Counterbalance No. 64: Joy Division’s 'Unknown Pleasures'

Can Joy Division’s 1979 debut make you feel the pleasures of a normal man? It's the 64th most acclaimed album of all time. We’ll share a drink and step outside for another Counterbalance.

Joy Division

Unknown Pleasures

US Release: 1980-07
UK Release: 1979-06-14
Label: Factory

Klinger: This isn't the most profound revelation in the world, but I'm going to say it anyway. Since we're started Counterbalance, it's become increasingly clear to me that critics have an entirely different sense of criteria than the rest of the listening population. How else to explain Prince's Sign o' the Times turning up higher on the Great List than Purple Rain? Or Trout Mask Replica over pretty much any other Captain Beefheart album? And now we come to another example. When we were writing our installment about Joy Division’s Closer, I expressed to several people the difficult time I was having expressing my thoughts about this most baffling record. Every discussion ended with the other person saying, "Well, Unknown Pleasures is better anyway."

Not having ever really listened to Joy Division over the years, I figured that the two albums were pretty much comparable, but that folks had their own personal preferences. Such is not the case. Unknown Pleasures is such a vastly superior listening experience that I had to go back and double check that I wasn't just in a bad mood during Closer week. And no, I'm now fully prepared to join the chorus: Unknown Pleasures is better. QED, baby.

Mendelsohn: Yes, it is better by far. I think Closer is where it is because of how intensely personal it is, and I'll delve into this briefly before I put Closer on the shelf and never listen to it again. Closer may be dark, but it’s dark in a very fragile and human manner in a way that is far more artistic than struggling with thoughts of suicide could ever be. As far as Grand Statements go, Closer is as black and broody as they come, a fading beacon in life's eternal night that draws all the critics in like so many moths. Comparatively, Unknown Pleasures is a soft summer breeze wafting through a feel-good dance party.

Well, it’s not exactly that lighthearted, but there is a sense of experimentation and wonder that seems to be trying to break out of this album. Peter Hook's bass line on "Disorder" is almost buoyant and the pace of that song sets helps propel the album. There's an energy here that doesn't carry over to the next album, which is a shame really, because Joy Division can really rock when they want to.

Klinger: Well, it seems clear to me that the main difference between Unknown Pleasures and Closer is the extent to which producer Martin Hannett was willing or able to tinker with the band's sound. On Unknown Pleasures, Bernard Sumner's guitars still sound like guitars and not like someone twisting an empty Pepsi can. And even though there are a number of curious flourishes throughout the album—the Space Invaders noises during "Insight" leap to mind—they never get in the way of the song. And whether it was due to Ian Curtis' encroaching despair or Hannett's increased jiggery-pokery, you're right that there's a propulsive quality throughout Unknown Pleasures that was almost entirely gone just a year later.

But focusing on these two albums in reverse order raises an interesting point. Artists obviously live their careers in chronological order (the space-time continuum still sadly being what it is), as do the critics who are present from the beginning. Everyone else has the luxury of picking and choosing their way through a catalog, starting from whatever point offers the least resistance. For casual fans and the generally curious, Unknown Pleasures would have been an effective buttering up for what was to come, much the way it was back in 1979. But that's one of the drawbacks of spending too much time listening to critics—for all the good they can do in introducing artists to a new audience, they may tend to steer the unsuspecting toward those grandiose, "artistically important" statements.

Mendelsohn: When I was young and impressionable, I read Ayn Rand's Anthem, which then led me to read The Fountainhead, which then led me to read Atlas Shrugged, which then led to me wanting to kill himself out of boredom. Have you read Atlas Shrugged? If you haven't, don't. Unless you want to spend six months wallowing through an aggrandizing capitalistic tome laid out at a snail’s pace. I kind of equate Joy Division's material to Ayn Rand's. They both started out fairly accessible and did some great work before jumping straight into the void, dragging the general public down with their masterpieces. But that's the way it goes. Music critics hailed Closer as Joy Division's master stroke the same way literary critics hailed Atlas Shrugged. And no, I'm not going to get into the whole New Order thing or Rand's post-Atlas Objectivist output.

Far too often, the preceding works get washed up in the wake of the masterpiece to follow, but if Joy Division hadn't put out Unknown Pleasures and if Rand hadn't written The Fountainhead we would not have had to suffer through Closer or Atlas Shrugged. But without those two works, we wouldn't necessarily have known just how good these two creators could be. So, I guess, it is a bit of a two-way street. We condemn the critics for jumping to the grandiose statements but without the light from the grandiose statements, it’s hard to see just how good the previous output has been. In light of Atlas Shrugged and Closer I have nothing but love for The Fountainhead and Unknown Pleasures. Hell, I might just go home, pull The Fountainhead off the shelf, drop the needle on Unknown Pleasures, and spend the evening wishing I was doing something else.

Klinger: Good Lord, Mendelsohn, I think even tangentially comparing Joy Division and Ayn Rand might make those the two most incendiary paragraphs you've ever written, so I'm not going anywhere near them. (Except to say that unless the Times Literary Supplement is staffed with more 15-year-old boys than I realize, I don't think any actual literary critics have anything nice to say about Atlas Shrugged.)

I'd also like to reiterate that Unknown Pleasures is only an accessible lighthearted romp when you set it right next to Closer—it’s not like they sound like the B-52’s here. It’s clear that Ian Curtis was already wrestling with his demons here, and that does in fact cast a heavy shadow over these proceedings. Part of the problem, and the real shame of Joy Division's story, is that we only have the two albums to assess—along with a handful of singles, including "Love Will Tear Us Apart", which is likely to serve as their most lasting legacy. But even so, I'd say that Joy Division's influence on the '80s is hard to even calculate, whether those later group pledge direct allegiance or not. U2 may have turned Joy Division's sound into anthems (in fact, you can't tell me that the bottle breaking in "I Will Follow" isn't a reference to "I Remember Nothing"), R.E.M. may have smoothed out the edges and woven in jangly 12-strings, and 50-blue-million other bands may have just ripped them off wholesale, but that basic thread runs throughout.

Mendelsohn: Well maybe I'm overstating the critical love for Atlas Shrugged, and the last time I checked, the Times Literary Supplement was indeed staffed entirely by 15-year-old boys (and Ron Paul).

My point is, both Atlas Shrugged and Closer are difficult, enigmatic and brilliant (if you’re into that type of material) and those works will always place them first in any sentence when talking about their respective creators, which isn't always for the best.

The other direct influence that Joy Division had, that we haven't really spent any time talking about—and maybe with good reason—is in the genre of gothic rock (or just goth) and in some way, industrial as well. Without Joy Division's success we might not see bands like the Cure or Bauhaus moving as many units and the whole industrial scene headed by Nine Inch Nails in the early '90s grew out of the template that Joy Division laid down. One might be able to argue that Trent Reznor's entire career is a reference to "I Remember Nothing".

As for "Love Will Tear Us Apart", I've never been able to fully reconcile that song into Joy Division's body of work. Lyrically, sure, but musically it just seems way too close to happy to be Joy Division. It may turn out to be their most enduring legacy but that's almost as problematic as the critics placing Closer first in line. People coming to Joy Division through "Love Will Tear Us Apart" may be a little disappointed by the scant catalog and less-than-warm welcome. Whereas people coming to Joy Division through Closer might not make it far enough to appreciate Unknown Pleasures or the pop oddity of "Love Will Tear Us Apart". It seems we've stumbled into a Joy Division Catch-22.

Klinger: "Love Will Tear Us Apart" serves as another reminder that as much as pop history reveres the LP, albums alone still only tell part of the story. It’s one of the shortcomings of this quixotic quest to make sense of the rock canon that critics have constructed and which manifests itself in the Great List. The history of Joy Division, post-punk, and '80s music in general can't be told without that song, and we're only able to talk about it because we're shoehorning it in to this discussion. But geez, Mendelsohn, it seems we're just left talking about conundrums and bafflements and catches-22. It's enough to make you want to crank up the "Interzone" and rock out as best you can, Joy Division-style.

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