Joy Division: Unknown Pleasure – [Record 68]
Unknown Pleasures is the debut studio album by the English post-punk band Joy Division. It was recorded at Strawberry Studios in Stockport in April 1979, with Martin Hannett as producer, and was released on 15 June 1979 by Factory Records. It followed an abandoned album for RCA Records.
No singles were released from Unknown Pleasures, though the release of “Transmission” boosted its sales, despite the album failing to chart at the time.
2. Day of the Lords.
5. New Dawn Fades.
6. She’s Lost Control.
10. I Remember Nothing.
Background: Joy Division formed in Salford, Greater Manchester in 1976 during the first wave of punk rock. Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook had separately attended a Sex Pistols show at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June 1976, and both embraced that group’s simplicity, speed and aggression. Forming a band with their friend Terry Mason on drums, Sumner on guitar and Hook on bass, they advertised for a vocalist. Ian Curtis, who Sumner and Hook already knew, applied and, without having to audition, was taken on. After a number of changes of drummer, Stephen Morris joined the band—at that time called Warsaw—in August 1977. To avoid confusion with the London punk band Warsaw Pakt, they renamed themselves Joy Division in late 1977.
After signing with RCA Records in early 1978, Joy Division recorded some demos; however, they were unhappy with the way their music was mixed and asked to be released from their contract. The band’s first recording was the self-produced extended play (EP), An Ideal for Living, which was released in June 1978. They made their television debut on Tony Wilson’s local news show Granada Reports in September 1978. According to Hook, the band received a £70,000 offer from Genetic Records in London. However, the band’s manager, Rob Gretton, approached Wilson about releasing an album on his Factory Records label. Wilson explained that Gretton had calculated that with Factory’s 50/50 split of profits, the group could make as much money with the indie label as it could signed to a major label. Wilson added that one of Gretton’s main reasons for approaching Factory about an album release was so “he wouldn’t have to get on a train to London every week and ‘talk to cunts’. No one could use the word ‘cockney’ with as much contempt as Rob”. Gretton calculated that the album would cost £8,000 to produce; however, Wilson said in 2006 that the final up-front cost was £18,000.
Recording: Unknown Pleasures was recorded at Strawberry Studios in Stockport, England between 1 and 17 April 1979, with Martin Hannett producing. Describing Hannett’s production techniques, Hook said, “[He] didn’t think straight, he thought sideways. He confused you and made you do something you didn’t expect.” Hook went on to say, “Derek Bramwood of Strawberry Studios said that you can take a group that have got on brilliantly for 20 years, put them in a studio with Martin and within five minutes, they’ll be trying to slash each other’s throats.” However, Hook went on to say that Hannett was only as good as the material he had to work with, “We gave him great songs, and like a top chef, he added some salt and pepper and some herbs and served up the dish. But he needed our ingredients.”
Hannett used a number of unusual sound effects and production techniques on the album; including the sound of a bottle smashing, someone eating crisps, backwards guitar and the sound of the Strawberry Studios lift with a Leslie speaker “whirring inside”. He also used the sound of a basement toilet, as well as an ASM Neve (a prototype digital delay), tape echo and bounce. Hannett recorded Curtis’s vocals for “Insight” down a telephone line so he could achieve the “requisite distance”. Referring to the recording sessions, Hook remembered, “Sumner started using a kit-built Powertran Transcendent 2000 synthesiser, most notably on ‘I Remember Nothing’, where it vied with the sound of Rob Gretton smashing bottles with Steve and his Walther replica pistol.” He continued, “Morris … had invested in a syndrum because he thought he saw one on the cover of Can’s Tago Mago: “you triggered it by hitting it. [Hannett] frowned on it because he wasn’t the one doing the triggering.”
The band members’ opinions differed on the “spacious, atmospheric sound” of the album, which did not reflect their more aggressive live sound. Sumner said, “The music was loud and heavy, and we felt that Martin had toned it down, especially with the guitars. The production inflicted this dark, doomy mood over the album: we’d drawn this picture in black and white, and Martin had coloured it in for us. We resented it …” Hook said, “I couldn’t hide my disappointment then, it sounded like Pink Floyd.” Morris disagreed, saying, “I was happy with Unknown Pleasures. My theory on things at the time was that the two things—listening to a record and going to a gig—were quite different. You don’t want to hear a record when you go to a gig: you want something with a bit of energy.” Curtis was also happy with the production of the album and was impressed with Hannett’s work. Hook conceded in 2006, “It definitely didn’t turn out sounding the way I wanted it … But now I can see that Martin did a good job on it … There’s no two ways about it, Martin Hannett created the Joy Division sound.” Hook also noted that he was able to hear Curtis’s lyrics and Sumner’s guitar parts for the first time on the record, because during gigs the band played too loudly.
In 1994 Jon Savage described the music as “a definitive Northern Gothic statement: guilt-ridden, romantic, claustrophobic”. Analysing Curtis’s work, music journalist Richard Cook remarked in 1983: “sex has disappeared from these unknown pleasures; it is an aftermath of passion where everything’s (perhaps) lost”.
Packaging: Author Chris Ott stated that the album title was likely a reference to Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.
Peter Saville, who had previously designed posters for Manchester’s Factory club in 1978, designed the cover of the album. Morris chose the image used on the cover, which is based on an image of radio waves from pulsar CP 1919, from The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy. Saville reversed the image from black-on-white to white-on-black and printed it on textured card for the original version of the album.
This image became well-known, featuring on t-shirts (even parodied by a quickly-withdrawn Disney shirt). When reviewing the 2007 remastered version of Unknown Pleasures, Pitchfork Media critic Joshua Klein described the cover art as “iconic”. Susie Goldring, reviewing the album for BBC Online said, “The duochrome Peter Saville cover of this first Joy Division album speaks volumes. Its white on black lines reflect a pulse of power, a surge of bass, and raw angst. If the cover doesn’t draw you in, the music will.”
The inner sleeve features a black-and-white photograph of a door with a hand near the handle. It was some years later before Saville discovered that the photograph was Hand Through a Doorway, a well-known picture by Ralph Gibson.
Releases: Unknown Pleasures was initially printed in a run of 10,000 copies. Sales for the album were slow until the release of the non-LP “Transmission” single, and unsold copies occupied the Factory Records office in the apartment of label co-founder Alan Erasmus. Following the release of the single, the album sold out of its initial pressing in the space of weeks, and prompted further pressings. Unknown Pleasures created approximately £50,000 in profit to be shared between Factory and the band; however, Tony Wilson spent most of it on Factory projects. By the conclusion of a critically acclaimed promotional tour supporting Buzzcocks in November 1979, Unknown Pleasures had neared 15,000 copies sold.
Unknown Pleasures failed to chart on the UK Albums Chart. However, following Curtis’s suicide in May 1980 and the release of their second album, Closer, in July, it was reissued and reached number seventy-one that August. It fared better on the UK Indie Chart, placing at number two on the first chart to be published in January 1980 and going on to top the chart following its reissue, spending 136 weeks on the chart in total.
In 2007, a remastered version of Unknown Pleasures along with Closer and the posthumous compilation album Still (1981) was re-released. The remastered album included a bonus disc of a live recording of the band playing at The Factory in Manchester on 13 July 1979. The album was also re-released on 180-gram vinyl with the original track listing in 2007, with this version also being available in a limited edition box set with Closer and Still.
Critical reception: Reviewing the album for Melody Maker, Jon Savage called Unknown Pleasures an “opaque manifesto” and declared “[leaving] the twentieth century is difficult; most people prefer to go back and nostalgize, Oh boy. Joy Division at least set a course in the present with contrails for the future—perhaps you can’t ask for much more. Indeed, Unknown Pleasures may very well be one of the best, white, English, debut LPs of the year.” Max Bell of NME hailed the album, positively citing Strange Days-era Doors and the “German experimentalists” of Can and Neu!. Red Starr, writing for Smash Hits, gave the album a generally positive review, describing it as a “bleak nightmare soundtrack”. Starr described the lyrics as “mysterious” and “doomy” which were “amidst intense music of urgent guitar, eerie effects and driving rhythms”. However, Starr tempered his review by saying not to “expect too much” as the album was “still pretty raw”. By August of that year the album’s stature as a favourite of critics for the year was established. Writing about Factory for Melody Maker in September 1979, Mary Harron was less impressed: “I found at least half of [Unknown Pleasures] to be turgid and monotonous, and the vocals heavy and melodramatic—Jim Morrison without flair.” She went on to say the lyrics and the atmosphere of the album “seemed to hearken back to the late Sixties” and the songs were “a series of disconnected images”.
Awarding the album four stars out of five in his 1981 review for Rolling Stone, music journalist Mikal Gilmore described the album as having “a doleful, deep-toned sound that often suggested an elaborate version of the Velvet Underground or an orderly Public Image Ltd.” Awarding the album A− in his “Consumer Guide Review” for The Village Voice, Robert Christgau said that it was Curtis’s “passionate gravity that makes the clumsy, disquieting music so convincing”. Ned Raggett reviewing the album for AllMusic years later described the album as “All visceral, all emotional, all theatrical, all perfect—one of the best albums ever.” In relation to the remastered re-released album in 2007, the writer for British music magazine NME described the album as “simply one of the best records ever made, and is still powerful enough to floor you 28 years on”. The reviewer went on to say, “The album’s raw power is still gripping, most notably on the haunting ‘Day of the Lords’ and ‘She’s Lost Control’.”
Legacy: Since its release, Unknown Pleasures has received a number of accolades from the music press. Describing the album as “punk on the edge of goth, with echoes of disco and the Doors”, Rolling Stone ranked the album at number 24 in its list of the “50 Coolest Records”. Spin has ranked the album at number 11 in its list of the “50 Most Essential Punk Records”, as well as including it in its lists of the “Fifteen Most Influential Albums” and the “Top Ten College Cult Classics”. In the March 2003 issues of Mojo, the album was listed at number 26 in its “Top 50 Punk Albums”. Q magazine placed the album at number 19 in its list of the “100 Greatest British Albums”. NME ranked the album at number 4 in its list of “The Greatest Albums of the ’70s” and at number 43 in its list of the “Greatest Albums of All Time”.