Classics Revisited: Joy Division - 'Unknown Pleasures'
As the first installment in our fortnightly series, Ben revisits Joy Division's seminal debut album to unpick what makes it a classic.
The beginnings of Joy Division can arguably be traced back to a single gig. On the 4th June 1976, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and apparently everyone else in the entire fucking world attended a Sex Pistols concert at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall and were enthralled with the punk sound and DIY ethos. As seems standard for these stories, the two immediately went out, bought instruments and began their journey towards making the music of their idols.
It would be difficult to present Unknown Pleasures to a listener as a typical punk album; where the Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks... was brash and angry, loud and unapologetic, Unknown Pleasures is gloomy, dark and metallic in sound. An unrelenting wave of pure darkness washes over whoever listens to it – instead of wanting to attack an external authority, Unknown Pleasures makes you recoil and want to hide from your own internal horror. Songs such as Day Of Lords and Candidate perfectly encapsulate this mood with their harsh guitar tones and trudging bass.
'Instead of wanting to attack an external authority, Unknown Pleasures makes you recoil and want to hide from your own internal horror'.
Ian Curtis’ untimely death hangs over the album like a shadow. His lyrics read like a grim prophecy for his own future, by a man accepting his own death. It’s difficult to separate Curtis’ premature end from the lyrics, as the question which constantly echoes through your mind is “how did nobody see this coming?” – a sentiment shared by the band themselves. The dark poetry sang by Curtis perfectly mirrors the sparse instrumentation, creating this intense atmosphere of gloom and despair that very few albums come close to matching.
Joy Division’s dark aesthetic is in part due to the conflict between Peter Hook’s driving bass playing and Stephen Morris’ Krautrock-inspired mechanical drumming. In most circumstances, mechanical drumming would be a bad thing, however it perfectly pairs with the sombre mood of the album, killing any urge to move and dance to the melodic basslines Hook lays down. She's Lost Control is perhaps the most obvious example of this; Morris’ monotonous drum pattern is stiff and machine-like against Hook’s more alive and hypnotic bassline.
Another key element is the excellent production by founding member of Factory Records, Martin Hannett. His unorthodox technique of individually recording each drum, coupled with his liberal use of reverb, leaves each instrument feeling as if it hangs in acres of empty space, surrounded by utter blackness. This only enhances the atmosphere and feelings of woe experienced – it feels as if Joy Division are playing at the bottom of a cave.
'The dark poetry sang by Curtis perfectly mirrors the sparse instrumentation, creating this intense atmosphere of gloom and despair that very few albums come close to matching'.
Hidden under all the reverb the core song writing still fits the punk style. The songs are simplistic, never really following a structure but just allowing themselves to organically grow and climax. On the opening track Disorder, this is most obvious; frantic and upbeat, with a two note guitar lead cutting through the verse. Ian Curtis’ voice will often grow more impassioned, his baritone perfectly paired with the sinister instrumentation. His voice feels closer to Jim Morrison than a typical punk vocal performance, albeit much more hopeless and melancholic.
Few albums come close to the experience Unknown Pleasures provides – the excellent song writing coupled with some insightful production creates a haunting experience for any listener. However, it’s the story of Ian Curtis’ battle with his own personal demons which elevates this album to something much more.