Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures

Joy Division
Unknown Pleasures

Everything that you need to know about Joy Division is in the color pink.

It blazes out at you, in the form of the word “Control”, as suddenly a new color is introduced into the repertoire of one of the darkest, most innovative bands of all time. A quick gander at the CD cover art right next to these words shows you what you need to know. Unknown Pleasures, the 1979 debut for Ian Curtis and co., was predominantly black, with the outlines of a nova-star transmission etched in white. Their 1980 sophomore effort, Closer, was predominantly white, with the black shadings of a Bernard Pierre Wolff photograph displayed front and center. Finally, their rarities compilation Still (released in late ’81) featured a hazy, off-gray cover. These choices (all carried out by Peter Saville), displayed a band that didn’t want to get caught up in the Technicolor promotional fantasy of the music industry, instead letting the music speak for itself … and that alone spoke volumes.

Before frontman Curtis’ tragic suicide, the young band wound up having some of their more notable photos come from a young Anton Corbijn, whose grainy black-and-white style would soon would soon be the trademark of his numerous, groundbreaking photographs (the cover for U2’s Joshua Tree album) and music videos (he helmed many of Bjork’s more abstract visual endeavors). So, naturally, he seemed to be the perfect fit to direct the movie Control, about Curtis’ life.

It’s a grainy, visceral little film that doesn’t romanticize the historical details too much, making for a fitting tribute to both Curtis and Joy Division as a whole. So, for the soundtrack cover to Control, actor Sam Riley stands smoking a cigarette, separating black from white. The word “Control” is in boldface pink, adding just the pitch-perfect amount of flamboyancy to a band that so deliberately tried to separate themselves from the traditional rock star idiom.

In knowing that this movie would elevate Joy Division’s profile more than any other event in recent years, a revived Factory Records wound up releasing “Collector’s Editions” of Joy Division’s three albums, coupling each disc with re-mastered sound and a bonus full-length concert. Together with the Control soundtrack, there has never been a better time to re-evaluate Joy Division’s output, influence, or legacy.

However, for those who want to run out and simply buy Unknown Pleasures on a whim, here is an ominous warning. Half of loving Joy Division is to understand the context in which they emerged. They are, truly and without exception, a pure post-punk band. Following the waves of distortion that consumed Britain in the wake of the Sex Pistols’ definitive statement of rock anarchy, Joy Division were the first group to ultimately take the art form to a higher ground, copping all of the techniques but none of the squalor.

The band initially started off as a cookie-cutter punk outfit named Warsaw, and their sole effort under that name was eventually sabotaged by a studio engineer who thought that adding synth effects would be “cool”. Though the band’s post-Curtis incarnation (New Order) would eventually become the kings of all-things synth-pop, it’s hard to determine how things would have been any different had the Warsaw album been released at the time. Yet the band wouldn’t have any problems when they met Martin Hannett, a demanding, powerful producer who took Joy Division’s sound into a realm it had never been before.

Unknown Pleasure opens with “Disorder”, the track that absolutely changed everything. Though Ian Curtis oft hogs a majority of Joy Division’s spotlight, it’s still astounding to hear just how talented this group of twenty-somethings were. In the updated liner notes for Unknown Pleasures, Hannett talks about how with a majority of the acts he was producing at the time, he usually had the drummer sit out because most drummers those days were pretty sloppy. With Stephen Morris, however, it was a complete exception. Like a young Ringo Starr, he knew that drumming isn’t as much about technique as it is timing, and Morris’ timing was impeccable. “Disorder” also features Bernard Sumner’s instantly catchy ping-pong riffs and, last but not least, Peter Hook’s positively innovative bass work, often stepping through as the lead instrument on a majority of Joy Division’s (and even New Order’s) songs. Together, the three were able to craft dissonant soundscapes that managed to cover new territories without ever having to abandon the structure of the pop song in the process.

Yet when taken as pure pop music, it was hard to find a band as uniformly bleak as Joy Division. The band, notably switching out punk-rock’s amplifier distortion for a nice coat of studio reverb, wound up playing with the silence between notes just as much as the notes they actually played, often drawing attention to the negative space in their own sparse recordings. Though Hannett would occasionally throw in a keyboard trill or sound effect (most notably the sound of breaking glass in a few places), it was this near-minimalist soundscape that ultimately set up Ian Curtis to speak-sing his vision of a dark, uncompromising dystopia. Coming off more as a sci-fi writer than a pop tunesmith, Curtis’ lyrical style was far too advanced for someone in his early 20s. He was fascinated by an Orwellian style of societal decay, the loss of human identity in the “big-picture” of things. Here’s one such example from “I Remember Nothing”, the moody, stoner-ready closer to Unknown Pleasures:

Violent, more violent, his hand cracks the chair/Moves on reaction, then slumps in despair/Trapped in a cage and surrendered too soon/Me in my own world, the one that you knew/For way too long/We were strangers for way too long/We were strangers

Of course, when one hears Curtis’ detached, monotone vocal stylings, it’s truly a love-it-or-hate-it kind of affair, much as it was for Lou Reed during his time with the Velvet Underground (hence Reed trading off vocal duties with both Nico and Doug Yule at various points in their career). For some listeners, all that matters is the music that Morris, Sumner, and Hook are able to craft together. Yet given how detached Curtis’ characters are from the typical human archetype, it soon becomes clear how perfect he is as the frontman of the group (and let us not forget his sometimes-faked-sometimes-not epileptic fits during live shows).

The evidence of their pitch-perfect power balance is all contained within Unknown Pleasures, with the stunning “New Dawn Fades”, the oddball female-possession tale “She’s Lost Control”, the retro-rock pastiche “Interzone” (which itself is chock-full of irony as the band cops rockabilly riffs in order to paint the tale of Curtis’ future city-state Interzone) … the list goes on. Though the disc’s side two gets stuck in a bit of mashed-together track sequencing (“Shadowplay”, “Wilderness” and “Interzone” wind up blurring together as one too-long track), it’s still easy to see why Unknown Pleasures has stood the test of time so well.

The same cannot be said, however, for Closer. Even with a new batch of interesting textures (the stop-start reverb that Sumner uses to shape “Passover”) and some of the group’s more openly pop moments (the keyboard-heavy “Isolation” and the more straightforward rock stylings of “A Means to an End”), Closer runs rampant with self-sabotage, as if deliberately trying to challenge their listeners. It’s not even 10 seconds into opening track “Atrocity Exhibition” before we get an insistently stuttering “click” sound blowing out of the speakers, and that’s only the start of Hannett’s weird sound effect barrage.

Meanwhile, Hook, perhaps challenging himself, is able to craft a melody-free bassline on “Colony”, leaving Sumner by his lonesome to do all of the work (which, sadly, he is not able to pull off entirely by himself). Even with such intentionally alienating moments, the group is still able to expand their sound to even darker, more adventurous places. Nothing on Unknown Pleasures had prepared fans for the vulnerability that Curtis displays on the ethereal piano ballad “The Eternal”.

Cry like a child, though these years make me older/With children my time is so wastefully spent/A burden to keep, though their inner communion/Accept like a curse an unlucky deal/Played by the gate at the foot of the garden/My view stretches out from the fence to the wall/No words could explain, no actions determine/Just watching the trees and the leaves as they fall

Though not as epoch-defining as their debut, Closer still received considerable acclaim, but unfortunately Curtis would not be around to enjoy it. He hung himself six weeks prior to the album’s release (and only two days before their American tour was to begin). Of course, with tragic irony, Joy Division’s profile wound up reaching new heights following the passing of their frontman. “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, a song recorded for but not included on Closer, was suddenly gaining massive radio play. Unfortunately, such well-known Joy Division classics aren’t to be found on Joy Division’s albums. Stephen Morris explains why in the liner notes to Closer: Collector’s Edition.

“‘Transmission’ wasn’t on Unknown Pleasures. ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ wasn’t on Closer. That was the thing — you didn’t put singles on albums. They didn’t belong. It goes back to the Beatles. It was a purity thing. We’re right and you’re shit. That was out [sic] attitude. ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ didn’t fit on the album even thought [sic] it came from the session, and not just because of the lyrics. It was a pop song, and Closer seemed a cohesive album that fitted together rather than a collection of songs. ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ would have stuck out like a sore thumb. We were very stubborn about the things we believed in. Ian was very stubborn. There was never a question of changing things to make things easier.”

A year after Closer‘s release, Factory issued Still, which itself was a collection of odds-and-ends that just didn’t make it onto either album (though “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Transmission” are still absent). Even as a legacy deal-breaker, Still manages to hold up to scrutiny surprisingly well. “Ice Age” snarls like no other Joy Division song before it, “The Only Mistake” absolutely stuns with Sumner’s dream-pop guitar lines battling it out with Hook’s ever-ascending bassline, and the instant-classic “Dead Souls” started god-knows-how-many bands.

Still is rounded out with their last-ever concert committed to tape, which unfortunately doesn’t feature them at their prime (give a listen to the University of Union London concert tacked on to the Closer: Collector’s Edition to hear them at their onstage best). A bonus live rendition of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” is tacked on as well, though it holds no candle to the Velvet’s original. It should be noted, however, that this last-ever concert recording (made at Birmingham University) does feature the only recording of Joy Division performing their stunning pop number “Ceremony”, which would famously double over as the debut single for New Order (and for very good reason).

Though it’s often impossible to separate the legacies of Joy Division and New Order, those two bands wind up meshing together wonderfully on the Control soundtrack. Corbijn plays his cards well, and despite a few of the songs featuring dialogue directly from the movie, we still get treated to a buffet of glam and post-punk nuggets that are all masterfully assembled together. The New Order compositions are both top-notch instrumentals (and bookend the set quite well).

David Bowie is represented by his doo-wop send-up “Drive In Saturday” and his moody “Warszawa” (which is nothing but a treat for fans: that very song is where Curtis & co. wound up getting the inspiration for their early-carnation band name, Warsaw). Iggy Pop and Roxy Music factor in prominently (with “Sister Midnight” and “2HB”, respectively), and the sheer act of including Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” more than makes up for making listeners have to suffer through the Killers’ less-than-stellar take on “Shadowplay”. Though the movie’s cast manage to give a faithful-if-unremarkable take on “Transmission”, the real gem here is the inclusion of Joy Division’s two all-time greatest songs: “Atmosphere” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. The former is beautifully straddled somewhere between radio-pop song and new wave instrumental, and the latter is just absolutely perfect.

Morris is absolutely correct in saying that “Love Will Tear Us Apart” would stand out like a sore thumb on Closer. It’s too bouncy, friendly, and energetic for the predominantly dark overtones of their sophomore release. Standing by itself, however, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” features not only one of the greatest synth riffs of all time, but it’s everything we know and love about Joy Division boiled down to its essence; dark lyrical tones, pitch-perfect musicianship, and a melody that you simply will not able to get out of your head for as long as you live. It doesn’t provide the one-stop career-overview that their best-of collection Substance does, but as a soundtrack for a rock-music biopic, it provides all of Joy Division’s highlights, influences, and even their cultural context all in one convenient place.

Together, these four releases give you just about everything you would ever need to know about Joy Division (except for the original studio version of “Transmission”). Joy Division was truly a great band, and even with their occasional misstep, their legacy on popular music is positively incalculable (just count how many times you’ve heard one of Peter Hook’s bass riffs copied by some inferior modern-rock outfit). As dark as they paint themselves, that little bit of pink that Corbijn has added to Joy Division’s palette is fitting. Joy Division had moments of levity, moments of vulnerability, and even moments of genuine fun. If you get to see the movie, that’s great. Yet even if you don’t, there’s never been a better time to acquaint yourself (or re-acquaint yourself) with one of the most influential bands of all time.

RATING 9 / 10