying star.

“Unknown Pleasures may very well be one of the best white, English debut LPs of the year,” wrote the group’s future biographer Jon Savage in Melody Maker the week of its release. ”Without trying to baffle or overreach itself, this outfit step into a labyrinth that is rarely explored with any smidgeon of real conviction,” said the NME. Soon it was agreed that Joy Division had created a masterpiece.

Bernard Sumner, Ian Curtis and Peter Hook of Joy Division performing live at Bowdon Vale Youth Club. Photograph: Martin O’Neill/Redferns
Bernard Sumner, Ian Curtis and Peter Hook of Joy Division performing live at Bowdon Vale Youth Club. Photograph: Martin O’Neill/Redferns
Everyone in Manchester knew they were the best band in the city. I saw them play and sometimes they were s**t but most times they were great

All of this the band achieved, as already pointed out, largely by accident.Their ambition had been to make a cacophonous punk record in the vein of their idols Buzzcocks and The Sex Pistols. But Strawberry Studios, bankrolled by members of soft pop ensemble 10CC, was the domain of control freak producer Martin Hannett. He took care that Unknown Pleasures was his vision as much as Joy Division’s.

Eating glass

Hannett was an eccentric taskmaster. He taped, during the sessions, the sound of breaking glass, someone eating crisps (which he then played backwards) and the chilling clunk and shudder of the antiquated Strawberry Studios lift. “[Joy Division] were a gift to a producer, because they didn’t have a clue,” he would reminisce. “They didn’t argue.”

After the fact, though, they groused at length. “The production inflicted this dark, doomy mood over the album,” guitarist Sumner complained. “We’d drawn this picture in black-and-white, and Martin had coloured it in for us. We resented it.”

Joy Division were not at that point regarded as potentially one of the most significant British groups of their generation. Nonetheless, they were perceived as the Manchester band most likely to step up and break out.

“Joy Division were such a great band,” Jez Kerr of contemporaries and label-mates A Certain Ratio would later state. “Everyone in Manchester knew they were the best band in the city. Ask anyone from that era who was the best band in Manchester and they all say Joy Division. I saw them play and sometimes they were s**t but most times they were great. It’s the mark of a good band that starting out you can be crap but at other times totally brilliant.”

Hannett was introduced to Joy Division by Tony Wilson, a local scenester who had signed the group to his label, Factory Records. The Factory story is closely bound up with the north of England punk movement. But it also boasts several unusual Irish connections. Many of Factory’s most famous releases – including the 1979 Factory Sampler EP, and Joy Division’s timeless single Love Will Tear Us Part – were pressed at the Carlton Productions vinyl pressing plant on the John F Kennedy estate on the Naas Road.

Friendship

Wilson, meanwhile, maintained a lifelong friendship with Meath football manager Sean Boylan. They had met when Wilson’s family was holidays in Dunboyne, where they struck up an enduring connection.

“Tony fell in love with our family and everyone around Dunboyne,” Boylan would recount. “So he came every Christmas. He came at Easter. He came at summer. He came at Whit. Every break there was he came, even when he went to Cambridge . . . Once you were a friend of Tony, that was it.”

Ian Curtis of Joy Division. Photograph: Lex van Rossen/MAI/Redferns
Ian Curtis of Joy Division. Photograph: Lex van Rossen/MAI/Redferns
Bono once said to me, he [Ian Curtis] was the best. ‘I was always the number two, but he was the best’

Joy Division were also a huge influence on early U2. Hannett recorded the Dubliners’ seven-inch 11 O’Clock Tick-Tock, imbuing it with a Factory-ish veneer of monochrome angst. A Day Without Me, a single from U2’s debut album, Boy, was, moreover, partly a lament for Curtis (albeit one U2 had debuted in uncompleted form prior to his death).

Its black-and-white sleeve shot of Booterstown railway bridge was perceived as echoing Joy Division’s famous photoshoot at Epping Walk bridge in Hulme. Bono would later tell Wilson that U2 were ready to take the Manchester’s group’s place. 

“Bono once said to me, he [Ian Curtis] was the best,” Wilson remembered. “‘I was always the number two, but he was the best. But you know, I’ll do it anyway. Now he’s gone.’ But I think Bono did do it. I mean, I’ve never been a massive U2 fan, but when I saw him, that wonderful performance at Live Aid, I thought, well, there you are.”

Wilson was a dedicated schmoozer, it’s worth acknowledging. As portrayed by Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom’s 24-Hour Party People, he seemed to enjoy the spotlight more than his bands did. Still, he wasn’t a shill – and he gave Joy Division the freedom they required.

Extraordinary

What they, and Hannett, did with it was extraordinary. “I was such a fan of punk I thought all good music would end at that point, nothing would top the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Jam etc,” recalls Tom Dunne, radio presenter and Something Happens frontman. “Then Unknown Pleasures arrived. I found it jarring initially. It was so unlike what had come before. I didn’t take to it at once. But slowly it crept into me. Ian Curtis singing those lonesome, plaintive words drew me in. He was mesmeric. There was an intensity about them.”

Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Peter Hook of Joy Division. Photograph: Harry Goodwin/Rex Features
Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Peter Hook of Joy Division. Photograph: Harry Goodwin/Rex Features
If Joy Division matter now more than ever, it’s because they capture the depressed spirit of our times

Listened to today, what’s most striking is how contemporary Unknown Pleasure feels. It really hasn’t aged at all.

“If Joy Division matter now more than ever, it’s because they capture the depressed spirit of our times. Listen to Joy Division now, and you have the inescapable impression that the group were catatonically channelling our present, their future,” wrote Mark Fisher in his 2005 essay collection Ghosts of My Life.

Unknown Pleasures would inevitably be overshadowed by Curtis’s death. He hung himself in the kitchen of the Macclesfield terraced house he shared with his wife and baby daughter 11 months after the album’s release. Joy Division had just completed their second LP, Closer, and were planning a tour to America.

Curtis was just 24. He had married young and become a parent barely out of his teens. And while he had a sincere and thoughtful streak – as manifested in lyrics that referenced Ballard and Burroughs – he was a young man in a successful band.

An affair with a Belgian music journalist left him crippled with guilt. But it also stoked resentment towards his wife, Deborah, and the opportunities denied him by dint of his responsibilities towards her and their daughter. The heavy medication he was required to take for his epilepsy didn’t help.

‘Bookish’

“Ian definitely had two sides. He had a very thoughtful, intelligent, sincere side,” Peter Hook once old me. “When he needed to let his hair down he was very good at that, too. When we met him he was very, very quiet, very bookish. He was married, settled. Within three weeks of joining the band, he was a raving lunatic.

“The problem is that Ian never stuck up for Deborah. There no reason I should look after Ian’s girlfriend, apart from politeness. If Ian isn’t going to stick up for her then she’s a bit f**ked. That was one of the problems in the relationship, wasn’t it?”

It is a perfect intersection of time, place, form, design, personality, fashion, innovation and subconscious future divination

With the years the ghoulish fascination with Curtis’s suicide has diminished somewhat – though it will probably never completely go away. As it has faded so Unknown Pleasures has taken its place among the great rock albums – a record that exists outside of time and space and ushers the listener into a reality of its own making.

“It is a perfect intersection of time, place, form, design, personality, fashion, innovation and subconscious future divination,” says John Doran, editor of online music and pop culture journal The Quietus. “Lazy idiots always refer to Joy Division as depressing, which is not to say that there isn’t an element of crushing anhedonia to what they do. But if they were just some second-tier goth band moaning about death, vampires and zombies they wouldn’t have the temporal resonance that they clearly still possess.” 

A limited-edition 40th anniversary vinyl pressing of Unknown Pleasures is released June 14

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