- 18 May 23
On the 43rd anniversary of Ian Curtis's death, we're revisiting Dan Oggly's deep-dive into Joy Division's two iconic studio albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer...
Unknown Pleasures (1979)
Joy Division emerged from the dank industrial con-fusion of Manchester in the '77/'78 period. Signed to the nascent Factory label they become, within two or three years, one of the most important bands in rock.
Drawing devoted fans from all over the world they held them, fascinated, in a vice-like grip. Live they were awe-inspiring, with an affectingly grim visual impact and a hypnotic vocalist, Ian Curtis, whose epilepsy caused the premature end of the show on more than one occasion. And then, out of the blue, in April 1980, Curtis took his own life.
The remaining members added another to their ranks and evolved into New Order, who over the last dozen or so years have consistently made music that astounds and rewards ever-expanding numbers of wholly devoted fans. With the sad demise of Factory, New Order signed to London Records who recently re-released the entire back catalogues of both bands. But for the sake of nostalgia the Factory catalogue numbers have been retained in the following retrospective.
Even fourteen years down the line it is not hard to imagine the impact of Joy Division's first full release on an unsuspecting public. Appearing right at the commercial peak of punk, these ten songs were so uncompromising and so different from everything else around that an instant and total reaction - wholly positive or wholly negative - was unavoidable.
Start with the 'inside' and you get one of the most perfectly bleak songs you've ever heard, 'She's Lost Control', with its bare, cold electro-beat and Peter Hook's fat, ankle-slung bass vibrating its way through the icy climate. Ian Curtis's deep and eerie, almost gothic vocals pin you to the spot: "Confusion in her eyes it says it all, she's lost control again."
Or start with the 'outside' and 'Disorder' for Bernard/Barnie Sumner/Albrecht's chiming, melodic guitar and Curtis pleading with himself: "I've got the spirit, don't lose the feeling, let it out somehow."
Steven Morris' strong rhythmic, almost tribal percussion creates a grim, clinical framework that drags you into its centre. Little surprise that Unknown Pleasures keyed into a late '70s/early '80s predilection for despondency, introspection and social isolation.
And nothing summed up that joyless, gloom-laden hopelessness more accurately than 'New Dawn Fades' with its single snare, single-noted bass melody, swirling guitar and an almost operatic Curtis singing: "A loaded gun won't set you free - so you say . . . Hoping for something more . . . hoping for something else."
Martin Hannett's production emphasised the perfect, robo-synthetics of the whole and Peter Saville's artwork helped crystallise the Joy Division/Factory atmosphere that was so special. A veritable classic.
Press coverage was busily offering some kind of picture of the Joy Division camp so people knew what to expect when Closer emerged a year later. Or so they thought.
Sure, the second album was a progression - Hannett had given it a fuller guitar sound, more substantial percussion to add to the familiar, dark and brooding vocal and lyrical content - but, if anything, while less skeletal than its predecessor, 'Closer', with the addition of substantial synth use, was somehow even bleaker and more powerful.
'Atrocity Exhibition' was dominated by rolling drums and guitar squalls with Curtis inviting entry to the cruel, animal freak show that is life - "This is the way, step inside." But 'Isolation' was (and still is) a complete shock to the system. A plodding synth that smacked of new romanticism but subverted that genre's camp foppery by way of Morriss' crisp, punchy, percussive beats and Curtis' doom-laden vocal style.
'Heart And Soul' is a stunning, tension-filled piece with its insistent beat and repetitive guitar riffs, and with Curtis (vocals sounding as if they were recorded in a crypt) asking: "Existence, well what does it matter?"
This second side showed the vocalist, who hanged himself in the same year of release, at his most vulnerable with a fragile helplessness pervading every track. There was 'Twenty Four Hours', with its perfect bass melody, hi-hat laden percussion and upbeat mentality, and Curtis recalling, almost epitaphically, how "Just for one moment, I thought I found my way, destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away."
And then there was the excellent 'Decades' with its metal back beat, synth swathes and the immortal line, "Here are the young men, a weight on their shoulders," that seemed to sum up 'the Joy Division fan' - pale, limp and world-weary, shrouded in a black, shapeless overcoat.