Thursday, April 12, 2018

Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures

Unknown Pleasures is one of the touchstones of the alternative music scene. It is the Rosetta Stone of new wave, from its deep vinyl grooves you can decode the influence in bands as diverse as Interpol and The Cure, Editors and Mogwi. Without the sonic template of Unknown Pleasures U2 would have never found a voice and a direction. Those early U2 records sound like smudged facsimiles of Joy Divisions latent power.

Unknown Pleasures was san genesis, an individual and eviscerating blend of punk fury, existentialist dread and post war industrial decay. An audio document that could have only been produced at a certain junction, immediately post the Sex Pistols and from a specific location, the UK . Despite its historical position it still sounds as vital and eerie as it did in 1979.

Inspired by a combination of the first wave of UK punk rock, and the American racket of The Stooges and The Velvet Underground Joy Divisions sound was a happy accident. Peter Hook’s high trebly bass playing a result of the cheap equipment the band initially used. Hook was forced to play higher than normal in order to be heard. His bass carried the melody of the songs, Barney Sumner’s guitar spiking the sound with caustic riffs and metallic textures. The whole sound was anchored by the breath taking human drum machine rhythms of Steven Morris.

The unusual combination of sounds marked the band out from the standard three chord thrash of the second generation of punk. Its not that the band could play any better than their peers, the reality is the opposite of that. They simply played to their strengths and in the process created a unique and potent sound. The majestic noise the band created was heightened by the poetic lyrics and sorrowful croon of Ian Curtis.

Curtis’ death hangs over the music of Joy Division draping it in a solemnity, carving it into memorial stone, yet on Unknown Pleasures, Curtis lyrics are troubled and questioning but not the extended cry for help of Closer. They have a depth that was out of time with the plastic nihilism of the moment more John Paul Sartre than Johnny Rotten.

Amazingly Sumner and Hook where disappointed with the production of Unknown Pleasures. They believed that producer Martin Hannett had emasculated their sound. Stripped away the fierce loud clanning punk rock and hollowed them out. Listening to the live tracks on the bonus disc you can see that he did prune away the volume but the harsh reality is that the songs are better for it.

Hannet’s use of found sound, breaking glass and empty lift shafts, coupled with a pioneering use of delay resulted in sound that owed as much to dub as it did to punk. The music is bathed in shimmering ether, the taut rhythms seem to ripple, the minimal bass lines stretching time. Sumner’s guitar adds textures, obtuse broken riffs, corrosive discordant tints over the restless clatter and hum.

The record has stuck with me since I first heard it as a callow fourteen year old. Other records that I loved at the time have fallen by the wayside, their adolescent angst unable to translate themselves into my adult life. There is something honest, harrowing and timeless at the heart of Unknown Pleasures that has kept me hooked. In my opinion it is the greatest debut LP of all time. If you don’t own a copy your music collection is missing a major cog, go and buy this record today.

Tony Heywood ©