15 Jun 2014

35 years on: Unknown Pleasures revisited

Despite celebrating it's 35th this Sunday, Joy Division's masterpiece debut album Unknown Pleasures sounds as fresh, and as exciting as it did in 1979. As some sort of celebration for the seminal album, I'd have a little review of the band's debut album, which I should add from the offset is the most definite 10/10 anyone reviewing an album could ever hope to hear... But how did the album come about?

Up to the middle of 1978, Joy Division were still dabbling on the edge of the punk scene and even closer to the punk sound. The band were given a short recording deal by RCA, which excited Curtis as it would mean sharing a label with both Iggy Pop and David Bowie, but this was during a time of transition for Joy Division. Whilst the band went in with the wish to record their punkier, raucous numbers like Warsaw and Gutz, they began to write more, different material. During the recording of the RCA demos, songs like Interzone, Shadowplay and Transmission surfaced. Of course, these would later appear on Unknown Pleasures, but after the recording of these raw demo sessions, the band asked to be dropped from their RCA contract.

A year or so later, with an arsenal of fantastic post punk songs, Joy Division hit the studio - this time with Factory records and their in-house producer Martin Hannett. Whilst the songs this time were sensational, the future-forging production of Hannett would be what put Joy Division in a league of their own. Hannett isolated the sounds of the instruments, tightened up the band, and added dystopian sound effects to give the impression that Joy Division were recording their debut from the heart of a JG Ballard novel. It's quite safe to say that without Martin Hannett, Joy Division would just be another one of those alright-sounding post punk bands.

But of course, the songs themselves were fantastic. Opener Disorder is one of Joy Division's finest pop songs, combining some of Morris' machine-like drumming, with a wonderful Hooky bassline and some of Curtis' more upbeat lyrics. It's very similar to a conventional punk rock song, but is followed by a post-apocalyptic Hannett masterclass...

The Day of the Lords, alongside track 4 Insight and track 8 Wilderness is one of the dystopian songs that give Unknown Pleasures' its iconic sound. Although it's not a personal highlight, it's a miracle of modern production.

At the end of Side 1, is a song that is arguably Joy Division's zenith. Although for many people, Love Will Tear Us Apart is the song that defines Joy Division, the stunning New Dawn Fades is a landmark song for music on the whole. In fact, I once wrote a letter to NME explaining that it was one of the three or four greatest songs ever pressed to record. Peter Hook's trademark high-pitched bassline plays a lower than usual descending riff, whilst Sumner's stabbing guitar technique hammers out an ascending melody. It's quite possibly the greatest combination of bass / guitar known to man. And of course, the lyrics are something else. "Directionless so plain to see, a loaded gun won't set you see... or so you say" is always looked at as one of Curtis' finest, whilst the rest of the lyrics were a big factor in elevating Joy Division miles above their contemporaries.

But Side 2 is where Unknown Pleasures comes even further into it's own. Shadowplay is very often looked at as a direct influence on a huge amount of bands, and is probably the most accessible song on the LP. The explosion of sound from nothing is really something special that's influence can be heard everywhere, from the Mary Chain to Hookworms. And of course, let's not forget the classic that is She's Lost Control, which Curtis wrote after witnessing someone else with a very similar condition to him. She's Lost Control is one of the gloomier moments on the album, as is the closer to Side 2, I Remember Nothing. Whilst one of the less interesting, the album's last track is another one in which Hannett removes the sounds of Joy Division's surroundings and places the band's sound somewhere more decrepit, bringing the album to a bleak bleak standstill.

So because of innovative production, downright brilliant songs, and some of the world's finest musicians, Unknown Pleasures remains new-sounding, thirty five years after it's release, and for the same reasons it'll still be a timeless classic in fifty years time...


Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures - Details

Released 15th June, 1979 on Factory Records
Personnel: 
Ian Curtis (vocals), 
Peter Hook (bass, vocals on Interzone),
Bernard Sumner (guitar), 
Steven Morris (drums)
Produced by Martin Hannett
Key Tracks: New Dawn Fades, Shadowplay, Day of the Lords
RATING: 10/10

(written by Calum Cashin)