Insight - Praising Unknown Pleasures

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I suppose I will be playing the role of the 'guide' mentioned in the opening track 'Disorder', as I give an overview to the reader on one of the most impactful records of all time, and one whose album cover is recognised by music fans the world over - Joy Division’s haunting 1979 debut, Unknown Pleasures.

Where should I begin? Manchester seems like a safe bet. Gritty, dirty and vastly uninspiring, 1970s Manchester was nothing short of a living nightmare for working class individuals. Unemployment, housing issues and lack of opportunity are just a few factors that shaped this glum environment in the decade of glam and punk.

So all the more fitting it is that Unknown Pleasures delivers a profound insight - if you can excuse the pun - into what it might have been like to be young and disillusioned in your very own home.

With legendary producer Martin Hannett’s input, Joy Division created a truly timeless record that defied an era, changed the direction of the underground scene and catapulted post-punk into the minds of young music listeners across the UK; no small feat, especially considering the album was recorded in just two days. Young punks Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, Bernard Sumner and Ian Curtis (the former three of which went on to form New Order) weren’t necessarily aware that Unknown Pleasures was destined for history books, compelled to tell a tale of depravity, mystery and despair - Sumner and Hook didn’t even like how the record sounded at first.

In their eyes, they wanted to record a collection of tracks that epitomised Joy Division’s ferocious and sinister live sound. While Hannett’s production may have downplayed their punk roots, his work is what makes Unknown Pleasures still sound as significant today as it did almost 39 years ago.

The record opens with ‘Disorder’ - a somewhat inviting track that beckons the listener to dance or bob along to it; first impressions might dictate that this isn’t the true Joy Division at all, but in a way, it’s everything they ever were. Curtis’ poetic, troubled wordplay over Sumner’s tantalising guitar work, combined with Hook’s menacing bass and Morris’ repetitive and tinny percussion - four sections that unfold wholly on their own, and yet beautifully link together in a way even the band members could not fully understand.

Next, we have ‘Day Of The Lords’; a much slower, bellowing track that one might be more comfortable identifying as the work of Joy Division. Hannett’s production can be heard more prominently here, with subtle eerie notes following Curtis’ clandestine uttering of “Where will it end”. The track soon goes into a breathtaking climax, where for the first time on the record, Joy Division deliver their signature, powerful sound of total anguish. Curtis’ bellows, Sumner’s subtle notes creeping in - this is a track for hopeless reflection alright.

One thing that I should note is that Curtis’ lyrics were never analysed by his bandmates. Hook stated in his biography (which shares its title with this record) that each member just did their own thing. As long as it sounded good, they were content. The lack of communication in that sense was perhaps partly to blame for not spotting Curtis’ debilitating condition sooner, but that isn’t for me to decide. In terms of songwriting at least, their outlook played to their advantage.

Hook’s favourite track on the record is “Insight”, a dreary song complete with the opening and closing of metal shutters that invade the introduction, as well as a much more melancholy bassline to match the mood. I’d say this one is overlooked in the Joy Division catalogue, especially compared to other giants like ‘Transmission’, ‘Digital’ and of course, the iconic ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart'.

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The truth is, I could praise this record until the end of time. I could go into wondrous detail about how I think ‘New Dawn Fades’ is the greatest song ever written, with its graciousness and sorrowful atmosphere, and how it’s almost as if, for a brief moment during the climax, Curtis takes on the entire weight of an utterly hopeless Manchester, bellowing out his words in a way that sends shivers down my spine nearly 4 decades later. I could go on for weeks on end about how ‘Interzone’ is one of the greatest examples of what ‘punk’ truly is, about how significant that is considering the punk timeline, and how impressive it is considering Curtis’ doesn’t even deliver lead vocals.

Seemingly for eternity, I could speak about ‘Shadowplay’, and how versatile a post-punk track it is. I could investigate the infectious bassline, or how significant it is that the Killers, a band from Las Vegas (and therefore almost the exact opposite of doomy Manchester) covered it, or the fact that despite its implications, the song would be more than suited for the intro sequence of Formula 1, and could take that role from Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ quite happily.

Simply put, Unknown Pleasures is an absolute maelstrom of original creativity, poetic significance and subtle hubris. It’s just down to you to dive in.